Politics, Psychology, recent

Are Political Disagreements Real Disagreements?

If people disagree about anything, it’s politics. In the United States, nearly half of all Republicans and Democrats say they “almost never” agree with the other party’s positions. Whether the topic is health care, the economy, foreign affairs, education, the environment, privatization, energy, or immigration, it seems nearly impossible for political opponents to agree.

Disagreement is often a good thing for a healthy democracy. We expect values and preferences to differ in a pluralistic society, and reasonable citizens understand that people of good will can disagree about moral and political issues. For this reason, theorizing about liberal democracy has focused largely on disagreements concerning moral and political values, while taking for granted that citizens tend to agree on the facts.

But is this assumption still valid? Today, partisan disagreements seem to go beyond political values and even include disputes about obvious matters of fact. Consider the issue of climate change. The extent and causes of climate change is a scientific issue that should be settled independently of one’s political beliefs. Yet politics seems to drive our beliefs about the facts instead of the facts driving policy.

Factual disagreement is a big problem for democratic politics. If partisanship is shaping our perceptions of reality, then democratic decision-making becomes incredibly difficult. Without agreement on the facts, we will be unable to hold representatives accountable, to productively deliberate with the other side, and to find political compromise.

But is political disagreement so extensive and deep, as many have claimed, that we are unable to agree even on the facts? I want to suggest that many disagreements in politics are not genuine disagreements. What looks like a disagreement over political facts is often just partisan cheerleading or party bad-mouthing.

Consider what Trump supporters say when asked to compare these two photos.

Obama Inauguration, 2009

Trump Inauguration, 2017

In a survey of almost 700 American adults, participants were shown both images and asked a very simple question: “Which photo has more people?” Although only one answer is clearly correct, Trump supporters were six times more likely (compared to Clinton voters and nonvoters) to say that the half-empty photo of Trump’s inauguration had more people. Trump supporters with college degrees were the most likely to answer incorrectly: 26 percent of them gave the clearly wrong answer. In other words, the Trump supporters with the most education were 10 times more likely (than Clinton voters and nonvoters) to say the obviously half-empty photo had more people.

Do these people really believe there are more people in the obviously half-empty photo?

It would be wrong to interpret their responses in this way—yet many commentators have. In an article in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan claims that these Trump supporters are attempting “to meld new information into their existing beliefs” in order to “preserve their ideological identities.” This assumes that Trump voters are so incredibly biased that they will believe a conclusion that flies in the face of unambiguous photographic evidence.

This is not what’s going on. When a Trump supporter claims that a half-empty photo is full of people, they are simply cheerleading. These people have decided to express their support for Trump rather than to answer the question factually. It is a way of showing that Trump supporters will not be insulted by smug liberal academics who are conducting a survey.

This is just one example; there are plenty more. Apparently one in four Americans think Barack Obama may be “the antichrist.” Do these people really believe this? Maybe they do. But a far more likely scenario is that such reports reflect partisan cheerleading rather than genuine belief. It is a way of saying “Boo, Democrats!” and “Go, Republicans!” This is likely not just an American phenomenon. Nearly half of the British public still claim to believe that the UK sends £350m to the E.U. each week, despite persistent attempts to debunk this myth. A new study by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London, found that 42 percent of people who had heard the claim still believe it is true. Brexit voters are particularly susceptible to the misinformation, with 61 percent of them buying the claim.

If we take these figures at face value, we are led to conclude that nearly half of the British public continues to be misinformed about the issue because they continue to believe these “alternative facts.” This is precisely how Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute that carried out this research, interprets these results. In an interview with The Independent, he said, “These misperceptions raise important questions about the basis of our decision-making…the fact that different groups see the same realities so differently shows how divided we are.”

Are these people seeing the same reality differently? We should be wary of taking answers to factual questions with partisan implications at face value, since they are often contaminated by the motivation to root for one’s team. People believe one answer, but they give a different answer to support their party. As Gary Langer, former chief pollster for ABC News, aptly remarks: “Some people who strongly oppose a person or proposition will take virtually any opportunity to express that antipathy…not to express their ‘belief,’ in its conventional meaning, but rather to throw verbal stones.”

A lot of evidence supports this. In Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason shows that voters are increasingly polarized in terms of their attitudes towards each other, even though there has been comparatively little polarization on the issues. Democrats and Republicans have grown more partisan, angry, and biased against the other side, but these attitudes have almost nothing to do with their opinions about the issues. Voters are simply behaving as if they disagree.

