Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?
Posted by Adam Benforado & Jon Hanson on May 5, 2008
This post was originally published on April 23rd. Because the “elitism” card continues to played, we thought it worthwhile to republish this post for those who might have missed it the last time.
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In case you missed it, the last week and a half have been a bit rough for the golden boy from Chicago. To boil down hundreds of hours of cable news commentary, political punditry, and radio talk-showery: Obama called certain working-class Midwesterners bitter, and everyone else called Obama elitist. The conventional wisdom is that Hillary’s success in Pennsylvania last night was at least partially the result of Obama’s remarks.
The storm began when, speaking to a private group in San Francisco, Obama offered this take on the effects of economic stagnation in certain parts of Pennsylvania:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.”
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“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
In the debates about how deep the offense to Midwesterners might have been and, more important, how, if at all, Obama might recover from the gaff, relatively little attention was given to whether Obama’s remarks were accurate and to why the charge of “elitism” has been so common and such a show-stopper for democratic candidates in each of the last three presidential elections.
To answer those questions, it’s helpful to understand that there is a real, meaningful divide in America—a great rift that extends across debates. We’re not referring to the gulf between elitists and commoners, but rather a division in attributional proclivities: a divide between relative dispositionists and relative situationists. As we explore in an article published this week (“The Great Attributional Divide“), dispositionists tend to explain outcomes and behavior with reference to people’s stable dispositions (i.e., personalities, preferences, character, values and the like), and situationists tend to base attributions of causation and responsibility on unseen (though sometimes visible) influences within us and around us.
A situationist is more likely to view the housing crisis as not simply the result of bad apples making bad choices, but also, more significantly, about changing cultural beliefs concerning borrowing money, serious problems in our financial markets and regulatory regimes, and other system-level concerns. A dispositionist, when assessing a policy concern, is more likely to employ the words “bootstraps,” “hard work,” “tough love,” and “strength of character.” In those ways, the different methods of constructing causal stories and assigning fault color individual issues from gay marriage to welfare and from abortion to social security reform.
Those attributional styles also help define the walls of the broader liberal-conservative crevasse. Broadly speaking (with some notable exceptions), conservatives tend to be more dispositionist and progressives tend to be more situationist. That is true, in part, because, as Situationist contributor John Jost has demonstrated, (e.g., here), conservatives exhibit stronger needs for order, structure, and closure, a more potent sense of system threat, greater intolerance for ambiguity, and a greater acceptance of inequality, among other things — interior factors that align with the elements underlying dispositionism.
As this blog is devoted to documenting, despite being the dominant framework, dispositionism is a less accurate attributional approach than situationism. The mystery of how dispositionists nonetheless maintain confidence in their attributions is only explained by understanding a dynamic that we call “naïve cynicism”: the basic subconscious mechanism by which dispositionists discredit and dismiss more accurate situationist insights and their proponents.
As we explain in a forthcoming article, naïve cynicism predicts that, like most humans, dispositionists put great faith in the veracity of their perceptions and conceptions of how the world works. They see themselves as objective and reasonable and expect other reasonable and objective people to reach the same conclusions as they do. As a result, when a dispositionist encounters a situationist attribution that conflicts with his own causal story, that person experiences a cognitive conflict, and naïve cynicism provides a ready resolution: explaining the opposing attribution as the product of bias, ignorance, or some other flaw. Rather than engage the substance or merits of the conflict, naïve cynicism involves an attack on the perceptions, cognitions, or motivations of the individuals and on the institutions associated with the situationist conception. Without it, the dominant person schema—dispositionism—would be far more vulnerable to challenge and change, and the more accurate person schema—situationism—less easily and effectively attacked. Naïve cynicism is, thus, critically important to explaining how and why certain legal policies manage to carry the day—and why certain presidential candidates carry an election.
