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Preaching to the Deluded

Friday, September 24, 2004
I think I have solved the puzzle of why people support Bush, despite his manifest incompetence and their disagreement with him on the issues. It is not just because of his faux folksy, it is not just because they are afraid and want a Great Leader. It is because they are completely disconnected from reality.

Last night I couldn't sleep and was surfing the net and found this story by way of Pandagon. It is a truly frightening, but very revealing story. Students at an affluent school learned about the issue positions of the two candidates without knowing which candidate was which (this is called a blind screen in the business). They were then asked to pick a candidate based on those issue positions. The overwhelming majority came out in favor of Kerry. And what was their reaction, and the reaction of their conservative parents? Certainly not to re-examine their political loyalties, or to applaud the excellent civic education their children were receiving. No, instead they got mad because they had been "tricked."

Many Republican voters support Bush because they are "comfortable" with him (as noted by the WSJ via Taegan Goddard). But they also support him because of a pre-existing predisposition. They decided for whatever reason that they were going to be a Bush supporter, and that is the end of it. You don't abandon your team just because they are lousy- that makes you a bad fan. And politics, after all, is just a spectator sport these days.

But enough sarcasm. Bush voters support Bush not because they like him, because they are like him. Bush similarly is unwilling to face reality, and will project what he wishes to be true onto unfortunate reality. Josh Marshall wrote a very interesting article in the Washington Monthly making this very point. Iraq is just the best example. Many observers are beginning to realize how deluded Bush really is- check out Krugman, Herbert, Drum, or the evening news. It is going to hell over there, and Bush is claiming it is hunky dory. Now it is possible that he is just a liar, but while it is even more frightening is if he isn't, the fact is that Bush shows all the classic signs of someone is utter denial. Just like his constituents.

Psychologists teach about a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. This is where your beliefs conflict with each other or with reality. The healthy thing to do is to embrace that conflict, to use it as an opportunity to sort through your opinions. This requires a great deal of intellectual honesty, but it also requires moral courage and mental discipline. Inner conflict is hard. Our natural tendency is to shy away from such conflicts, to pretend that they aren't there. Confronting cognitive dissonance is against our natural inclinations- it takes work, and we have to be educated to do so.

As should be obvious, an unwillingness to deal with reality has major political implications. The case for democracy largely rests of the capacity of citizens to deliberate rationally and reasonably about public issues. If the citizens are unwilling or unable to do so, then public debate becomes impossible. Campaigns become little more than invective and misrepresentation, and politics without substance. Unless you've been in a cave this year, you'll get what I mean.

Which is what makes the story about the school kids so discouraging. The teacher without even realizing it had embarked on a process of teaching her students to grapple with cognitive dissonance. The kids resisted, as might be expected. But the parents also resisted, which tells me that they are no more willing to take up the burdens of citizenship and rational discourse than their children are. And so the infantilization of the American Republic continues......
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:58 PM
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