The Signals of Reassurance
By Bryan Caplan
People frequently claim that their political opponents have hidden agendas. When liberals push for expansionary fiscal policy during recessions, conservatives often suspect that liberals’ real goal is the promotion of Big Government. When conservatives push for deregulation, liberals often suspect that conservatives’ real goal is to enrich the rich. When liberals denounce deportations, conservatives fear that liberals’ real goal is to hand citizenship to likely Democratic voters. When conservatives argue for war against a Muslim country, liberals fear that conservatives’ real goal is simply to kill Muslims.
The normal reactions to such accusations is to accuse your opponents of paranoia. But as you’d expect, these accusations rarely change your critics’ minds. Indeed, they cement your critics’ sense that you’re up to no good – leading to further polarization and recrimination.
What’s the alternative? Democracies often resort to political bargaining: If you give us what we want despite our nasty intentions, we’ll do the same for you. This helps pass legislation, but it rests on the shaky foundation of mutual suspicion.
Is there any feasible way to build long-run trust? I say there is. Instead of aggressively bargaining for what you want, listen to your opponents’ fears. Then do things that you probably wouldn’t do if their fears were well-based. Go out of your way to reassure your opponents. Some examples:
- If conservatives fear that expansionary fiscal policy is a Trojan horse for Big Government, liberals could offer to make all the expansion come from tax cuts rather than spending increases.
- If liberals fear that deregulation is a ploy to help the rich, conservatives could focus on pro-poor deregulation, such as relaxing of zoning and land use rules for low-income housing.
- If conservatives fear that opposition to deportations is a liberal plot to elect a new people, liberals could support legislation that legalizes work and residence without granting citizenship.
- If liberals fear that conservatives are waging Islamophobic war, conservatives could admit a million Muslim refugees right before fighting begins.
How is this different from bargaining? Simple. All of the preceding offers are an effort to signal that your opponents have misconstrued your intentions. Key implication: The less you actually need your opponents’ political support, the stronger a signal these actions send! If your party has a narrow majority in favor of attacking a Muslim country, even a staunch Islamophobe might be willing to take a few refugees to solidify their coalition. But if the hawks have a supermajority and admit a bunch of Muslim refugees anyway, they can credibly tell their critics, “You misjudge us. You have long misjudged us. Think better of us.”
But why on Earth would a political faction make concessions to their opponents when they have the raw power to do as they please? Most obviously, because they and their opponents share the same country. They’re stuck with each other. If they can convince their opponents that they’re good people – or at least non-Satanic people – it will be easier for both sides to live side-by-side and constructively work together.
If all this is true, why do major political factions send so few signals of reassurance? I see a mixture of dysfunctions:
- Short-termism. The benefits of wielding power while you have it come swiftly. The benefits of convincing your opponents that your motives are decent are spread out over decades.
- Pathological distrust. If both sides think that the other side will hate them no matter what they do, there’s no point trying to win the other side over.
- Politics is not about policy. Both sides would rather demonize their opponents than move policy in their preferred directions.
- Both sides are basically right about the other sides’ real intentions. Democrats really are just government-lovers. Republicans really are just Islamophobes. Etc.
Anything I’m missing? What’s a judicious breakdown here?