Political decisions arguably represent the linchpin of human decision-making, constraining and influencing every choice we make. And our political system is currently operating far from ideally, to put it mildly. This renders it uniquely important that we do better.
From a longtermist perspective, what matters most is that we advance politics over the long term. Rather than focusing on any specific near-term issue, we are interested in improvements in governance and political norms that can plausibly result in a lasting impact on the long-term future. For instance, the intellectual originators of liberalism have arguably had outsized impact, and are perhaps among the most impactful people ever.
Of course, there are many aspects to the problem of improving our political system. In this post, we will focus on our broader political culture, drawing on the best science of today to outline recommendations for better political discourse. Parts of this post were previously published in Magnus Vinding’s book Reasoned Politics, which goes into more depth on the theory and background.
Separate empirical and normative questions
A significant problem in political discourse is the failure to distinguish normative and empirical matters. It is often unclear whether a political disagreement pertains to what our goals and values should be, or whether it concerns factual questions about what policy would best achieve certain goals. This can cause great confusion and hampers clear thinking.
It therefore seems worth aspiring to a two-step ideal that involves a normative step followed by an empirical step. The normative step is to clarify the aims and values that underlie our policymaking. This is not about merely stating our goals, but also about open-minded conversation and moral argument to discuss and refine the values that (should) form the bedrock of our collective decision-making.
Once we have identified a set of carefully reflected values, the empirical step is to ask which policies are optimal for achieving our aims. This is usually a complex factual question, which requires us to draw on the best available evidence and to engage in an open-ended scientific investigation and discussion. In short, the two-step ideal recommends that we adopt the mindset of a moral philosopher (in the normative step) and then that of a scientist (in the empirical step).
A benefit of the two-step ideal is that it can bring greater clarity by allowing us to identify where exactly our disagreements lie. It may thus enable greater precision and rigour in our political discussions, which could in turn allow more fruitful political conversation and compromise.
Our recommendations in a nutshell:
- Set out the two-step ideal in clear terms and note its potential benefits.
- Point out when political rhetoric confuses empirical and normative aspects, with an eye towards establishing the two-step ideal as a norm.
- Raise awareness of the biases that prevent us from reaching this ideal. (More on this below.)
- Set an example by showing how politics can be done in accordance with the two-step ideal.
A number of biases can prevent us from approaching policy questions with an open mind. First, it is well-documented that the human mind is subject to confirmation bias: a tendency to seek out and recall information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs while disregarding information that challenges these beliefs. Closely related is the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, which is when we seek to justify a desired conclusion rather than following the evidence where it leads. It hardly needs stating that confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, as well as overconfident views in general, are abundant in politics.
Second, various findings and theories in moral psychology, such as Jonathan Haidt’s social intuitionist model, suggest that our moral judgments are often dictated by our intuitions, and that our accompanying reasons are often mere rationalisations made after the fact. In this view, reason is often like a press secretary, finding reasons to justify decisions that were not in fact made through deliberate reasoning.
Additionally, voters tend to not be well-informed about political issues. This is a robust finding, and it also affects big issues, not just minor details. We often believe that we understand something in greater detail than we in fact do (this has been termed the “illusion of explanatory depth”). For example, when asked to explain how a flush toilet works, people’s self-rated level of understanding of flush toilets plummets. Likewise, when people are asked to explain how a policy works — rather than just give reasons to support or oppose it — their self-rated level of understanding drops, and people’s views become significantly more moderate (source). This suggests that a greater focus on how a policy works could help to reduce overconfidence.
All this underscores the need for a deliberate effort to approach political issues as open questions, and with an acute awareness of our own biases and blindspots.
Our recommendations in a nutshell:
- Advance intellectual openness as a key value. By consciously seeking open moral argument and empirical evidence, we can hopefully reduce overconfidence.
- Promote a norm against relying too strongly on our immediate intuitions in politics, and in favour of adopting a more self-scrutinising and reflective mindset.
- Raise awareness of our political biases. We should keep the risk of “political overconfidence” in mind, and reward those who acknowledge uncertainty and express graded beliefs rather than absolute truths.
Resist the pull of loyalty signalling
Another key finding of modern political science is that social attachments to groups are among the most important factors determining our political judgments. This is in line with the idea that the main function of political beliefs and identity has to do with social signalling and side-taking (see e.g. DeScioli, 2016; Simler & Hanson, 2018, ch. 16; Hannon, 2021). On this view, the primary motive behind our political behaviour is to signal our loyalty to our perceived ingroup, whether it be a given political party, ideology, or religion. That is, the goal is not to promote good policies, but rather to signal loyalty to one’s team and to see one’s own team win: yay our team, boo their team. (This doesn’t require us to be aware of these motives; we are often self-deceived about what animates our political behaviour.)
Our propensity for loyalty signalling gives us a clue as to the overarching shape and direction of (many of) our biases. For example, the drive to signal loyalty often leads us to display a high degree of (over)confidence in the core tenets of our ingroup and hostility towards rival groups. (The common tendency to strawman the political views of the “other side” also illustrates this.)
