Why Is Bush Popular?   Try 'Cognitive Dissonance'

Paul Ginnetty

Paul Ginnetty is an associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph College, Patchogue. Marie Cocco is off.

ONE OF THE MORE intriguing notions in psychology is the theory of cognitive dissonance, the idea that people tend to adjust their attitudes to conform with and, thus, justify their decisions or behavior.

For example, I move clear across the country to take a new job. It turns out to be a boring dead end. Admitting my mistake would be sensible, of course, but conceivably too painful. Instead, I try to ignore the job's unattractive features and unconsciously seek to accentuate whatever few redeeming qualities it has. Otherwise I would experience unacceptable levels of disharmony between a more accurate appraisal ("this job stinks") and my foolhardy behavior of having sacrificed so much to pursue the position.

Many have speculated that the Bush presidency will suffer from a lack of clear mandate. However, I suggest that George W. will actually benefit from our collective attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance over last year's lengthy and painful electoral process.

Simply put, we all went to more than the usual amount of trouble to come up with this particular president; he'd better be a damn good one. We invested thirtysomething days and sleepless CNN-dependent nights into this process. We even bothered to call in the Supreme Court. It would be mortifying to acknowledge that such an ordeal had yielded an inferior product. Then we'd really feel like a bunch of losers.

Our need to see Bush as successful and to minimize the ways in which he disappoints us has given him somewhat of a free pass, especially in his economic policies. This has kept us from fully admitting that his decisions and proposals are predictably better for big business and the privileged class than for the average working American.

Bush quickly scrapped federal workplace safety regulations regarding ergonomics and repetitive motion injuries. Friendly to business, indifferent to workers. In his (so far) most dramatic trashing of a campaign promise, he blithely reneged on a pledge to work toward reducing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Score one for the coal industry, minus one for the environment.

Meanwhile, he has scored a curiously high 60 percent presidential job-approval rating. Is this a honeymoon inspired by cognitive dissonance? This cognitive defense mechanism has been particularly treacherous in two areas of tax policy where the president rolled out superficially attractive but potentially deadly Trojan horses.

One is his $1.6-trillion tax cut proposal which, though trimmed to $1.2 trillion by the Senate, isn't dead yet. But the plan of Bush and his cronies would be disproportionately generous to the richest of the rich. We'd rather attend to the populist sounding, Jimmy Stewartesque, looking- out-for-the-little-guy rhetoric-"The People of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf I'm here asking for a refund"-than consider that he was really just taking good care of his own oligarchic kind.

Of course, our perception of this issue was further complicated by our own reflexive self interest-more money in my pocket (however trifling the amount)can't be such a bad idea, right? There is also a quirky psychological tendency to favor economic policies which, although they don't help me at the moment, may benefit me when I finally get my longed for economic break-"cut the rich some slack, someday I intend to be 'the rich.'" Potentially more dangerous is our collective naivet?regarding the Bush urge to abolish the inheritance tax. Especially noteworthy here is the success of the Bush forces on the semantic front, proving once again that if you can succeed upfront at crafting the language of the debate, you can usually win the contest.

Accordingly, it's no longer referred to as an inheritance tax (justly levied upon heirs whose fortunate genes yield gratuitous windfalls) but a perverse, un-American death tax-"now, Mildred, they even tax you for dying!" This mantra of the mega-rich is likewise cloaked in faux-populist language, as if the real concern here is saving family farms and modest familial enterprises rather than the inter-generational perpetuation of a sometimes obscene misdistribution of wealth.

But we'd rather not think too hard about all that. After all, we waited and worried a long time for this here president-of course he's worth it. Moreover, after November's ordeal of uncertainty, any president is better than the anxiety of not having one. Right? On second thought, don't answer that. You'll probably make me nervous.

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