Professor Ryan Burge‘is website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.
I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, Representation, Politics, Groups, and Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review.
In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.
Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”
Here we talk about the boring predictability of his research, left-leaning and right-leaning partisans, and more.
*Interview conducted on June 22, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Why is your job boring to start off as a general commentary?
Professor Ryan Burge: Besides the fact of cleaning variables all day which is inherently boring, it is boring because partisanship predicts everything. Republicans vote for Republicans. Democrats vote for Democrats. Independents don’t really exist. There is a whole literature saying almost all independents lean one way. By “lean,” they almost all vote one way. It is almost the same party every time. They just don’t like the label. They call themselves “independents,” but really they’re partisans. I mean a very, very small sliver of the population are true independents. There is non-partisanship, voting non-partisanship, every election, who are probably less than 5% of the population. So, we’re talking about 95% of Americans with republicans voting for republicans and democrats voting for democrats. It is this fight for this middle, small 5%, which seems to get smaller all the time. It is hard to know who are the 5%. It is hard to tell if they are low information voters are not. It is about turning them out to the polls, which is harder to turn out the partisans who will turn out anyway.
Jacobsen: What are some characteristics found among left-leaning partisans and right-leaning partisans?
Burge: There are so many ways to oversimplify this or under-simplify. I talk to students about liberals in America as more collectively minded. They are not as interested in what is good for them in as much as what is good for us. They think about the big picture, e.g., institutional racism, structural poverty. Things like that. Republicans are much more focused on the “me.” A lot of people would call this selfish. A lot of philosophers call it “self-interested,” which is what capitalism is based on. So, that’s probably okay in a lot of instances. I think that’s the mentality that separates the two. I read a column in the Los Angeles Times a couple years ago, where the columnist said, ‘Here’s the issue with America: Democrats don’t love America enough. Republicans love America too much.’
Burge: Which I think is an oversimplification, but not in a lot of ways, the problem for American republicans is that they can’t see any flaws in their country like institutional racism, systemic racism. They don’t want to talk about Native Americans, economic inequality, because they make America look bad. We score very poorly on those measures. At the same time, democrats have a hard time saying, “God bless America,” “We’re a special country,” “God shines a light upon us.” All of those things. They focus on the problems and not all the good things. The issue comes when the republicans not being able to see any bad and democrats able to see no good or very little good, oftentimes. That’s when people start budding heads, ‘Stop talking about my country, I love my country.’ Democrats say, ‘What about this? What about that? What about this other thing?’ It is where a lot of the conflict happens. It is an unwillingness to self-reflect either way about what the good and bad of America is.
Jacobsen: Why is this the division – for simplification’s sake – of seeing America, on the right, as the greatest country and on the left – to use the less common word – the leastest country among all the other countries? One in which God gave America its gifts and resources and bounty, and glory. The other in which America is steeped in a history of the annexation of territorial native land, the genocide of Native Americans, the annexation of Mexican land, and forceful bringing over of various tribes of Africans throughout the African continent to America for four centuries of slavery, etc. Why is that the form of dichotomy forming? Why is it metastasizing if the middle is growing smaller?
Burge: A good anecdote is what is happening today, which is that there is a statue of Teddy Roosevelt out in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York History. It is an interesting statue because Teddy Roosevelt is on this horse, bold and strong steed. On one side is an African American gentleman; another side is a Native American gentleman. They will pull down the statue. The nuance here, especially those on the right don’t understand, is not that we want to disrespect Teddy Roosevelt who was a complicated figure, to say the least. The other interesting piece is this reinforces our colonial roots and our poor history with racial issues. The two non-white people in the statue are of lower stature and behind Teddy Roosevelt. I don’t think a lot of Americans have had a real discussion. I don’t think a lot of Americans really know what colonialism is, to be honest with you. They don’t understand what happened with the African continent and Central America. They have no concept of what happened there. Frankly, they never studied the class, and American history is very Amero-centric. I think a lot of the value of education in college is putting yourself in other people’s shoes and realizing, “Wow! People have different lived experiences. I couldn’t see why people were offended. Now, I do, with colonialism and racism.” They have a hard time seeing things from the other perspective.
