What Can Explain the Irrationality of Those Who Have Taken American Democracy Hostage
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
The most puzzling thing about the madness of the arch conservatives who have taken America hostage is, how can they be so deep inside their own extremist ideological worldview that they can’t see that what they are doing is self-destructive? Not just destructive to America, which it is. Not just destructive to Republicans, which it surely is. What they are doing is destructive to the very Tea Party movement they claim to lead. How can their passion be so deep they can’t see that?
A likely answer comes not from politics, but social psychology. The study of how we determine our views has found that we shape our opinions so they agree with those in the group with which we most closely identify. (This is a form of what is broadly known as motivated reasoning, and this specific version is called labeled Cultural Cognition.) Our motivation to reason this way, it seems, comes from the fact that as social animals, we rely on our group – our tribe – for our health and safety. So we want our group to accept us as a member in good standing. That feels safe. To go against the tribe? That feels dangerous. See how you feel if you dare to argue against some strongly held belief of your group. You will probably feel the threat of rejection, and tension. Biologically, that’s stress, which is the direct product of a Fight or Flight or Freeze response to actual physical danger.
And since we depend on our tribe to help keep us safe, it also feels viscerally, physically upsetting when our tribe loses in competition against other tribes, whether it’s our sports team, our country, or our political party. So in the name of safety and survival we are motivated to adopt views that agree with our tribe, in order to maintain the cohesion and unity that helps our tribe succeed in the combat with other tribes over who gets to set the rules for how society works.
The Cultural Cognition groups we identify with are not defined by the familiar political labels… right or left, Republican or Democrat. Rather, our groups align around the basic ways we want society to operate. The two groups that have taken American democracy hostage are;
– Individualists, who prefer to live in a society that leaves the individual alone to make his or her own choices. Politically, Individualists tend to be Libertarians and Tea Party “the government has too much control over my life” conservatives.
- Hierarchists, who prefer to live in a society that runs by predictable stratified hierarchies of economic and social class…everyone in their place…a traditional order that is reliable, stable, comfortably ‘the way it has always been’. Politically, Hierarchists tend to be Republican and conservative, favoring the free market that maintains the status quo and rejecting government ‘interference’ that tries to make things fair and flexible for all.
Individualists and Hierarchists have forced the shutdown of America’s federal government in order to impose their smaller government worldviews on society. There is nothing at all wrong with that…until the psychological/emotional need for tribal cohesion and unity makes people so closed-minded and fiercely defensive of their views that, like settlers threatened by the indians, they circle their ideological wagons and treat anyone who disagrees with them as The Enemy. That precludes the compromise and progress that we all need to solve the big problems we all face. Where can the drive for such closed-minded tribal combativeness come from? What can impel such passion that people close their minds to reason?
A likely answer, again, comes from psychology, in this case the psychology of risk perception. Whenever we’re afraid, we look for things to do that give us a sense of control, since feeling in control feels safer than feeling powerless. (Note that the central rallying cry of the Tea Party is that “the government has too much control over our lives”.) Supporting our tribe and enhancing its strength, and increasing the likelihood that our side will prevail over other tribes, gives us that reassuring sense of control. And the more afraid we are, the more we do this…the more fiercely we close our minds to any facts that conflict with the tribe’s view, so we can maintain tribal unity and give ourselves a sense of control and safety.
That may well be how ideology makes us blind to reality, which the small group of right wing ideologues who have taken America hostage certainly seems to be. How can they be irrational enough to claim that polls show that Americans don’t want the Affordable Care Act, and yet ignore polls like the CNBC survey that showed 46% of Americans oppose ObamaCare but only 37% oppose the Affordable Care Act. How can they be irrational enough to ignore evidence of how self-destructive they are being. Surveys consistently show that large majorities of Americans reject this ‘take the country hostage over one single issue’ tactic, and they overwhelmingly blame Republicans for the shutdown. Another poll showed that public support for the Tea Party, the movement these people claim to lead, is at an all time low, and sinking…and that was before the shutdown.
And how can they be so passionate that they can’t see heir own hypocrisy? They invoke blind faith in the Constitution, yet claim the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional when it was duly passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. (See the Daily Show for a great satire on this. They invoke patriotic faith to America, yet try and hijack the will of the people…the most basic American principle…to impose their own narrow minority Individualist/Hierarchist worldview.
The deeper question then arises…what makes the most extreme members of these Individualists/Hierarchists/Libertarians/Republicans/ Conservatives feel so threatened that their need for tribal cohesion so demonstrably supercedes reason? That’s a deeper and more complex analysis than fits in this essay. But it is the central question that has to be answered before we can truly understand the madness of how these people are behaving. And we have to do that…get to that core truth…in order to find ways past the ideological extremism that is holding America, and all of us, hostage.
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