" 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no
patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, 'My mother,
sober.'" - GK Chesterton
The aftermath of 9/11 was a time when Americans needed to come
together to reestablish their sense of national unity. The bold
displays of patriotism using the symbolism of the American flag
were as spontaneous as they were genuine. And just as rapidly as
the flags were unfurled on the nation’s doorsteps, George
W. Bush became the political beneficiary of American’s re-kindled
desire to love and defend their country.
After 9/11, Bush’s approval ratings went from the low fifty-percentiles
to over ninety percent almost overnight. Indeed, most Americans
were eager to rally around Bush just as readily as they rallied
around the flag. The crisis of 9/11 simply demanded Americans to
believe their leadership would protect them from further harm.
For most American’s there could have been no question that
Bush — by his very occupancy of the White House — must
have been qualified to lead the country through this crisis. To
believe otherwise would have simply created too much cognitive
dissonance for the country to bear.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when simultaneously held beliefs
and/or facts appear to contradict each other. Most people’s
worldviews cannot tolerate a situation where their beliefs contradict
each other or otherwise disagree with the facts. To resolve such
contradictions, one or more beliefs must be altered, facts must
be reinterpreted or underlying premises must be reevaluated.
One of our core beliefs as Americans is the belief in the historical
providence of our country. Most of us assent to the idea that America
is the greatest country in human history. We take it as a matter
of faith that Americans are magnanimous and that our government
is benevolent. And until 9/11 we believed that wars happen ‘over
there,’ but don’t happen here. Before 9/11 we somehow
felt invulnerable to an outside attack. When the attacks of 9/11
occurred, the outside world suddenly came crashing in. And for
the first time in most of our memories, we felt vulnerable.
After 9/11, for most people it would have seemed to be a contradiction
to believe that America was the greatest and strongest country
in the world and simultaneously believe that Bush was incapable
to lead the country through this crisis. As a result, Bush quickly
came to be considered a great wartime president — before
he even lifted a finger — simply because the crisis of 9/11
demanded the belief that America was in strong and capable hands.
The tumultuous election of 2000 made many people believe that
Bush came into power illegitimately after losing the popular vote
only to be selected by a sharply divided Supreme Court. But after
9/11, most Americans rallied unquestioningly to Bush’s side.
Questions of Bush’s lack of qualifications that caused the
majority to vote against him in 2000 were also readily discarded.
In the face of the current crisis, all partisan squabbles quickly
ended. Only eight months into his presidency, Bush saw his popularity
rise with a speed never before seen in American history.
After 9/11, the Bush team became a quick study in using these
attacks to elevate Bush’s presidency to almost mythic status.
In the process, they were fast to exploit the American people’s
fear of terrorism as well as their lack of comfort with cognitive
dissonance. In the hands of the GOP spin-meisters, even minor dissent
against Bush was quickly labeled as potentially anti-American.
This argument boiled down to the classic “America, Love It
or Leave It” argument. If anyone dared to question Bush’s
motives or plans, they were warned that dissent against the president
in times of war was tantamount to treason.
In the 2002 mid-term elections, Republicans were swept to increased
power based on the perception that some Democrats opposed Bush’s
war plans with Iraq and were obstructionists in the formation of
the Office of Homeland Security. When it became clear that the
U.S. would invade Iraq, all protesters were labeled as anti-American.
Now that the main premises for the war with Iraq have been shown
to be erroneous, the party line put forward by the Bush team and
its media has been to continue to question the patriotism of the
war’s detractors. Even though things have gone poorly in
Iraq, anyone who criticized the administration’s planning
has been accused of failing to support our troops and giving comfort
As we verge on the 2004 presidential election, many of the facts
have caught up with Bush. The war with Iraq is going badly. The
reasons for the invasion have proven faulty. The weapons of mass
destruction have not been found. The 9/11 Commission and others
have cleared Hussein of being in league with Al Qaeda or having
anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. And as the insurgence mounts
in Iraq, it becomes more and more clear that Bush never had a plan
to win the peace.
The facts have also worked against Bush on the domestic front.
Bush’s tax cuts have failed to help the economy. The jobs
that Bush’s tax cuts promised to produce have failed to materialize.
More people are slipping into poverty. More people can’t
afford health insurance or health care. In a mere four years, we
have gone from record surpluses to record deficits. These are deficits
that our children’s children might get stuck paying for.
And in all of this it becomes increasingly clear that Bush’s
economic policies were from the start designed to favor the very
rich at the expense of America’s poor and middle class.
The Bush administration has not done as well on facts as it has
on American’s vague demand for national strength and its
ability to scare people into believing that Bush is the last line
of defense against terrorism. Based on the facts, Bush has lost
the good will of the majority of Americans. His approval ratings
in most polls now stand at 50% or below.
Ever since 9/11, Bush has staked his entire presidency on his
reputation as a wartime president. As a way to use 9/11 as a political
tool, Bush’s relentless message to the American people has
been that we remain under the constant threat of another attack,
that only he and the members of his administration can keep America
safe and that only he has the experience as a wartime president
to protect the American people. On the campaign trail Bush goes
to great lengths to invoke the horror of 9/11, hoping to lead people
back to the moment when most Americans looked to him for leadership
and overwhelmingly approved of his performance. The Bush formula
doesn’t work unless he can keep us in the permanent state
Fear is a state of mind that goes beyond the consideration of
the facts. And since the facts of Bush’s presidency are so
dismal, anything that works against the facts can only help his
chances of election. Many Democrats have suggested that the elevation
of terror alerts have seemed to coincide with the revelation of
inconvenient facts or events, which might damage Bush’s approval
ratings. For example: when millions of people took to the streets
to protest the war with Iraq, the threat level was conveniently
raised. More recently, the threat level was elevated during the
Democratic conventions along with the notion that Islamic terrorists
would try to disrupt our democratic process.
