The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘John McCain’

Without the Filter

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 21, 2008

Governor Sarah Palin wants “to talk to Americans without the filter” of the “media elite.”  As she explained in the vice-presidential debate, she aims to cut out the middleman in conveying information to the public: “I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Senator Joe Biden] want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.”

Those statements reflect a radical challenge to our American system: the elimination of an institution—the press—that has traditionally been championed as a vital check on the abuse of power and distortion of the truth by politicians.  In the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, historically, “[t]he free press meant organized, expert scrutiny of government.  The press was a conspiracy of the intellect, with the courage of numbers.”  For Palin and her coterie, it is simply a conspiracy: a loose amalgam of distorters, liars, and opportunists.

It is tempting to see the Palin proposal as a tailored response to a particular set of circumstances—after recent criticisms from the press and in the context of declining poll numbers for the Republican ticket, attacking journalists might seem to be nothing more than an isolated political expedient.  In fact, Palin’s call for a purge of the “media elite” is a central part of a broader project of knowledge management that has been practiced for decades and perfected during the Age of Rove.

That expansive approach has borrowed tactics directly out of the playbook of some of the most successful corporate campaigns of the last half century or so and has allowed the Bush administration to forge ahead on weak policies—like the war in Iraq—while stymieing potentially strong ones—like a coordinated effort to fight global warming—by controlling the information the public receives.

For many years, the cigarette industry made billions selling a product they knew to be dangerous to human health, while evading costly regulation and litigation.  They accomplished this improbable feat by keeping information necessary to make educated choices out of the hands of the public, while convincing individuals that they possessed all the relevant data and were, in fact, coming to freely made decisions.  Thus, big tobacco hid evidence of the negative health effects of smoking and spent millions on selling the image of cigarette smokers as empowered, independent-minded, sovereign consumers.  Marlboro Men didn’t need scientists or bureaucrats telling them what they needed to know to adequately assess risks; they had their common sense and their freedom to guide them.  When cancer deaths and outside studies began to suggest the great danger of smoking, cigarette companies fought vigorously in court to prevent insider documents that revealed the full extent of the problem from being released.

The McCain-Palin ticket has taken just such an approach.

Although understanding the sources of a candidate’s income is critical to assessing whether that candidate has acted independently in the past or may have vested interests going forward, for months, Cindy McCain refused to disclose key information about the McCain’s family’s wealth.  In May, after serious criticism from the media concerning the lack of transparency, she finally released part of her 2006 tax returns.  However, only her IRS Form 1040 was released, so there was no reference to the sources of her income.  And even this information was disclosed in a way meant to avoid its dissemination to the public: the release was put out on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend.  As Republican strategist Dan Schnur joked, “Christmas Eve would have been ideal, but that would have been a problem given the election calendar.”

Moreover, the ticket has denied members of the media access to the McCain and Palin, except in prepackaged snippets, and has ensured that both of them stick to their vague talking points.  When Palin went to New York City in September to meet with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the campaign initially refused to permit any producers or reporters to go along with the network pool camera recording pictures of the meetings and, after strong objections from the press, relented only slightly, allowing extremely limited and superficial coverage.  McCain, who once decried “stale soundbites, staged rallies, and over-managed messages,” now marches to a metronome.  Between mid-August and the end of September, he went over five weeks without holding a single press conference.

The aim has been to limit severely the information that voters encounter about the candidates and their policies.  Speaking in generalities in the lead up to a general election is standard practice and, in many ways, the Obama campaign provides no exception; yet, the McCain team has taken the practice of evasion and distraction to new levels.  As Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, explained in a moment of candor: “This election is not about issues.  This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”  In the wake of the global financial debacle, a top McCain aid made a similar point to the Daily News: “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”

Preventing the public from having the details necessary to make an informed decision has occurred at the same time that the campaign has emphasized how accessible and open it is—and how it remains utterly committed to “straight talk.”  Indeed, in the October 16 presidential debate, McCain went to great lengths to portray Obama as the remote and opaque candidate, emphasizing how Obama had rejected “his urgent request to sit down, and do town hall meetings, and come before the American people.”  Just as with big tobacco, the message from the Republican campaign has been twofold: first, that the campaign has been completely forthright in providing voters with all the information they need to make a knowledgeable choice; second, that Americans are empowered, independent-minded individuals with common sense who don’t need middlemen—like the press—to tell them which way the wind blows.

The strategy has a proven pedigree.  It worked, not only for the tobacco industry, but also, more recently, for the Bush administration, as it duped the American people into invading Iraq by failing to provide the public with the whole picture concerning the potential risks and costs of the war, while acting as if the calculus were utterly clear and that people knew everything they needed to know to make an informed decision.  Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and we would be embraced by the Iraqi people as liberators.  The conflict would be cheap and largely bloodless and would help stabilize the region.  Only fools and cowards would wait to act.