The details of naïve cynicism, as depicted in the above diagram (from our article), are too complex to review here, as are the various reasons why this dynamic is so effective. For present purposes, however, we can boil down all the factors to one simple naïve-cynicism-promoting frame that dispositionists employ to minimize situationist ideas: the individuals, groups or institutions that offer situational arguments are unreasonable outgroup members that are attacking us, our beliefs, our system, and the things we value. It is this frame that helps to energize, coalesce, and mobilize opposition to the relative situationist perspectives, individuals, and institutions and to further encourage dispositionism.
With that in mind, let’s return to Obama’s comments. Although inartfully phrased and somewhat lacking in nuance, Obama seemed to be hitting on a central situationist insight: people’s beliefs might be, at least partially, a product of their environments and experiences. People might be bitter because they felt powerless as a result of their situations, not because they had bitter “personality” types. People might be anti-trade or anti-immigrant, not because they had carefully assessed the various political positions and freely chosen the most convincing, but for the same reasons that struggling groups have historically felt animosity toward outgroups with whom they feel competitive. People might mistrust governments on economic issues and focus on religious or social issues in part because of the perceived futility of relying on the government to successfully address economic concerns.
Similarly, Midwesterner’s ideology might reflect internal situational forces that operate beneath the radar of conscious cognitions. Situationist contributor John Jost and his colleagues have found significant evidence, for instance, that “conservatives are, on average, more rigid and closed-minded than liberals.” There is, according to that research, “a clear tendency for conservatives to score higher on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, nees for order, structure, and closure and to be lower to openness to experience and integrative complexity than moderates and liberals.”
In addition, “[c]onservatives are, on average, more likely than liberals to perceive the world as a dangerous place . . . and to fear crime, terrorism, and death. They are also more likely to make purely [dispositionist] attributions for the causes of others’ behaviors . . . and to engage in moral condemnation of others, especially in sexual domains. . . . Finally, [c]onservatives tend to hold more prejudicial attitudes than liberals toward members of deviant or stigmatized groups, at least in part because of chronically elevated levels of threat and rigidity.” Relatedly, as Jost and his colleagues have discovered, voting patterns in different regions and states (red and blue) have been found to correlate with variables such as voters’ “openness to experience.”
The evidence also suggests that external situational forces influence such internal situational tendencies significantly. The threat posed by 9/11, for instance, encouraged a shift toward conservative (dispositionist) ideological attributions and presumptions. Unstable social and economic situations would likely have a similar effect.
Put differently, Obama’s remarks – call them elitist if you like – do not seem far off from what social scientists have discovered about the situational influences on people’s ideologies and political proclivities.
Predictably, however, Obama’s comments were met with a strong dispositionist backlash, containing two key components: (1) the assertion that Obama’s remarks reflected his true (heretofore concealed) elitist disposition; and (2) that Obama’s comments were themselves an attack on us, our beliefs, our system, and the things we value.
Some of the more extreme backlash included several additional features: (1) the suggestion that Obama’s “slip” revealed the dispositions of all individuals and groups on the left; (2) that Obama’s views toward working-class Pennsylvanians reflect the view that all democrats and liberal institutions take of anyone on the right; and (3) that all of “them” on the left are a threat to all of “us.” Although extreme, Rush Limbaugh’s reaction illustrates the naïve cynicism backlash in its most strident form:
RUSH: . . . . So, Barack Obama, talking to a bunch of elitist millionaires and billionaires in San Francisco on April 6th, basically reveals what we have all known that all Democrats think of the people who make this country work. They hold average people in contempt! They don’t think average people are capable of overcoming the obstacles in life, they think they’re racists and bigots, homophobes and all of this, a bunch of hayseed hicks. This really isn’t news to those of us who have spent our lives studying leftists. . . .
