Mind

A Stimulating Question: Why Did Republicans Flip-Flop on Juicing the Economy?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneySep 7, 2011 4:55 PM

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Ezra Klein has a cool piece, citing some psychology research to explain why the GOP was for economic stimulus under George W. Bush, but is now against it (when it is needed even more). As Klein writes:

Some say the explanation for all this is obvious: Republicans want the economy to fail because that is how they will defeat President Obama.... I don’t believe this sort of behavior is quite that cynical. Psychologists and political scientists talk often of a phenomenon known as motivated skepticism. The idea, basically, is that we believe the evidence and arguments we want to believe, and reject ideas and information that undercut our preferences. My favorite study (pdf) in this space was by Yale’s Geoffrey Cohen. He had a control group of liberals and conservatives look at a generous welfare reform proposal and a harsh welfare reform proposal. As expected, liberals preferred the generous plan and conservatives favored the more stringent option. Then he had another group of liberals and conservatives look at the same plans, but this time, the plans were associated with parties. Both liberals and conservatives followed their parties, even when their parties disagreed with their preferences. So when Democrats were said to favor the stringent welfare reform, for example, liberals went right along.... I tend to think there’s much more motivated skepticism in politics than outright cynicism, much less economic sabotage. But it’s a distinction without a difference, at least so far as policy outcomes go.

The study in question is of the influence of group affiliation on one's policy preferences. And it clearly shows that both liberal and conservative partisans were biased (in the first study reported in the paper) to favor a policy their party supported, regardless of its content. More specifically, dress up a relatively stringent welfare policy inside a packaging that suggests that 95 percent of Democrats support it and say it would help the poor, and liberal/Democrat partisans support it. Similarly, dress up a relatively generous welfare policy inside a packaging suggesting that 95 percent of Republicans support it and say it would do enough for the poor without undermining their work ethic, and conservative/Republican partisans support it. That's not at all surprising, given not only the strong partisan cues on offer, but also the fact that the policies were framed as being the epitome of liberal or conservative moral values (caring for the poor/ensuring personal responsibility for one's actions), which are also very strong determinants of beliefs. But there seems to me to be something missing in applying this analysis to a matter like the stimulus flip-flop. First, is there a major recent case of Democrats flip flopping so hard, and so fast, on some major policy matter--facing two recession threats in under a five year span? (Bush signed a stimulus bill with Republican support in 2008.) Second, in terms of group solidarity, are Democrats as supportive of President Obama as Republicans always were of President Bush? Does anyone get the sense right now that, as Obama flails and fails, his allies are sticking up for him and making sure they have his back? The point is, I'm not at all sure that the two groups react the same way when it comes to party loyalty, or to resisting whatever the other party says.

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