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Cognitive Dissonance in American Voters

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Published on: December 27, 2022

This paper will focus on the attitudes of American voters in relation to their preferred candidate in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. Many American voters are fiercely partisan and will vote for the party they identify with whether the candidate in question truly espouses the values of the voters or not. American elections are known to be highly competitive, with focused messages meant to influence not only a party’s own political base but what is believed to be the needs and desires of the American people. It is also a common belief of the American electorate that candidates will say what they need to get elected and do the exact opposite once in office. This paper will examine the role that cognitive dissonance theory and confirmation bias play in determining the actions of voters by comparing beliefs pertaining to their preferred candidate, the actions these candidates take after winning an election, and why they are still largely supported.

Introduction

The 2020 presidential elections are among us. Americans are seemingly more polarized and divided than ever before in their support for their preferred political party. According to Edwards, (2017), the divide between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental issues concerning the governing of America is at a twenty-three-year high. Americans have become more ideologically rooted in their beliefs and less likely to share in each other’s respective views (Edwards, 2017). Issues like homosexual marriage, women’s rights, racial equality, marriage and family, abortion, and religion are hot contentious issues that divide the two parties from an ideological perspective (Pew Research Center) Other issues like the right to keep and bear arms also keep Americans from coming together. The left’s support of gun control is reaching unprecedented levels (Godfrey, 2020). Gun control is a good example of a partisan divide because, in this writer’s opinion, the second amendment defines the responsibility required to maintain freedom. In America, the right to life is enshrined as a founding value, implying the responsibility to defend your life, is yours.  Unfortunately, neither candidate in the current election truly lives up to the values their voters believe in. For instance, Donald Trump, whether his voters want to admit it or not, has done more to advance gun control than President Obama by banning a device known as a bump stock (Savage 2018). Joe Biden, despite his rhetoric on fairness and equality, helped write the crime bill that caused many of the problems he promises to fix today (Purdom, 2019). Despite these facts, Americans are still loyal to their preferred candidate, believing they have shared values. This type of partisanship results from voting for an individual’s preferred party over many years, based on experience and decision-making that reflects the voter’s convictions (Fiorina, 1981). Cognitive dissonance theory and the idea of confirmation bias may explain this loyalty to America’s preferred political party, despite the obvious contradictions between promises and actions taken.

Defining Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a theory first proposed by Leon Festinger in 1957. The theory attempts to explain contradictions between a person’s attitudes and beliefs, and the way they may behave. In most cases, there is a steady consistency between behavior and beliefs (Festinger, 1957). There are times when the inconsistency is so great, however, that as Festinger (1957) says, it demands the attention of social scientists because the behavior and the belief contrast so strongly.  It is the type of inconsistency in behavior that does not align with the person’s own beliefs, or knowledge pertaining to such behavior that defines cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957).  Festinger (1957) uses smoking as an example. The smoker may know his or her own risk of contracting lung cancer may be great yet chooses to keep smoking. Cognitive dissonance occurs when the individual attempts to rationalize away their own blaring inconsistencies, due to the psychological discomfort the contradiction causes (Festinger, 1957).

Dissonance occurs quite frequently in most people, to some degree (Festinger, 1957). In most cases, it is something that happens whenever an individual is faced with new information that conflicts with what they already know (Festinger, 1957). Dissonance is the knowledge that a particular behavior and the belief behind it are not aligned (Festinger, 1957) and there is some effort to reduce the discomfort. One of the methods in which people reduce this dissonance is to either change their opinions or disregard the sources providing new information (Osgood & Tannenbaum, 1955). This is something commonly seen in politics today. People cling so tightly to the political parties they align with that they often ignore any information that contradicts the reason they support them.

Dissonance, or psychological discomfort brought about by conflicting cognitive beliefs, has come to be viewed as a state of arousal that affects the individual either positively, or negatively (Cooper & Fazio, 1984). When affected negatively, people become motivated to reduce feelings of discomfort (Fazio & Cooper, 1893). This is known as dissonance reduction (Elliot & Devine, 1994). The arousal and resulting discomfort are complete processes in cognitive dissonance (Elliot & Devine, 1994) which lead to the individual attempting to relieve the discomfort by coming up with discomfort reduction strategies (Elliot & Devine, 1994). According to Elliot & Devine (1994), the arousal theory put forth by Cooper & Fazio (1984), has been proven through various studies to be more accurate than dissonance as psychological discomfort alone. Though, in this writer’s opinion, it is difficult to differentiate between arousal and any other stimulus that may cause psychological discomfort. Arousal means to motivate one into action or to be in an excited state. The psychological discomfort theory put forth by Festinger (1957) suggests that certain stimuli’, beliefs, or attitudes that conflict with one another may cause discomfort. The discomfort itself could realistically be viewed as arousal if it causes one to seek ways to alleviate the discomfort.

