02/22/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

Politics and Hindsight Bias

After Ronald Reagan's victory in the presidential election of 1980, Republicans concluded that they had established a dominant, long-lasting majority party. A dozen years later, when Bill Clinton ousted one-term George H.W. Bush, the Democrats were equally convinced that they had permanently altered the electoral landscape. That lasted eight years.

Flush with its 2012 victory, the Democratic Party ought to be humble. Yet party stalwarts have pointed to many reasons for their large electoral vote margin: Romney could not relate to the average American, being wealthy and scornful of the 47 percent; he antagonized Hispanics and was never trusted by Blacks; women deserted him in droves because of their concerns about how he and other Republicans would address issues such as abortion and contraception; the Republican coalition is too dependent on old, white men; the anti-gay message no longer resonates with the majority of Americans who have come to accept gay marriage.

The Democrats should be wary of their own hubris. Suppose the headlines on election night had been: "Romney Wins!" or "Obama Goes Down in Defeat"? They could have been. Just over half a million votes in five swing states separated the winner and the loser - less than four-tenths of one percent of those who voted nationally in the recent election. Had these votes gone to Romney instead of Obama, then so too would have Virginia, Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. Their total of 65 electoral votes would have given Romney 271, enough to become the 45th president.

Had that happened, imagine what the analysis might have been by victorious Republicans. They would have seen their victory as a validation of Romney's economic promises and Obama's economic failure, as a confirmation that the public wants to repeal Obamacare, as proof that the Democrats have strayed too far from the values voters who make up the core of the electorate, over-emphasized gay rights, taxing the wealthy, and running up the deficit. Obama would have been scorned as being too elitist and distant, or just too weak a leader.

Hindsight is a pleasing but dangerous mental error. At the same time that it comforts us by providing a narrative to explain what took place, it convinces us of the inevitably of events that were by no means inevitable. Both parties in America should recognize that their reality is a mentally constructed one that contains the same dangers as a gambler who finds quick ways to explain his winning (or losing) streak.

The hubris of hindsight is in our nature. The Democrats, and President Obama, seem ready to assume a mandate that the narrowness of their electoral victory did not give them. The other guy, they should remember, got 48 percent of the vote. The danger is that they will spurn compromise. In so doing, they may well sow the seeds of a 2014 comeuppance.

The Republicans also need to be careful. Their hindsight is particularly prone to rationalization, a closely linked mental error. Benjamin Franklin once said: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." At first stung by defeat, the danger is that Republican voices will explain it away. Tea Party adherents may claim that the real problem is that their candidates were not conservative enough. Others will remind the party faithful that Hispanics are a natural constituency, being strong believers in family, so their support can be gained by better marketing. Republicans may assume that can gain back other disaffected voters mostly by softening messages and keeping candidates from making stupid statements about abortion and rape.

If the danger for the Democrats is that victory will go to their heads, the danger for Republicans is that they will recover from their loss too easily. The Democratic Party is not as dominant as most of its true believers would have it. The Republican Party is not as near resurgence as some of its adherents think. Yet each may well be on the path to denying the need to change when compromise and practical problem solving, both of which demand change, is perhaps the most central desire of the electorate (and possibly the best route to electoral gains).

Whether subject to hindsight bias or rationalization - or both - Republican and Democratic party leaders and their adherents should be mindful of the mental traps they face. If they are, they will become stronger for future campaigns. More importantly, they will forgo the faulty thinking and political posturing that would condemn the nation to four more years of the same gridlock it has just experienced.