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I read just now that Derek Chauvin is sentenced to 22.5 years for the murder of George Floyd.

Looking at both left and right-leaning subreddits, I find that

  • the left agrees that Chauvin committed murder and should be sentenced
  • the right claims Chauvin did nothing wrong, and the sentencing is making an example of him

Why is this case so perfectly split down partisan lines? Do either side stand to gain something from either outcome?

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  • Related: I think that this previous question gets at the same points that explain this.
    – Bobson
    Jun 25 at 20:23
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    Words like "seemingly split perfectly" that are based on one person's Reddit survey... this might be too vague a premise for a question!
    – agc
    Jun 26 at 4:15
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    On what grounds are you saying that it's "perfectly split down party lines"? Are you saying there equal numbers of people who think he is guilty and not guilty? Jun 26 at 7:48
  • While I agree that your observation is probably true, I'd really like to see something more authoritative than "I read some subreddits." Or, maybe, phrasing the question of WHETHER it's a partisan split, and then, if so, why, then others can do the work of confirming your observation in a less anecdotal way. Jun 29 at 16:51
  • @PoloHoleSet - No, that's why I added the "seemingly" qualifier. I make no definitive statements here, namely because of the inaccuracies you mention. EDIT: I had the "seemingly" qualifier there, but someone edited it away. Added it back now.
    – Alec
    Jun 29 at 21:03
86

(Frame challenge, but otherwise agree with @DonHosek 's answer)

I think there is a wrong assumption, perhaps driven by looking at Reddit discussions as a source. Public opinion is not split in the middle, even if it is certainly affected by party affiliation.

Newsweek states that:

Three-quarters of Americans overall said they agree with the guilty jury verdict found for each of the three charges against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. But among Republican voters, about half said the outcome was the "wrong verdict," according to a new survey.

The exact results were as follows:

Democrat Independent Republican
Consider verdict justified 92% 56% 47%
Consider verdict not-justified 4% 26% 36%
Not sure whether justified 4% 18% 17%

So, yes, while it is disheartening to see the proportion of Republicans who think Chauvin got a raw deal, and while you can expect the vast majority of those who disagree to be Republicans, this is not the same as saying that public opinion is perfectly split right down the middle along party lines.

If you want to look at the glass as half full, rather than half empty, consider that the Rep agrees outnumber the Rep disagrees and the average suggested sentence amongst Reps is far from lenient at 13.5 years (txs @Nat for fishing out the actual poll).

Being a Republican doesn't mean you necessarily think Chauvin was wrongfully convicted. But thinking that Chauvin was wrongfully convicted probably means you are a Republican.

And again I defer to Don's answers as to the reasons why some Republicans can disagree with the verdict. Along with an over-tendency in Republican circles to support Qualified Immunity and police actions come what may. And, for at least some, racism.

p.s. Yes, I know this poll is about the verdict and the question is about the sentence. But since the sentence came out today, we'll have to wait for polls.

p.p.s. Even the right-side mainstream media's coverage is more nuanced than some claim. Chauvin is just not that sympathetic a character, the video was too damning and the verdict and sentence were just not good hills to die for.

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  • 8
    According to Wikipedia, recommended sentence would've been 12.5 years, prosecutors requested 30 years, max was 40 years, and Chauvin was given 22.5 years (less time served). Averaging from responses on printed-page-4 of the PDF, Republicans wanted him to get 15.43 years, Independents 22.98 years, and Democrats 31.30 years. (Anyone who wants: please feel free to copy/paste numbers.)
    – Nat
    Jun 26 at 5:41
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    Finally: if we omit extreme positions (zero-prison and 40-years), then the averages were: 13.61 years for Republicans, 17.77 years for Independents, and 24.06 years for Democrats.
    – Nat
    Jun 26 at 5:57
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    I think what the OP is seeing is that conservative pundits mostly think the sentence/verdict is unjustified, rather than conservative voters. Jun 26 at 16:26
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    +1, on an internet community like reddit dissenting opinions get downvoted and hidden so it makes things look like a consensus when they aren't really
    – Carmeister
    Jun 27 at 4:43
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    You can certainly say "split down the middle, probabilistically speaking". The other thing, to add to your highlighted statement: "if you're racist means you're probably republican" works too.
    – PatrickT
    Jun 27 at 23:43
53

Currently the US is caught between two distinct moral universes:

One moral universe (mainly associated with conservatism) is roughly Kohlberg stage 4:

  • Authority and social order are both paramount and intrinsically good; disobedience is intrinsically bad
  • Uniformity and equality are presumed, and any suggestions of systematic or structural difference is rejected out of hand because it implies that authority and social order are not intrinsically good
  • Most problematic (criminal) behavior is consequently viewed as the actions of lone individuals; such individuals are seen as morally weak or as lacking moral standing entirely (like animals)

Police hold a particular problematic standing in this worldview. As guardians of authority and social order they are perceived as intrinsically good, and almost any behavior they engage in can and will be explained away as necessary to preserve the intrinsic good of authority and social order. Further, any officer who oversteps even this leniency will invariably be cast as a lone individual working against the law and social order.

