Rationalization and the Individual Mandate

Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein has a thoughtful piece in The New Yorker this week that walks through the psychology and politics of how Republicans pulled a 180-degree turn in their position on the individual healthcare mandate. Klein’s argument revolves around several of the forms of motivated reasoning that I’ve discussed here over the past few weeks, including how partisans reflexively dislike whatever their opponent proposes and how we construct our ideals of fairness based on whatever suits our current purposes.

Klein’s logic suggests that bipartisan compromise is becoming increasingly challenging:

All this suggests that the old model of compromise is going to have a very difficult time in today’s polarized political climate. Because it’s typically not in the minority party’s interest to compromise with the majority party on big bills—elections are a zero-sum game, where the majority wins if the public thinks it has been doing a good job—Washington’s motivated-reasoning machine is likely to kick into gear on most major issues. “Reasoning can take you wherever you want to go,” Haidt warns. “Can you see your way to an individual mandate, if it’s a way to fight single payer? Sure. And so, when it was strategically valuable Republicans could believe it was constitutional and good. Then Obama proposes the idea. And then the question becomes not ‘Can you believe in this?’ but ‘Must you believe it?’ ”

And that means that you can’t assume that policy-based compromises that made sense at the beginning will survive to the end, because by that time whichever group has an interest in not compromising will likely have convinced itself that the compromise position is an awful idea—even if, just a few years ago, that group thought it was a great one.

In the most basic sense the problem is that when politics becomes a zero-sum game then the goal is no longer to find the best way to serve the interests of the people you represent. The only goal is to win. When that’s the case then the rationalizations you need to defeat your opponents inevitably kick in. Of course politics has always been adversarial, but you can have an argument without believing that your opponent is the enemy.

As I argued a couple of weeks ago, polarization may not be as bad as it seems. Americans are actually not all that far apart on a lot of issues and it’s the people at the extremes – who also tend to be the same people who have disproportionate influence over who’s in congress – whose perceptions of polarization are the most inflated. Klein’s piece is a very good illustration of the fact that the left and the right are actually not that far apart on the issues themselves – after all there has been strong support for the individual mandate from both sides of the political spectrum, just not at the same time.

In the coming weeks I’ll explore a couple of different ways that psychologists have studied that could hold promise for slowly restoring the conditions that would make bipartisan compromise a little easier. The big question is really whether the solutions that have proven effective in the psychology laboratory can be applied more broadly.