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. . . [W]hat’s happening here is that the Democrat Party, by itself, with its two top-tier presidential front-runners, is exposing who they are themselves for one and all to see. The Democrat Party is in an absolute mess over this because they know full well, when they’re in their little doors, behind their doors in the little cloakrooms in the privacy of their own moments, they are gnashing their teeth over the fact that the truth of who they are is coming out. Let’s go to the audiotape just to establish here what Obama said in San Francisco on April 6th, he was at a campaign fundraiser . . . . The quality is not all that good. But you can still hear it, and it’s indicative of who liberal Democrats are. Most importantly, it’s indicative of who Obama is! Obama is a radical socialist liberal. He always has been. His campaign has been an effort to cloud that, to mask it, to cover it up. . . .
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OBAMA: It’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
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RUSH: . . . . So basically people are a bunch of racists and bigots and kooks and hayseeds. . . . So he makes these comments to a bunch of elitist San Francisco millionaires and billionaires, and the point here has to be made that Obama was not just talking about the people of Pennsylvania. He was talking about people in Missouri, and southern Illinois, Iowa, North Dakota, Kansas, North Carolina, Alabama, flyover country, the people who make the country work. He is talking about all the people who did not use affirmative action to get into Harvard and Yale and Princeton, who don’t have the money to live in mansions in the cities; the people who I say make this country work; the people who will be in church on Sunday clinging to their God not because they have nothing else to hold onto, they cling to God — they are not even clinging to God, they are worshiping God. It is part of who they are. Now, this, to me, folks, makes all the Jeremiah Wright, Michelle Obama stuff crystal clear to anybody just glimpsing this. Damn the middle class, damn it. Michelle Obama has said as much, and so has Reverend Wright from the pulpit. The middle class, the people who pay the freight, the people who pay the taxes so these elites can destroy the country, the people who make the country work.
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Now, what’s happened here, folks, is that Barack Obama has succeeded in attacking not only American values, he’s done it by attacking the Americans who embrace those values. . . . It is one of the most insulting comments that a presidential candidate could make. He’s going out, he’s attacking the customers. He’s attacking his voters. But this is who they are, folks, this is who liberals are. The great thing about this is that Barack Obama’s telling all of us what all Democrats think of average Americans, which is why they want them to become dependent, why they want them to vote Democrat, they want them to be undereducated, they want them to be bigoted, they want them to be angry all the time, they want them to be fed up, they want them to be filled with rage, they want them to be hopeless.
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Contrary to his campaign being all about hope, he wants these people to be hopeless. . . . If there’s hate for the people who make this country work, if there is contempt for the people who make this country work, its home is smack-dab in the middle of the Democrat Party.
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. . . . He said what he said. And what he said was that middle America is full of redneck, God-fearing racists and bigots. That’s what he said.
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. . . . See, he’s bitter. Liberals are bitter and angry. You know this. You can listen to them talk about any circumstance in this country, any issue, from the war in Iraq to the economy to Wal-Mart to Big Oil to Big Drug, anything they talk about they are filled with rage, they are angry, and they want everybody else to be angry, they are bitter. . . .
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. . . . The issue is that Obama exposed his attitude toward millions and millions of Americans which he had thus far concealed by dismissing previous efforts to reveal them based on his contacts and associations with people like Jeremiah Wright. This makes it totally clear to me why he will not disown and disavow Wright. He agrees with him! This is the same stuff that Jeremiah Wright believes. And his attitude is shared by the left in the media, the Democrat Party, universities, colleges, and so forth. When he made those comments to the San Francisco millionaires and billionaires, he was reinforcing their hateful and bigoted views.
In short, Obama as well as the groups or institutions with which he is associated are unreasonable outgroup members that are attacking us, our beliefs, our system, and the things we value.
Notice that built into Limbaugh’s logic are several tensions. For instance, Rush is, on one hand, indignant that “they” could prejudge “us,” but Rush has no trouble throwing large groups into a single category and calling them hateful and bigoted. More important, in denying that Midwesterners are bitter, he nonetheless seems to reflect and foment a deep bitterness.