The other moral universe (mainly associated with Left-liberalism) is roughly Kohlberg stage 5:

  • Law and social order are part of the social contract meant to guarantee everyone's rights, and are subject to revision and amendment when they fail that purpose
  • Equality and uniformity under the law is a goal, not a presumed achievement, and social failures to meet that goal are to be called out, protested, and discussed
  • Problematic (criminal) behavior is caused by a combination of individual flaws and social contexts; it is a failure of the social contract that implicates both the individual's flaws and the social contexts that bring those flaws to fruition.

Police in this moral worldview are viewed as public servants, not reified authorities. Their purpose is to maintain the 'peace that is established by law', not to impose law as an end in itself. While individual police officers may themselves violate the law, that is superficial; the deeper problem is officers who (wittingly or unwittingly) use the law against society, not to promote society's interests.

With respect to the Chauvin case in particular, those in the first moral universe are inclined to think that Chauvin — as a veteran officer — was more deeply aware of the needs of the moment than any normal citizen, and that his actions arose from an unbiased, clinical assessment of the situation. They give Chauvin the benefit of the doubt that he believed his actions were necessary; they view Floyd as a criminal actor who was morally responsible for any harm that befell him; they see Floyd's death as unfortunate, perhaps even excessive, but consistent with the spirit of maintaining authority and social order.

For those in the second moral universe, Chauvin's actions were deeply inconsistent with the nature of the crime in question, and deeply insensitive to the rights and needs of Floyd (whom they see as a morally sound citizen). Chauvin (as a veteran police officer) should have been aware of the troubles Floyd was experiencing, and should have treated Floyd as a citizen to be protected first, and a criminal to be prosecuted under the law second. Chauvin is morally at fault for failing to attend to Floyd (and to the social contract he was hired to uphold) to such an extent that it resulted in Floyd's death.

This moral universe divide was further aggravated by the large-scale protests, which those in the second universe saw as a means of opposing unjust policing, while those in the first universe saw as mere disobedience to authority. And the situation was inflamed further by any number of Kohlberg stage 2 politicians and media personalities who felt they could make personal (political) gains by leveraging the divide.


Edit with respect to comments

The main critique of this answer seems to be that each side is going to have a slew of different understandings, leading to a multiple set of moral universes, not just the two outlined. The first part of that critique is perfectly true: in any group we will find people working at each of the six Kohlberg's stages, and while (say) stage 6 conservatives will have a different perspective from stage 6 liberals, both will be working from carefully thought-out abstract moral universals. Well, technically speaking, anyone still in stage 1 would lack any meaningful political perspective, so it might be difficult to distinguish conservatives from liberals at that lowest level. But set that aside...

However, even though the beginning of the critique is sound, the conclusion of a moral multiverse doesn't quite follow. Groups always establish a dominant narrative, and that dominant narrative carries the moral reasoning stage of the group as a whole. The dominant narrative in conservatism is stage 4, and has been since (at least) the Reagan era; the dominant narrative in liberalism has been stage 5 since maybe the 1970s. Subgroups might have different levels: The dominant narrative of Libertarians and old-school social conservatives is probably Kohlberg stage 5; the dominant narrative in Trumpism is Kohlberg stage 2 or 3; the dominant narrative in the Q-Anon movement may actually be Kohlberg stage 1. It may be that the dominant narrative in conservatism is on the cusp of changing to Trumpism, which will lower the overall moral level of the conservative narrative. But as of now, most of the leaders and adherents of conservatism are still clinging to that stage 4 narrative in which law and social order hold sway.

