Shut Down Blame

The government shutdown of January, 2018 led to the usual efforts to place blame. The Republicans assert that the Democrats are in the wrong—if only they would put the interest of America ahead of their unpatriotic devotion to the illegals eager to remain or cross in search of handouts, then there would be no problem. The Democrats blame the Republicans, presenting their own narrative of the evils of the Republicans. Sorting out the responsibility in such matters can be rather problematic; especially since everyone typically contributes to the problem.

It is, of course, tempting to be cynical about the matter and embrace the narrative that each side is simply maneuvering to maximize the chances that its members will be re-elected in the next cycle. To truly cynical eyes, the Democrats are trying to win the votes of the brown people. The Republicans are struggling to win the votes of the white people who are terrified of the brown people. This view, I hope, does a disservice to both sides. But, the problem remains of sorting out the responsibility.

One factor that makes objectively assessing responsibility in this matter is in-group bias. This is a cognitive bias that influences people to see members of their group as better than those outside the group. As such, people who identify with a political party will see their party as better and the other party as worse. So, in the eyes of most Democrats, the Republicans are to blame—they seem to be in the wrong because Democrats see other Democrats as better. The same sort of bias holds for Republicans—they will tend to see the Democrats as being in the wrong.

This bias can also fuel a full fallacy, which is sometimes called the group think fallacy. This fallacy occurs when a person infers that their group is right or better simply because it is their group. The mistake is, of course, that the fact that a group is one’s own does not entail that it is right, good or better. Naturally, many people have the sense to realize that openly asserting that their side is right because it is their side is not a good argument. As such, they tend to advance reasons in favor of the position they already hold, seeking evidence that confirms the conclusion they have drawn from the in-group fallacy and that conforms to their in-group bias.

The psychological commitment people have to their groups can lead to distorting the evidence and, not surprisingly, to making use of other fallacies in “defense” of their position. As such, a Democrat reading this is most likely certain that the Republicans are to blame, while a Republican reading this is probably sure that this trouble is all the fault of the Democrats.

Even if people were willing and able to push through the in-group bias and resist the lure of the group think fallacy, there would still be a challenge in assigning responsibility. One reason for this is the matter of value. In the case at hand, a key question is whether it is worth shutting down the government to try to get what one wants (or to deny the other people what they want). Both the Democrats and Republicans have agreed that it is worth doing so—the Democrats refused to go along with the Republicans and the Republicans refused to cooperate with the Democrats. This leaves the question of whether one of them has it right. This, of course, leads to the debate over values and both sides can sincerely believe that they are in the right. This leads to the classic question of whether such values are objective or subjective. If they are objective, at least one side is in the wrong. If values are subjective, then they could both be in the right, albeit meaningless so. After all, if everyone is right, then right means nothing.

As far as who I blame, my inclination is to place most of it on Trump. Both the Democrats and the Republicans worked together on a compromise, but Trump rejected it and seems to be engaged in yet another twitter tantrum. But, of course, my perception is shaded by my biases.



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