It has been difficult to determine the effectiveness of dissonance reduction strategies when it comes to psychological discomfort as a motivation paradigm (Elliot & Devine, 1994). More studies have been conducted looking at the issue of dissonance from an arousal viewpoint (Elliot & Devine, 1994). It would be more effective, argue Elliot & Devine (1994) to use Festinger’s (1957) model because Cooper and Fazio’s (1984) theory of arousal does not provide for a direct role of reducing the arousal, only a direct role in the arousal itself, creating dissonance. Elliot & Devine (1994) also claim that Cooper & Fazio’s new look theory (1984), would likely lead to a reduction in arousal, but not discomfort. This is unclear because arousal should be considered discomfort. The arousal itself, in this writer’s opinion, should be viewed as the discomfort caused by inconsistencies between belief and action.

Stone & Cooper (2000) argue that a self-evaluation of an individual’s behavior is done against a standard of the individual’s personal values and beliefs. This is called the self-standards model (Stone & Cooper, 2000). It has been traditionally thought that an individual’s self-esteem plays a major role in dissonance reduction and even the initial arousal (Stone & Cooper, 2000). This thought has stemmed from the other predominant theories of dissonance which are the self-consistency and, the self-affirmation models (Stone & Cooper, 2000).

The self-consistency model argues that a person’s moral beliefs and attitudes come from the moral standards of the community in which they live, or surround themselves with (Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). Cognitive dissonance in this model adheres to the same standard definition of perceived conflictions between a behavior and belief. The defending of the behavior which contradicts a person’s morals is done to maintain a sense of self-competency (Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). Stone & Cooper (2000) argue that an individual’s self-esteem regulates the way they deal with dissonance or the arousal caused by behaviors that challenge their morality. For instance, a person with high self-esteem is more likely to feel the annoyance of behaving in a manner that calls into question a deeply held conviction, whereas a person with low self-esteem may not even notice there is a conflict (Stone & Cooper, 2000).

Self-affirmation theory proposes the same ideas as self-consistency but refers to the theory of dissonance as information that contradicts an individual’s positive image of self, and the system they have developed internally which defines their values (Heine & Darrin, 1997). This is referred to as global self-integrity (Heine & Darrin, 1997). Unlike other models, the self-affirmation model argues that a person can restore their sense of integrity quickly if the dissonance they are experiencing is completely unrelated to their sense of self (Steele, 1988). In other words, people can brush off feelings of dissonance if they have access to other aspects of self that reinforce their own positive self-image (Steele, 1988).

Major areas of study in cognitive dissonance

There are three major areas of study concerning cognitive dissonance (Bem 1967). Forced compliance, free choice, and exposure to information (Bem 1967). Each of these categories explores how the individual responds to the conflicting information within the given paradigm. Forced compliance is the idea that an individual is experiencing dissonance because he was forced to take a position or make a statement that contradicts his own personal beliefs (Bem, 1967). According to Bem (1967), this area of study contributed the most research to the theory of cognitive dissonance. Janis & King (1954), in their paper entitled “The influence of role-playing on opinion change,” noted that when someone is forced to take on a differing opinion, particularly in a role-playing paradigm that emulates real-life difficulties, opinions can be easily persuaded. A good example can be drawn from this writer’s own experience in a Master of Clinical Social Work degree program at the University of Oklahoma. An entire mock city was made, and the students played the role of poor and marginalized people who were all dependent on someone else to get them the things they needed and, to where they needed to go. The exercise could be described as one of the “psychodramatic techniques” (Janis & King, 1957, p. 211) developed for use in education programs. The goal of course, was to get the student to see the need for a welfare state. It has been found with techniques like these, that in many cases, the people playing roles in which they express views that counter their own, frequently change their positions (Janis & King, 1957).

