Cognitive dissonance and tea parties

From the NY Times:

When Tom Grimes lost his job as a financial consultant 15 months ago, he called his congressman, a Democrat, for help getting government health care.

Then he found a new full-time occupation: Tea Party activist.

In the last year, he has organized a local group and a statewide coalition, and even started a “bus czar” Web site to marshal protesters to Washington on short notice. This month, he mobilized 200 other Tea Party activists to go to the local office of the same congressman to protest what he sees as the government’s takeover of health care.

Mr. Grimes is one of many Tea Party members jolted into action by economic distress. At rallies, gatherings and training sessions in recent months, activists often tell a similar story in interviews: they had lost their jobs, or perhaps watched their homes plummet in value, and they found common cause in the Tea Party’s fight for lower taxes and smaller government.

The Great Depression, too, mobilized many middle-class people who had fallen on hard times. Though, as Michael Kazin, the author of “The Populist Persuasion,” notes, they tended to push for more government involvement. The Tea Party vehemently wants less — though a number of its members acknowledge that they are relying on government programs for help.

These people don’t necessarily have contradictory beliefs (one can still believe that X is wrong while doing X, and one can still believe that it shouldn’t be possible to do X while doing X). But there is certainly a tension between their actions and their beliefs. I find myself thinking there’s got to be a philosophical literature on this. Do any of you know it? (One gets structurally similar cases with weakness of will– thinking X is wrong while still doing X. But that seems like the wrong analysis for these cases– it’s not like these people are thinking “I wish I could stop myself from collecting these benefits, but I just can’t resist!” Among other disanalogies, they don’t seem to see the problem.)

6 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance and tea parties

  1. Like the rumor that a certain former governor of Alaska admits she’s gone to Canada for health care.

  2. Something very similar to what you are discribing sometimes pops up in connection to philosophers whose work on justice suggest we all have vey demanding obligations, while the authors themselves don’t always live up to these standards. (And then, one of their readers aks the question: “how come you don’t do what you yourself argue is the right thing to do?”). Particularly with respect to global justice, and particularly when the philosopher in question is a consequentialist – for example Peter Singer. And perhaps there might be something useful in connection to your question in Jerry Cohen’s book “If you’re and egalitarian how come you’re so rich?”

  3. Anca Gheaus, if you’re suggesting Peter Singer doesn’t live up to the high standards for the high standards that he argues for (I was a little confused by your phrasing, so I’m not sure this is what you’re saying), I’ve always heard exactly the opposite. I’ve never met him myself, but I’ve heard he’s been vegetarian and donated a large part (maybe even most) of his income to Oxfam every year.

    Anyways, the post is on Tea Partiers. I find them quite interesting, both as a political philosopher who’s interested in populism and public participation in politics and as a liberal-leftist who has conservative family members (including at least one self-proclaimed Tea Partier). Currently, I don’t think either individual Tea Partiers or their movement as a whole has even a consistent set of central beliefs or values. It’s not a stable political coalition of any sort, but rather just a banner under which people with radically different views can gather. `Abolition’, leading up to the US Civil War, was the same sort of thing. This is why Tea Party rallies involve both people who are downright crazy and dangerous (violent racists; people with paranoid views about religion, abortion, and guns; compare to John Brown) and quite reasonable-sounding libertarians and small-r republicans who worry about encroachments on freedom and independence (compare to Lincoln, who preferred gradual abolition for the sake of avoiding war).

    If the their movement has some lasting power and matures a bit, I think (hope) we’ll see the people with crazy views marginalized, and the development of a far more coherent set of views on policy and central beliefs or values. A few months ago, this post on a conservative blog got me thinking that this more coherent set of views might actually look like a conservative version of Philip Pettit’s republicanism, with freedom understood as independence from arbitrary authority. But that’s probably mostly sheer speculation on my part.

  4. I’ve wondered about this… What do Tea Partiers do when they lose health care? Apparently, they turn to the government for help! If you read the NYT article just a tad further than the quote Jender included, it’s spelled out: Grimes is collecting social security. Thatis the cognitive dissonance: Believing that the government should not assist people while receiving government assistance. Although, I’d call it hypocritical.

  5. Sometimes I can see the problem and then other times it seems less clear. I can imagine driving to a protest against the way my city is dependent on the car. But I don’t have a reasonable alternative – or may not, if we set the example up properly.

    Paul Griffiths remarks in his book on emotion that philosophers think weakness of the will is a problem only because they have a very simple and wrong idea about what the mind is like. Dennett’s views support a similar conclusion. I’m inclined to agree. I think philosophers tend to think of one’s beliefs as forming a short paper on a word processor, which one can repeatedly scan and revise, and then press an “act” button. Instead, getting them together can be very hard. However, there is scanning and revising one ought to do, and I’m inclined to agree with R and call at least some of the actions hypocritical.

  6. @ Noumena: you’re right, my phrasing was confusing – sorry for this. I’ve read a couple of times about people challenging Peter Singer for his decision to give money for the medical treatment of his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. (I really have no opinion at all on the question of Singer’s behaviour and how it fits with his philosophical views – I simply found this story philosophically interesting, although sad.) His detractors accused him of hypocrisy, and one could suggest weakness of will as an alternative interpretation of Singer’s decision. But he himself said, in an interview, that “perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother” – and to me this sounds more like cognitive dissonance than like either hypocrisy or weak will.

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