Sunday, February 12, 2012

The contradictions of Cravaack Country

If you haven't already read the excellent New York Times piece about the cognitive dissonance of Chisago County residents when it comes to government spending, you ought to. This article and the interviews that built it are a Rosetta Stone for understanding Tea Party conservatives who believe in cutting government spending.

Lindstrom Teapot Water Tower | Credit: J. Stephen Conn
Interviewing residents of North Branch, Lindstrom, Harris and Taylors Falls, the authors of this piece encounter a contradiction. The same people who profess to be for deep cuts in government spending are personally benefitting from that spending. A Lindstrom screenprinter who made t-shirts for Cravaack's campaign receives the Earned Income Tax Credit and free lunches for his school-aged children. A Harris tattoo artist complains about people on disability buying tattoos at his shop, saying "I can't afford new shoes like they have." His sister, disabled after suffering from a brain tumor, lives in an assisted-living facility at taxpayer expense. All of these folks are aware of the tension between their desire to cut government spending and the benefits that they and their loved ones receive from government health care programs, Social Security, and income support.

How they resolve this tension is the interesting part. There are several responses:
1) I earned it.
2) I'll never ask for government help, even if I need it.
3) I didn't ask for these programs, but since they exist I'll use them, even though I disagree with them. I could get by without them if I needed to.
4) I and/or my family benefit from these programs, but other people abuse the system. We need to cut the wrong people off from government spending so that we can save it for the right people. 
All of these seem like distinct reasons, but they have a common root; the belief that "others" are abusing the system. Not me! I earned it, but "others" didn't. I didn't ask for it, and "others" are taking advantage of the system. Even the apparently consistent #2 fundamentally misunderstands the nature of a social safety net. If push comes to shove and you have to make a choice between your sick child and your abhorrence of government, you'll probably turn to #4 as your justification.

The brilliance of this article is that it forces the realization that the "others" are all around the Tea Party rugged individualists. They are the people you know and care about, your mentally disabled sister, your school-aged children, your elderly parents.

The belief that "others" abuse the system (while you use it for the right reasons) is one linchpin belief that allows Tea Partiers to manage the cognitive dissonance created by the inconsistency of their belief in the need for spending cuts and their actions that rely on government spending. Another defense mechanism is a highly distorted version of what the government actually spends on a variety of programs.

How does one fight this dissonance? How can you force the realization that it's spending on us, not spending on others? And how do you correct the misperceptions about the nature of government spending and the causes of the deficit? That's the subject for my next post, which will summarize some of the social science research into cognitive dissonance and how it might provide a blueprint for reaching these voters.

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