The same was true with respect to the administration’s approach to global warming: as Bush appointees publicly declared that they were being utterly candid and that the setting of environmental policy by the administration was transparent, they denied the public access to the facts it needed to assess the causes and destructive effects of climate change and the information concerning the impact of industry lobbying efforts.  Key reports were sanitized of language affirmatively declaring that human activity was causing global warming; administration lawyers battled in court to prevent access to records of energy executives’ private meetings with government decision-makers.  As with efforts to prevent the disclosure of documents in the context of the war on terror (including administration policies on torture, extraordinary rendition, and wiretapping), the Bush team couched its withholding of key information in terms of executive privilege and argued that, regardless, the implicated information was not relevant to anything that the public actually needed to know.

Those who said otherwise, were attacked as not only wrong, but biased and a direct threat to our country: wacky tree huggers who would hurt small businesses and destroy American competitiveness; out-of-touch liberals willing to put American lives at risk in their misguided mission to protect terrorists bent on our destruction; ardent ideologues recklessly disparaging government policy during time of war without a concern that it might endanger our troops.

The strategy of denigration of adversarial information sources in the administration’s management of public information was another proven technique borrowed from big tobacco.  For many years, the industry worked hard to cast public health advocates offering evidence of the destructive nature of cigarettes as meddling nannies who wanted to take away the freedoms of regular Americans.  Similarly, plaintiff’s-side lawyers pushing for disclosure of internal company documents were cast as malingering schemers willing to do anything for a buck.

These accounts of corrupted dispositions and grave consequences had a profound impact on the way that the information coming from these sources was viewed, a lesson that the McCain-Palin ticket has taken to heart.  By repeatedly assailing the “liberal media” as unfair and unbalanced, the campaign has both called into question each and every story critical of the Republican candidates and has forced journalists to be more cautious in their criticisms, even where they are extremely well founded.  The claim of ideological distortion on behalf of the media has also served as an excuse for the McCain campaign to refuse to participate in more open forums, which has proven to be a great boon for the campaign, given that Palin is unprepared, at this point in her political career, to answer unscripted questions where outright evasion is foreclosed.

After Palin’s devastating interview with Katie Couric at the end of September, the McCain campaign realized that they could not afford another free-form session with the press.  Thus, as both a means of damage control and a way to defuse future criticisms of the governor, they had Palin go on the offensive against the CBS News anchor: “I did feel there were a lot of things she was missing in terms of an opportunity to ask what a VP candidate stands for, what the values are that are represented in our ticket . . . . I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that’s also an indication about being outside that Washington elite, outside that media elite also . . . .”  Because Palin is just like you, Joe Six-Pack Hockey Mom, when the biased media attacks Palin, they are really attacking you.  As Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s senior advisors, put it, “She’s not part of the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit.  Elite opinion looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world.”

Another central lesson of knowledge management coming from the tobacco industry is that truth and accuracy are irrelevant if what you primarily—or exclusively—care about are “ends.”  You do not have to prove your position; you only have to move the needle enough to make things look like a debate.   Where no information exists to support your position, you simply create it.  Thus, cigarette companies funded rival studies to draw into question arguments that cigarettes were addictive and harmful and hired experts to ensure that there was “credible” counterevidence.

The Bush administration has masterfully followed suit.  With few expert pundits supporting the Iraq war efforts, the administration simply went out and got its own to offer seemingly objective—and uniformly positive—analysis on news programs.  The “message force multipliers” or “surrogates,” as they were referred to in internal Pentagon papers, were used to amplify successes, downplay mistakes, and refocus debates for millions of Americans.  When a study by Seton Hall University School of Law and two lawyers who represent detainees at Guantanamo Bay was published, finding that just eight percent of detainees were classified as al Qaeda fighters by the military and a majority had not been found to have perpetrated any acts of hostility against American targets, the Pentagon sprung into action, commissioning a counter study from a terrorism research center at West Point that, unsurprisingly, offered a frightening portrait of a detainee population made up of dangerous jihadists.  Explaining the motivation for the rebuttal report, one of the authors offered a candid summary: the Department of Defense “had been getting a lot of inquiries related to this previous study.  They had a lot of concerns with the conclusions, but they did not have another study.”

Just as with the tobacco industry, the benefits of such an approach in the context of the war on terror were to forestall any action: with the ultimate verdict still out, it seemed ill-advised to change course or break from the status quo.  Since there was a debate over the dangerousness of the detainees, Guantanamo had to be kept open.  Since there was not utter consensus that coercive interrogation methods amounted to torture, they had to be continued.  Since there was an active dispute over the legality of government wiretaps, they had to remain undisturbed.  Making things look like a debate meant that feet could be dragged for months, if not years.

Nowhere was this truer than with respect to the administration’s policy on climate change.  The aim for the Bush appointees at the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and elsewhere was never to prove that global warming had its origin in natural causes, but rather to sew a seed of doubt so that inaction could take root.  In February 2007, when a report by top climate scientists from 120 nations was released explaining that global warming was unquestionably real, man-made, and required immediate responsive action, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a response worthy of an expert defense lawyer for Philip Morris: “We’re going to see a big debate on [climate change] going forward . . . the extent to which it is part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man . . . [It’s] not enough to just sort of run out and try to slap together some policy that’s going to ‘solve’ the problem.”

