New research on intervening in partisan politics – by Rod Mitchell

Social Psychologists David Sharman and Leaf Van Boven were guest speakers at CCL’s September International Monthly Call (summarised here) and gave a powerful exploration of the psychology of partisan politics. As Rod Mitchell explains,  they concluded that “the CCL way” is an important part of the solution!

Sharman and Van Boven’s extensive research shows that most Republicans accept climate change and support emissions reduction. They were not far behind Democrats. But the real partisan bit is that both sides are less likely to support a policy introduced by the other side.

They also found that people on both sides overestimate how partisan their fellow Democrats and Republicans are on the issue of carbon pricing; Democrats didn’t expect many of their peers to support a policy introduced by Republicans; and Republicans expected their peers to oppose a policy supported by Democrats. Both sides seemed to believe that they were less partisan than their peers! They were also reluctant to break ranks with their tribe by going public in any way.

They illustrate this with a quote from former Republican representative and CCL Board Member, Bob Inglis “you know there’s gonna be a loudmouth in the group who is gonna jump down the throats of anyone who puts their hand up and outs themselves as believing … the loudmouth norms everybody into compliance with what has become the orthodoxy.”

This is the best explanation I have heard so far for the apparent power of a small group of coalition members to run our government’s agenda. The next best is the lobbying power of the fossil fuel lobby.

They further suggest that “this tribalism leads to political fights over differences between the parties that either do not exist or are vastly exaggerated.”

They then referenced other social psychology studies and discussed their findings with retired members of congress on both sides of congress, including Bob Inglis.  The implications for us are:

  • Give information that shows that more of their peers are open to climate solutions than they might think. Sharing what we know from meeting their peers will help, as will as sharing the outcomes of Sharman and Van Boven’s research.
  • Continue doing what we already do well – use language that doesn’t threaten their tribal identity or make them defensive and give genuine appreciation for specific actions they have taken and for values that align with ours

Illustrating the first point, another former Republican Mickey Edwards says that “if people became more aware that this is not just a little circle of crazies on the left or on the right [and] it were more commonly seen that really Republicans and Democrats both kind of feel this way, I think that frees them up to not being worried about being an outlier. And no one wants to be an outlier – NO ONE”

This is very useful for our work on bipartisanship and gives us more tools for ‘bringing down walls’ and making climate a bridge issue instead of a wedge issue.

And it supports our objective of establishing PFoCS (Parliamentary Friends of Climate Solutions). By bringing the less extreme members of all parties together, and away from the loud voices of the more extreme, we can share what we have learned from meeting with their colleagues – that is, most of them are interested in climate solutions and could possibly work together. And by learning that most Republican voters and most Australians support emissions reductions, they can soothe their own fear of betraying the tribe.

Armed with this knowledge we can expect that PFoCS will not only facilitate dialogue and discussion across the tribes – it could quietly empower the moderates and diminish the power of the extremists with loud voices.

Leaf Van Boven is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. David Sherman is a professor of psychology and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Rod Mitchell is the national chair of Citizens’ Climate Lobby Australia.