It may never be proven whether heightened alerts of terrorist
threats have been the result of coincidence or were the attempt
by the Bush administration to manipulate popular sentiment. But
what can be shown is that this strategy has been effective in raising
Bush’s approval ratings. A recent quantitative study by a
Cornell University sociologist showed that Bush’s approval
ratings increased by an average of 2.5 points with the release
of each new elevated terrorist threat warning. This effect is more
than enough to tip a very close election. For no other reason than
this, we should expect a new terrorist threat warning just before
people go to the polls.
Just as the emotion of fear can cause us to disregard the facts,
the worldviews of “people of faith” can often lead
them to disregard facts that conflict with their viewpoints. And
the “faithful” — people who take their primary
information from religion but often disregard the facts of science — actually
make up the majority of Bush’s base. For many of them, it
is a matter of faith that Bush is guided by God. This makes the
disparity between Bush’s actions and the results of his policies
to be easily discounted by the notion that no one cannot fully
understand the workings of God. This conveniently makes the facts
of Bush’s presidency of lessened importance to the faithful
since all of Bush’s actions can fall into the category of
being matters of faith.
When it comes down to matters of faith, the Bush team continues
to echo its familiar talking points about the war on terror as
a way to appeal to its base. Despite the facts, the Bush team continues
to imply that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) poised
to attack the U.S. and was also involved in the attacks of 9/11.
And despite the facts to the contrary, the majority of Bush supporters
tend to echo this appraisal.
In a recent poll by the Programs on International Policy Attitudes
(PIPA), 75% of Bush supporters incorrectly believe that Iraq provided
substantial support for Al Qaeda. In this same poll, 72% believed
that Iraq had substantial stockpiles of weapons of WMDs. And as
a testament to their faith in Bush, only 31% of his supporters
believed that the rest of the world was against the invasion of
Iraq, even though numerous polls showed upwards of 70% of the countries
polled were against the invasion.
A majority of Bush supporters also have fundamental misunderstandings
about Bush’s international policies: 69% believe Bush favors
the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, 72% believe he favors addressing
the problem of global warming and 74% believe that he favors labor
and environmental standards in trade agreements. The Bush faithful
believe these things despite the fact that Bush has stood in direct
opposition to all of these measures.
According to Steven Kull, the director of the PIPA: "The
roots of the Bush supporters' resistance to information, very likely
lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11... This appears to have
created a powerful bond between Bush and his supporters--and an
idealized image of the President that makes it difficult for his
supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments
before the war, that world public opinion could be critical of
his policies or that the President could hold foreign policy positions
that are at odds with his supporters."
In other words, Bush supporters tend to believe what they want
to believe. Whether their beliefs are because they feel that Bush
is a messenger of God or because their fear of cognitive dissonance
causes them to impute Bush with leadership qualities befitting
America’s standing as a great nation, his supporters take
him at his word. For many people it is impossible for them to believe
that we would have invaded Iraq for no reason. This would belie
the belief in our country as a just nation. Most Americans with
the belief in the goodness of our country will choose to cherry
pick the facts to continue to believe in the American dream. For
them, the invasion of Iraq is a matter of national security, simply
because we are already there.
On November 2nd we will have an election, which will likely determine
the direction of America for many years past the term of whoever
is elected. At this moment there is a great divide between the
voters who are “reality-based” and will vote based
on the facts and the voters who are “faith-based” (whether
they are religious or simply base their faith on their belief in
America) which might routinely disregard the facts when they conflict
with their worldviews. The beliefs of Bush’s base, the evangelicals
who see Bush as god’s messenger will have a major impact
on the outcome of this election. But moreover, the worldviews of
ordinary Americans who continue to elevate Bush to a mythic status
as a result of the post-traumatic cognitive dissonance they experienced
after 9/11 will have the decisive impact in tipping this election.
this point Bush supporters are holding onto a dream.
When we wrap ourselves in the flag so tightly that we can’t
see where we are going we will run into a wall. When we put too
much faith in a president who has led us in the wrong direction
we will get lost. When we ignore the facts because we simply wish
the facts would be otherwise, we lose our sense of direction. When
our faith leads us down a blind alley, we need someone to check
the map to tell us where we are. The founding fathers deliberated
endlessly on how we would not wend down a path to tyranny or corruption.
They were after all trying to insure that America would never have
Cognitive dissonance be damned. Love for America is not an all
or nothing proposition. It is possible to believe in the goodness
of America but to realize its faults and work to make it better.
Dissent is a necessary part of progress. America is at its best
when there is a system of check and balances. The mission of true
patriots is to make America better than it ever was. This is the
path of progress.
The facts do matter. Someone pinch the Bush supporters to wake
It should come as no surprise that when a new Osama bin Laden
video surfaced just 5 days before the election that a senior GOP
strategist would call it "a little gift," adding that "anything
that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush." All
Bush has left to run on is our fear.
- Dean Heagle ©2004
Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential
Supporters Still Believe Iraq Had WMD or Major Program, Supported
To Our Lizard Brains: Why Bush Is Still Standing
tape as boost for Prez
is a "good" "gift," GOP & Bush campaign