That illusion where you think the other side is united and your side is diverse

Lots of people have written about this illusion of perspective: The people close to you look to be filled with individuality and diversity, while the people way over there in the other corner of the room all look kind of alike.

But widespread knowledge of this illusion does not stop people from succumbing from it. Here’s Michael Tomasky writing in the New York Times about what if America had a proportional-representation voting system:

Let’s just imagine that we had a pure parliamentary system in which we elected our representatives by proportional representation, so that if a minor party’s candidates got 4 percent of the legislative votes, they’d win 4 percent of the seats. What might our party alignment look like?

He identifies six hypothetical parties: the center left, the socialist left, the green left, a party for ethnic and lifestyle minorities, a white nationalist party, and a center-right party. Thus, Tomasky continues:

If I’m right, the Democrats would split into four parties, and the Republicans into two, although the second one would be tiny. In other words: The Trump-era Republican Party already is in essence a parliamentary party. . . .

The Democrats, however, are an unruly bunch. . . . The Democrats will never be a party characterized by parliamentary discipline; unlike the Republicans, their constituencies are too heterogeneous.

When it comes to racial/ethnic diversity, sure, the two parties are much different, with Democrats being much more of a coalition of groups and the Republicans being overwhelmingly white. More generally, though, no, I don’t buy Tomasky’s argument. He’s a liberal Democrat, so from his perspective his side is full of different opinions and argumentation. But I think that a columnist coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum would see it the other way, noticing all the subtleties in the Republican position. Overall, the Democrats and Republicans each receive about 30% of the vote (with typically a slightly higher percentage for the Democrats), with the other 40% voting for other parties or, mostly, not voting at all. I don’t think it makes sense to say that one group of 30% could support four different parties with the other group of 30% only supporting two. Even though I can see how it would look like that from one side.

22 thoughts on “That illusion where you think the other side is united and your side is diverse

  1. Cf Lord of the Rings:

    ‘Not too tiring for you,’ the Elves answered laughing, ‘You know you are never tired of reciting your own verses. But really we cannot answer your question at one hearing!’

    ‘What!’ cried Bilbo, ‘You can’t tell which parts were mine and which were the Dunadan’s?’

    ‘It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals,’ said the Elf.

    ‘Nonsense, Lindir,’ snorted Bilbo. ‘If you can’t distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgement is poorer than I imagined. They’re as different as peas and apples.’

    ‘Maybe. To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,’ laughed Lindir. ‘Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business.’

  2. I would think there would be empirical studies about this — e.g. how similar are the actual voting habits of Republican legislators versus Democratic legislators (controlling for …).

  3. Very perceptive post.

    But, I quibble with calling this phenomenon an “illusion”. I think it is just a natural phenomenon and pretty rational. You spend much more mental energy thinking about the things close to you because they are more important. Far-away things only warrant a small amount of mental effort.

    Take the analogy of walking on a sidewalk. You pay a lot of attention to all the bumps and cracks where you are walking because you have to or else risk tripping. The sidewalk a block away warrants only cursory thought, say to recognize that there is a sidewalk up there you could walk on if you go that way. You worry about the cracks and bumps when you get there.

    This ties to Lee Jussim’s work on stereotypes. Stereotypes are simple heuristics for things you don’t deal with a lot. Lee’s research has shown that when people actually have to deal with people they previously stereotyped, they quickly replace the stereotype with information about the individual people.

    • > You spend much more mental energy thinking about the things close to you because they are more important. Far-away things only warrant a small amount of mental effort.

      So you’re saying that people don’t pay much attention to “the distant future, faraway lands, and remote probabilities”? Tol was right! (J/K)

      I disagree, though. Specifically in the context of politics and our current hyper-partisan era: people spend A LOT of mental energy thinking about the Other. Donald Trump’s entire schtick is loudly gesturing at the Other. So to the extent he’s relying on “stereotypes” (racist caricatures is probable a more accurate descriptor), they are not simple heuristics, they are clever attention grabbing distractions. So instead of paying attention to all the bumps and cracks where you are walking, he’s telling you that brown people are going to make the sidewalk a whole lot worse. This false consciousness is not a time-saving adaptation. It’s a means of redirecting anxieties about all the local diversity and entropy to something external.

