Fists shaking, my friends were fighting, not singing, as we walked out of a sold-out performance of Newsies last week. But my friends weren't quibbling over number of cartwheels the boys performed -- they were all shook up over politics. The politics of Newsies.
Most of my friends saw Newsies as a musical cheering the rise of the union and progressive ideals. Consider the plot: sensitive/orphaned/poor/good-looking young Jack Kelly mobilizes his gang of sensitive/orphaned/poor/good-looking young men (including handicapped people, minorities and other sympathetic groups!) to demand equal rights from a white, rich, heartless capitalist man -- Joseph Pulitzer. Bingo. Liberalism forever, right? Obama 2012!
But as we emerged from the theater, my two conservative friends saw things differently. To them, this musical was about the individual! It exalted the power of the little guy to fight for his right to keep what is his, to make a livelihood for himself without a big, powerful force (aka government!) taking away his money and his freedom. Social programs, like the "refuge" from which the orphans escaped, don't usually work. Conservatism forever! Romney 2012!
The fact is, most people interpret a message -- a slice of media, whether an advertisement or a musical -- so that it aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. They're more likely to remember
messages they believe in, and more likely to avoid messages they don't. People see what they want to see. Psychologists call this confirmation bias.
In earlier days, Thucydides and Dante warned of confirmation bias, with Thucydides noting "a habit of mankind to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy." More recently, psychologists have proved that confirmation bias influences everything from jury verdicts to whether we prefer Pepsi or Coke. Confirmation bias explains why my friends walked out of the theater, not humming melodies, but squawking about why their interpretation was correct.
As my friends bickered, I realized that the play justifies both liberals and conservatives (although because Harvey Fierstein wrote the book, I am fairly certain about the intended political takeaway). In truth, Newsies is a story about power -- namely, how power in the hands of an elite and powerful few can trample the freedom and prosperity of the many.
Newsies brims with songs, scenes and lines making this point, from reminders that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" to lyrics such as "proud and defiant / we'll slay the giant."
Tales of the small but determined individual freeing himself from oppression permeate American history and ideology. Even today, Republicans and Democrats, although they cannot always see it, champion this same drama. Liberals believe that the elite and powerful few are the corporations, with corrupt CEOs raking in millions as the little guy is forced to Occupy Wall Street. Conservatives believe the elite and powerful few are government bureaucrats, forcing little guy citizens to adopt a single, undesirable health care plan while providing backdoor waivers to companies that supported the President's election campaign. That's why almost all Americans can feel just like Newsies' Jack Kelly.
But the great majority of Americans are also just like my friends. Once they've made up their minds, they stick to it. In the face of fact, their often mistaken beliefs will prevail. Governor Scott Walker won his Wisconsin recall vote either because Americans are tired of giving hand-outs to unions or because the unions didn't have as much money as the opposition. Case closed.
And so we will continue to complain that American politics is too polarized and too partisan. Instead we should blame human nature. The tendency for most people to hide behind the extreme poles explains why independents and undecideds are always such a crucial group, and why they will determine the 2012 election. Ultimately, their confirmation biases don't seem to run as deep.
I'm reminded of this just as we exit the theater doors. President Obama himself pulls up right outside the Nederlander. Well, 20 SUVs, 10 motorcycles, several dozen NYPD and Secret Service on foot, and a couple of horses pull up. He's walking into the theater across the street for a Broadway-backed fundraiser.
"How much money are taxpayers spending on this socialist's transportation!?" whine my Republican friends.
My liberal friends are too busy hyperventilating and shrieking "oh-my-god!" to retort. Obama is, after all, their real-life Jack Kelly.
People see what they want to see -- even on Broadway.
Victoria Buchholz researches neuropsychology at Cambridge University and is writing a book called He Loves His Wii More Than Me.