It’s what they do, not what they say

I read this article about the results of a national survey, and found myself annoyed by unthinking acceptance of what people say about their views, rather than what they do. That’s an intrinsic problem of polls, though, and it’s bad when it’s not recognized.

It’s arguing that Democrats and Republicans don’t understand each other. First problem: the two parties are a pair of granfalloons, associations that are mostly meaningless. The author is arguing that we ignore the diversity within each group and don’t understand the values of the other, but part of the problem is that the premise asks that we regard these as real divisions, and then chastises the participants for generalizing opinions of Democrats and Republicans.

In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%.

The survey, published by the thinktank More in Common as part of its Hidden Tribes of America project, was based on a sample of more than 2,000 people. One of the study’s findings: the wilder a person’s guess as to what the other party is thinking, the more likely they are to also personally disparage members of the opposite party as mean, selfish or bad. Not only do the two parties diverge on a great many issues, they also disagree on what they disagree on.

Wait. You’re asking people to “guess as to what the other party is thinking,” and you don’t realize the fundamental flaws in what you’re doing? You’re asking people to read the minds of a diverse organization, and are surprised that they fail at that impossible task? It’s wrong in so many ways.

When a Democrat guesses that 50% of Republicans think racism is a problem, they’re being charitable, because while we can’t read minds, we can see what the Republican party stands for, how their policies affect the country, and what the leadership says, and the Republican party is a flamingly racist organization led by openly racist politicians.

Likewise, when the Republicans say 50% of Democrats don’t trust the police, they’re also being generous, because if you read the news (which is also biased in its reporting), all you see are stories of police murdering people and not being held accountable; you should think the police are bad people, given what evidence we see in the news.

Of course, this problem is compounded by the fact that the survey is asking respondents to treat Republican and Democrat as discrete and uniform organizations. We know that isn’t true.

That’s what drives me crazy about this report. You’re a bad person for not knowing what individuals believe about the country, but you’re asked to categorize a broad group in your answer. The author reports one of her own experiences.

But one man I talked with – someone raised on a sugar plantation, retired from a life-long career in oil, a proud member of the Louisiana Tea Party and a Trump supporter – grinned broadly at the mention of Bernie Sanders. “Free college? Free medical care? How yawl going to pay for that? He’s a pie in the sky guy,” he said. “But he’s a good man, Uncle Bernie.” Although an oil worker, he was a fan of clean energy, and liked the idea of a Manhattan Project to implement it.

Among Republicans, he isn’t alone. Despite the president’s denial of the climate crisis, national polls recently conducted by researchers at Yale, Stanford and Monmouth Universities show that a majority of voters in both parties now agree on many actions to mitigate it.

Aaargh. I’m supposed to know what a retired oil worker in Louisiana thinks, but you’re asking about the Republican party as a whole? What I’ll use to judge the party as a whole is their actions: they elected a climate change denying president, and they’re implementing policies, such as a 30% tariff on solar panels, and then they’re claiming to be a fan of clean energy in their mind. I must be bad at mind-reading.

That this one guy think Bernie Sanders is a “good guy” is somehow supposed to mitigate the actions of the elected officials of the Republican party, and especially Trump, is galling. OK, I’ll appreciate that random individuals in the Republican party are capable of paying lip service to one value while voting against it.

I also have to ask…how y’all going to pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the military?


  1. Jeremy Shaffer says

    The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%.

    There’s also a categorical error within the questions between what those terms mean to different political parties that this study doesn’t take into account. For example, in this current environment, if you ask someone affiliated with the Democratic party about racism they’re going to think of the systemic discrimination against immigrants from particular, prominently non-white counties and non-white peoples in general and, as PZ notes, guess that Republicans don’t see it as a problem based on their actions. Meanwhile, a Republican asked if they think racism is a problem might answer it is because they operate under the belief that white people- which the respondent most likely is- are the most discriminated against group in the U.S.

  2. kome says

    A very left-wing friend of mine shared this story on Facebook and I had some immediate reactions to reading through both the Guardian article and the actual survey itself. There’re a few key details about the survey that this Guardian article isn’t revealing:

    -First, the overall average perception-reality gap is wider for Republicans, which is an average 27% gap compared to the Democrats average 19% gap.
    -Secondly, the only instance where the perception gap is higher for Democrats than for Republicans of commensurate educational attainment is maybe at the level of graduate/professional degrees. At all other levels, Republicans have a larger perception gap than Democrats. Although this is just statistical nitpicking, given the sample size, I’m not surprised at comparisons that are statistically significant, but looking at those errors bars I really wonder how meaningful those differences are. This survey might be overpowered. The gap between grad-level Dems and Repubs, which is being treated as a significant difference, is smaller than the gap between grad-level Repubs and high shcool-level Repubs, but the latter doesn’t appear to be treated as a significant difference.
    -Third, the increasing educational attainment only brings Democrats more in line with a relatively consistent perception gap for Republicans at any level of educational attainment.

