From ‘Total exoneration!’ to ‘Impeach now!’ – the Mueller report and dueling fact perceptions

The Mueller report was supposed to settle, once and for all, the controversy over whether the Trump team colluded with Russians or obstructed justice.

Clearly it has not.

Reactions to the report have ranged from “total exoneration!” to “impeach now!”

Shouldn’t nearly 700 hundred pages of details, after almost two years of waiting, have helped the nation to achieve a consensus over what happened?

Well, no.

As the German philosopher Goethe said in the early 1800s, “Each sees what is present in their heart.”

Since 2013 – long before Donald Trump was even a candidate – we have been studying the “dueling facts” phenomenon: the tendency for Red and Blue America to perceive reality in starkly different ways.

Based on that work, we expected the report to settle next to nothing.

The conflicting factual assertions that have emerged since the report’s release highlight just how easy it is for citizens to believe what they want, regardless of what Robert Mueller, William Barr or anyone else has to say about it.

The Mueller report has sparked dueling perceptions of fact. Here, Attorney General William Barr, right, is sworn in to testify before Senate on May 1, 2019. AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Dueling facts in American democracy

Our research has led us to several conclusions about the future of political discourse in the U.S.

The first is that dueling fact perceptions are rampant, and they are more entrenched than most people realize.

Some examples of this include conflicting perceptions about the existence of climate change, the strength of the economy, the consequences of racism, the origins of sexual orientation, the utility of minimum wage increases or gun control, the crime rate and the safety of vaccines.

This has serious implications for American democracy. As political scientists, we wonder: How can a community decide the direction they should go, if they cannot even agree on where they are? Can people holding dueling facts be brought into some semblance of consensus?

To figure that out, it is important to determine where such divergent beliefs come from in the first place.

This is the perspective we began with: If dueling fact perceptions are driven by misinformation from politicians and pundits, then one would expect things to get better by making sure that people have access to correct information – via fact-checking, for example.

We envisioned the dueling facts phenomenon as being primarily tribal, driven by cheerleading on each side for their partisan “teams.” We assumed, like most other scholars, that individuals are simply led astray by their team’s coaches (party leaders), star players (media pundits) or fellow fans (social media feeds).

But it turns out that the roots of such divergent views go much deeper.

Dueling facts: Climate change was referred to on an Obama administration EPA page, left; it was excluded on the Trump administration’s version of the page. EPA vis AP
We found that voters see the world in ways that reinforce their values and identities, irrespective of whether they have ever watched Fox News or MSNBC, and regardless of whether they have a Facebook account.

For example, according to our data from five years of national surveys from 2013 to 2017, the most important predictor of whether a person views racism as highly prevalent and influential is not her partisan identification. It is not her general ideological outlook. It is not the amount or type of media that she consumes. It is not even her own race.

It is the degree to which she prioritizes compassion as a public virtue, relative to other things like rugged individualism.