As our alleged president’s administration has lost the few remaining voices of dissent within it and Bush’s policies and public statements have become increasingly divorced from mainstream political views in the country, I have been inevitably reminded of a study I read about eight months ago on group deliberation and its effect on the individual members of the group in question.
The study, by David Schkade, Cass R. Sunstein, and Reid Hastie, compared two sets of groups asked to deliberate together on the issues of global warming, affirmative action, and civil unions for same-sex couples. One set of participants was drawn from the community of Boulder, Colorado – a city with a well-known liberal leaning. The other set of participants was drawn from Colorado Springs – a city as conservative as Boulder is liberal. Participants completed measures designed to assess their views on the three subjects prior to the deliberation, and again post-deliberation. Not surprisingly, there were significant differences between the Boulder and Colorado Springs groups prior to the deliberation, with the Boulder groups reporting scores indicating views associated primarily with the liberal viewpoint and Colorado Springs groups reporting views associated with the conservative viewpoint.
Now, according to the researchers, when groups containing diverse viewpoints deliberate about divisive issues together in an open manner where all parties are able to express their views, post deliberation views of the individual participants are generally closer to the group mean than their pre-deliberation views were. That is, people on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum tend to moderate their views somewhat, bringing them closer to the middle.
Researchers in the Colorado study expected to see similar trends within each of the 5-person groups, at least with respect to the groups’ means – that is, people at the extreme ends in a given group would become less extreme and more centrist, at least as far as moving toward the center of that group’s spectrum of opinions.
Instead, what they saw, which they attributed to the relative lack of opposing views from the other end of the political spectrum within individual groups, was that the group means for Boulder and Colorado Springs became more extreme post-deliberation – that is, the Boulder groups were even more liberal, and the Colorado Springs groups were even more conservative than they were pre-deliberation. In the words of the study’s authors, “Deliberation thus increased extremism.”
Secondly, post deliberation, the groups showed much less diversity of opinion within the group. Pre-deliberation, the groups showed significant variation in opinion on the various issues discussed, but post deliberation “group members showed much more agreement, even in the anonymous expressions of their private views.” The authors concluded that “deliberation among like-minded people produced ideological amplification – an amplification of preexisting tendencies, produced by group discussion.”
Why does this concern me with respect to the current administration? Because over the last several years, anyone who has expressed even relatively minor disagreement with the alleged president’s views has left the administration – perhaps it would be more accurate to say that such dissenting voices have been forced out. And there are troubling reports that they are not even listening to outside voices at all – it has been reported elsewhere that Dick Cheney and other members of the administration demand that hotel TV’s be pre-tuned to the Faux News Channel so they don’t have to risk hearing even a moment of news coverage that might be upsetting to their increasingly out-of-touch world view.
Thus at a time when cooperation and collaboration among politicians with different views has become critical in order for any political movement to take place at all in DC (witness the increasingly acrimonious debate on war funding and demands for the removal of Gonzo if you don’t believe me), the alleged president is becoming even more committed to his increasingly extremist conservative agenda. He is even losing his connection with members of his own party, as Republican senators and representatives face the political reality of a Democratic controlled Congress and loss of support in their home districts.
Presidents should, as a matter of course, appoint at least some Cabinet members from opposing parties, or at least some that don’t agree with them. We have already had plenty of opportunity to learn the drawback of a rubberstamp Congress, but now research (in the form of the study I describe above) and empirical evidence (in the form of the increasingly extremist Bush administration) have shown us the danger of homogeneity of opinion within the executive branch.