TRUCKEE, California: The final US presidential debate aired yesterday. With less than two weeks to go until Election Day on Nov 3, US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are at the last stretch of the race.
Except that most voters have made up their minds. Almost 50 million Americans have already cast their votes, representing more than a third of total votes cast in the previous 2016 election.
While the coronavirus contributed to the large number of mail-in ballots, the truth is that many people in America have already decided which political leaders they will support.
According to the Pew Research Center, most Republican and Democratic voters have stuck with their party affiliation from 2018 to 2020 – only a tenth of voters have switched sides.
Voting outside of party lines is rare. Senate elections are also on Nov 3, but only 4 per cent of Americans plan to vote for Donald Trump and a Democratic senator or Joe Biden and a Republican senator.
It seems that presidential debates, campaign speeches – even unfolding world events – no longer sway the great majority of American voters.
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The polarisation in America is so extreme that yesterday’s debate required a mute button to prevent a repeat of the first debate's partisan anarchy.
Despite a markedly more civil discussion, the final debate put on full display how both Biden and Trump can’t agree on what the situation is on a spectrum of issues - from COVID-19 to climate change, healthcare and unemployment.
While Biden currently has leads in the polls, doubt arising from the polls’ inaccuracies in the 2016 election persists. It is unclear who can unite America even after results are in.
PERVASIVE CONFIRMATION BIAS
Why is America so polarised?
Part of the problem is human psychology. Instead of being open to new perspectives, Americans (like all people) have a tendency to interpret new facts as being consistent with their strongly held beliefs.
This propensity, known as confirmation bias, is well understood. Nobel prize-winning cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained: “Confirmation bias comes from when you have an interpretation, and you adopt it, and then, top down, you force everything to fit that interpretation.”
Today's unprecedented polarisation largely results from the toxic mixture of confirmation bias and an explosion of information. The Internet is an elaborate global menu allowing people to pick and choose what they want to believe.
Facebook, for example, is a leading source for voters to get information about the Trump and Biden campaigns. As of 2019, 52 per cent of US adults rely on Facebook for their news, according to Pew Research Center.
And the social media giant, like other online platforms, is scrupulously engineered to feed users news and opinions that they are already predisposed to agree with. A 2015 Facebook study found that of the news stories that a user’s friends share, only 29.5 per cent cuts across ideological lines.
As a result of this echo chamber, Americans have hardened into camps: Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative; Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. They’ve grown more distant from and averse to alternative perspectives.
BIASES ON BOTH SIDES
Examples of confirmation bias that leads to polarisation in US politics are endless.
Conservatives, for instance, often celebrate the "Trump economy", citing the stock market as a principal reason why President Trump runs the economy significantly better than President Obama did – and better than his Vice President Joe Biden would if he were elected president.
The fact that the stock market increased 150 per cent under Obama (and has increased significantly less under Trump) is typically missing from the presentation.
Sure, Trump has been president less than half as long as Obama was. And grading economic performance requires looking beyond the stock market.
But to ignore Obama’s historically impressive stock market record, while touting Trump's performance, is confirmation bias on full display.
On the other side of the aisle, there is the constant liberal drumbeat that Trump is soft on Russia – and that Joe Biden, if elected, would take a harder line against America’s cold war adversary.
But Trump has sanctioned Russia repeatedly, expelled Russian diplomats from the US and sold arms to Russian foe Ukraine.
Trump in April 2018 also ordered the bombing of Russian ally Syria, where Russia's military maintains a significant presence. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the strikes an “act of aggression” that could “have a destructive effect on the entire system of international relations”.
True, Trump's relationship with Russia is complicated and his behaviour regarding Putin raises legitimate concerns. But to ignore the numerous hard lines Trump has drawn with Russia distorts and oversimplifies the story.
A WIDER DIVIDE
This biased thinking has caused the divide between Democrats and Republicans in America to grow wider.
There has long been astonishment in American politics that Trump's approval ratings are historically steady and travel independently from his mistakes and controversies.
It is testament to how deep-seated polarisation is in the US, where both the president’s supporters and detractors are unmoved by any political developments.
When new facts and data are systematically interpreted to be consistent with existing beliefs, then new events – such as a presidential debate – no longer matter. Personality has taken precedence over the policy platforms of either candidate.
AN IRREVERSIBLE TREND?
Is this trend towards deeper polarisation irreversible?
Perhaps. A fragmented media ecosystem combined with the biases inherent in human thinking leave little room for optimism.
If Joe Biden won the presidency, there will likely be a less polarising leader in the White House. But his Republican opponents will be galvanised to fight back hard – especially after years of perceived mistreatment of Trump.
And those to Biden’s left in the Democratic party will continue to be energetic, ruthless and partisan in their words and deeds.
The frenzied push towards packing the Supreme Court and adding Washington DC and Puerto Rico as states to gain an advantage in the Senate indicates that, even if Biden wins, a bipartisan middle may continue to be outgunned by polarised armies on each side.
It remains to be seen if the White House can moderate American politics and broaden the middle.
A Biden victory will test the hypothesis that his leadership can unify the country. But if Trump wins, the trend towards widening divides will likely accelerate.
As last night’s debate showed, the toxicity of polarisation infects the American polity throughout.
William Cooper is an American columnist who has written for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun and USA Today.