Americans have lost their political theory of mind

Why we can't understand how the other side thinks

A brain.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

For most of this presidential election season, I studiously avoided predicting its outcome. I knew, of course, the polls showed Democratic nominee Joe Biden well in the lead, but I also thought high expectations from both sides were wildly unrealistic. When friends and family asked me to prognosticate, my answer was always very tentative, more caveat than claim.

Some of that caution was an after-effect of 2016, when I, like so many in the chattering class, assumed President Trump would lose. But more of it was the recognition that most American voters, in any given election, do not think what I think, like what I like, or want what I want.

Psychologists call that recognition "theory of mind." The idea is that, absent damage or disorder in the brain, by adulthood we should be able to understand that other people have perspectives, values, information, and desires that differ from our own.

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This capability is closely linked to empathy, and it is enormously important for interpersonal relationships. Its lack in an adult is called "mind-blindness." That's the inability to automatically imagine what others may be thinking given what is already known about their views, personality, circumstances, and so on, and then use that intuition to interpret their behavior and anticipate what they might do next. Without theory of mind, others' motivations are significantly opaque and, when they diverge from one's own choices, can be downright baffling or even frightening.

That sounds familiar right now, doesn't it? Democratic and Republican partisans alike are confused and deeply troubled by this election's likely outcome of a narrow win for Biden. It was going to be a Blue Wave — or a Red Wave. How could it not? How could anyone vote the other way?

On the left, landslide predictions were everywhereit'll be a blowout for Biden, so many said. He'll take Florida, maybe Texas! Then the Senate goes blue, too. Court-packing, here we come. On the right, a mirror image of this anticipation, incessantly encouraged by a president who goes well beyond the usual campaign spiel about confidence in the American people's wisdom to assertions that any unfavorable report is a deliberate lie and the only explanation for his loss is the coordination of massive fraud by his enemies. "The more bad things happen in the country, it just solidifies support for Trump," a GOP county chair from North Carolina told Politico in June. "We're thinking landslide."

This pattern held in my personal acquaintance, too. Almost every Trump supporter I know thought their man would triumph by a comfortable margin, as did almost every Biden supporter. Map after map envisioned Electoral College totals north of 320, 330, 360! A friend of mine who works at a conservative consulting firm will likely win the office pool of election predictions because nearly all her Republican coworkers expected Trump to equal or improve upon his 2016 showing. The Democrats on my Twitter feed "just don't even understand" how Trump got any votes. On a Republican Facebook friend's profile, commenters are "stunned" Trump could lose (or convinced he'll still pull off a victory somehow). And the QAnon folks ... whew.

It's as if American partisans have lost their political theory of mind. Their opponents' interior life has become inaccessible, inexplicable. At the individual level, they might understand why their aunt voted Republican or their old roommate is a Democrat. But that exercise doesn't seem to scale. Contemplating the nation, the politically mind-blind struggle to imagine how 70 million voters made a choice they find unfathomable.

Post-2016 attempts to pop the "liberal bubble" largely failed to overcome this mind-blindness among Democrats, as my colleague Joel Mathis has explained. Meanwhile, pro-Trump Republicans — which, outside the commentariat, is just about all Republicans — made no comparable attempt to peer into the mind of the party they'd vanquished. In the last four years, both factions' theory of mind has degraded.

If I have escaped the same error, it's not because of any special wisdom. It's simply the result, as a libertarian, of having a political perspective that always puts me outside the political majority, looking in. Every presidential race is won by a candidate I can't support, 2016 and 2020 included. Every election raises, for me, questions about why so many people think and vote so differently than I do. Being thus outside the political mainstream makes a robust political theory of mind a necessity to make sense of anything in our national politics at all.

Unfortunately, that's not a situation sincere partisans can easily replicate. It's not possible to adopt a new political view for the mere purpose of putting some distance between yourself and your political tribe. That's not how belief works. Nor, as Mathis wrote, does the occasional "Trump voters in this Ohio diner are still supporting Trump" story in The New York Times seem to be working.

Perhaps somehow getting outside partisan media and social silos would help, though how that's accomplished in this age of tailored algorithms isn't clear. Perhaps each partisan's course of treatment will vary. Perhaps recognizing in oneself a deteriorated political theory of mind is a way to begin. Incredulity at this presidential election result is the first symptom to observe.

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