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Featured Article
October 2004
The National Cognitive Dissonance:
Will Bush Supporters Ever Wake Up?

 

 

" 'My country, right or wrong,' is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, 'My mother, drunk or 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 to terrorists.

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 of fear.

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.

At 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 another King.

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 them up.

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


NOTES

The Effects of Government-Issued Terror Warnings on Presidential Approval Ratings

Bush Supporters Still Believe Iraq Had WMD or Major Program, Supported al Qaeda

Appealing To Our Lizard Brains: Why Bush Is Still Standing

See tape as boost for Prez

Osama is a "good" "gift," GOP & Bush campaign say

 

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