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April 24, 2014 10:38 AM Bundy’s Racist Rant and the Partisan Asymmetry in Motivated Cognition

By Mark Kleiman

Cliven Bundy, right-wing hero, is a howling racist.

Good to watch Rand Paul and Greg Abbott backpedaling now. But wasn’t it enough that Bundy denied the jurisdiction of the government of the United States and organized an armed mob to threaten federal officials carrying out lawful court orders? It should have been.

This just illustrates the point of Ezra Klein’s sophisticated take on Dan Kahan’s work about motivated cognition. Yes, human beings divided into feuding factions tend to act less intelligently than those same human beings would in a less polarized context. But all factions are not alike on this crucial dimension. Some track reality – and encourage their followers to track reality – pretty well, some not so well, and some abominably. The Red faction, where the fringe has become the base and where no adult supervision is allowed to interfere with the dissemination of pure lunacy, is radically more detached from reality than the Blue faction. Of course there are Blue lunatics, but they aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of debate. (When you hear a Blue thinker accused of “hippie-bashing,” that often means he or she is doing the job of keeping the team tethered to consensus reality by calling out fringiness. And yes, there’s a hyperactive form of this where perfectly sensible proposals and statements supported by good evidence but that don’t yet have widespread public support get dismissed as “loony left.”)

Tracking reality maps, albeit imperfectly, into acting with decency: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” It’s not by accident that the party of global-warming denial and poll unskewing is also the party of torture.

No patriotic American should be pleased that our republic no longer has two political parties either of which can be safely entrusted with the task of governing. But wishing that fact away will not make it disappear. What the republic needs right now is a public awareness of how sick and twisted the Red team actually is, leading a series of devastating electoral defeats for the Republicans sufficient to shock them back into contact with consensus reality.

Footnote Since I’m claiming that there’s a factional difference, let me illustrate by criticizing Harry Reid’s rhetoric in the Bundy case. If you want to call his followers seditious, the dictionary is on your side. If you want to call them unpatriotic, by my guest. If you want to say that they are advocates of lawless violence and therefore enemies of the project of free government, I’ll join the chorus. But “domestic terrorist” is not only inflammatory but simply wrong.

Abortion-clinic bombers are terrorists. So are some of the animal-rights and eco-fringe groups. The Klan was a terrorist organization.

Militas, by contrast, are rebels, or at least cowardly rebel-wannabes. There’s a difference. Even the assassination of officials – which of course is deplorable in a republic – isn’t terrorism. Neither is simple crazy violence, even if the person carrying out the crazed violence embraces some crazy ideology as well. Terrorism is an organized effort to use violence to spread fear in the general population for political purposes.

Right now, the U.S. suffers from the threat, and sometimes the actuality, of right-wing violence, but to my knowledge there is no right-wing terrorist activity, or even any lively threat of such activity. So let’s call Bundy’s armed mob what it is – which is plenty bad enough – and not what it is not.

In criticizing a politician I generally support for making a statement that I think isn’t factually or logically sound, I’m acting like … a liberal. No doubt other liberals will disagree with me on the substance or think that, with Reid standing almost alone against Bundyism, it’s impolitic to criticize him. But all of that is perfectly normal, on my side of the great divide. On the other side – with, of course, honorable exceptions – not so much.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.

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