The Republican Party – the Party of Cognitive Dissonance

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who saw a world governed by individual self-interest believed that we are controlled by external forces, and are nothing but pawns in the game. Hegel believed that we do not perceive the world or anything in it directly and all that our minds have access to is the ideas of the world – images, perceptions, and concepts. For Hegel, the only real reality we know is virtual reality. Hegel believed that the ideas we have of the world are social, which is to say, the ideas that we possess individually are for the most part shaped by the ideas that other people possess. Our minds have been shaped by the thoughts of other people through the language we speak, the traditions and mores of our society, and the cultural and religious institutions of which we are a part. He sees the spirit or collective consciousness of a society evolving in a system called ‘a dialectic’, a progression in which each successive movement emerges a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement with the development of freedom and the consciousness of freedom. There can be no progress, according to Hegel, without struggle.

After November 2008, the tide seemed to be running against conservatism. In mid-February, an opportunity presented itself. From the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, CNBC reporter Rick Santelli burst into a tirade against the Obama Administration’s mortgage plan to help stop foreclosures by allowing a small number of home owners to renegotiate their mortgages. “The government is promoting bad behavior!” Santelli shouted. To protest giving public help to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages,” Santelli invited America’s “capitalists” to a “Chicago Tea Party.” Across the country, conservative activists used this opportunity to channel anger against the Obama administration. Operating at first through the social-networking site Twitter, conservative bloggers and Republican campaign veterans took the opportunity created by the Santelli rant to plan protests under the newly minted “Tea Party” name. Within ten days of Santelli’s theatrics, the first Tea Party rallies were held in Washington, DC, Chicago and other cities around America.

Hostility to the Obama economic agenda was already evident in the first weeks of the new administration. As seasoned activists organized local rallies, the video of Santelli quickly scaled the media pyramid, resonating in the conservative echo chamber of the Drudge Report and Fox News. In the aftermath of a potentially demoralizing 2008 electoral defeat, when the Republican Party seemed widely discredited, the emergence of the Tea Party provided conservative activists with a new identity funded by Republican business elites and reinforced by a network of conservative media sources. Untethered from recent GOP baggage and policy specifics, the Tea Party energized disgruntled white middle-class conservatives and achieved widespread attention, despite stagnant or declining favourability ratings among the general public. Tea Partiers are not totally hostile toward government; they distinguish between programs perceived as going to hard-working contributors to U.S. society like themselves and “handouts” perceived as going to unworthy or freeloading people.1

In several primary battles between ideological moderates who for the most part were establishment incumbents and more conservative tea party-backed candidates for the party’s nomination in the November midterm elections, tea party candidates were successful. In the 2010 November elections, forty-six tea party-backed candidates won seats in the House – Republicans gained control of the House as well as an increased number of seats in the Senate. In the 2014 primary House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, was beaten by a a tea party backed opponent in a district he had represented the previous 13 years. The Fox news loop created the angry white guy. By 2015 there was now an unmanageable House caucus, many from safe gerrymandered districts, that answers to no party leader, cannot compromise and cares nothing for co-operative government – but unable to expand their appeal until the arrival of Donald Trump. Trump appeals to resentment that ultimately rests on economic failure: working-class whites have been left behind by soaring inequality (but they mistakenly blame emigrants taking their jobs).

During the 2012 election cycle, Tea Party anger over Obamacare was misread by the Republican Party elite as principled rejection of social welfare programs, despite evidence that those voters broadly supported spending what they believed they deserved – Social Security and Medicare. The Republican elite urged voters to blame the recession on excessively generous home-lending policies, while moving to roll back regulations of one of their biggest sources of campaign money, the financial industry. The Republican Party establishment misread the mood and organised to support tax cuts and deregulation. Exploiting the Citizen’s United decision, money poured into a super PAC that helped Romney overcome more populist challengers.

The ‘narcissism of small differences ‘ was Freud’s 1917 term for his observation that people with minor differences between them can be more competitive and hateful that those with major differences. This concept posits that human nature is essentially egoistic, capable of forming groups only by virtue of shared enemies, a prospect made more depressing because it posits group identities as fictitious, contrived on the basis of denial and distortion. Freud’s theory explains we tend to reserve are most virulent emotions such as aggression and hatred towards those who resemble us the most. We feel threatened by the ‘nearly-we’, who mirror and reflect us. Freud viewed this as a narcissistic issue because the stress comes from looking in the mirror. The narcissism of small differences can apply to politics as minor differences between individuals and groups are particularly prone to be the occasion of bitter dispute.