For the McCain-Palin campaign, the goal has been to move what should be settled points of fact into the realm of confusion and dispute such that existing negative stereotypes respecting the Democratic presidential candidate can persist.  That status quo is that a black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama is going to be viewed by many with suspicion, fear, and distrust.  Hence, you don’t have to conclusively prove that Barack Obama is a Muslim; you only have to allow your surrogates to repeatedly raise such a claim.  Nor do you need to prove that Barack Obama is an al Qaeda operative; you only have to emphasize, at rallies and in television commercials, that he pals around with terrorists.  You don’t have to prove that Barack Obama wants to mandate teaching kindergarten students how to use a condom; you just have to insinuate it enough that it sticks.  If we aren’t absolutely sure that Obama isn’t an Arab spy bent on corrupting our children, we can’t possibly elect him president.

The same is true with respect to attacks by the McCain campaign playing on existing notions about “tax and spend” Democrats and elitist, leftist professors.  You don’t actually have to prove that Obama would raise taxes; you just have to assert again and again that Obama wants to spread the wealth around, pitting the haves against the have-nots and favoring the latter.  You don’t have to prove that Obama is out-of-touch with mainstream America; you just have to hammer on how he held a campaign event with celebrities in Hollywood and how he believes that rural voters cling to guns and religion out of bitterness.  Given the dire economic situation, if it is an open debate whether or not Obama will take more out of our pay checks, voting for him would be reckless; if there is a chance that he doesn’t understand us, our beliefs, and our struggles, it would be foolish.

As a number of writers have pointed out, this strategy of muddying the waters has been especially effective because of the press’s tendency to try to appear balanced: when pointing out untruths propagated by the McCain campaign, many writers and commentators have felt compelled to also mention significantly less-erroneous claims by Obama.  The result being that members of the public are liable to come away mistakenly convinced that both sides bend the facts equally to suit their needs.

To its credit, in recent weeks, the press has been far more disciplined in calling out McCain and Palin for their deceptive claims and pressing for more details, but much damage has already been done.  With one-third of voters, in a recent survey, sure that Obama is a Muslim or open to the idea that he could be, and over fifty percent believing that he would raise their taxes (despite the fact that his tax plan would reduce taxes for 95% of Americans), Palin’s proposal to excise the media from the presidential election conversation is particularly disturbing.

We deserve to know what our candidates think so that we can determine what types of leaders they will be.  Despite Palin’s arguments to the contrary, we are not going to learn those critical facts if we just listen to what they want to tell us.  Filters keep us safe and healthy.  Sure, you can have a drink right out of the East River, but in the end all you’re going to get is a bad pain in your gut.

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To read some related Situationist posts, see “A Convenient Fiction,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” “The Situation of University Research,” “The company “had no control or influence over the research” . . . .,” ” Deep Capture – Part VII,” “Industry-Funded Research,” and “Industry-Funded Research – Part II.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Polarization

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2008

Bill Bishop has a recent situationist piece in Slate, “Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally.”  Here are a few excerpts.

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College kids who join a conservative fraternity move to the right during their four years in college. Liberals from Boulder asked to discuss some issues of the day, such as global warming and gay marriage, are more liberal at the end of their discussion than before. Racists brought into a room to discuss race grow more intolerant.

Social psychologists have conducted scores of these “group polarization” experiments since the ’60s, and they all come to the same finding: Like-minded people in a group grow more extreme in the way they are like-minded.

Homogeneity creates extremity—or, in the news of the day, a McCain rally.

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What’s going on? The talk-show talk has been that John McCain and Sarah Palin incite this kind of behavior. They certainly haven’t helped, but blaming the candidates misses what’s happening, and why.

Social scientists have proposed several reasons for why like-minded groups tend to polarize. Two have survived scrutiny. The first is that homogenous groups are privy to a large pool of ideas and arguments supporting the group’s dominant position. Everybody hears the arguments in favor of the group’s belief, and as they’re discussed, people grow stouter in their beliefs.

The second reason like-minded groups polarize has more to do with how we see ourselves. We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

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“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

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Those at the McCain or Palin rallies who talk about “hooligans” and “treason,” who call Barack Obama a “terrorist,” “bum,” or “socialist,” aren’t simply responding to speeches from the candidates. They are acting as members of a like-minded group exactly as social psychologists would predict, which is a less-than-comforting thought.

In his textbook on social psychology, David Myers writes, “Terrorism does not erupt suddenly. Rather, it arises among people whose shared grievances bring them together. As they interact in isolation from moderating influences, they become progressively more extreme. The social amplifier brings the signal in stronger. The result is violent acts that the individuals, apart from the group, would never have committed.”

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Read the entire article here.

To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Being ‘(un)American’,” History of Groupthink,” “Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part V,” “March Madness,” Deindividuation and Seung Hui Cho,” “The Origins of Sports Team Fandom,” “Attributing Blame — from the Baseball Diamond to the War on Terror,” and “Situationist Theories of Hate – Part II.”

Posted in Conflict, Emotions, Ideology, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

* * *

“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.

* * *

“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.

* * *

“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.

* * *

“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

. . .

“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.

. . .

“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.

. . .

“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.”

* * *

“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.

* * *

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.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Ideology, Legal Theory, Naive Cynicism, Politics, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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