From these studies of forced compliance, it has been determined that dissonance resolution can sometimes be reached by changing one’s opinions (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).  Interestingly, there seems to be a relationship between the social pressure that may be exerted and or, the amount of reward or punishment that may be offered for compliance. In both cases, the tendency to change opinion was reduced when the reward/punishment or social pressure rises above the minimum needed to influence the opinion change (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). This suggests, in this writer’s opinion, that people are eager to fit in, and what may really be driving this opinion change is the need for social acceptance. These findings could possibly have strong implications for how strongly people hold onto their convictions.

The next studies were referred to as the “free choice” studies (Bem, 1967 p. 193). These experiments revolved around the idea that rejected information that was viewed favorably, compared to accepted information that was viewed unfavorably resulted in the dissonance felt by the individual making the choices (Bem, 1967). To reduce this dissonance the individual then makes excuses for the positive aspects of the information he rejected, but views favorably (Bem, 1967.) Bem (1967) puts it simply by saying the individual will overemphasize, so to say, these positive feelings to justify them. This can lead to changes in opinion (Bem, 1967).

Schultz, Leveill & Lepper (1999) also argue that dissonance can be reduced between two choices by giving a higher appraisal to the alternative while lessening stock in the first. This will be discussed later; however, it is a perfect explanation of cognitive dissonance in voting. Donald Trump was the alternative because he was the unknown wild card. A non-traditional player in the paradigm of left and right politics, Hillary Clinton represented the system. Ironically, Schultz et al (1999), point out that greater dissonance results from the two choices being close in their desirability among the choosers. In terms of the 2016 election cycle this would suggest that neither candidate was desirable at any level because as this writer will demonstrate later, cognitive dissonance is high among the voters on both sides.

The final perspective discussed by Bem (1967) is the “exposure to information” perspective (Bem, 1967, p. 195). Exposure to information theory revolves around two main concepts (Bem, 1967). One, is examining the individual after being involuntarily exposed to alternative information (Bem, 1967). Two is an individual’s enthusiasm in seeking out alternative information that contradicts their views, on their own (Bem, 1967). A study conducted by Bramel (1962) suggests that from the former perspective, there is a tendency to project feelings of dissonance onto others to reduce it in themselves. Bramel (1962) posits the idea that this is due to Freudian theories of defense mechanisms kicking in to protect the ego.

As far as the second perspective goes, Bem (1967) cites Freedman & Sears (1965) in saying there is no conclusive evidence that suggests there is a psychological tendency to avoid seeking information that contradicts one’s views. While it has been found that viewers of partisan media regularly seek out news that supports their beliefs, it is unknown if this is done to reduce dissonance (Metzger, Hartsell & Flanigan, 2015). Metzger et al, (2015) suggest that an alternative view is that news viewers see those programs that support their convictions as being more credible. The question this writer would ask is, what is the difference from a social science perspective? If a viewer finds one source as being less credible and chooses the other source because it is more aligned with his attitudes and worldview, isn’t that done to reduce dissonance? Wouldn’t the exposure to information that is non-attitude friendly cause feelings of discomfort that would then cause the individual to seek new information to reduce those feelings?  It is important to note that there is no conclusive evidence of cognitive dissonance in relation to selective exposure because there have been no major studies done (Metzger et al, 2015).

Effort Justification

Effort justification is another aspect of cognitive dissonance that this writer finds to be the most relevant when it comes to American politics. There are aspects of this theory that bear a striking resemblance to some of B.F. Skinner’s ideas concerning operant conditioning as well. It is the idea that the effort put into achieving certain goals can serve as a dissonance reduction mechanism (Cooper & Axsom, 1982). When an individual exerts a high level of effort to achieve a goal that is not viewed as being worth that effort, the individual will give the goal a higher value to justify the effort (Cooper & Axsom, 1982). This justification of effort reduces the tension caused by the conflicting values of the effort and the goal one is trying to achieve (Cooper & Axsom, 1982). This is related to Festinger & Carlsmith’s (1959) ideas on rewards/punishments for compliance or the amount of social pressure, rising above the minimum needed to influence opinion.

