Federal spending backfires, making us more polarized

When Obama does something good, it makes blue regions bluer and red ones redder.

As the country gears up for what may be one of the most acrimonious elections in American history, Democrats and Republicans appear unable to agree on anything — even federal spending for their own districts. At least, that’s what our new research suggests: Even local spending can be polarizing.

We looked at how voters responded to hundreds of billions of dollars that the 2009 economic stimulus package pumped into local economies. Economists agree that the stimulus helped cushion the economy during the Great Recession. Conventional wisdom would suggest that voters reward politicians for such an investment.

In fact, early in the first Obama administration, signs alongside highway road repairs proclaimed “Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, strongly opposed these, claiming, “These signs are simply for political self-interest, and it’s high time we stop using stimulus dollars to fund them.” Other Republicans were equally outraged and worried that Democrats could “claim political credit” if people saw tangible benefits from the federal government.

But it turns out that Republicans needn’t have worried. The stimulus did not simply boost Democrats’ popularity. Rather, it increased polarization. All else being equal, more stimulus money made blue places bluer and red places redder.


Not surprising at all, based on other data. When you show people something that contradicts what they believe, you get a ‘backfire’ effect – it is a type of confirmation bias where people refuse to acknowledge facts that contradict what they expect. They simply ignore them while actually working more to maintain their faulty beliefs.

That is, facts often push people further into their Cargo Cult Worlds, sustaining false models of reality rather than altering them. Their own personal narrative is more important than the facts.

So, when Obama or the democrats do something good, those that feel that Obama can not ever do anything good respond by holding on to their incorrect beliefs even more, becoming redder. (And of course, the opposite can be true also – when Obama does something bad, the blue regions become more blue).

Cargo Cult Worlds are, frankly, a transitory thing. They usually pop up when a culture is under stress and being impacted by rapid change, as we are today. Many people react to this by holding onto their previous heuristics and rules of thumb based on System 1 approaches, rather than analyzing the world using System 2.

The more the world changes the more they hold on, often constructing elaborate models to explain the differences between reality and their Cargo Cult World. Thus the rise in conspiracy theories. Bombs brought down the Twin Towers, not planes. Obama is really a Muslim. Sanders would have won if it had not been stolen from him.

The more you present facts explaining how each of these are not true, the more some people retreat into ignoring reality.

I expect this will largely disappear as we adapt to the new cultural environment we inhabit. The conspiracy theories will die off as fewer people  require them. We will have created new System 1 ‘gut feelings’ that better match the world around us.

If we make it through this transition.

Image: Eric Kilby

Eric Kilby