Jennifer N. Victor
To understand why Republicans are sticking with Trump, think like a gambler
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
Aversion to loss, fueled by polarization, explains why a disgraced Trump is better for Republicans than a President Pence
After two weeks of public impeachment hearings where damning evidence was presented by numerous credible witnesses, Republicans remain steadfast in their support for their president. Trump himself has famously said that he could shoot a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any of his political support. A Nobel prize-winning idea called prospect theory helps to explain Republican loyalty in the face of incriminating evidence. To see how, let’s play a game.
I’m going to flip a fair coin. If it lands on heads, you win $20. If it lands on tails, you lose $20. Would you like to play this game? You might. But what if we raise the stakes to $100? Or $1,000? You might be less interested in playing now. But why? The odds of winning or losing have not changed. Only the stakes have changed.
It turns out that for most people, the gains that come from the prospect of a windfall do not exceed the pain suffered from an equivalent loss. In other words, the agony of loss is a bigger deal than the thrill of winning, even when the amounts are the same. Being averse to loss is a normal human response. Back in the 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that when people make decisions that involve chance or uncertainty, they are likely to overvalue losses, relative to gains.
Now imagine the coin is president Trump, and instead of dollars, winning and losing is determined by your preferred party outcome: Democrats win if he’s removed from office, Republicans win if he stays in office. Members of Congress are more likely to make decisions out of a sense of loss aversion when the stakes are high. And, let’s face it, the stakes are very high. There are two features about current politics that raise the stakes.
First, impeachment itself is high stakes. There is no higher office than president, and no greater goal for a political party than to hold on to that office. But we’ve never actually removed a president from office this way, despite the fact that most presidents get caught up in scandals of various severity. And it seems like impeachments are becoming more frequent. The U.S. saw one president impeached, but not removed, in its first 200 years (Andrew Johnson in 1868), but is now seeing the third impeachment in 45 years.* So, the presidency alone may not raise the stakes enough to make the president’s co-partisans dig in their heels; there’s something else that has been changing in the past 45 years that adds to increased stakes: Polarization.
As the two major political parties diverge, the cost of losing increases, and the benefits of winning are not necessarily changed. Political psychologists use the term negative partisanship to describe the idea that individual partisans care more about the other side losing than their own side winning. Strong partisans can have a sense of antipathy toward the party that is not their own, and part of the reason for that may be due to loss aversion. In 2009 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said that his number one priority was to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one term president. McConnell’s attitude toward Obama is not only negative, but is consistent with the idea of overvaluing losses relative to gains—Obama winning a second term was a loss that McConnell saw as too great to bear.
Even the prospect of winning cannot offset the pain of losing to the other party when the other party is so very far from your ideal position.
We are now at a point in American history where the two major political parties are further apart than they ever have been in history. Using roll call votes in Congress, the graph below shows the median position of the major parties across time, and at the far right, where we are now, the party medians have more distance between them than at any other point in time. An interactive version of the graph is available at Voteview’s website. The incredible divergence between the parties explains why partisans are so reluctant to lose. Even the prospect of winning cannot offset the pain of losing to the other party when the other party is so very far from your ideal position.
When losing to the other side would produce an outcome that is completely repugnant to you, you’re more willing to defend the status quo. Republicans continue to back a president who, if they’re being honest, has broken laws and puts his own self-gain above the interests of his party or country. They are willing to continue to support him because their disdain for the Democratic position is greater even than the prospect of President Pence. Mike Pence would become president if Republicans turned on Trump, but in the process, Republicans would hand Democrats a win, which is cognitively intolerable. A Democratic win represents a loss to Republicans that is worse than anything imaginable.
The thing is, overvaluing losses relative to gains is not rational, strictly speaking. Is it rational to say that losing $1,000 is a bigger deal than it would be to gain $1,000? They both represent a difference of $1,000. But when we feel uncertain about how things might turn out, our decisions are more likely to be driven by this cognitive bias that overemphasizes losses. By this point of view, it’s not that Republicans are so highly tolerant of abhorrent behavior, it’s that they exhibit the very real symptoms of human beings making decisions under great uncertainty and incredible stakes. It’s hard to imagine higher stakes for political parties than a presidential impeachment during a time of extreme polarization. And polarization isn’t going away anytime soon—aversion to losses ensures that.
Some psychologists have suggested that people can overcome their aversion to losing by being optimistic or focusing on distant points in the future, rather than the very next contest. Unfortunately, America’s political institutions are mostly designed for short term thinking, but it wouldn’t hurt if everyone pretends they’re casting their vote on behalf of their kids rather than themselves the next time they’re in a voting booth.
* Impeachment proceedings were in progress against Richard Nixon when he resigned in 1974. Bill Clinton was impeached, but not removed from office in 1998 and 1999, respectively.