Frat Spankings and Bush Followers: The
Theory of "Cognitive Dissonance"
Or why Bush backers keep saying, "thank you, sir, may I have
November 20, 2004
By Brad Radcliffe
To those of us schooled in the humanistic tradition of the scientific
method, George W.'s continued popularity, although at an all-time
low, continues to mystify. His lies, venality, hypocrisy, and incompetence
are so manifest, we cry, that even mouth-breathing Limbaugh listeners
must recognize them.
Not necessarily. Over 59 million voters trooped to the polls a
few weeks ago, and asked like a plebe in an old-school frat house
for the current administration to continue whacking them with a
paddle for four more years.
That W.'s presidency is bad is self-evident. He and his administration
ignored for nine months the terrorist threat that resulted in an
attack on American soil worse than Pearl Harbor. Then he saw (or
pretended to see) a military threat in Iraq that turned out to be
non-existent, sparking a war that has killed 1200 American soldiers
and some hundred thousand Iraqi civilians. His crony capitalism
has decimated equity markets. His tax breaks for the rich, not only
did not stimulate the economy, but has sent job creation to historic
lows and federal deficits to astronomical highs. The party of "fiscal
restraint" is presently attempting to raise the debt ceiling of
7 trillion dollars just so they can keep the government running.
His administration detains innocent Americans under the Patriot
Act while they let criminals like the anthrax killers and Valerie
Plame blackmailers run free.
Chait summed it up wonderfully when he wrote, "I used to think
U.S. history had many bad presidents. Now, my 'bad' category consists
entirely of George W. Bush, with every previous president redefined
But the question remains, why do only half the voters see W. for
what he is-the biggest disgrace that ever occupied the oval office?
After all, doesn't B. F. Skinner believe that people change their
behavior to minimize negative reinforcement (i.e., pain) and maximize
positive? Doesn't classic capitalism preach that people make decisions
based on their own best interests?
The answer may lie in the psychological theory of "cognitive dissonance."
This idea grew from the experience of two
researchers exploring motivation and reactions of cult members
in the 50's. They watched firsthand as a cult leader assembled her
flock together to escape the end of the world in another Noah's
flood. She "knew" of the flood because she had been warned by interplanetary
beings who were to rescue the cult followers and save them from
drowning in a flying saucer. When the appointed time of the apocalypse
arrived and nothing happened, the leader absented herself for a
short time from the expectant group to confer with the aliens. The
message was revealed to the leader that the faithfulness of the
cult members themselves had changed God's mind, and thus because
of their virtue, the Earth was spared.
The researchers concluded that because the cult members had invested
so much time, energy and money into their beliefs (some people literally
sold all they had for the cult), the simple fact showing their beliefs
wrong (that no flood occurred) caused intense cognitive dissonance.
They of course had the option of admitting they were wrong-in other
words, that they were stupid and easily manipulated. But that too
would cause intense dissonance. Or they could minimize the dissonance
by reaffirming their original beliefs even more strongly-that they
had saved the entire world! This choice, although irrational, is
much more attractive because it not only spares cult members from
admitting how wrong they were, but it gives them an option that
shows them to be actually "smarter" (in possession of secret knowledge)
than others and more virtuous because they follow the road less
What we've seen in the last four years is Team Bush skillfully
manipulating perceptions using the theory of cognitive dissonance.
After the 9-11 terror attacks, when we invaded Iraq and killed hundreds
of thousands of innocent civilians, we as a nation had the option
of 1. recognizing that our government is hardly better than the
terrorists we condemn because we too kill civilians for political
ends or 2. buying our cult leaders' patently obvious lie that "freedom
is on the march." Which one do most people find more comfortable
to believe? Which one rewards the believers with a sense of doing
the right thing and which one punishes them with the sense that
they, even they, are part of a horrible evil?
This is why military families as a group continue to support Bush's
war of aggression in Iraq. They can say 1. the war is a ridiculous
fraud and our children/spouses are putting themselves in danger
in an enterprise that makes America more (not less) likely to be
attacked or 2. this is a heroic sacrifice that our children/spouses
are willing to pay to depose a threatening tyrant and establish
freedom around the world. Accepting the truth that one's own child
died a preventable death for absolutely nothing requires the kind
stoic realism that few people possess. It sends Americans into a
confusing twilight zone of questioning everything they have been
so painstakingly taught-that our war-time leaders really care about
our soldiers, that they act in the best interest of the country,
that when the chips are down and it really matters, our leaders
are good and true, that if America decides to go to war, we must
be in the right. It threatens to unhinge us from a belief system
we have relied on our entire lives.
The alternative, that our president would knowingly mislead the
public to take control of oilfields, sacrifice soldiers' lives to
enrich his business cronies, and kill Iraqi children to make countries
like Saudi Arabia toe the American line, is just too agonizing a
thought to be dreamt of for most Americans.
Ironically, "cognitive dissonance" theory suggests that the more
egregious the sacrifice or punishment, the more valued the experience
or knowledge gained. This is why your dad always said that you'll
appreciate something more if you pay for it yourself (beside the
fact he's a tightwad), why fraternities put their pledges through
otherwise pointless hazing rituals (beside the fact they're sadists),
and why potential dating partners will never call you back right
away (beside the sense of superiority it gives them). "I wouldn't
be subjecting myself to all this," we rationalize to ourselves,
"if the end result weren't worth it," and the more discomfort and
embarrassment we are subjected to, the more the end result grows
in our perception to meet that sacrifice.
A lot of Americans who lean conservative will react to Bush's bad
economy, his humiliating gaffes, his blatant contradictions, and
his obvious failures, by supporting him even more. To turn
against him now is to reveal a truth too painful to be considered-that
they were stupid and easily manipulated before. Like cult members
who are too emotionally invested to see reality, every insult to
their rationality must be turned into a triumph, every injury to
their pocketbook and well-being must be transformed into another
righteous example of how "freedom isn't free."
9-11 must be trumpeted as a "triumph of the human spirit" instead
of what Bill
Maher called "a f*** up by a guy on vacation." It's four more
years of floggings, folks-get used to hearing the whipping boys
screaming not for mercy but for more strokes of the bloody scourge
against their own flesh. Get used to the Bush backers waving their
flags even more frenetically, their robotic smiles pasted on with
even more fervor, their gas-guzzling SUV's covered with even more
yellow ribbon stickers, their self-assurance even more self-assured.
It's a lot easier than thinking.