Monday, May 28, 2012

Politics As Cult: Literature, Song, And Cognitive Dissonance

This post even has a Star Trek reference.

NPR reports on a "Mirror Mirror" political landscape.  Using research from Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan and Georgia State University's Jason Reifler, Shankar Vedantam reports,
When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can't.
But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president's control.
The article goes on:
"Last time it was Republicans who were against a flip-flopping, out-of-touch elitist from Massachusetts, and now it's Democrats," Nyhan said.
Nyhan also contrasted the outrage in 2004 among Democrats who felt that Bush was politicizing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for political gain, and the outrage today among Republicans who feel the Obama re-election campaign is exploiting the killing of Osama bin Laden.
"The whole political landscape has flipped," Nyhan said.
That condition should sound familiar, especially if the partisans believe they have always held those views.  Orwell noted the situation in his classic 1984:
At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible. (1.3.16)
These divisions produce some humorous dichotomies.  For example, The Nation has declared this Loretta Lynn song its number one Memorial Day song.



I haven't seen any polling, but I'd bet Mitt Romney's $10,000 that those on the other end of the political spectrum view this Loretta Lynn song as much more appropriate for Memorial Day.



Country music choice is a correlation not a causation, however.  The NPR article continues,
. . . partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one's head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.
Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they're against the facts, but because it's painful.
Rejecting facts because they painfully challenge preconceived beliefs turns partisans from members of a political party into members of a cult.

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