By contrast, charitable interpretations of the other side are decidedly not a good way to signal loyalty. Expressions of uncertainty and nuance also do not fit this team sports mentality: every argument, and often even “facts”, must favour one’s own team, lest one is (seen as) disloyal.
Of course, these dynamics are highly detrimental to rational discourse, and run counter to the two-step ideal. It is thus imperative that we are mindful of the strong yet often unconscious urge to make our own political views conform to the views of our ingroup. We should resist the pull of loyalty signalling.
Our recommendations in a nutshell:
- Strive to be charitable and fair-minded toward political opponents and their positions, by engaging with the strongest and most generous interpretation of their views and arguments.
- Assume good faith on behalf of political opponents (unless there is clear evidence to the contrary), and try to gain a solid understanding of other people’s views before rushing to attack them.
- Applaud those who critique the excesses of your ingroup.
- In screen communication, strive to display the same level of respect and friendliness as you would in a face-to-face conversation.
- Emphasise a better understanding of the (often non-trivial) link between policies and outcomes as the shared goal of political conversations, rather than rushing to focus on support and opposition. The latter tends to elicit loyalty signalling, while searching for a descriptive understanding is much less likely to trigger our tribal instincts.
Our brains tend to process political leaders, groups, and issues in affectively charged ways. This has been termed “hot cognition”. In particular, we instinctively process our own political tribe and leaders in a positive light and with positive affect while we process “the other side” in a negative light and with negative affect. In the worst case, this can spiral into the vilification or scapegoating of certain individuals or outgroups (e.g. ethnic minorities).
The fact that these processes are instinctive and automatic highlights how vigilant we must be to counteract them. We believe that a key defense is a heuristic in favour of nuance — and against us-versus-them and black-or-white thinking.
This is closely related to the above points on resisting the pull of loyalty signalling. It’s good to have several, independent guardrails against harmful political tendencies. For instance, the norm of avoiding black-or-white thinking and the norm of being charitable both help counteract tendencies to scapegoat or vilify outgroups, so it seems helpful to promote both norms.
Our recommendations in a nutshell:
- Acknowledge grains of truth in different perspectives. Very few issues are entirely binary, and it is rarely the case that one side is completely right (or morally good) and the other is completely wrong (or morally bad).
- Whenever an issue is highly emotionally charged, we should notice this, take a step back, and ponder the risk of hot cognition and associated loyalty signalling.
- Think in terms of degrees of credence rather than rigid certainties.
Focus on win-win outcomes
Unfortunately, it is common that our most important political problems become hostages in a tribal signalling dynamic — a zero-sum game of “our team” versus “their team”. While some level of political competition is both inevitable and rational, we likely focus too much on tribal antagonisms relative to what is ideal for creating mutually beneficial outcomes. Also, loyalty signalling frequently creates the appearance of major disagreements even when there are actually widely shared values and only limited differences in terms of actual policy substance.
We have much to gain if we transcend this zero-sum mindset and instead focus on mutually beneficial outcomes and compromises. Contrary to common intuition, politics can often be a matter of win-win for different factions, at least as long as we think about “winning” in terms of mutually beneficial policy outcomes rather than in terms of beating the other team. To achieve win-win outcomes, we must temper our deeply ingrained instincts to take sides and engage in tribal zero-sum conflicts.
Our recommendations in a nutshell:
- Look beyond the common hot-button issues that are commonly used as the arena for loyalty signalling, and instead focus on neglected yet important policy areas that people are less eager to explore or take opposing sides on. In other words, pull the policy rope sideways.
- Promote awareness of the human proclivity for zero-sum politics. This can help us recognize the need to actively compensate for our tribal nature — by rewarding zero-sum tribal behaviour less, while rewarding efforts to achieve win-win outcomes.
- Focus political discourse (more) on policies and their outcomes, rather than on parties or individuals. The latter lends itself to tribal mudslinging, smears, and name-calling, while impersonal discussions of policy substance tend to be more fruitful and less tribal, especially when focused on mutually beneficial policies.
We recommend significant efforts to limit the influence of biased intuitions, motivated reasoning, and dogmatic partisan loyalty. By raising the standards of political discourse, we can increase the degree to which our politics is based on carefully reflected values and sound empirical evidence.
While such improvements are unlikely to be realised on a large scale any time soon, we still believe that it is important to state and aim for these ideals of better politics. A more reasoned approach to politics does not come easily, but nor is it impossible. Bias comes in degrees, and so even if we will always be biased in some ways, we can at least limit the extent and influence of our biases. And given that politics is so consequential, it seems likely that even marginal improvements can be highly beneficial.
A reason for optimism is that the scientific study of our political psychology and biases is still quite young, and its key findings are yet to be widely disseminated. (And it is worth noting that research does not support the idea that people are irredeemably misguided or stuck in their political views.)
Nevertheless, developing our political culture is surely an ambitious project. Perhaps the long-term, cause-neutral nature of this priority area makes it uniquely interesting to long-term-focused effective altruists, as continuous modest improvements can, over a sufficiently long time horizon, add up to transformative and broadly beneficial change.
We believe that a good starting point is to advance the principles of reasoned political discourse in our own community. (And no, our own community is not already immune to these biases, especially not as far as partisan biases in favour of our own community are concerned.)