The Politics Of Rationalization

Joe Miller of Alaska thinks the election he's running in should not be held, government spending needs to be cut except for his farm subsidy, and unemployment compensation is unconstitutional except when his wife gets it. Like virtually all tea party Republicans, Miller is a study in cognitive dissonance.

It's a big, fifty-cent word, I know. But cognitive dissonance is the reason you find a sign calling Obama a "long-legged mack daddy" just fifteen feet in front of a woman telling a tea party crowd to keep their eye out for saboteurs pretending to be racist tea partiers. It causes three hundred people to yell about federal spending underneath a mock-up of the Space Shuttle on federal property. It is the primary characteristic of Town Hall Zombie Syndrome.

Wikipedia calls it "an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously." Prolonged exposure can produce terminal irony deficiency. Much more after the jump and a video...

Note: I'm well-aware that Cleon Skousen was not a "member" of the John Birch Society. He just gave the organization a thin veneer of scholarship after it was publicly repudiated by the dean of conservative ideology and spread its message through his books. Other than that, the man had no relationship to the John Birch Society of precious-bodily-fluids fame, I know, so it's incorrect of me to call him a "founding" part of that organization's history.

Rand Paul would like to raise medicare reimbursement rates. Half of his patients are Medicare recipients, after all, and physicians (he says) should be "allowed to make a comfortable living." Which is what Paul actually means when promising to apply "real free market principles" to fix our broken health care system. To wit:

If you argue that healthcare providers alone are not expected to pay for everyone's health care, then whom? The taxpayers? But who are the taxpayers? They are your neighbors. If you maintain a right to healthcare or housing, you must argue that your belief, which you call a "right," is sufficient to send armed tax collectors to your neighbors house to expropriate that "right."

See, taxing Americans for health care is wrong until it benefits Rand Paul. Since Kentucky Medicaid probably doesn't pay for adults to visit his office, it's no wonder he calls the program "intergenerational warfare." The senior citizens patronizing his libertarian opthalmology practice don't benefit from a program that keeps 18 million American children healthy, either; no wonder we've seen grandma telling Obama to keep his hands off her Medicare.

After all, Medicaid is for the deservedly poor (i.e., Wal-Mart employees). So what if they're children? They're not your grandchildren, why should you pay taxes to keep American children alive? As religious conservatives march into the tea party, a new cognitive dissonance forms with the decidedly non-Christian ethos of resentment. The "right to life," it seems, ends at birth; and this has nothing to do with race except that it does. Matt Taibbi described the pattern in his fantastic Rolling Stone piece about tea parties, whose participants get

furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill "cracker babies," support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama's birth certificate.

Taibbi also notes the dissonance over the tea party's main issue:

At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them. In fact, their lack of embarrassment when it comes to collecting government largesse is key to understanding what this movement is all about... (Emphasis mine)

Matt Taibbi made three trips to Kentucky for his article, but I might have saved him the travel. The video above was shot on federal property in a town where government activity is the largest employer. Huntsville lies at the heart of the Tennessee Valley Authority -- a "public option" of electricity and flood control -- at the top of a state that receives $1.69 from Uncle Sam (.PDF) for every dollar it sends to Washington in taxes. Huntsville is a two-hour drive from Birmingham and four hours from Kentucky, but I know how a big ball of nontroversy and ugly feelings gets presented as "proof" that Teh Global Socialisms™ are being installed under our very noses by a vast conspiracy.

I saw it all coming in Birmingham last November: the role played by FOX News, the relative small number of idiots required to draw attention, and the cults of Beck and Palin. Taibbi noted the way every conversation with a teabagger winds up being about immigration; I saw that too:

It's worth noting that hypocrisy is a conscious act, i.e. overcoming the dissonance to save the ego requires a sublimated, but not subconscious, mental activity called rationalization. It was the subject of a 2008 study by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo of Northeastern University:

To test the role of cognition in hypocrisy, DeSteno had volunteers again assign themselves an easy task and a stranger an onerous one. But before judging the fairness of their actions, they had to memorize seven numbers. This ploy keeps the brain's thinking regions too tied up to think much about anything else, and it worked: hypocrisy vanished. People judged their own (selfish) behavior as harshly as they did others', strong evidence that moral hypocrisy requires a high-order cognitive process. When the thinking part of the brain is otherwise engaged, we're left with gut-level reactions, and we intuitively and equally condemn bad behavior by ourselves as well as others.

Tea party activism largely represents a reaction from whites of the "me" generation to the changing demographics of America. Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois did a study of hypocrisy and power in 2009, finding that power actually does corrupt, therefore a perceived loss of power hits hard. But there was also this:

"In contrast, a further experiment demonstrated that people who don't feel personally entitled to their power are actually harder on themselves than they are on others, which is a phenomenon we call 'hypercrisy'.

"Ultimately, patterns of hypocrisy and hypercrisy perpetuate social inequality.

"The powerful impose rules and restraints on others while disregarding these restraints for themselves, whereas the powerless collaborate in reproducing social inequality because they don't feel the same entitlement."

Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term "cognitive dissonance." Reporting on Galinsky's study, TIME noted Festinger's finding that

people will go to great lengths to reduce dissonance. In one well-known experiment, those who had been asked to falsely claim that a boring task--placing spools on a tray, for instance--was fun were later found to have persuaded themselves that the task really was fun. They had crossed over from hypocrisy to something more pathetic: self-deception. (Emphasis mine)

Indeed, there are deceivers and deceived in the tea party movement. George Orwell famously described this sort of hierarchical group exercise in cognitive dissonance when he divided his dystopian Ingsoc into Inner and Outer Parties. Orwell even described rationalization in the Newspeak word crimestop, which

means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest of arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which might lead in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. (Boldface mine)

The shape of the tea party is a pyramid. Stupid flows down; money and admiration flow up. A phenomenon that began with libertarians excited about Ron Paul has been transformed into a new home for religious movement conservatism -- and its long, sad tradition of hucksters living off suckers. I saw it in Nashville, Tennessee, just a two hour drive up I-65 from Huntsville:

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