Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Republican Party

I’ve long wondered why so many otherwise competent and sane Americans support President Bush and the Republican Party. Right now, only a few days before a climactic election, polls have Bush running about even with Kerry despite several publicized debates that show Kerry well ahead in terms of mastery of the facts that concern, or should concern, all of us. Kerry at least assures us that if elected he will pursue policies helping the majority of Americans. Bush stumbles on this and his record so far shows he consistently favors only the affluent. Why do so many non-affluent Americans support him? It simply is not rational. There must be other, non-rational factors at play here.

We call it cognitive dissonance when you have been brought up to believe something is so, and reality intrudes and tells you it is not so. It’s painful, and if you are a throughly rational person, you sit down and examine the problem and try to find ways of reconciling your belief with your current perception. To the extent you succeed, the discomfort of cognitive dissonance goes away. But many people are brought up with belief systems so strong they are not about to question them. When reality intrudes on their beliefs they just reject it. The cognitive dissonance doesn’t go away, but over time they learn to live with it. They develop calluses on their minds, like the calluses on a ditchdigger’s hands.

I can remember a time when both parties, Republican and Democrat, promoted policies which combined elements of foolishness and wisdom. Each party asked its followers to put up with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Faith and rationality were intermixed. The sensible voter decided which mixture gave him or her the least cognitive dissonance and voted accordingly. But now, in this shrill era when much of the voter population has been thoroughly brainwashed by media advertising, the balance has shifted. The Republican leaders have captured the loyalty of a substantial part of the voting population and are using all the hidden persuaders developed by the advertising industry to keep their followers in a state of mental thralldom. This explains why many people who are not affluent will vote Republican in the coming election even though their leaders are pursuing policies aimed only at benefiting the rich. To the extent these misguided sheep retain any critical faculties whatsoever, they must be suffering levels of cognitive dissonance I can barely imagine, and certainly would not tolerate myself.

It has occurred to me that there must be some correlation between religious faith and the ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance, and that this correlation can help explain why so many Americans support Bush.

The hard cores of all three of the traditional monotheistic religions insist that the true believer suspend disbelief when it comes to the central pillars of its particular belief system. So if you are a true believer you are accustomed to facing certain hard realities, and blandly denying them, because the religion that bent and circumscribed your mind when you were very young makes you do so.

You grow up habituated to denying tangible facts, denying direct and palpable interests, and denying elementary logic, because to do otherwise would contradict what you learned in your church (or synagogue or mosque, as the case may be). There is inevitably an element of cognitive dissonance, discomfort at the contradictions between dogma and the facts. Never mind, you are hardened to the sensation. You have developed those calluses on your mind and they protect you.

Let’s act like good scientists and see if this theory stands up under logical scrutiny. Where are the Republicans strongest, geographically? Is there a regional pattern here that resembles the regional strengths of the various church groups, especially the fundamentalist denominations? I don’t have the resources to create maps on this computer of mine, but it’s conventional wisdom that the Republican heartland, the geographic core of the “red” states, coincides at least roughly with the so-called Bible Belt.

Each of these three religions has hard centers and soft peripheries. Doctrine is imbedded most firmly in the centers; only at the peripheries is independent thinking encouraged. So the Southern Baptist is more likely to vote Republican than the typical Unitarian Universalist. Occupations, too, differentiate people on the basis of the degree of independent thinking needed to perform. Scientists and university professors are more likely to oppose Bush than are other professionals where rewards accrue more to the conformer than to creative individuals.

It isn’t just a matter of IQ. There are some very intelligent Republicans, and there are a lot of people, some of them deeply religious, who vote Democratic for historical and other reasons, not just to avoid cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, I do believe that this correlation between religious faith, cognitive dissonance, and the paradox of mass support for an elitist party bears further study.

Carl Coon 10/12/04

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