Rush’s rant exemplifies an extreme version of naïve cynicism in action, but there are less extreme versions of the dynamic influencing other commentators and politicians.
Karl Rove, for example, underscored the “us” and “them” by suggesting that Obama’s words were”almost Marxian in this ‘they cling to their religion.’ I mean, you know, it’s sort of like it’s the opiate of the masses.”
Charles Krauthammer similarly attempted to draw a link between Obama and Marx, as he underscored Obama’s flawed disposition:
The idea that the working class people don’t understand the world and cling to religion, the opium of the people, as Marx says, and Frank’s book is a new way to state it. It is an old left idea which goes back 100 years, and it’s a classic idea that if they only understood what the upper, academic left understands, they would act differently.
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What’s involved here, I think, is also a sense of this arrogance. It’s not only a personal arrogance. It’s a political, intellectual, and almost a class arrogance. And that, I think, in the end is going to hurt him, because it’s a question of character.
More important, the naive cynicism dynamic also characterizes the reactions of the other presidential candidates to Obama’s now infamous remarks.
McCain’s campaign, for instance, responded to Obama’s comments both by asserting that they revealed Obama’s bad disposition and by reassuring the public that the dispositionist take on the issues was reasonable and correct.
According to McCain, Americans don’t allow situations to change their dispositions. McCain pounded on the fact that the views of small town folks aren’t shaped by exterior events: “These are the people that have fundamental cultural, spiritual, and other values that in my view have very little to do with their economic condition.” The Great Depression did not erase “their confidence that America and their own lives could be made better. Nor did they turn to their religious faith and cultural traditions out of resentment and a feeling of powerlessness to affect the course of government or pursue prosperity.” Rather, “[t]heir faith had given generations of their families purpose and meaning, as it does today.” It was that American disposition “that made the world safe for democracy” and created “the wealthiest, strongest and most generous nation on earth.” Similarly, American’s “appreciation of traditions like hunting was based in nothing, nothing, other than their contribution to the enjoyment of life.”
In other words, Obama’s mistake was to characterize these people as not being in control of their beliefs, their ideologies, and their destinies. Obama’s situationist argument presented a “fundamental contradiction to what . . . America is”: a land where people think their own thoughts, embrace their own values, make up their own minds, and blaze their own trails all regardless of the circumstances. After all, Americans are disposition-driven choosers, not situational characters.
When later asked specifically about whether he thought Obama was an elitist, McCain was careful to maintain his “policy” of not engaging in character attacks and focused on the sin and not the sinner: “I think those comments are elitist,” McCain said. “I can only look at his remarks and say that those are certainly not the vision I have of America and its strength and greatness.” (Watch the video here.)
McCain’s senior advisers apparently did not feel similarly inhibited by that policy and were far more willing to call an elitist an elitist. As McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds explained, “Barack Obama’s elitism allows him to believe that the American traditions that have contributed to the identity and greatness of this country are actually just frustrations and bitterness.”
McCain adviser Steve Schmidt called it a “remarkable statement and extremely revealing.” And what did it reveal? Obama’s true disposition, of course. “It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking.” Schmidt went further to underscore the extent to which Obama is an outsider: “[i]t is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.” Moreover, it’s not just that Obama is one of “them” — the ivy-league, silver-spoon, Martha’s Vineyard crowd; it’s also the case that his outsider views are a threat to “us.” Obama’s remarks, according to Schmidt, hit the “heart and soul of this country.” And just in case anyone missed the emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral implications of this attack, Schmidt opined that “people will resent it and be very angry about it because that is not how most Americans view themselves. That’s now how most Americans view their lives in terms of practicing their faith or exercising their Second Amendment rights or having a desire to secure the borders in the country.”
