The Cognitive Dissonance of the Modern American Conservative

I’ve long learned to skim over online comments left by wingnuts both right and left. Just as you know to steer clear of shouty-crackers schizos in the streets, you shouldn’t engage or even acknowledge extremists.

Still, I couldn’t help but respond to a right-wing whackjob the other day, who stated that Las Vegas meth-head shooters Jared and Amanda Miller were socialists because they were Neo-Nazis. The logic behind this is that ‘Nazi’ is a portmanteau of ‘National Socialist Party’; therefore, the Millers weren’t really Tea Party reactionaries so extreme they were booted off the Bundy ranch by secessionist arch-crackpot Cliven Bundy himself, they were actually far-left socialists, the kind who were tearing this country apart, from the president on down.

I suppose this is an understandable mistake for those who weren’t around when the Nazis rose to power, and are simply ignorant of history — our educational system is pretty dismal. In a dastardly move of appropriation and disinformation modern Republicans would understand and appreciate all too well, the Nazis manipulated the word ‘socialism’ to sell right-wing ideals to the masses, much as the Tea Party has tried to do. We may laugh at them, we may build prank websites and Facebook pages devoted to ridiculing Michele Bachmann and her mincing ex-gay husband, but if the American economy had gone the way of Germany during the Weimar Republic, the Tea Party would not be such a joke. That ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ snake could well have become the new swastika.

My kneejerk reaction to that reactionary’s comment was to call him out for cognitive dissonance. A Tea Partier with no doubt a Gadsden flag flying on his porch, he was searching for anything that distanced the Millers from his own ideology, even if it meant rewriting the history and truth about the origins of ‘Nazi’. I also called him an idiot, and then instantly regretted being such an idiot myself as to engage with someone so manifestly delusional, in the grip of a particular reality that is ultimately as threatening as the shouted opinions of a street schizo. Fed up with myself as much as him, I clicked away from the conversation and never read his responses to me.

As Wikipedia sums it up,

cognitive dissonance is the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who (1) holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time or (2) is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

I believe we all suffer from it at one point or other in our lives. It usually affects me in romantic situations, when I refuse to see the horrible reality of relationship — he’s hot, James, but he’s too stupid, hasn’t read a book since graduating that college you’ve never heard of —, or in a business deal, when I refuse to see that the game is up, the contracts are never going to be signed, the money never hit the bank, and everyone has left the table but me, still sitting there talking to myself. But I have no political affiliation. I want the GOP to reform and succeed, to restore balance, so I see myself as immune to cognitive dissonance in this respect.

Those who are more close-minded, who adhere to rigid ‘traditional’ beliefs, are more prone to cognitive dissonance. The fortifications that protect their innately fearful, cautious minds don’t take to being rattled. The mind will distort reality to incredible degrees to conserve those fortifications. Conversely, the more open mind will allow itself to be changed quickly given new information, which is why liberals are more flexible, and more amenable to compromise.

I know extremists on both the right and left. Like a Kinsey Scale of sexuality, they vary in intensity of ideology and behavior, but extremists on either side are essentially the same. There was no difference between Stalin and Hitler, for instance; one called himself communist, the other fascist. It was just branding. Because I have more liberal friends than I do conservative — in fact, I have almost no right-wing friends despite being born into a Northeastern-establishment Republican family — I tend to see many more radical left-wing posts on my Facebook feed. They are just as nutty and absurd as that Tea Partier who mistook Nazism for socialism. Those radicals also tend to esoteric, magical-thinking they call ‘spirituality’ (so annoying), which is nothing more than the counterpart of the right-winger’s exoteric religious fundamentalism (just as annoying).

Both sides are riddled with paranoid conspiracy theories that the creative professional can only admire for their ingenuity. The creative mind that conjures up these spurious, fantastical scenarios is triggered by one thing: cognitive dissonance. The more you attack it with reason, facts and empiricism, the more it retreats into it’s own private Middle-earth.

At the end of the day, even if neither Great Britain nor the United States is a true democracy, one should support a two-party system. Healthy politics is a tug of war between two opposing sides; having more sides than that in the game — as ideologically sound as it might appear simply from a diversity standpoint — practically speaking results in an unworkable clusterfuck.

The challenge that America has faced for a longer time than it cares to admit is that the GOP has declined steadily over the past sixty-odd years, to the point it has all but abdicated its position as the honorable party of opposition. There was some hope that they would reinvent themselves after the last election, but that isn’t happening, or it’s happening so quietly it’s having no visible impact on the nation’s affairs. Republicans are just playing tug of war for the sake of tugging, regardless of the consequences or rectitude of their actions. They are hating without rationale, and all that’s doing is destroying them, handing power to the left, thereby making the left more right wing than ever.