Festinger (1961) conducted an experiment with some students who were told they were going to take a test. To sum it up simply, some were told they could use notes and others were told they could not. They were also told that not every student would take the test. Naturally, those who were not able to use the notes studied harder and put more effort into the exam. They also had a higher expectation that they were the ones who would be taking the exam; thus, placing a higher value on their efforts. Festinger (1961) also noted that often, a lack of reward for great effort can produce misunderstood consequences.  For example, he notes there is a reversal of processes of sorts when someone exerts a great deal of effort towards some ordinary goal. The individual will give that ordinary goal a higher value just as if he were highly attracted to it in the first place, simply to justify the effort.

Correlations between Operant Conditioning and Cognitive Dissonance

How does any of this relate to B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning? This writer, after all, did mention there are some similarities. B.F. Skinner has long been a proponent of punishment/reward behavior modification techniques. He believed that through environmental manipulation people’s attitudes and behaviors could be changed. Referring to Festinger & Carlsmith’s (1959) idea of forced compliance, it was theorized by this writer that a desire to fit in could be enough of a motivating factor to influence someone to change their opinion. Skinner (1973, p.91) states that people who get along together under the perceptions of what he refers to as social approval or disapproval are more controlled than under a full-blown police state.

Another point that B.F. Skinner made that relates to the idea of effort justification is that people are easily controlled by the value of the product they support. “Those who work productively because of the reinforcing value of what they produce are under the sensitive and powerful control of the products” (Skinner, 1973 p. 91). This is nearly the same as Cooper & Axsom’s (1982) description of effort justification. The individual places higher value on a goal that was originally viewed as not being worth the effort if a great deal of work is being put in to obtain it. In this writer’s opinion, this phenomenon can be best explained through the facemask mandates taking place across the country in response to the so-called, Covid-19 pandemic.  There was a certain virtue attached to complying with the mandates, despite the contradictory information being released concerning the virus because the public was told wearing a mask will protect others. A good example of contradictory information is the CDC backtracking its claims that Covid is airborne (Ehley, 2020). People now believe there is a greater good attached to wearing a mask and they are emotionally invested in the idea that they are doing this to save humanity. The theory of effort justification would work in this case because there is so much contradictory information concerning the virus that it is unclear whether being forced to wear a mask is worth the effort. Therefore, a higher value is placed on the virus itself, and the damage that forced lockdowns caused to the economy, which in turn justifies the effort in wearing masks.

Confirmation Bias

One final theory that is worth discussing in relation to cognitive dissonance in American voters is the idea of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the idea that people will generally view new information in a way that aligns with their current beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). Nickerson (1998) states that conformation bias occurs when one gathers evidence to support their research that supports the beliefs they held, before conducting the research. This is opposed to gathering evidence that also supports an opposing view and objectively testing one against the other to see which is true. Confirmation bias, according to Knobloch-Westerwick, Mothes & Polavin (2017), bears the same connotations as cognitive dissonance in the sense that attitudes are adapted to avoid psychological discomfort in receiving new information. It has been found that American voters will regularly seek out information that conforms to their beliefs about candidates while ignoring information that conflicts with their views (Knobloch-Westerwick, Mothes & Polavin, 2017). This of course, is something that goes both ways. Confirmation bias, or cognitive dissonance for that matter, is not a partisan phenomenon but theories of human behavior that apply across the board.

Nickerson (1998) also notes that people may treat available evidence in a biased manner if they are motivated to defend a belief. In other words, if people are committed to the belief because they put a lot of faith and effort in its maintenance, they may be more likely to have a bias toward it. Nickerson (1998) also states that people that have no emotional attachment to any type of hypothesis may drive on in a biased manner, but claims there is nothing outside of being partial to our own opinions that accounts for this type of behavior.

Many of the studies conducted on confirmation bias according to Nickerson (1998) confirm that once a person takes a particular side on any issue, or decides to support any cause, they become rooted in that belief and committed to defending it. This is even the case before any alternative positions have been thoroughly examined (Nickerson, 1998). This concept can certainly be applied to partisan politics and the support people have for their chosen candidates even though they rarely live up to the ideals their voters believe they do. One study focused exclusively on the beliefs about the likability and social perceptions of a guest speaker at a college. It was found that the opinion of the speaker was favorable, largely because there were pre-formed opinions based on what the students had already heard about the speaker (Kelley, 1950).  This could be a useful study in explaining people’s refusal to look at the behavior of candidates that contradicts the voter’s values.