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    I really do like the attempt to frame things in philosophical terms, though I'm a bit skeptical that political camps could be broken down in terms of consistent moral-universes as most of the stuff I'm seeing, both in media and poll-numbers, seems to reflect a great diversity of intermingled thinking loosely averaging out. The idea of attributing Kohlberg-stages to various groups would seem neat, though unless we can support it with data, I suspect that actual membership in these groups would be all over the place.
    – Nat
    Jun 26 at 7:36
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Jun 30 at 21:26
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Concluding from the fact that the subreddits are split that the population is split is a fallacy. Reddit naturally generates groupthink. The karma system is a reward system centered around saying what other people want to hear. Posting views that go against those of a subreddit results in downvoting and loss of karma. This deters disagreeing with prevailing view of the subreddit, and buries dissenting views (lower karma posts are deprioritized, and negative ones are hidden), causing social proof to promotes agreeing with the prevailing viewpoints. This system is highly conducive to creating echo chambers where those who toe the party lines are the loudest, and those with more moderate views either leave or censor themselves.

Since support for Black people and opposition to the police are coded as "left", and downplaying the concerns of Black people and supporting the police (as long as they're not standing between rioters and Congress, that is) is coded as "right", the opinions expressed in subreddits have followed the prevailing politics leanings of their subredditors.

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    Not only does the karma system generally discourage dissent, it outright prohibits it. Post too many things against the orthodox thought of a sub, your sub-specific karma plummets, and your post rate gets throttled. Just a few hundred downvotes and you will be forced to wait hours between posts. Good luck defending your position in a debate when your opponents can post whenever they like and you get one post every 3 hours.
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 28 at 6:12
  • I’m not sure that the attack on Reddit’s karma system is relevant to this discussion. The karma system is a reward system centered around saying what other people want to hear. Right, and that’s more what the issue is, yes? The community upvotes things that appeals to and resonates with the community. In this case, the community of conservatives disagrees with the verdict/sentence. That’s not a karma issue, or even a group think issue. It’s more an issue with the types of people participating in that particular subreddit in the first place.
    – ARich
    Jun 28 at 17:30
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    @ARich My understanding of the question is that it is not "Why is there an association between positions and party affiliation?", but "Why is the association so strong?" The reason the association seems so strong is that the majority opinion gets amplified. Jun 28 at 22:51
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    @ARich yes, any community can have groupthink, but reddit's karma system not only allows groupthink, it exacerbates it, which I believe is Acccumulation's point.
    – Ryan_L
    Jun 29 at 2:05
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    FWIW, Reddit has two throttle settings: unlimited posting (for the in-group defending the dominant narrative) and one post per 15 minutes (for the out-group opposing the dominant narrative).
    – user253751
    Jun 29 at 11:45
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There are a couple dynamics at work here. One thing is that the right tends to take strong "law and order" stances which often becomes an uncritical support for law enforcement and assertion of the need to punish criminals.

The other is that the right has a largely unified media framework in the US that dictates reactions. There were a number of case studies I encountered during the Bush administration that showed how messaging came from party leaders and was quickly spread through Fox News and talk radio so that by the end of the day there was a clear and unified set of talking points of how to approach an issue. Commercial concerns have led to an increase of extremism (outrage drives engagement drives revenues so outrage must be increased to maintain engagement lest Fox News lose eyeballs to even more extremist right-wing media outlets like OANN). This in turn has led to increasingly race-based issues being driven through right-wing media (witness the moral panic about "critical race theory" which, much like Humpty Dumpty's "glory" means just what they choose it to mean—neither more nor less, so they apply it to things like having kids being aware of their impact on others' through their actions and declare that this means that it must be stopped so that white people won't be made to feel racist), and so add a bit of racism to uncritical support for the police and boom, instant partisan divide.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Jun 28 at 8:36
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I reject the notion that "the truth is somewhere in the middle" - it rarely is. The most objective and least partisan source available is the court itself which, while imperfect, was designed for exactly that purpose. Some of the facts it establishes are as follows:

  • Mr.Chauvin’s actions inflicted gratuitous . . . pain, by inhibiting George Floyd’s "ability to breathe when Mr.Floyd had already made it clear he was having trouble breathing" and after he "expressed the view that he was dying as a result of the officers’ restraint."

  • Mr.Chauvin “continu[ed] to kneel on the back of Mr.Floyd’sneck . . . for more than two and a half minutes after one of his fellow officers announced he was unable to detect a pulse”

  • Rather than ending the restraint when it was obvious that Mr.Floyd not only was no longer offering any resistance but was in medical distress and starting CPR, Mr.Chauvin instead chose to continue to restrain Mr.Floyd

  • Mr.Chauvin’s continuing insistence that he believed “he was simply performing his lawful duty in assisting other officers in the arrest of George Floyd” and was acting “in good faith reliance [on] his own experience as a police officer and the training he had received,” [...] was rejected by every supervisory and training officer of the Minneapolis Police Department who testified at trial [MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo, MPD Sgts. David Pleoger and Jon Edwards, MPD Lt.Johnny Mercil, and MPD Commander Katie Blackwell]

Under normal circumstances, a vast majority of people would agree that this is not tolerable behavior by any human being and extremely far from (as the question puts it): "Chauvin did nothing wrong".