President Obama gave a farewell address before leaving office saying, ‘Democrats, what you need to do is put yourself in the shoes of a white middle-class worker in Wisconsin who just got laid off. What they’re thinking, what they’re trying to work through, it will help us reach out to more voters and win more elections, and to craft policies and help them get out of the situation that they’re in.’ The question, ‘Why is the middle shrinking?’ The reason is things have become so darn polarized. The republicans have moved twice as far to the right – this is statistically true, not just me saying it – and the democrats have moved to the left. You have fewer people in the middle, fewer moderates left. With two stark differences, it becomes tribal in American society. You have to pick a side like the Cubs or the Cardinals. You have to pick a side. This is what partisan politics has become, “Pick your team, those are your teams. Play for your team.” The reality is people get hurt by politics. People miss that. It isn’t just baseball or football, but health. It is health insurance and mental health at stake. It is not just a hobby. It is something much more than a hobby. It is people’s lives. I think we underestimate that sometimes.
Jacobsen: When you’re using the phrase, the term, “Low information voters,” I take this more colloquially, pardon the phrase, “Ignorant voters.” Those voters who know less. You come from an academic background. So, you are using the phrase, “Low information voters.” If we have people who in the middle, the shrinking middle, who are low information voters, do they take in real information to become either extremist left or extremist right? Or do they simply go with the emotional undertones and, at this point, overtones of the various outlet messages and then switch from a fence sitter to one of the neighbouring lawns?
Burge: That’s a question that we can’t quite answer yet. Social media, if you think about it, it is relatively new, especially the widespread adoption of Facebook. I think Facebook is ground zero for American politics, especially amongst low information voters. Twitter is not America; Facebook is America – almost everyone in America has Facebook. What happens is Facebook, I just listened to a podcast this morning. A reporter from The New York Times, Kevin Roose, said that he looks at the top 10 most shared stories on Facebook every day. He said, ‘Inevitably, 7 or 8 will be from conservative-leaning outlets like Breitbart, Daily Caller, Daily Wire, places like that. Facebook has become dominated by conservative media with very little liberal media popping up on Facebook.’ Because Facebook is for low information voters and, unfortunately, space has been flooded by right-wing information. Many people make they’re living off spreading stories like that. We know older voters are much more likely to be fooled by fake news that younger voters because they grew up in a time when anything on the internet or TV was true. It went through vetting. Now, they don’t realize it. Most of the stuff from the internet is made up for you to click. Nobody is vetting anything. They don’t know how to parse those things. Unfortunately, it is not happening symmetrically.
Conservative outlets have gotten better at pushing fake news and getting clicks than the left-wing media. It has created an echo chamber of Facebook among conservative candidates and conservative ideas. I think that’s what you’re seeing. Older voters used to be more moderate and split partisan-wise. I think they’re more partisan than ever before because they are flooded every day with far-right stuff. Some of it is news, slanted news, but some of it is downright propaganda to push conservative causes in America. Those people don’t have the tools to interpret those things properly. They don’t understand that they’re being sold a bill of goods and not being told straight information. This is the struggle. Facebook has done nothing to stop this. It is the main demographic – aging whites in the Midwest. They want the clicks to keep coming, to keep the visitors coming back. It is hard to say, “No,” to those people. You see this machine being fed over and over again.
Facebook is good about keeping the very far right off. Breitbart does very, very well on Facebook. The Daily Wire, the Daily Caller, Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk do very well on there. They’ve figured out how to hack the algorithm to get people to share and like. Even stuff not based in reality, I’ll give an example. They amplify this headline in America that if we do mail-in voting; it leads to rampant fraud. They point to this one study done that shows 28.1 million ballots were lost in the last two presidential elections through mail-in voting. I read the study to find out. “That seems crazy.” You read the study. They classified any ballot not returned in the mail as a missing ballot. That’s not a missing ballot! They act like nefarious stuff or stuffing the ballot box. People got mailed a mail-in ballot. Then they threw it in the garbage can. That’s not nefarious! On election day, if 100 people register, say 40 people went missing, no! They just didn’t vote. But if you turn the language, it can sound like it’s missing. I do look into the research and data behind this. They are fooled by this. They think mail-in is open to fraud or inherently fraudulent. The fact of the matter is it is not open to fraud more than any others. But they got the message of 28.1 million and their minds are made up. I think that’s how the right-wing media works. No one fact checks them, just not as much.