Evaluating the evidence

This portion of the paper will primarily focus on the events taking place in the current political climate while attempting to apply the theories previously discussed to the attitudes and beliefs of the American electorate. The writer will try to evaluate the actions taken by the current president/presidential candidates compared to the promises they have made, or the positions they hold, and the reactions of the voters from the perspective of cognitive dissonance and or, confirmation bias affecting the voter’s opinions.

The common belief is that American politics is made up of two conflicting ideologies that are struggling for dominance. This belief is bringing America closer and closer to the edge of societal chaos. As noted, American society is now more polarized on political issues than ever before (Edwards, 2017), and it is the ideological convictions of the two main political parties that are driving this election, as neither is particularly interested in the other’s views (Edwards, 2017).  Every election cycle Americans are seemingly convinced they are participating in the most important election of their lifetimes, and that a vote for their party is what is needed to save the nation from certain doom. Ironically, Saul Alinsky (1971) in the prologue to Rules for Radicals, stated that people can be brought to accept the change they may never have otherwise if they are hopeless about their future. The last election cycles, Trump v. Clinton and the current one, Trump v. Biden sum this up perfectly.

In 2016, American conservatives were feeling hopeless. It was the opinion of many that eight years of Barrack Obama brought the country closer to socialism (Schlesinger, 2010). The 2016 presidential election was sold to the public as the most important in history as it was feared Hillary Clinton, who wrote her college thesis “There is only the fight” on Saul Alinsky’s community organizing methods, would pound the final nail in the coffin. In response, the right rallied around Donald Trump, whom they believed was a conservative republican. It could be theorized that conservatives were giving a higher value to Donald Trump based on their own ideas, or what they had heard about him being conservative. This is despite the evidence to the contrary.  Schultz, Leveill & Lepper’s (1999) assessment of dissonance reduction could be applied here in this writer’s opinion because greater dissonance resulted from the two choices not being completely desirable. It is this writer’s opinion that Donald Trump would never have been an accepted conservative candidate if the republicans did not perceive the nation to be in so much trouble at the end of Obama’s eight years.  A higher value was assigned to Trump because the alternative, from the perspective of the republican party, had no value so, it became an issue of Trump having to be elected to save the nation. Praising Trump served as giving a higher value to the alternative (Schultz, Leveill & Lepper’s 1999) because Clinton represented the system and four more years of the same. Theoretically speaking, Republicans became so hopeless in their future that they accepted change they didn’t really understand, and they reduced this psychological discomfort, according to Schultz, Leveill & Lepper (1999) by placing higher moral value on Trump in order to justify their support.

The dissonance in voters seems to rest in their belief that we are a system of two political parties duking it out for dominance. Both parties believe that their respective worldview reflects what is best for the nation. According to Bolstad, Dinas & Riera (2013), cognitive dissonance plays a role in voting from the perspective that dissonance reduction occurs as an individual’s evaluation of their preferred party continues to grow every time they cast a vote for them. They also noted that is a tendency that appears stronger in voters whose party won the election (pp. 432-433), and this was something not generally found in people who had no preference for any particular candidate (Bolstad, et al, 2013). Furthermore, Converse (1976) noted that a voter’s party preference is likely to be reinforced through experience and continuous voting for that party. These ideas could be applied alongside Schultz, Leveill & Lepper’s (1999) idea as neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton reflected the best of what the voters expected. By drawing on experience, and relating Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan, conservative voters reduced the dissonance by placing their faith in their experience and voted the way they did, simply because that is the way they always vote. Also, as Bolstad et al (2013) noted, the reinforced support for President Trump could be the result of dissonance being reduced through the winning of the election. They have been rewarded in their efforts of supporting Trump to the point that their support of him becomes unbreakable.

Perhaps the best example of cognitive dissonance in conservative voters is Donald Trump’s actions against the second amendment. Throughout President Obama’s eight years, and rightfully so as Democrats today promise to enact more gun control (Godfrey, 2020), conservatives feared he would take executive action banning certain firearms. This is theoretically, one of the reasons Donald Trump won the conservative vote. Since being in office, President Trump has enacted the Bump Stock ban via executive order (Savage 2018) and, shown open support for confiscating firearms from those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others without due process (Landers, 2018). This is known as a red flag law. Both actions have set dangerous precedents that set the stage for further unconstitutional actions against the second amendment.

