Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance, Mark Sanford and the Current Republican Electorate

In modern psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel "disequilibrium": frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety .  . . . Cognitive dissonance theory explains human behavior by positing that people have a bias to seek consonance between their expectations and reality. According to Festinger, people engage in a process he termed "dissonance reduction", which can be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.[6] This bias sheds light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior. (Emphasis added)


I have not seen anyone yet discuss the role cognitive dissonance might have played in yesterday's special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, an election that saw the self-confessed philanderer and disgraced former governor Mark Sanford win over Elizabeth Colbert Busch (ECB). The district went overwhelmingly for Romney in 2012 (by 18 percentage points), so I think it fair to label the district a pocket Republican borough. And yet, Elizabeth Colbert Busch lost by only 9 points, only one half the margin by which Obama lost in 2009. Why is that?

Cognitive dissonance theory offers one explanation for why Sanford managed to win but also why ECB managed to halve the margin by which a Dem last lost the district.

In short, Republicans in the district were faced with two conflicting "ideas, beliefs, [or] values." Specifically, Sanford was and is a self-confessed adulterer who used public money to finance his extra-marital excursions while keeping his own staff and the people of his state unaware of his whereabouts. This much is well known and thus should need no further elucidation. One can be sure that white male Republicans in the First District knew only too well about Sanford's sordid past. Against this, though, ECB offered herself to voters as a representative of, if not a progressive, then certainly a pro-choice, pro-LGBT, pro-government position.

And so cognitive dissonance enters into the arena. Republican voters felt massive anxiety, because the misogyny they manifest daily and felt toward ECB conflicted with someone (Sanford) who had violated the 'family values' those same Republican voters publicly proclaim each Sunday when they go to church and, for many, throughout the week.

Festinger hypothesized that cognitive dissonance (or the anxiety produced thereof) could be reduced -- brought into consonance -- if one of the discordant beliefs lost some of its importance. I would argue that this is exactly what transpired in SC's 1st yesterday. Republican voters reduced the importance they gave to 'family values' while maintaining their misogyny full-blown. To the extent ECB was viewed as a proxy for Obama, Republican voters maintained their racism full-blown. To the extent ECB was viwed as a proxy for non-hetero sexual identity, Republican voters maintained their homophobia full-blown.

It is easy to dismiss Republican voters as 'hypocritical' for loudly and publicly proclaiming 'family values,' while simultaneously voting for a scalawag like Sanford. By the same token, though, one must then explain why that hypocrisy exists at such an obvious level; I think cognitive dissonance explains the obvious hypocrisy better than do appeals to Republicans' innate 'evil,' 'ignorance,' and so on. Don't get me wrong: Republicans are evil and ignorant, but that does not explain why they are such obvious and public hypocrites.

I am unsure what, if any lessons, this race and its outcome hold for Democratic and Progressive strategists, nor how those strategists could exploit cognitive dissonance to achieve electoral successes. But I think there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Because cognitive dissonance cuts both ways. If many Republicans reduced their anxiety by devaluing 'family values,', I think large numbers of Republican voters reduced their anxiety by changing their views on gun control, LGBT issues and government's role in our lives. Remember that the Mormon Romney won the district by 18 points in 2012 (a cognitive dissonance story in itself), but a mere year later Sanford only won by 9 points. This result tells me that some voters reduced their cognitive dissonance by lowering the importance they ascribed to ECB's ideological stances. In other words, ECB seems to have convinced some voters previously inclined to vote Republican that her election would not herald the Apocalypse.

My musings above prompt some additional questions:

Is it fair to say that the Republican Party today is misogynist, racist and\or homophobic?

Had Democrats run a white male espousing an identical platform to ECB's, would he have fared any better against Sanford?

By the same token, would a black male espousing a platform identical to ECB's have done worse?

How might progressives exploit cognitive dissonance in coming elections to win progressive victories?

And finally, if Republican voters have reduced the importance they give to 'family values,' might this create an opening to drive a stake through the hearts of the demagogues and charlatans nurtured by such appeals to "family values"?

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