In Democracy for Realists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue that Americans vote largely on the basis of loyalty to their “team,” not sincere policy preferences. Although many citizens will describe themselves as “liberal” or “conservative,” they actually lack stable beliefs fitting these ideological self-descriptions. Thus, what seems like deep political disagreement is actually superficial and inauthentic. We know this because a small payment of $0.30 will motivate people to give more accurate (and less partisan) answers to politically charged questions. By incentivizing people for accuracy, the gap between Democrats and Republicans in response to factual questions sharply decreases, and sometimes disappears entirely.

What does this mean for politics? It means there is a lot less disagreement in politics than we thought. Although people seem to disagree about well-established facts, they are just making claims about factual issues to signal their allegiance to a particular ideological community.

This helps us understand why political debates go so poorly. They swiftly devolve into heated partisan rancor because political debates are not generally treated as opportunities to exchange reasons or make arguments. Rather, they are opportunities for cheerleading and bad-mouthing. Consider an analogy with sports. When fans cheer for their team, this is not an exercise in rational deliberation. They are just expressing loyalty to their team. If political disagreement is similarly tribal, then we should view partisan claims about global warming, health care, and the like,  in a similar light. These claims are not conclusions articulated on the basis of reasons, but rather proclamations akin to “Yay, team!”

This would also explain why disagreements often seem irresolvable and why people do not often read the news posts they share. We cannot resolve a factual disagreement when there is no genuine disagreement; and people may not read the news posts they share because the primary function of news-post sharing is expressive, just as the primary function of claims about factual issues is to signal allegiance. Partisan cheerleading may also explain why attempts to correct false beliefs sometimes backfire. If factual corrections are interpreted as challenges to our “team,” the correction will seem to “backfire” because people will reply by expressing their loyalty.

These conclusions have a variety of upshots, some good and some bad. First, the good news: the extent to which voters are misinformed is greatly overstated. Although a large number of people will say that Obama is the antichrist, that he founded ISIS, and so forth, these people may not genuinely believe these things. Our worries about voter incompetence have been driven not by voter misperceptions but rather by our misperceptions about voters. I find this incredibly reassuring. The willingness to occasionally disregard factual information is far less pernicious than being misinformed, since genuinely believing incorrect information would preclude doubt and obstruct the attainment of truth.

In addition to overstating the extent to which voters are misinformed, survey responses also tend to exaggerate the degree to which partisanship biases or distorts our perception of the facts. The theory of “motivated reasoning” assumes that the misinformation documented by survey researchers is an accurate reflection of what voters truly believe. But this is an inadequate diagnosis in many cases. Many citizens have the capacity to perceive reality in a less partisan way than they have claimed.

In short, people are neither as dumb nor as biased as we thought. What appears to be stupidity or irrationality is often just cheerleading.

But partisan cheerleading also corrupts public discourse. When empirical language is appropriated to express party loyalty, it generates confusion about what people are actually saying. Political discourse ends up commandeering factual discourse for expressive purposes, overtaking the language normally used for empirical assertions and policy discussions. This harms public discourse by infecting the public domain with misleading information, polluting our information environment, and corrupting human knowledge.1

This has implications for how we should debate with others. When we mistakenly interpret their discourse literally, we tend to reply with empirical arguments. For instance, if liberal democrats interpret vehement denials of anthropogenic climate change as evidence of people out of touch with reality, they will criticize their opponents for not engaging with the evidence. This may further antagonize the other side because they will interpret liberals as calling them stupid.

More worryingly, this implies that political conflict cannot be resolved by bringing people together on the issues. If Democrats and Republicans loathe each other despite agreeing on many issues, then finding common policy ground will not reduce political animus.

I have no solutions to these problems. My aim is not to recommend solutions but rather to suggest a new way to look at the problem of disagreement in politics. In our polarized climate, it is easy (and common) to conclude that politics is rife with disagreement, including factual disagreement. But what looks like a disagreement is often just cheap talk and cheerleading. It is no different from the schoolyard bully who once told my classmates that I “suck monkey balls.” This person was not making a factual claim about my preferences; he was trying to cast me into disrepute. A variety of political claims serve the same function.


Michael Hannon is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. He is writing a book titled How Politics Makes Us Stupid.


1Elizabeth Anderson makes this point in “Epistemic Bubbles and Authoritarian Politics.” In Politics and Truth: New Perspectives in Political Epistemology. Edited by Michael Hannon and Elizabeth Edenberg.



  1. Mr. Hannon misses a key point about US politics; people who align with the GOP in the US account for about 25% of the electorate and people who align with the Dems account for about 30% of the electorate. The plurality of the electorate consider themselves to be independent or unaligned and the independents swing the elections.