Those wily liberals are to blame, of course. As Obama has pointed out, he is more conservative than Richard Nixon was. To someone like me, who has spent much of his life outside the U.S., namely in Europe, I agree: The president is anything but liberal. But today’s American right-winger doesn’t see that. He doesn’t see that the Democrats, beginning with Bill Clinton, have pushed him too far to the right by becoming more conservative themselves. It is cognitive dissonance that is preventing that self-awareness.

The ultra-left momentarily took over the country in the late 60s and early 70s. In reaction to that, the Republicans under Nixon cleverly pushed left, and radicalized the Democrats even more — not that they needed much help. Nixon even appeared on Laugh-In, a 60s comedy show that was a take on the be-ins and sit-ins of the hippy movement, an action that momentarily endeared him to a segment of the country’s youth that was previously out of bounds for a Republican, a very clever move. The radicalization of the Democratic Party made the average American uncomfortable; the average American was and still is relatively conservative. Nixon was voted in.

My father, who is perhaps the person closest to me who is prone to severe bouts of cognitive dissonance, cried when Nixon resigned in 1974. It was one of the only times I’ve seen him cry. Whatever Nixon had done to be threatened with impeachment was irrelevant; Dad’s team had lost. It was a humiliating defeat, an injustice in my father’s cognitively dissonant eyes, perhaps. Far more so than Democrats, Republicans have always seen the end justifying the means — often regardless of what those means entail — which is why they distort facts and bend truth with so much more impunity. Here’s how I imagine Dad saw it: All politicians are expected to bend the rules a bit just to get things done in Washington, for the good of the people who don’t know any better, for the advancement of the Party. Nixon merely got caught. It was unfair because he was — shake jowls here — “a great president, unlike that  womanizing asshole Kennedy.”

In reaction to the disappointment of Nixon, the nation voted in a kindly, intelligent man with deep principles and a steady moral compass, Jimmy Carter. You only have to look at what other presidents have done after their tenure to see what a living saint this man is. Bill Clinton has done his part for society, rejuvenating Harlem and so forth, but mostly advancing the interests of his family and by extension his party. Republican former presidents are pretty much deadbeats: they have retired to their ranches or compounds either in ignominy or senility. For decades, Carter built houses for the poor until he could build no more, and is now a champion of women’s rights. For some reason he is still treated as a joke even by Democrats, a true injustice, but one that Carter himself is philosophical about.

It was during Carter’s tenure, when I was a teen, that I realized that my father’s political ideologies were not intellectually or emotionally compatible with who I was becoming. This realization came about because of an odd circumstance, but a life-changing one.

Our house in Rome was across the street from the American ambassador’s residence, the Villa Taverna. The U.S. ambassador to Rome is a political appointment, which means he not only supports whoever is president, he was instrumental in helping that president win the election.

In 1977, Richard Gardner was appointed ambassador to Italy by Carter in repayment for Gardner’s efforts during the election. He had a son, Tony, who was my age. Tony and I quickly became friends: we were both going to the same school, St. Stephen’s, and we were both New Yorkers, although I didn’t really know what that meant, yet, because I hadn’t lived in my native city since I was five — still, it was a treasured part of my identity. But to Tony I was just a NYINO, a ‘New Yorker in name only’: whereas he had the lightning-quick street smarts of the typical precocious kid from The City, I had more of the laid-back Italian influence. But I could communicate fluidly with the locals, and he couldn’t, so I had my uses. Tony was bookish, a ‘geek’, whereas I was more of the clownish stoner dude. So we got along very well, as disparate things often do.

All my life I had answered an annoying Roman question, inevitably asked after I informed my interlocutor that I was American, Ma che sei er figlio del ambasciatore? — “Are you the ambassador’s son?” — with a simple, “No.” Now I pointed cheekily to Tony and replied, “No. È lui.” That would earn me a stern admonishment from him: Italy in the 70s was a dangerous place, and he was a high risk for kidnapping.

