The best explanation of the U.S. government shutdown points to two factors. The first involves information, or what people think they know. The second involves incentives, or what motivates our elected representatives.
From decades of empirical research, we know that when like-minded people speak with one another, they tend to become more extreme, more confident and more unified – the phenomenon known as group polarization. One reason involves the spread of information within echo chambers.
If you are in a group whose members think the Affordable Care Act is horrible, you will hear many arguments to that effect and very few in the other direction. After a lot of people have spoken, Obamacare will seem much worse than merely horrible; it might well be taken as a menace to the republic. In recent months, the House of Representatives has been a case study in group polarization.
In a free nation, of course, no member of Congress can really spend life in an echo chamber. They are aware that people disagree with them. To appreciate what happened with the shutdown, we have to understand a bit more about the nature of political beliefs. It turns out that when people’s convictions are deeply held but false, efforts to correct those views can backfire. Such efforts tend to entrench and fortify those very convictions.
When the news media corrects a false proposition (say, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, or that George W. Bush banned stem-cell research), both conservatives and liberals may become even more committed to that proposition. Partisans and extremists know what they know, and efforts to correct what they know make them firmer still (and angrier to boot). It is for this reason that the beliefs of some of the most extreme House Republicans, and their constituents, appear almost immune to correction.
With respect to incentives, elected officials are often motivated by one goal above all: to get re-elected. They are focused on their own electoral prospects, not those of their party. They know they have to answer to their constituents, not to the nation as a whole.
Within the Republican Party, many members of Congress have no reason to fear a challenge from the left. There is no chance that they will lose their seat to a Democrat, and a moderate Republican isn’t going to run against them. The only threat is from the right. With respect to a controversy that the public is closely following, the main question may well be whether, in the view of the most extreme conservative voters, the legislators will “cave” to President Barack Obama or instead stand up for their convictions. Is it any wonder that many Republican members were willing to run the risks of a shutdown?
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