T Nation

Cognitive Dissonance

Article by Michael Tracy in the Rocky Mountain News


Tracy: Truth matters not to Bush backers

Survey shows ‘considerable confusion’ over facts among president’s supporters

October 30, 2004

There is something truly weird happening with the relationship - or lack of one - between the information provided through the media to the public and what the public actually “knows.”

There is no reason on earth for anyone not to know what the candidates in the current elections stand for. At the regional level the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera have provided more than effective representation of the positions of both national and regional candidates. At the national level - through the networks, cable news, Web sites, news magazines, and campaigns that have spent over $1 billion - if you wanted to know about policies, it was there to be had.

However, two recent reports from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland show remarkable confusion in the public mind, particularly among Bush supporters.

The PIPA/Knowledge Networks survey in September and October shows that even after the final report of Charles Duel- fer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72 percent of Bush supporters continued to believe that Iraq had actual WMD or a major program for developing them. Fifty-seven percent assumed, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program. Kerry supporters hold opposite, and correct, beliefs on all these points.

Seventy-five percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq provided substantial support to al-Qaida, and 63 percent believed that clear evidence of this support has been found. Fifty-five percent assumed, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 commission. Here again, large majorities of Kerry supporters have exactly opposite perceptions. In fact, according to the report on PIPA’s Web site: “Kerry supporters are much more accurate in assessing their candidate’s positions on all these issues.”

In one truly bizarre finding, the research found that 57 percent of Bush supporters assume that the majority of the world favors his re-election. According to recent international research in 10 countries, reported in the British newspaper The Guardian on Oct. 15, the world has “made up its mind, backing (Kerry) by a margin of 2 to 1.” A recent survey by leading newspapers in 10 countries concluded that “a majority of voters share a rejection of the Iraq invasion, contempt for the Bush administration, a growing hostility to the U.S. and a none-too-strong endorsement of Mr. Kerry.”

The obvious question is, what does all this mean? At the very least it supports an idea I have posed before: the news media are increasingly irrelevant, for large numbers of people, as sources of information with which to make rational decisions. As for what it tells us about the Bush supporters, Steven Kull, director of PIPA, argues: “To support the president and to accept that he took the U.S. to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance, and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about prewar Iraq.” Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a state of psychological conflict or anxiety resulting from a contradiction between a person’s simultaneously held beliefs or attitudes.”

I suspect, however, that for this group there is another, more troubling explanation, which is that “facts” and “truth” - the very coin of the realm for news media - don’t matter. And this is because in Bush’s “faith-based presidency” they don’t matter either.

In a remarkable profile of the Bush administration in The New York Times Magazine, it was clear from comments by people who work in the White House that “belief” was the fundamental organizing principle of the Bush White House. Those in residence were simply expected to believe in the wisdom - no doubt divinely ordained - of the president. Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman was quoted as saying that: “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that I was accused of disloyalty.” Bruce Bartlett, a Republican who worked for Bush senior, speaks of how officials were expected to trust in Bush’s “instincts.” He adds: “This instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” A Bush aide is quoted as saying to one journalist that people like him, the journalist, live in the “reality-based community,” people who worry about observable facts, whereas the Bushites live in a different universe, a place where belief shapes reality.

How curious that we are led by a figure driven by the same kind of religious zealotry as those he tries so hard to kill.

These are not small matters, since this mood, if I can call it that, flies in the face of everything for which this Republic is supposed to stand. The English philosopher, John Locke, whose writings were key to the thinking of the Founding Fathers, wrote, in 1689, “Truth . . . seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is rarely known and more rarely welcome.”

Three hundred years later the dismissal of Truth is not just a condition, it is becoming a way of life to be celebrated.


While the existance of an “anyone but Bush” camp is well known, perhaps you have not considered the converse–“anyone but Kerry”. While Bush is not optimal the choice you have given us is…so distasteful as to be not even worthy of consideration (for me). The fact that I made a post praising a democrat (I’m not attached to Lieberman, he just seems to be a decent person who cares about the country and has a spine) and not one of the usual liberal posters even commented on it speaks for itself. I think the folks on that thread are correct: if Lieberman (or another decent moderate democrat) were running against Bush, Bush would have lost.

Consider this and remember you have no one but yourself to Blame when (if) Bush wins.


[David Bernstein, October 23, 2004 at 4:02pm] Possible Trackbacks
Political Ignorance:

Regarding Stuart Benjamin’s post below [on the PIPA study], the study he cites is just one example of the broader problem of political ignorance, well-documented by my colleague Ilya Somin. Since, as I recall, studies show that conservatives are overall better-informed than are liberals, I suspect that the study Stuart cites is an artifact of two factors: (1)Bush supporters are inclined to think well of Bush, Kerry supporters are not. Part of thinking well of Bush is to think that people around the world think well of him and his actions; part of disliking Bush is the opposite. So, when pollsters ask Americans whether they think most of the world supports Bush and his actions, most Bush supporters and most Kerry supporters, being politically ignorant, won’t know. The Bush supporters will guess “yes,” the Kerry supporters “no.” If I’m correct, this is not a reflection of greater ignorance on the part of Bush supporters, just worse guessing. (2) Most people have no idea what global climate treaties, land mine treaties, the International Criminal Court, etc., involve. But they all sound good to an ignorant voter. So, if an ignorant Bush supporter is asked whether Bush supports these treaties, he will likely say yes. That doesn’t mean that the Bush supporter has any idea of what these things are, or whether he would actually support these things if he knew about them. Rather, the average Bush voter is as (or perhaps more) rationally ignorant about the content of these international agreements as he is about whether his candidate supports them.