Every morning, I cycled around the circumference of the residence’s walls, parked my bike to the side of the ambassador’s villa and hopped in a bullet-proof black car that drove us to St. Stephens. On that forty-five-minute ride to school, Tony and I debated American politics, which I barely understood, but that made no difference to me; as an extroverted teen, I had a snap judgment and an opinion about everything. I took my father’s Republican position about Carter and the doom that was befalling America under that tyranny, that corruption — the same rhetoric Dad uses for Obama today — but Tony calmly, effectively swatted it away. Over time, he made me see that Carter wasn’t the evil incarnate that my father frothed about at the dinner table, that he wasn’t the scourge of America who would drive Dad into such an obsessive fury that he would resign from his position and move us back to New York to help create the 1980 Republican campaign, “Vote Republican For A Change.” Who cares that Dad, at that point head of Republicans Abroad, said Reagan was “stupid” when the then Governor of California came to Rome for a visit? It’s all about the team winning, at any cost, forget who’s actually best for the job.

The Reagan-backing Republicans manipulated oil prices to create an artificial crisis domestically, and took advantage of the Iran hostage crisis to create an equally artificial calamity internationally, just to get Carter out. It’s true, the Democrats held Congress, too, and Washington had become stagnant, inept, a true reflection of the torpid 70s. Even New York was at an historical low point. The balance had been lost in that healthy tug of war. But I’ve always been embarrassed of the means by which the balance was restored. My guilt at my family association with it always bears Tony’s saddened face.

First came Reagan, then Bush the First, then Wily Bill Clinton, who Reaganized and de-radicalized the Democratic Party by pushing it further to the right with as much charm and guile as the Republicans had hitherto deployed subterfuge and subversion. Nothing says conservative more than a southern accent, and, boy, does Bubba have one. The midpoint of the tug-of-war game shifted so dramatically we still don’t have the historical distance to see how far the Democrats yanked their side to the right. Perhaps it can be summed up by Obama’s appropriation of Reagan’s call for “change” during his own astounding 2008 campaign.

Over the past few years I have received some delirious emails from Dad about Obama — net-net, the president’s a tyrant, the devil, Kim Jong Jimmy Carter II. The fact that Dad’s gay eldest son, whom he professes to love so much, rightly sees Obama as an Abraham Lincoln who finally emancipated him and his kind from centuries of mental slavery, makes no difference. That the same artist son, whom he encouraged to become the best at whatever he did, no matter what he did, could not afford health care but now can, makes no difference. Like all true Republicans, Dad’s blind allegiance to the team, and the equally blind hatred for whatever isn’t the team, is all that matters.

I won’t go on to elaborate Dad’s many cognitive dissonances. It doesn’t matter any more. The establishment Republican world he belongs to, which once held such enormous power in this country, has left the room, never to return — the last moderate Republican in Washington, Olympia Snowe, turned out the light when she retired.

Republicans believe capitalism corrects itself eventually, and to an extent history bears them out, but only if capitalism is regulated to a reasonable degree. Likewise, America as a society evolves and cures itself, always. But that is something Republicans have a hard time seeing, which would be curious if you didn’t take into account that modern conservatives have been essentially anti-progressive when it comes to social issues (not technological innovations; they love that sort of progress and are champions of it). No matter: believing they can turn us back is another cognitive dissonance that has no bearing in probability.

A political party that acts simply out of irrational hatred, simply because it’s its job to oppose, is dysfunctional. We know that. It’s evident. Even my father knows that. The only way for the GOP to reclaim and restore balance is to move back to a more centrist position, which means moving as significantly to the left as the Democrats moved to the right under Clinton.

There is no way the GOP will be able to claim a more centrist position under the probable Madam President Clinton. Again, the Clintons are the progenitors of today’s conservative Democratic Party and the subsequent radicalization of Republicans. And they are so very savvy and light-footed. But eventually the Democrats will capsize the boat like they did in the 70s, but it won’t happen in the same way. No matter what the Republicans say, no matter how much they love to reach back into history for a precedent for the future, history doesn’t repeat.

I’m of two minds as to whether the country needs a new party that pushes the Democrats back to the left, or if it’s simply a matter of the GOP rebranding via complete internal revolution. Moderate conservative ‘RINO’ Peter Brook is touting the “reform conservative.” I’m skeptical of this, too, even as I hope for it to work.

It doesn’t matter in the short term: as long as what have become mainstream republicans maintain a stranglehold on the nation’s political process with a majority in the House, we’re unlikely to see the sort of truly meaningful reform within the GOP that will restore balance. But come it must, that balance, eventually.

When the time for inevitable reform comes, the wake-up call to the GOP will be like that of the Germans after the fall of Nazism. There comes a point when cognitive dissonance alone can no longer hold the fortifications of delusion together. Something else will be born out of this destruction, something better, something we haven’t seen before. It will be nothing like what Dad hankers for, that sentimental, idealized Republican past which has little bearing on recent historical fact. It will be different, it will be new, and, because this is America, it will be progressive.


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