The Bump Stock ban, for example, violated the constitution’s ex-post facto law by turning hundreds of thousands of American citizens into felons for failing to surrender a product that was previously deemed to be perfectly legal (Sullum, 2019). Ex post facto law is the prohibition of enacting legislation that turns a once peaceful and legal activity, into a crime (Cornell Law School). Furthermore, the bump stock was illegally classified as a machine gun by the ATF (Sullum, 2019). Only Congress can change laws, and the federal law concerning machine guns states that a machine gun is one pull of the trigger for a continuous fire mechanism (Sullum, 2019). Bump stocks do not even produce continuous fire under this definition (Sullum, 2019). They simply harness the recoil, allowing the shooter’s trigger finger to pull the trigger faster (Sullum, 2019). The weapon, therefore, is still operating in a semi-automatic mode. The bump stock itself does not even have a trigger of its own. Classifying an object with no trigger as a machine gun by illegally reinterpreting existing law sets a dangerous precedent that can possibly be acted on by any future president over any accessory.

This was an action that certainly caused dissonance in Trump voters. Many responded by saying he was simply giving the gun grabbers on the left a bone. Take this comment from Quora.com from a Trump supporter as an example of the overall attitude towards what would probably be considered an infringement had the Democrats done it. “I think it is a tactic to appease the liberals. You don’t need a bump stock to bump fire a semi-auto rifle as it can be done simply by holding the rifle in a certain way.” While this individual is correct about the device itself, he, like many others, is not looking at the information behind the ban and seeing the larger consequence. It could be argued under the theory of effort justification (Cooper & Axsom, 1982) that they are holding on to their belief that it was imperative for Trump to win, and his victory against Hillary Clinton represented a win for the second amendment; therefore, they will refuse to consider the possibility that the man may not be who they thought he was. Bem’s (1967) exposure to information theory fits well here also. This theory examines a willingness on the part of an individual to seek out alternative information on their own and, their reaction to being involuntarily exposed to alternative information (Bem, 1967). While there is no significant evidence of psychologically avoiding alternative views (Freedman & Sears 1965), there is a tendency to project feelings of dissonance onto others to reduce them (Bramel 1962). This is something that is definitely occurring as questioning Trump’s ban on the device while pointing out the potential consequences, has gotten this writer kicked out of several pro-gun Facebook groups and labeled as a “never Trumper.”

Red flag laws are another issue where there is obvious dissonance occurring among Trump voters. Red flag laws are an extremely dangerous precedent to set because they enable family members, friends or law enforcement officials to petition a judge to issue an extreme risk protection order against an individual who is deemed to be a threat (Williams, 2019). The individual in question does not have to be charged with a crime to have an order filed against them. Someone simply must suggest they may be a danger to themselves or others and have the knowledge they possess firearms. Red flag laws, therefore, deny an individual their due process protection (Williams, 2019). Donald Trump, on live television, sitting with known anti-gun Senators like Diane Feinstein publicly stated his support for red flag laws by saying “Take the guns first, go through due process second” (Jackson, Shesgreen & Gaudiano, 2018). Trump also stated that he believed Republican congressmen were “petrified of the NRA” while calling on congress to come up with a gun control bill (Jackson, Shesgreen & Gaudiano, 2018). One policy proposal that conservatives were willingly awaiting was a national concealed carry bill. This, according to Jackson, Shesgreen & Gaudiano (2018) was crushed in the same meeting.

Here we have Donald Trump, whom the conservative base, most of which are gun owners, is rallying around under the belief that he will save the second amendment. In his own book, The America We Deserve, he states that he supports a ban on assault weapons and longer waiting periods to purchase a firearm (p. 102). Still, countless articles appear in social media, along with memes on Facebook, which depict Donald Trump as a second amendment warrior and, failing to vote for him spells certain doom for gun rights. Which it could; however, they appear to be doomed either way. This writer believes that Thibodeau & Aronson’s (1992) self-consistency model of cognitive dissonance applies here. Donald Trump loyalists are defending their support for him out of fear of realizing their own incompetency in judging him for who he was. They need to maintain the belief that their choice to support him was the correct one not for his sake, but for the maintenance of their own self-esteem (Stone & Cooper, 2000). The theory of effort justification (Cooper & Axsom, 1982) also works because there was so much hope in Donald Trump, and there still is, of being the one to return America to greatness that no one wants to face the possibility he will support policies opposed by his voters.

