Back in 2006, Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly hosted a contest to name the practice of finding a few extremists and treating them as representative of one’s political opponents. The result: “nutpicking.” We’ve all done it, in part because it is so easy. But it is also lazy and logically flawed, a close relative of the straw man fallacy. Arguing against a weak idea that no one actually believes does not make your own idea any more persuasive or true. In the same way, finding a few nuts and extremists and treating them as paradigmatic of everything you disagree with is neither a refutation of your opponent’s best arguments nor an argument in favor of anything in particular.
But is it always wrong to assume the worst of the other side, under any conditions? Some recent studies have tried to reassure us that our political opponents aren’t really as bad as we think. Their numbers are persuasive, but their logic is not. There really is reason to fear that, even if the majority of the other side is reasonable—whichever side we’re talking about—the structural dynamics and incentives of American politics and media give outsized influence to the ideologues, crusaders, and extremists we most fear. Rather than take false comfort that a reasonable majority exists, we should identify what gives the vocal, extreme minority unwarranted power and how to counteract them.
In 2019, a group called More in Common announced striking findings from a study on “The Perception Gap.” Overall, 55 percent of Americans believe their political opponents hold extreme views, but the same poll found that only 30 percent of Americans actually hold such views. For example, Democrats estimated that only 50 percent of Republicans agreed that “properly controlled immigration can be good for America,” but in reality, more than 80 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement. The perception gap held across a range of issues, including racism, Islam, sexism, policing, patriotism, immigration, gun control, and more.
“While Americans do indeed hold different values and disagree on key issues, we underestimate how much more we have in common,” the study concluded. Remarkably, the most politically engaged and highest news consumers showed the largest perception gap: Following the news regularly made people worse judges of their political opponents. The gap matters because each side “make[s] excuses for their own side cheating and breaking the rules to beat the other side. And as our public debates become more hateful, many in the Exhausted Majority tune out altogether.”