    • There’s a sizeable literature on the circumstances under which “individuating information” reduces the impact of stereotyping on decision making. It comes up a lot in discrimination litigation. A common defense is “Manager X could not possibly be influenced by gender stereotypes because he interacts with Ms. Y regularly.” The basic conclusion (at least when I was following that lit) is that the for the information to be effective in minimizing the impact of stereotypes it has to be relevant to the decision, timely (accessible to the decision maker at the time the decision is being made), and the decision maker is aware that there is some sort of accountability on what factors are being used to make the decision. Here’s a cite to one of the early classic studies, “Irrepressible Stereotypes” by Nelson, Acker and Manis.

  4. Good piece. Here is another data point to support it: Tomasky does not once mention libertarians; you’ve got to have a pretty big blind spot if it does not occur to you that you might want to think about where they would fit into a multi-party system.

  5. FWIW, a different columnist recently broke the Republican party into 5 groups ( and the Democrats into 6 (, at least as far as elected officials go (not voters). But he noted that at least two of the Republican groups are pretty small, as are two or three of the Democratic, so there might really only be three groups of note on both sides.

    • I don’t find the first article particularly relevant to potential political parties in a parliament, since it’s focused on Trump and people’s reactions to him, rather than policy preferences.

      Here’s what I think the four predominant parties on the right might look like:

      1. A center-right, Reaganesque party, most likely retaining the Republican Party name. This party would be generally support free markets, big business, free trade, low taxes, and a strong military and political role for the United States in world affairs, and would be moderate on many social issues and immigration, and continue to fight against the social safety net. Unlike Tomasky, I think this party would enjoy a sizable base of support, particularly amongst the executive, professional, and small-business classes who are primarily concerned with their pocketbooks, security, and economic stability, and this party would thus be competitive with the center-left party in suburban areas and among mainstream evangelicals. Due to this party’s tendency to favor meritocracy and willingness to embrace those who assimilate and play the white-established game, this party would likely draw sizable numbers of economically-established minorities.

      2. A white nationalist party. The party would become even more retrogressive, opposed to free trade and immigration, and blatantly racist. Because of this, many of the evangelical voters who currently make up a large portion of Trump’s base would prefer the center-right party or a Christian values party, and the party would thus become associated with working class, southern, and rural whites. Likely a number would split their votes amongst the various parties depending on which threat they’re most preoccupied with at any given time (taxes, Mexicans, or homosexuality, for instance).

      3. Christian values party. This party would be focused on promoting conservative social values and would be the main group fighting tooth and nail against abortion, gay rights, the teaching of evolution in schools, etc. As a minor party, this group would would have limited influence compared to the religious right of the 2000’s, when evangelicals were able to control the Republican Party.

      4. Libertarian party. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal, anti-regulation, pro-free-trade. At odds with the white nationalist and Christian values parties on most issues.

      Now this might not turn out to be the case. Perhaps Tomasky is correct in that you’d have one unified right-wing party. But I think there’s enough distrust between the different groups of the party that blowing up the current electoral system would also blow up the party.

  6. Tomasky’s basic premise is undermined by a different bias, the tendency to think of the current order as the natural or inevitable order. Americans (myself included) often think that the positions and priorities that the major parties have cobbled together into their respective platforms are inherently aligned, when the reality is that much of what we consider “left” or “right” ideology are only lumped together due to accidents of history. For example, under Trumpism, the GOP is at best highly ambivalent (and in many cases actively hostile) toward free trade, institutional power, militarism, respect for precedent, and civility; in short, much of their official and unofficial platform now resembles the left circa 1970. Yet they remain pro-gun, pro-life, pro-unitary executive, anti-tax, anti-regulation, and antagonistic to racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Clearly, a strong personality or an inspiring brand can rally voters around any set of issues, whether consistent, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Political parties form around notions of identity, not policy, so it’s entirely possible that, after a period of adjustment, we’d end up with a white nationalist green party, a socialist evangelical party, even a pro-business party that loves taxes, regulations, and unions.