As is, I'm aware of 3 plausible explanations why more than a third but less than half of Republicans support the factually unsupported "Chauvin did nothing wrong" argument:

  • They are aware of the issue but unaware of the facts. Major right wing news networks in the US having difficulties getting accurate information to their viewers is a known issue.

  • They, (just like people on the left) are subject to the "trust the first story" syndrome, where people are more likely to believe the initial story they hear. When the George Floyd story initially broke, left wing media were liberal in assigning guilt based on the available evidence, while right wing media were very concerned with providing explanations why the people involved might be innocent.

  • It's a well established view that politics in the US has become more polarized and more tribal in the last decade. The George Floyd incident has invigorated Black Lives Matter, created peaceful protests, created violent protests, triggered violent attacks on these protests, Rittenhouse, gotten entangled with CRT and Anti-Racism, which themselves are accused of promoting a racial divide and racist ideas (e.g. "all [race] are racist" & "[other race] can't be racist"). In an overly simplistic/polarized world, these are not just all connected, they are all the same. Therefore if one is on one side of one of these issues it's easy to figure out on which side one should be on all the others.

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  • "When the George Floyd story initially broke, left wing media were liberal in assigning guilt based on the available evidence, while right wing media were very concerned with providing explanations why the people involved might be innocent." - hmm, is there any research on why this is?
    – user253751
    Jun 29 at 10:09
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    @user253751 I believe Ted's answer provides a good explanation for that point.
    – Peter
    Jun 29 at 11:17
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TLDR: Because everything is polarized in a two party system, especially with social media.

Binary politics are simply a "feature" of a two party "winner takes all" system, which incentivizes picking your team and sticking to it no matter what, thereby causing the range of acceptable opinions to concentrate around two poles with no glory to be gained in the middle.

Suppose you make a middle-ground observation about the topic at hand: Derek Chauvin deserves to be punished but the trial's fairness ist questionable, considering that the jury was not sequestered and received threats as well as the amount of public pressure with both congresspeople and the president himself calling implicitly or openly for a conviction. Whereas the jury probably made the right decision, it could not possibly have made any other dicision without having to fear public lynching and severe personal consequences.

Congratulations, now you got both sides angry at you instead only one. Life would be much easier if you just sticked to your team, at least publicly. Basically, the middle ground is the WW1 no man's land between both armies: You get shot from both sides.

It should be mentioned, that there probably are a lot of people with a more differentiated opinion on this and other topics, but social networks and the general state of the media exacerbate the polarization through echo chambers, news-feed-algorithms and a harsh court of public opinion in which the loudest voices have the most power.

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    The fact that here this answer gets downvoted shows just how far the binary politics is progressing. I would assume this place would be mostly populated by people with liberal views in the original meaning of the word. I'm very much afraid that social media (even this kind) are a huge detriment to the world as a whole. Providing nuanced or shades of gray answers to questions has become almost a crime now.
    – DRF
    Jun 28 at 18:31
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    This is the correct answer. Right after the murder, everyone agreed it was murder, because the question was about whether or not it was a murder. Now the question is political (Left/Right/Support BLM/No?) and the answer has more to do with picking which side is right about a host of unrelated issues. And lo and behold, a 20% swing in the poll of opinion on the case happens and this question gets asked. Jun 28 at 20:57
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    But as some of the other answers have demonstrated, it is NOT a binary issue. There are many non-Democrats who consider the verdict, and presumably the sentence, as justified. (Some of us might even consider it too lenient.) Politics is NOT binary, however much the media would like to make it appear so. (Perhaps because it simplifies their job?) E.g. some of us don't buy into the "racist police" vs "stalwart upholders of law" binary view, and might think that law enforcement is the preferred career path of the class bully.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 29 at 0:23
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    @DRF the whole answer here relies on the golden mean fallacy that assumes truth must lie between two opposing arguments. It's a significant failure of critical thinking especially when we consider that the original question was about the sentencing, which is the responsibility of the Judge not the Jury who only have a binary choice in the first place.
    – Jontia
    Jun 29 at 12:10
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    @Jontia No it doesn't. It gives a nuanced view of the situation which makes a fair amount of sense. It posits it's own very reasonable view of the situation. Which parts of his harassment of the situation do you disagree with?
    – DRF
    Jun 29 at 12:24

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