While gun control marks a huge policy issue that causes dissonance in conservative voters, it is not the only one. There are several others where Donald Trump supporters refuse to review available evidence suggesting the actions of their president directly contradict their values, and the things they believe he is doing. The debt is another example. Conservatives are concerned with sound fiscal policy and Donald Trump has increased the national debt by 5.2 trillion dollars (Rodriguez, 2010). This is about the same rate that the debt grew under Obama as he also spent 5 trillion in his first three years in office (Rodriguez, 2020). Conservatives by and large, ignore this information. The theory of confirmation bias could fit here, in this writer’s opinion, as voters have attached themselves to the belief that voting for Trump was necessary to end spending. There has been a nonstop slew of propaganda from talking heads such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh discussing how great the economy is doing without mentioning the increase in debt. Voters, therefore, attach themselves to this belief and defend it (Nickerson, 1998) while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. Nickerson (1998) argued that people would often defend their position when committed to a belief before even looking at any other position.

Cognitive dissonance exists in Democrat voters as well. This writer focused a great deal on Trump voters because as a conservative Republican who voted for Trump, he believes it is imperative to the cause of liberty that you question the person you voted for. One of the major issues of dissonance for Democrat voters lies in the issues of systematic racism and disproportionate rates of incarceration. Joe Biden is running his presidential campaign on the promise of ending it; however, he helped write the bill that arguably, contributed to it in the first place (Purdom, 2019). A bill no less signed by a Democrat president. There is some question as to what extent the bill itself contributed to larger incarcerations (Lopez, 2020) however, it is clear that at the time Biden supported measures that were tough on crime, and the bill granted states the necessary money to enact tougher criminal reform penalties (Lopez, 2020). It has been argued that these penalties disproportionally led to higher rates of incarceration for minorities (Lopez, 2020).  Biden has also been exposed recently for something he said back in 1977 which indicates he was a supporter of segregation (Alic, 2019). According to Alic, (2019) Biden, a first-term senator expressed concern about his own children growing up in what he called, a racial jungle, over a desegregation issue concerning bussing. Furthermore, Biden’s latest gaff on live television where he said, “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” shows his deep-rooted racism (Bradner, Mucha & Saenz, 2010). Despite these inconsistencies, Democrat voters seem to believe that Biden best represents, and will fight for, racial equality. This election proves that voters are committed to the party despite blaring contradictions between promises and policies.

Final Discussion

Cognitive dissonance is the theory that explains contradictions between people’s beliefs and their behaviors (Festinger, 1957). This paper examined the different theories of cognitive dissonance by exploring the beliefs of, mostly conservative voters, and the promises made by the current Republican president, Donald Trump. Support remains high for President Trump among his voters despite the obvious contradictions between their values and the policy issues he has pushed. Particularly concerning the second amendment and spending. In this writer’s opinion, Donald Trump is pushing the same policy items, especially concerning gun control, that would have been pursued by a Democrat president. This paper showed the potential consequences, for example, of the bump stock ban and red flag laws, how they damage the constitutional protection of natural rights, and how the general response is that the President is enacting some kind of strategy to discredit the Democrats. In this writer’s opinion, cognitive dissonance is occurring in voters across the political spectrum. Every four years Americans become fiercely committed to their chosen political candidates because they believe those candidates best reflect their values and convictions (Fiorina, 1981). Closely examining the actions of both parties, however, suggests that they are working together in many ways. Take the debt, for example, Donald Trump increased it by 5 trillion, as did Obama (Rodriguez, 2020). The spending of other people’s money seems to be something that Republicans and Democrats agree on. It is also hard to imagine that Democrats who are supportive of gun control would disagree with the actions Trump has taken, except to the extent that perhaps they do not go far enough, fast enough. In this writer’s opinion, the greatest level of cognitive dissonance exists in the belief that there are two political parties opposing one another when in fact, they are working together to achieve the larger policy objectives they agree on.

The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies… is a foolish idea. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can throw the rascals out at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies. (Quigley, 1966, p. 1247)

 

Works Cited

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Article posted with permission from David Risselada

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