    The independents are not polarized but are demoralized from 50 years and more of having to make uninformed choices between the lesser of two evils in cases where the differences between the two are microscopic or non existent.

  2. Along the same lines, it’s conservatives telling the questioner that the narrative about crowd size is bullshit. The fact that employees on the Naional Mall are overwhelmingly leftists explain the crowd size. Also, the fact that leftists tend dispraportionately to be unemployed and therefore able to attend without a significant financial loss. Let’s not forget the disinformation that the mainstream media outlets spewed and continue to spew ad nauseum that may indeed have affected the enthusiasm of the less engaged conservatives.
    We’re also aware that the majority of conservatives in Trump’s crowds, likely had to fork out considerable expense to get there and then pay for lodging.
    It’s not an impressive feat for a populist leftist to draw a big crowd in a large city dominated by leftists.
    Had the inauguration been held in Wyoming, we know the crowd sizes would be vastly different.

    To paraphrase the question “whose johnson is really bigger?”

    A question with bullshit intent, deserves a bullshit response.

  3. This is overall a good article with an interesting thesis.

    However, it would be wise and in good taste (as well as good faith) for the author to use at least some examples where the liberal/left belief is factually incorrect.

    In literally every example, the liberal/left belief was factually correct. It would be nice to see a few examples where it was the other way around. Such examples are plentiful – stereotype threat, the wage gap, microaggressions, the biological basis for gender differences, concerns over nuclear power, etc.

  4. Don’t forget their Trump/Russia collusion lie. The lie of all lies.

    After that lie, who would even dare call others liars?

  5. I certainly was looking forward to reading more about this survey. For example, who commissioned it? Who paid for it? How were the questions presented? Where did the questioning take place, on a street corner or in an office setting? Did more than 6 Republicans and 1 Democrat out of 700 people make the same error?

    So I eagerly clicked on the link and was directed to a page for Oxford Academic Public Opinion Quartlery were I was told that I had to open an account with them if I wanted to know anything about the study.

    But I’m not going to pay US$45 for temporary access to read one academic paper, so I’ll just have to have to take the author’s word for it, as well as that of The Atlantic, I suppose, that this study wasn’t a load of rubbish.

  6. Speaking of lies.

    Global warming.
    Russian collusion.
    Immigrant concentration camps.
    Conservatives are racist.
    Socialism is just.
    Palestinians are victims of Israel.
    Antifa are anti-fascist.
    Abortion isn’t murder.
    The mainstream media are legitimate news sources.
    Etc, etc.

  7. The link in this sentence leads to The Guardian Online. Good grief!

    But seriously, if a pollster had asked me, I would have said Obama is the antichrist, too.

    And why not? Messing about with telephone pollsters is fun.

  8. Deleted the article because people seemed to be freaking out, although I personally have zero concerns. Wouldn’t want academic research getting read and discussed.

  9. Recently a guy knocked on my door and said he could resurface my driveway. He showed me numerous areas that obviously were in need of repair. I told him no, and get lost. Was it because I was denying the “truth” that my driveway needed repairs? No, it was because I knew he was a scam artist, and would take my money and not solve the problem. So too it goes with modern political arguments. Someone takes a picture of the Washington Mall just before Obama show up to speak, and compares it to a picture of the Mall at 6:00AM on Trump inauguration day. If asked and someone says the obvious answer that there are more people in the Obama photo, then this true but misleading answer can be used for partisan purposes, with the answering person made a tool.

  10. The explanation for Trump supporters being more likely to say that Photo B has more people in it is obvious, and the fact that more educated Trump supporters were more likely to choose Photo B makes it even more obvious.

    The reason is that they recognized the photos.

    They knew that left-wing media made a big deal of trying to make it seem like Trump drew a far smaller crowd than he did by comparing a photo from hours before Trump’s inauguration to a photo taken during Obama’s inaugural address and presenting the two as an apples-to-apples comparison.

    This was very dishonest, and it triggers people’s sense of justice. Trump provided the messaging for fighting back against this lie by declaring “My crowd was the biggest ever!”, and his supporters, particularly the more educated/aware ones, knew it.

    If a survey presented such a person with those two photos, the person being surveyed would recognize the lie being repeated and indignantly signal his disapproval by choosing Photo B.

    That doesn’t make him brainwashed. That makes him principled.

  11. There can’t be very many educated people left in the Western world who trust a political survey, or the motives of the people conducting it.