Jacobsen: What are the bugaboos for the left?
Burge: There are a lot. It used to be hard anti-vaccines or anti-vax and anti-science, not climate change, though. They’re very forceful on climate change with things like Big Pharma. There is a big conspiracy. They’re keeping you sick, pesticides, herbicides. Multinationals and big corporations are bad. Things that that. Trade deal we should fight for tariffs and so on. The left’s bugaboos have been more about hippie crunchy issues. It is interesting. Anti-vax used to be an issue really dominated by the far left in American politics. Your hippies living in communes. It has been co-opted by the far-right in American politics because it is about authority and being anti-authority. That issue has flipped. Now, it is a weird marriage between the far crunchy left and hardcore anarchist right or the hardcore libertarians – live free or die people – on the right. It can happen on either side, especially with the behind the mask stuff. ‘Who is making money off the masks’?’ It used to be left-wing. Now, it is right-wing. It makes it hard to study conspiratorial thinking and things like that.
Jacobsen: So, if we take, on the one hand, the flag and cross people, and if we take, on the other side, the commune and granola bar people…
Jacobsen: …[Laughing] what is the future of this marriage?
Burge: I don’t know. You will find a war of two fronts now. It is not about Big Pharma, but about government telling you what to do. Your line of reasoning is completely different there. By the way, there has been a lot of social science research on ways to correct conspiratorial thinking, especially on vaccines. Obviously, this is a huge public health issue about getting people vaccinated. Every time they try an intervention in an experiment, e.g., give more information, show a video, etc. Almost always, there’s a backfire effect with people becoming more entrenched in beliefs before the test. We don’t know how to convince the American public to vaccinate. We do not have a way to convince vaccine refusers to get over it. It is going to be a big issue with the Covid-19 vaccine, hopefully, coming around. They will not take it for completely different reasons than the other side. It will be a problem for herd immunity moving forward.
Jacobsen: Last question, real short, how do the factors of general intelligence and rationality, as in the ability for formal critical thinking, play into this? Of course, I know people with higher general intelligence can have specific forms of – to their cohort – irrational thinking. It is the way in which they process information can lead to, maybe, more elaborate wrong beliefs.
Burge: We have to be careful when talking about rationality in the 21st-century world. Everyone claims they’re rational and everyone has a different definition of what rationality means. I do think there’s a term called political hobbyism in America. Politics becomes a sport as opposed to picking our leaders and running our government. Those people put rationality aside because they want their party to win so bad. We have a term called negative partisanship, which is the idea: You care more about the other party losing than your party winning. It is different than rationality. It is saying, “I want to punish someone more than I want my policies to win out.” I think it is really insidious in American politics. I think the people who are really worrisome to me are the cultists of liberalism, wokeness, and in the cultists of Trump in America today. I see both sides doing things repugnant to me as an old school classical liberal who believes in free speech. I think both sides have done more to chill that. I think, actually, the left has done quite a bit in recent years to chill free speech, when the free speech does not conform to the values of wokeness that they seek out.
I knew a guy who worked for the Civitas Institute. He was a social scientist. He did work for them as a social scientist. During the riots and the rallies and the protests, he posted a paper someone else had written in a very good journal of political science. It said riots were bad for democrats. It suppressed turnout with riots. He posts it. He gives an emotionless description of the paper, summarizes the findings. He gets absolutely blasted by that, by people on the woke left, by people on the irrational left. All he did was summarize published research and got killed for it. He was fired from his job for doing that. It is completely against what America is all about. I think freedom is about doing those things. The right does those things too, by the way, e.g., can’t burn the flag, ‘liberal’ college professors are ‘brainwashing’ kids.’ I think both sides are irrational and terrifying. Because it says in America that we do not have a marketplace of ideas; we are constantly in fear of offending somebody or of getting fired for saying things. You are sexist. You are racist. We are in a scary place in American society if we can’t do those things.
Jacobsen: Sir, thank you so much for your time.
Burge: Absolutely, always a pleasure, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Image Credit. Ryan Burge.