Accept It: Both Democrats And Republicans Are Equally Smart

“People with strong attachments to the Republican Party were more likely to see their paper as leaning toward Clinton, independent of the paper’s actual coverage. Similarly, people with strong democratic identification were likely to see their newspaper as leaning toward Bush,” wrote (PDF) Professor Russell Dalton, in an eye-opening 1992 study about how partisanship blinds us to the fact that there are great things to say about both political parties. Despite writing exactly five articles for and against each political party since July 24th, I and some of our other writers have been accused of being partisan shills, selling out our journalistic integrity to hock the brain-dead policies of whatever party my friends, colleagues, and readers happen to disagree with. Yet, there are very good psychological reasons why both political parties have unique technological advantages and why its so difficult for us to accept this fact.

The collectivist tendencies of liberals easily transform into decentralized grassroots around a single candidate, whereas individualist conservatives happily take a technological ax to governmental services. Unfortunately, experimental research on the perception of bias in the media finds that partisans are so desperate to be right that it’s easier to blame the media than accept the hard truth that we live in a world where smart people can disagree with us.

Community and Liberals

For the last three presidential cycles, the tectonic innovations in campaigning have almost universally come from Democrats: the campaign for former Democratic party chairman, Howard Dean, created decentralized online organizing with, Senator John Kerry popularized Dean’s use of online fundraising for his own presidential bid, and Barack Obama ushered in campaigning to the social media age. And, there’s a very good reason for the politically lopsided innovation: the liberal tendency towards community and collectivism, psychologists have found, breeds technological experimentation with tools of decentralized action.

“The left not only chooses more participatory technology, but also uses the available technological tools to maintain more fluid relations between secondary or user-contributed materials and those of primary contributors,” explained a study of online political blogs from the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The left is more egalitarian in opportunities for speech, more discursive, and more collaborative in managing the sites.”

So, when the Democratic National Convention crushes Republicans in terms of Twitter activity (Michelle Obama saw more than twice the tweets per second during her speech than during Mitt Romney’s), it shouldn’t come as a shock: on average, liberals are more attracted to the chaos of a social media conversation. As a result, tech stories gushing about the social media of campaigns will invariably shed liberals in a positive light more often.

Small Government, More Technology

“Because technology has the potential of making government more efficient, less expensive to run, and more accountable, it’s not surprising that the Republicans are ahead of the Democrats in the use of technology in governing,” Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of Tech President, told me. Republicans, at least in Congress, have been the uncontested party of open and interactive government. For instance, the Republican leadership championed the DATA Act, which would make all federal funding transparent and traceable. House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, developed one of the United States’ first avenues of direct democracy with Youcut, a online project that binds congressmen to propose cutting federal programs based on a process of SMS-voting from citizens.

The conservative principle of austerity has bled into the 2012 Republican presidential campaign. Mitt Romney’s Digital Director, Zac Moffatt (who will be joining us at Disrupt this week) has managed get Silicon Valley’s brightest minds to build out his online strategy, mostly for free. So, when open government veterans who now work on the presidential campaign, such as Matt Lira, use their connections to hook up innovative tech partnerships, such as VP candidate Paul Ryan’s recent policy chat on a Google+ hangout, it’s only natural that Republicans will look like Silicon Valley champions in the press.

A Difficult Truth To Swallow

So, why is it so difficult to see the press as politically unbiased, and both sides as intelligent? Experimental research [pdf] has found that partisan readers interpret facts and data opposed to their views as hostile. Rather than accept that every issue is a difficult choice between two reasonable alternatives, it’s easier to selectively dismiss the parts of a news article that contradict the way we want to see the world.

More interestingly, when news articles are presented as a mere “student essay” the contradictory facts do not trigger the same perceptions of bias and hostility in the media. It turns out, when we read a story, we’re concerned about how others, less educated or enlightened than ourselves, will interpret the facts. Contradictory facts “prompt partisans to consider interpretations or implications they think could be misleading to a naïve and vulnerable audience of others. Hence, they interpret the same information in a different, and disagreeable way,” write the researchers.

It’s easier to villainize and insult the other side; it’s difficult to reflect critically on our own beliefs and those we support. TechCrunch, however, will continue to praise cleverness and call out BS wherever we see it–and whomever from.