Monday, July 16, 2012

Romney Agonistes: Baingate, Cognitive Dissonance and Voter Psychology

Josh Marshall published a great piece about the timing of Baingate recently. The final 3 paragraphs bear repeating:

Think about . . . this: when do you think the next time will be that Romney talks about Bain Capital on the stump? What will people be thinking about when the 15 minute convention video about Romney’s life gets to the part about Bain capital? The Obama camp is working to build a mental roadblock in front of any persuasive discussion of Romney’s professional life, something which should be the major predicate of his whole campaign. They’re not quite there yet. But they’re getting close.

While I was writing this post a friend emailed and asked “Why now? Isn’t it better to hold this for the convention or some time later?”

In a word, no. The Obama team’s goal here is to make the entirety of Romney’s professional life toxic and off-limits before Romney even gets the chance to introduce himself to much of the public. And they’re off to a pretty good start.

I would go further and credit the campaign strategists for Obama's campaign with understanding and exploiting a fundamental concept of social psychology, cognitive dissonance. Basically, cognitive dissonance is the concept that people who hold two contradictory ideas about the same issue experience anxiety as a result of the contradiction and will look for a way to reduce the anxiety by reconciling the contradictions. Outside of politics, the example of smoking illustrates cognitive dissonance. People who smoke by now know that smoking shortens life spans. By the same token, though, people who smoke wish to lead long and healthy lives. So the anxiety between these conflicting positions will cause smokers to seek out any number of rationalizations to lessen the anxiety caused by the conflict, such as the idea that only a few smokers will actually have a shortened life span.

Baingate offers similar examples of cognitive dissonance galore. Romney has offered his tenure at Bain Capital Management as proof of his executive competence. But only through 1999, when the Olympics supposedly prompted Romney to leave Bain. Good thing the Olympics came along because, after 1999, Bain engaged in really nasty work, outsourcing jobs, hollowing out companies, taking federal subsidies while stripping private pension funds. Ah, anxiety. How to reduce that anxiety? Romney left in 1999, before the really nasty work began. Or did he? The SEC filings have him at Bain's helm through 2002 while the nasty work was going down. Anxiety again. How to reduce the anxiety? One way to reduce the anxiety is to modify one's view of Romney's executive competence. No longer is he the CEO genius. Now he's the CEO parasite, gaming the system and getting something for nothing. Or the CEO liar, saying whatever he needs to say at any given moment for expedience alone. In both cases, anxiety among the public is reduced but at the expense of Romney's persona.

And no matter how Romney wriggles to reduce the public's anxiety, his squirming only makes the anxiety worse. Because Romney embodies cognitive dissonance in the two tales he has told about his tenure at Bain. In 2011, he told the Federal Elections Commission that he left Bain in 1999 (before the nastiest Bain activity began). But, in 2002, he told the State of Massachusetts that he left Bain in 2002 and, indeed, the documents filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commitee support this latter position. But Romney cannot have it both ways: either he left Bain in 1999 but lied to MA and the SEC or he left in 2002 and lied to the Federal Electiosn Commission, No wonder Romney looks like he's on the verge of coming apart at the seams in his most recent public appearances - he's a walking contradiction, a living specimen of cognitive dissonance in action. A few more hours of this and he may suffer a full-blown breakdown in public.

Do I think Obama should apologize for causing this acute cognitive dissonance? Hell no. Even CEOs and bullies do not get to have their cake and eat it too. Do I feel sorry for Romney? Again, hell no. If he had shown the slightest remorse for what he did to John Lauber or his Irish Setter Seamus so many years ago, I might feel a twinge of pity. But, as it is, I see karma working itself out within this lifetime and I have to confess to agreeing with LaRochefoucauld's observation that there is something in the misfortune of our "friends" that does not deeply displease us.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, I can appreciate those thoughts, this is the first time that I've either been aware enough, or enraged enough by a corporate elitist wishing to become a real power elitist to get involved myself and start a blog and a vet's page. Just a rookie at it, thanks for participating and I'll check in now and then.