    I would really really really like to see the actual inferential statistics for these comparisons. The narrative doesn’t make sense with the data presented. The interpretation of this data appears to intentionally be trying to make educated Democrats out to be somehow exceptionally bad at their perceptions compared to Republicans or other Democrats, when the graphs make it look like the reality is that uneducated or undereducated Democrats are unusually accurate in their perceptions compared to Republicans or other Democrats.

  3. stroppy says

    If the question is worded with ‘race’ and not ‘racism’, then of course it’s an issue for Republicans, what with all the uppity going on.

    Maybe it’s hard to poll for lack of self-awareness.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the survey is asking respondents to treat Republican and Democrat as discrete and uniform organizations.

    Eh? Quite the opposite: the survey asks respondents to guesstimate the size of factions within each opposing party.

    The implicit assumption that either party functions (ahem) democratically, with the size of each bloc reflected in the party’s policies, seems particularly ludicrous in the case of the “Democrats”.

  5. mrquotidian says

    I think they throw in the anecdote about the Bernie-loving Trump voter just to poison the Bernie well a little further… Moderates/Centrists love to portray a horseshoe theory to scare people away from obvious progressive choices.

  6. says

    I’d say the real issue being highlighted there is the severe democratic deficit in the US.
    People form their opinions of the political parties by the actions of the political parties.
    Those actions are more or less entirely disconnected from the wishes of their voters, so what you’re actually seeing is people reporting what the two parties DO, and having that compared to what their voters WANT.

  7. unclefrogy says

    I also have to ask…how y’all going to pay for the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the military?

    with tax cuts as usual, leading to increased debt and financial collapse and inflation

    if that survey and its interpretation is in any way accurate there is the possibility of some populist appeal in shifting party affiliation and voting possible.
    I also think it is generally better to pay more attention to what people do and not what they say which goes doubly in making political decisions.
    uncle frogy

  8. jack16 says

    Wikipedia “A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle), is defined as a “false karass”.That is, it is a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is meaningless.”


  9. ck, the Irate Lump says

    This article is probably a good summary of why this report isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In short, the questions are so open to interpretation that the polled Democrats and Republicans are practically talking different languages when it comes to terms like “open borders”, “properly controlled immigration”, “racism”, “sexism” and “socialism”. The less room there was for interpretation in these questions (like “people are right to be concerned about how climate change might affect us”), the closer people were to being correct.

  10. OptimalCynic says

    In economics this is called revealed preferences, and it’s extremely important.

  11. =8)-DX says

    That’s not how you poll about racism! There are literally millions of people who will say things like “Yes racism is a problem in the US, against white people!” Geeze
    And I wouldn’t trust a Republican voter further than I could throw em. These people voted for Trump, actions speak louder than words.

  12. chrislawson says

    That retired oil worker might like Bernie Sanders, but you can tell from the quote that there’s zero chance of him voting for Sanders and rejecting Trump. Which is what matters.

  13. says

    @#6, Ian King

    Those actions are more or less entirely disconnected from the wishes of their voters, so what you’re actually seeing is people reporting what the two parties DO, and having that compared to what their voters WANT.

    Oh, how I wish this were true. If voters started paying attention to what the parties DO, and voted accordingly, the Green Party would get about 60% of the vote next time, the Republicans would almost cease to exist, and the Democrats would mostly only get support of people who are currently Republicans. (Or are you saying that Democrats are paying close attention and are happy with what their party has done in the last 30-odd years? You know, deregulating the markets, trashing unions, embracing GHWB’s “global policeman”-style American exceptionalism, supporting the Iraq invasion, supporting the PATRIOT Act so thoroughly that nearly all the opposition to making it permanent with the FREEDOM Act came from Republicans and Independents, expanding domestic spying, expanding ICE, refusing to prosecute the Bush administration, refusing to prosecute bankers and Wall Street traders for the meltdown, making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, spending a trillion dollars on new nukes, trying to use the excuse of trade imbalance with China to permanently make multinational corporations impossible to regulate via the TPP, and refusing to impeach Trump, just to name some highlights?) Frankly, the average Democrat appears to be just as out-of-sync with the party as the average Republican — it’s no wonder Biden is likely to be the 2020 nominee, if you are a mindless supporter of the party but not interested in who’s been doing what, why not just support the guy who’s been in the party the longest?