The Psychology of the Debt Ceiling Battle

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJul 18, 2011 10:38 PM


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If our leaders don't resolve the debt ceiling mess soon, financial markets--always highly responsive to fear--will swoon, even worse than they’re doing today. And as we saw in 2008, the consequence could be horrible. But how could anyone let this happen? Paul Krugman calls it "crazy," and continues:

President Obama has made it clear that he’s willing to sign on to a deficit-reduction deal that consists overwhelmingly of spending cuts, and includes draconian cuts in key social programs, up to and including a rise in the age of Medicare eligibility. These are extraordinary concession...Yet Republicans are saying no. Indeed, they’re threatening to force a U.S. default, and create an economic crisis, unless they get a completely one-sided deal. And this was entirely predictable.

It is indeed "predictable," but Krugman doesn’t mention what may be the main reason--perhaps he's unaware of it. I'm referring to the broad psychological difference between liberals and conservatives. Because they are generally inclined towards seeing the world in shades-of-gray, liberals will tend to compromise, split the difference, choose the lesser of two evils, etc. Because they are more inclined to see the world in black-and-white, conservatives often won't. These generalizations aren't true of every last liberal or conservative (of course). But in the aggregate, they are certainly true of the groups as a whole--based on large volumes of research. Indeed, one item on a popularly used "dogmatism" scale in psychology is directly related to the question of how to handle negotiations and compromise:

“To compromise with our political opponents is dangerous because it usually leads to the betrayal of our own side.”

On the scale, of course, you’re supposed to say how strongly you agree or disagree with statements like this. And who scores higher on the dogmatism scale? Well, as the meta-analysis linked above notes:

Our review suggests that there is a relatively strong connection between dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, on the one hand, and various measures of political conservatism, on the other. The weighted mean effect size (r), aggregated across 20 tests of the hypothesis conducted in five different countries involving more than 2,000 participants, was .34 ( p .0001).

I'm not pointing this out because it's my opinion--or because I want to believe it. I'm pointing this out because it is the result of the peer reviewed literature. I also will note that these traits cut both ways. There is a lot of benefit, and a lot to praise, about sticking to one's guns, being true to principle, and so on. It's not like conservative traits are universally bad--but the incompatibility of these two styles can definitely lead to serious problems. And obviously we see it in the debt ceiling debate: Neither side wants to raise taxes in the abstract--but for liberals, there are situations in which raising taxes is by far the lesser of evils. But for Grover Norquist's conservatives, it's no new taxes, period. How do you negotiate with someone who's less disposed than you are to compromise? You certainly start out with a disadvantage, no? I still expect a last ditch solution, simply because the stakes are so high. But let's stop pretending--as the mainstream national conversation still does--that we don't know anything about the psychological dynamics underlying all of this.

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