The Burden of Citizenship

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Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility…. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Abraham Lincoln Annual Address to Congress December 1, 1862

It is apparent that what you see in the impeachment trial of the President is perceived through the lens of cognitive bias. Cognitive bias has three aspects: cognitive dissonance, social conformity, and confirmation bias.[1]

Cognitive dissonance describes a situation where something we believe is refuted by factual evidence to the contrary. The rational way to resolve the conflict between what we believe and what we know is to adjust what we believe. But research has shown that often, because our sense of self-worth is involved, we find irrational ways to resolve the tension. Essentially, we invent explanations for why what we empirically know not to be true actually is true. This tendency is amplified when in the company of others who also hold the challenged belief, resulting in a tendency to accept the challenged belief in order to maintain one’s standing in a community: social conformity. And finally, confirmation bias causes us to only consider evidence that supports our beliefs, dismissing other evidence as false (“fake news”).[2]

Over the past four days I have witnessed a truly remarkable, detailed, iron-clad, thought-provoking and often inspiring exposition of wrongdoing on the part of the President that the House of Representatives argues rises to the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors the Constitution identifies as grounds for removal from office. I believe that any rational person listening with an open mind would have to conclude that the House Managers made their case.

The problem is than none of us can listen and analyze with an open mind. We are all plagued by the cognitive bias described above. The way I have seen this portrayed on social, broadcast, and print media falls into two main categories. On the one hand, people who disagree with the President are ready to believe him capable of almost any crime. They don’t have to listen to the arguments because they already know he’s guilty. On the other hand, supporters of the President believe the whole thing is a brazen political gambit on the part of the Democrats, driven mostly by their “hatred” of the President. They don’t need to listen to the arguments because they already know he’s being attacked by political hacks. Neither partisans on the left or right need to listen to the arguments because they already know.

There is a third group who are so disengaged from the political life of our country they see an impeachment trial in the Senate as a long-winded and boring episode that at worst interrupts their favorite entertainment. They don’t need to listen because it’s completely inconsequential to their lives.

I will argue that whichever “side” you are on, if you’re not paying attention, you’re not a patriot. If you have already made up your mind and are unwilling to listen to information that may challenge your ideological comfort zone, you are betraying the faith the Founders placed in our hands when they proposed that Americans could govern themselves.

  1. Listen to the presentation of the facts.
  2. Decide whether or not the facts represent an impeachable offense.

If you’re having trouble deciding because of bias brought on by social conformity, apply the facts and arguments to another politician you don’t support. If the same evidence was presented against Obama or Clinton, would you dismiss it as partisan hatred?

Be honest with yourself. You owe it to yourself and the country.

[1] Lee McIntyre, The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series: Post-Truth (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2018), under “727,” Amazon Kindle.

[2] Lee McIntyre, “The Roots of Cognitive Bias,” in The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series: Post-Truth (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2018), under “643ff,” Amazon Kindle.