Another spokesman for McCain responded to Obama’s defense of his remarks with this dispositionalizing gem:
“Instead of apologizing to small town Americans for dismissing their values, Barack Obama arrogantly tried to spin his way out of his outrageous San Francisco remarks. . . . Only an elitist would say that people vote their values only out of frustration. Barack Obama thinks he knows your hopes and fears better than you do. You can’t be more out of touch than that.”
In short, Obama and the groups and institutions with which he is associated are unreasonable outgroup members that are attacking us, our beliefs, our system, and the things we value.
Although the vitriol of some of the barbs may come as a surprise, McCain’s dispositionist backlash aligns with what we would predict; ideologically, he is already prone toward the relatively dipositionist attributional style – and politically, the strategy is a proven one.
Hillary Clinton’s use of the elitism card, on the other hand, is slightly more unexpected – not just because one is hard pressed to imagine a measure of “elitism” on which Obama scores higher than Clinton, but also because she is, at least when compared to most conservatives, a relative situationist. Apparently, though, trailing in the delegate count and with the clock ticking, the temptation to slice up her democratic rival has been too great for her to leave the potent political weapon of naïve cynicism in its sheath.
Hillary’s prepared remarks in the wake of Obama’s San Francisco speech emphasized that disposition not situation is the source of values and attempted to establish an “us” (composed of Hillary and mainstream American voters) and a “them” (composed of Obama and the rest of the outgroup cabal):
“Now, like some of you may have been, I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Sen. Obama made about people in small town America. Sen. Obama’s remarks are elitist and they are out of touch. They are not reflective of the values and beliefs of Americans. Certainly not the Americans that I know — not the Americans I grew up with, not the Americans I lived with in Arkansas or represent in New York.
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“You know, Americans who believe in the Second Amendment believe it’s a matter of Constitutional rights. Americans who believe in God believe it is a matter of personal faith. Americans who believe in protecting good American jobs believe it is a matter of the American Dream.
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“When my dad grew up it was in a working class family in Scranton. I grew up in a church-going family, a family that believed in the importance of living out and expressing our faith.
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“The people of faith I know don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter. People embrace faith not because they are materially poor, but because they are spiritually rich. Our faith is the faith of our parents and our grandparents. It is a fundamental expression of who we are and what we believe.
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“I also disagree with Sen. Obama’s assertion that people in this country “cling to guns” and have certain attitudes about immigration or trade simply out of frustration. People of all walks of life hunt – and they enjoy doing so because it’s an important part of their life, not because they are bitter
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“Americans are fair-minded and good-hearted people. We have ups and downs. We face challenges and problems. But our views are rooted in real values, and they should be respected.
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“If we are striving to bring people together – and I believe we should be – I don’t think it helps to divide our country into one America that is enlightened and one that is not.
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“People don’t need a president who looks down on them; they need a president who stands up for them. And that is exactly what I will do as your president.”
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“Because I believe if you want to be the president of all Americans, you need to respect all Americans. And that starts with respecting our hard working Americans . . . .”
In short, Obama and the groups or institutions with which he is associated are unreasonable outgroup members that are attacking us, our beliefs, our system, and the things we value.
If the situationist account of things is complex and counterintuitive, the dispositionist account feels logical and appealing. With her back up against the wall, Clinton’s choice of dispositionism is a potentially savvy move. It’s just easier to get votes when you tell people what they want to hear and know to be true: You are intelligent, hard-working, patriotic heroes, who exercise your freedom to choose – and anyone who says otherwise is insulting you and is a threat to all you hold dear.
Hilary’s strategy may be successful in the short-run during her competition for the nomination. The problem, in our view, is that a longer-run perspective is needed in the competition for policy. By making dispositionist attributions Hillary is effectively endorsing dispositionism – she is legitimating and agreeing to play on a field that is not only badly flawed and uneven, but also favors the opposing team.
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We’re pleased to report that the two articles on which thiis post is based are the featured articles on the Emory Law Journal Website (you can read a summary and access the articles there). To read other Situationist posts discussing the 2008 presidential campaign, see “On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”