This phenomenon is particularly heightened in groups or communities that share more in common than the general population. There are two potential problems created by the narcissism of minor differences: (1) the tendency to define yourself by what you are not, and (2) a focus on trivialities over fundamentals. Humans are naturally drawn to conflict, and latching on to minor differences to bolster our sense of self is really just a submerged form of aggression and hostility. Standing out is essentially a competition for status – one that allows us to feel distinct and superior to others.

During the 2016 election campaign the Republican candidates desired a distinct identity, however, when they looked around, the truth was they were very much the same, and are not very special after all. To keep this dissonance at bay and protect their sense of self, it was necessary to buttress and artificially inflate the significance of minor differences to construct unique platforms. One area was their economic policies which were all based on reduction of taxes and deregulation. These policies where made unique by the various ways that this standard conservative economic policy would be introduced. Another area was security – all candidates were for increased border security and regulation of immigration – they all varied in the small differences in implementation.

However, one candidate, Donald Trump, is superior to the others in exploiting the narcissism of small differences to recruit the Republican base. His economic policy resonates with the Tea Party adherents who have seen good jobs disappear overseas – his policy has these jobs returning to America. He would do away with crony capitalism and favours to the donors. Trump’s plans to control the flow of illegal immigrants and block the entry of Muslims – build a huge wall along the Mexican border, and suspend the entry of Muslims into America (temporarily) – are more extreme than the other candidates. These actions energise Trump’s base that includes tea party members and growing number of others disillusioned by the Republican Party establishment and the failure of government to deliver.

The Reagan revolution accelerated the deregulations that put the banking industry at risk by investment bankers. Greedy bankers triggered the economic debacle of 2007 by enabling poor people to purchase homes through sub-prime loans. The years of less taxes and regulation led to corporations moving production overseas with the disappearance of good-paying jobs. The Tea Party was funded by the Republican elite in order to provide opposition to the new Obama administration and create a wedge issue for the midterm elections. The Tea Party was welcomed into the Republican Party, and went on to elect members to Congress who support tea party principles. Tea party members ignored the established leadership and created a dysfunctional legislature. The principles of the Tea Party remained alive, and Donald Trump has figured out how to harness their disillusionment and growing anger.

Hegel saw events always moving forward, in perpetual change, conflicting ideas with destabilization leading to a new situation. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. Thus, each phase of the historical process could be said to contain the seeds of its own destruction and to “negate” itself; the consequence was the emergence of a fresh society, representing another stage in a progression whose final outcome was the formation of a rationally ordered community with which each citizen could consciously identify himself, and in which there would therefore no longer exist any sense of alienation or constraint.

Cognitive dissonance causes the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from the brain’s inability to handle two conflicting realities, so it creates an alternative one that often defies reality. It appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. Many middle class white folks have become disillusioned and angry about wages stagnating and good jobs disappearing over the past two decades. The neoliberals knew from the beginning that the theory tax cuts for the rich along with deregulation would provide good jobs for the rest of society is a lie. The elite of the Republican Party now have uncomfortable feelings or dissonance  as the majority of their base express their anger of being left behind by soaring inequality by voting for leaders outside the mainstream party candidates.

While all men and women suffer from disillusionment, few know that their state of disillusionment is the result of the breakdown of an illusion they themselves had manufactured. Disillusion is never possible without fantasy – and the destructive strength of the disillusionment can never exceed the strength and energy that was used to create the fantasy in the first place. The adverse effect is that man places values on his illusions, and over values what is not true, or no longer exists. In order to clear these errors of thinking, man must release the emotion that keeps him tied to this false reality. The removal of illusion or fantasy involves understanding that expectations are not failed, but false. With this recognition comes an opportunity for change. Tea party adherents understand expectations that the Republican elite would deliver have not failed, but were false. Recognizing this, they seek change in the Republican Party. Donald Trump may very well be the individual who unites the forces necessary to turn America from a plutocracy back to a democracy.

Williamson, Vanessa, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin. The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/williamson/files/tea_party_pop.pdf

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