The fact that people tend to be much more knowledgeable about things that they can actually affect as individuals than they are about presidential politics is one good reason for limiting the size and scope of the federal government.

UPDATE: Kaimi Wenger, I’ve just learned, posted a similar analysis on the Tutissima Cassis blog yesterday.


Ignorance is Bipartisan

A number of left-leaning bloggers have pointed to surveys [the PIPA survey in particular] that show[s] that Bush supporters are more likely to believe erroneous information about Iraq (such as whether weapons of mass destruction have been found) than are Kerry supporters. The surveys appear to be real. Bloggers such as Brian Leiter and Philocrites point these out.

I’m disturbed by the implication that pundits and bloggers are all too ready to make – namely, that Republican voters are, as a group, less well-informed than Democratic voters. Indeed, it seems like this survey may be unconsciously designed to inadvertently come up with that kind of result.

Why? Well, we know that most of the electorate simply doesn’t follow the issues. Within each party, there is some percentage of people who simply don’t know what’s going on in the world. That is, there are Democrats who know political facts and Democrats who don’t, and there are Republicans who know political facts and Republicans who don’t. This survey asks exactly the kinds of questions that the group of Democrats-who-don’t-know are likely to answer correctly, but Republicans-who-don’t-know are likely to get wrong. Let me explain:

Start with our four groups of people: Democrats who know the correct facts (group 1), Democrats who don’t know (group 2), Republicans who know (group 3), and Republicans who don’t know (group 4).

When asked, “have weapons of mass destruction been found in Iraq?”, both groups 1 and 3 (Democrats-who-know and Republicans-who-know) correctly answer “No.” Members of group 2 (Democrats-who-don’t-know) really have no idea, but they dislike President Bush, and so they say “no” as well. Meanwhile, members of group 4 (Republicans-who-don’t-know) are as uninformed as group 2, but unlike group 2, they like president Bush. And so they say “Yes.”

Under this scenario (which, to my observation, seems likely to be the case), Republicans need be no more ignorant or misinformed, as a group, than Democrats. Even assuming an equal distribution of ignorance, if Republicans are asked questions that the least well-informed members of their group are more likely to get wrong than the least well-informed Democrats, the survey will give results that appear to indicate that Republicans are less well-informed. The results of the survey can and are interpreted to suggest that Republicans as a group are less well-informed than Democrats, when in fact the much more innocuous explanation is a distinct possibility.

It should be relatively easy to test whether this is in fact the cause of the survey results. All that is necessary is to turn around and ask questions that the least-well-informed Democrats are probably more likely to answer wrong than the least-well-informed Republicans. (Again, using the simple tool of “I like Bush” or “I don’t like Bush” to determine how the uninformed are likely to respond). For example,

“Is it true that filibustered Republican judicial nominees Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen received a rating of “not qualified” from the American Bar Association?”

(It is not true. Both received unanimous ratings of well-qualified
http://www.abanet.org/scfedjud/ratings108.pdf ).

Or perhaps,

“Is it true that President Bush has done nothing to try to stop the genocide in Sudan?”

(As Kristof points out, while Bush could have done more, he has so far done more than any other American president in this area, and has been a global leader in trying to stop the killing in Sudan.
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/29/opinion/29KRIS.html?ex=1098590400&en=262fc689a2ab2dc0&ei=5070 )

We can’t say without a survey, but I’m almost certain that Democrats will answer either of those wrongly more often than Republicans. Once again, the four groups of people will give different answers. Informed members of both parties will answer correctly. Uninformed Republicans will give the answer that favors Bush, which will be the correct answer for these questions. And uninformed Democrats will give the answer hostile to Bush, which will (for these questions) be the incorrect answer.

And if it is true that Republicans as a group answer those sorts of questions more accurately than Democrats, then the actual results of the combined surveys will be only that uninformed party members are most likely to give answers favorable to their own political views – no surprises there. And of course, hardly evidence that (as some suggest) that “a conservative is a liberal who is ignorant.”

The point is that ignorance is neither a Republican attribute nor a Democratic attribute. It is thoroughly bipartisan. We tend to forget this, alas. One of the things that disturbs me most about political dialogue is the number of attacks from both sides that try to characterize all political opponents as ignorant. The line “all Republicans are morons” or “all Democrats are morons” has suddenly become an acceptable part of the political discourse. Are people really that arrogant? It takes an amazing amount of hubris to claim that one’s political opponents are all dumber than rocks. (And while this particular post focuses on that claim as made by Democrats, I’ve seen the same assertion made by Republicans).

As a side note – I realize that it may be relevant that one’s political opponents are wrong about more important facts. And it may thus be possible and plausible to state that Bush supporters are more likely to be wrong about certain important issues, such as Iraq. But general statements like the Boston Globe’s

– Supporters of President Bush are less knowledgeable about the president’s foreign policy positions and are more likely to be mistaken about factual issues in world affairs than voters who back John F. Kerry, a survey released yesterday indicated – seem to be misguided.