  12. Had I been part of the survey, I too would have clicked the Trump photo. And had I been asked why, I would have said, “because F@&# You”, which is shorthand for “because its a stupid question with an obvious answer and I don’t want to help you with whatever you are trying to accomplish.” So whether it’s Trump supporters or not, or Democrats or Republicans, or educated vs. not, I suspect the real bulk of the wrong answers are from my brethren in the “because F@&# You” camp.

  13. New one today, “The Electoral College is a racist scam.”

  14. I think that part of this is the idea that, at least from a moderates perspective, the progressive left is playing somewhat dirty pool because of the way they choose to engage. In other words, they tend to engage in more scorched-earth tactics which cause all sorts of problems because they’re expressing outrage as a tactic of cheerleading, as well as a way to shut down their opponents. The right, being of course perfect gentlemen, responds to this by trolling , because why not? If your opponent is going to be disingenuous and provide such on responses, why not make comedy out of it?

    One of the things that I think we need to start doing is getting both sides to deal with their idiots. Just as the right has dealt with groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, the left needs to start dealing with the progressives instead of shying away from the conflict. When you have a member of your own faction telling you to sit down and shut up, because your grip on reality is not good and you are engaged in something bad, such as picketing soldiers funerals and saying that they deserve to die because (insert WBC reasons here), it goes a long way to build solidarity with the other side, who see you actually engaging The Nut Cases.

    It’s actually something that needs to happen more and much more visibly with Islam as well. When the nut cases in Islam do something or say something that is not the understanding of moderate Islam, they do not seem to have a good mechanism for making the radicals stop. It may be because they are too decentralized, but I know that Christianity dealt with it via the Reformation, where they Reformed Church Doctrine, and not just once, to deal with some of the issues that they had.

  15. “Nearly half of the British public still claim to believe that the UK sends £350m to the E.U. each week, despite persistent attempts to debunk this myth.”

    For an article about people playing fast and loose with the facts, this comment shows the author is himself also guilty and misinformed. It is interesting that he gives no references for his bland assertion here. This topic has been done to death, but I won’t stand idly by as the author attempts to misrepresent the facts.

    It is well known that the figure of £350m was obtained from the EU’s own published records, and it is based on a simple addition of all UK contributions into the EU budget, then divided by 52 for the number of weeks in a year. The sentence “The UK sends £350m a week to the EU” is factually correct (in fact it is slightly higher now, see below). Now, it is also true that some amount of it is returned via various EU programmes. So the figure of £350m a week was the gross amount, instead of the net - but it is not a myth.

    The Office of National Statistics (ONS), which is for all practical purposes the UK’s highest authority on the matter, has published its own figures on what the UK contributions are, and you can read about it here

    (an excellent read by the way, I strongly recommend it).

    According to the ONS, the figures are (as cited by the article linked above)

    • Payment to Brussels, net of rebate and money returned to the UK: £9.4 billion a year, or £181 million a week.
    • Payment to Brussels, net of rebate: £13.9 billion a year, or £267 million a week.
    • Gross payment to Brussels: £18.9 billion a year, or £363 million a week.

    So in fact, the true gross figure is actually higher than £350m - it is £363. The net figures (including or excluding returns) are still in the same order of magnitude. I sincerely doubt any voters would have changed their minds had they been told the figure of £267m or even £181m a week instead of £350m; the point is that it clearly shows the order of magnitude the UK contributions, which enables voters to compare it to other things discussed in the news, such as the cost of various infrastructure projects and so on. In fact, I believe the figures on the bus was one of the best campaigns of public information conducted during the referendum.

    The main criticism by remainers against this figure was that the leave campaign should have used the net figure instead. This is a poor argument for two major reasons. Firstly, it would have made no difference, as the main message voters took was that each week costs the UK hundreds of millions, be it 181 or 363. The second reason is that the rebates and returns to the UK are often allocated to specific projects by the EU and is not money that is controlled by the UK any longer. Therefore, the gross figure is more representative of what extra amount the UK will regain a say in how it is spent. For a campaign on regaining autonomy and control, it was thus indeed appropriate to use the gross figure.

    The truth is that the the real insidious campaign of misinformation has been the attempts to demonise ordinary leave voters as misinformed, pig ignorant, uneducated etc etc for believing what is simply published by the EU and also by the ONS. I often find myself in this discussion with a particular remainer colleague about this, and frequently in the same conversation he will moan to me how his council tax increased to X amount, his National Insurance increased to Y, yadda yadda, without including his rebate and how much he gets in return. I just shake my head in sorrow at his total lack of awareness of his double standards…

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