    • Is there an anti-abortion left-wing party anywhere in the world? It’s fairly easy to imagine one evolving by accidents of history, and there are individuals who fit that description, but I have never heard of such a party. Just curious.

      • Kyle, not quite what you are looking for, but …

        The initial push for abortion rights came from Republicans. In 1970, the Republican governor of New York signed the first comprehensive abortion rights bill in the U.S., which had been passed by the Republican legislature.

        There were racial/economic overtones. That NYTimes article takes a rosy point of view, ” a big part of the argument was about economics. Women with money could get abortions. They could pay doctors to do them, or they could go to Puerto Rico or to another country. Poor women, on the other hand, were dying in droves from unsafe abortions.’

        But this ignores the fact that eugenic thoughts were also abounding. Many worried because the birth rate of poor women was higher than the birth rate of richer women, and allowing abortion was thought by some to help remedy that. Which means, of course, that some liberal defenders of the poor saw expansion of abortion as an attack on the poor and black.

        There’s athis from Wikipedia: “Black nationalist parties in the late 1960s and early 1970s tended to view the use of contraceptives in black populations was at best, an ill-conceived public health measure, and at worst a front for a conspiracy of black genocide. For the most part, male-dominated black nationalists were opposed to the promotion of personal fertility control and protested against government funded family planners who they viewed to be putting forth an agenda of black population control.”

        So, it seems entirely possible that a left-wing party could be anti-abortion. It could have happened here.

        I want to note that I am not a historian and have no particular expertise on the history of this issue; this is just based on what I remember from the discussions during my teenage years on this topic.

        • ZB — Yes, but there used to Republican liberals, and the NY GOP was socially liberal. The black nationalist position along with a left-wing repugnance toward forced family planning choices COULD produce a redustributionist anti-abortion party, clearly. But HAS it?

      • Hm…Technically, that would depend on how you (or the culture) define a “left-wing party,” which is undermined somewhat by my argument against there being a set of inherently left-wing issues. That said, if you go with Wikipedia’s definition (“supports social equality and egalitarianism”) then the modern Catholic Church is pretty left-wing. Catholicism isn’t a political party, but I imagine some liberal, populist parties in predominantly Catholic countries (Ireland, Italy, Poland, etc) might fit the bill. Depending on just how aligned the party is with Church doctrine, they could be pro-life but also anti-death penalty, pro-union, pro-social safety net, against unrestricted capitalism, for teaching the theory of evolution and science in general, and supportive of undocumented immigrants, liberation theology, and social justice. Then again, being pro-life wouldn’t be the only position of a Catholic-aligned party that Americans consider conservative: add to that support for government funding of private schools, generally loosening the separation of Church and State, traditional (hetero-only) marriage, limited expression of sexuality, and (to a degree) traditional gender roles.

        As an aside, I’ve always thought it was weird that homosexuality is illegal in Iran, but sex reassignment surgery is officially supported by the state. In the US, the opposite is true: gays can now openly serve in our military, for example, but current policy is that trans soldiers may not openly serve and certainly may not transition.

        • But the church is not a party. Individual Catholic leftists are some of the individuals I had in mind in my original comment. Do they have a political home anywhere?

  7. What bothers at least as much, is that many people keep conflating “parliamentary” and “proportional representation” systems. There may be an empirical correlation between the two, but these are two very different things. Parliamentary refers to the direct accountability of the executive to the legislature, whereas the other describes a type of electoral system. The UK has a parliamentary system without proportional representation, whereas Brazil has a presidential system with proportional representation (at least in its lower house).

  8. Judgments of similarity are in the eye of the beholder. (A sentence I more or less just wrote in an article re: biases in forensic science.)

    • Yay, science! Relatedly, I was thinking earlier that there surely are better-informed people who have put much more thought into the question of how America would fare under a proportional representation system, including scholarly debate and empirical research, than Tomasky. It seems pretty arrogant of him not to at least consult that expertise before constructing an argument on the premise of his casual observations. Then again, he’s sparked this debate and succeeded in getting me to click on the link to his column, so in a sense he’s doing his job pretty darn effectively.

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