If you were to ask the average American what they think is the most pressing problem facing the United States, the answers will vary. “We live in a patriarchal society. Women still make 77 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts! These republicans hate women!” “The world is a very dangerous place. National security should be first and foremost amongst our priorities! These democrats want to make us less safe!” “The average voter just doesn’t understand politics and economics. If they would just gain some basic knowledge, they would vote for better candidates! Neither party gets it!” In the era of “fake news,” the stakes for what counts as reality have perhaps never been higher.
But while the holders of these various opinions are no doubt sincere in their beliefs, they miss a fact that is applicable to all of them: For human beings, ideologically informed perception can be more important than actual facts.
Consider the so-called “gender wage gap.” If some Democrats are to be believed, pay inequality is a pervasive problem in the United States. Imagine going to school for years, specializing in a given field, putting in just as much effort as your male counterparts, only to have your relative pay be reduced by almost a quarter. Who would not be upset at such blatant injustice? The problem is that it is just not real. While individual allegations of pay discrimination do exist, the system-wide average cited by feminists is misleading because it does not account for the various differences in the choices between men and women. When we account for these differences in college major, time off the job due to childbirth, and other factors, the “gender wage gap” all but disappears.
What about the importance of national security? If some Republicans are to be believed, the world has never been a more dangerous place. Literally crouched around every corner, a foreign terrorist is ready to kill us and our families, and destroy our way of life. With a threat level this high, who would not support more extreme immigration policies? But again, the problem is that it is just not real. There is no doubt that national security and terrorism are legitimate concerns, but when you look at the actual data, you find that you are probably more likely to win the lottery or be seated next to a rapist at a baseball game than you are to be killed in a terror attack by foreigners on American soil. In fact, you are much more likely to be killed in a terror attack perpetrated by another American than you are to be killed by foreign terrorists.
Finally, the problems with the American electorate. If some Libertarians are to be believed, American voters just do not understand what is good for them. The most basic premises of government, economics, and policy seem lost on the average American. If only they would pay closer attention, read a book, or watch less corporate media, they might actually be able to make rational electoral decisions. But, you guessed it, this is not real either. While one would be hard-pressed to argue that Americans becoming more educated on these subjects would not be a good thing, advanced knowledge on these subjects is not necessary to make rational electoral decisions. American voters are “rationally ignorant” and spend no more or less time on politics than is rationally required to approximate, informed by heuristics and other cognitive shortcuts, the best candidate to meet their individual concerns.
All three “problems” are natural growths of the ideological assumptions of the parties that hold them. As liberals, democratic ideology is concerned with equality above all things, rich with a history of fighting on behalf of equality between the sexes. The belief in the inherent inequality of the sexes trumps reality. It is the same with the conservative ideological focus on national security. Forget that you are more likely to have violence perpetrated against you by your next door neighbor than a foreign terrorist. The belief that the world is an inherently scary place trumps reality. And then there are the libertarians. The belief in the sanctimonious nature of some libertarians trumps the reality that voters may just not want to buy what they are selling.
Think of ideology as a tool bag. If the tools in your tool bag are designed to fix problems with inequality, reality is viewed through a lens of inequality, whether it exists or not. If your tools are designed to thwart a scary world, the world begins to look like a very scary place. If your tools are designed to advanced fidelity to principle, deviation from that standard begins to look like ignorance. The point is that our political opponents are not liars, and those we agree with are not inherently truth tellers. Both sides (and those in the middle) are subject to their own inherent biases, and both champion “problems” that do not actually exist.
Instead of claiming the moral high ground of some supposed objectivity by claiming an exclusive monopoly on “the real,” we should instead acknowledge that we are all subject to own ideological assumptions and biases, and do our best to separate fact from fiction together.