Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Chicago, Illinois, USA
September 11
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

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MARCH 29, 2010 11:40AM

Cognitive Dissonance and the Tea Bagger Phenomenon

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Concept: Cognitive Dissonance

In 1957, Leon Festinger published a theory of cognitive dissonance,  which has changed the way psychologists look at decision-making and  behavior.[1] At its heart, cognitive dissonance theory is rather simple.  It begins with the idea of cognitions. Cognitions are simply bits of  knowledge. They can pertain to any variety of thoughts, values, facts,  or emotions. For instance, the fact that I like ice cream is a  cognition. So is the fact that I am a man. People have countless  cognitions in their heads.

Most cognitions have nothing to do with each other. For instance, the  two cognitions mentioned before (that I am a man and that I like ice  cream) are unrelated. Some cognitions, however, are related. For  instance, perhaps I have a sweet tooth and I like ice cream. These  cognitions are "consonant," meaning that they are related and that one  follows from the other. They go together, so to speak.

However, sometimes we have cognitions that are related, but do not  follow from one another. In fact, they may be opposites. For instance,  perhaps I like ice cream, but I am also trying to lose weight. These two  thoughts are problematic -- if I eat ice cream, then I may gain weight,  and if I really want to lose weight then I cannot eat ice cream. These  types of cognitions are referred to as "dissonant."

The basic idea behind cognitive dissonance theory is that people do not  like to have dissonant cognitions. In fact, many people argue that the  desire to have consonant cognitions is as strong as our basic desires  for food and shelter. As a result, when someone does experience two or  more dissonant cognitions (or conflicting thoughts), they will attempt  to do away with the dissonance.


The masses are indeed asses.

This week has yielded a bushel (or two) of research on the political ecology of the Tea Party, Republicans. Not surprisingly, they have minimal knowledge of actual government policies, are ill informed on the issues which they ostensibly care about, are immersed in the Fox News, Right-wing echo chamber, and simultaneously want "the government out of their lives" while also wanting the government to improve their lives.

Question: Are the Tea Party members A) Dumb or B) Stupid

In helping you to reach a conclusion, I offer this piece from the Washington Monthly which nicely sums up the less than cogent thinking of the typical Tea Bagger:

UNAWARE OF THE CONTRADICTION.... There's an old joke that goes  something like this: my neighbor went to public schools before joining  the military. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, bought his first home  through the FHA, and received his health care through the V.A. and  Medicare. He now receives Social Security. 

He's a conservative because he wants to get the government off his  back. 

I mention the joke because a surprising number of right-wing  activists don't seem to appreciate the humor. We talked  the other day, for example, about a radical libertarian activist  who encourages his allies to throw bricks through the windows of  Democratic offices to protest the Affordable Care Act. He hates  government involvement in the lives of citizens -- but his main income  is taxpayer-financed disability checks sent to him every month by the  federal government. 

This is not uncommon. The NYT  reports today on some of the well-intention folks who've been  caught up in the Tea Party nonsense. Take Tom Grimes, for example. 

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. [...] 

"If you quit giving people that stuff, they would figure out how  to do it on their own," Mr. Grimes said. 

When Grimes lost his job 15 months ago, one of his first steps was  contacting his congressman about available programs that might give him  access to government health care. He receives Social Security, and is  considering a job opening at the Census Bureau. But in the meantime,  Grimes has filled the back seat of his Mercury Grand Marquis with  literature decrying government aid to struggling Americans. 

The same article noted the efforts of Diana Reimer, considered a  "star" right-wing activist in her efforts against government programs, a  campaign she describes as her "mission." Reimer, of course, currently  enjoys Social Security and the socialized medicine that comes with  Medicare. 

The cognitive dissonance is rather remarkable. They perceive the  government as the source of their economic distress -- which itself  doesn't make sense -- and then rely on the government to give them a  hand, all the while demanding that the government do less to give people  a hand. Their reflexive hatred for public programs is so irrational,  they don't even see the contradiction. 

"After a year of angry debate," the Times article noted,  "emotion outweighs fact." 

That's no doubt true. But that doesn't change the fact that we're  talking about a reasonably large group of people who are deeply,  tragically misguided. 

This is important to the extent that there are still some who believe  the political mainstream should do more to listen to the Tea Party  crowd and take its hysterical cries seriously. But how can credible  people take nonsense seriously and hope to come up with a meaningful  result? How can policymakers actually address substantive challenges  while following the advice of angry mobs who reject reason and evidence? 

The bottom line seem inescapable: too many Tea Party activists have  no idea what they're talking about. Their sincerity notwithstanding,  this is a confused group of misled people.

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But you see, they deserve the handout. They've earned it, and thus, it's not a handout. It's a payout.

They're afraid of who ELSE is gonna get some. And they're sure that whoever it is, won't deserve it. The RWMM (right-wing media machine) has furthered the messages of fear that inspire these folks. And I feel sorry for those folks, I really do. I just think that maybe they'll never get a clue. It's really sad.
Cognitive dissonance is the point of the tea party!
I agree with these statements, but I cannot bring myself to post a comment about them, and I wont, no matter how badly I want to.
Just remember, the last "confused group of misled people" led 10 million Europeans off to the gas chambers.
Kind of like some religions, there's free will and then there's praying for your God to intervene on your behalf (usually for a selfish reason).
You want confused...look at the average electorate. As far as dismissing these people as know nothings, I suggest you are doing your side a great disservice. This is just as much a viable movement as any Anti War movement was.
Thanks for so clearly laying out the tragic results of this sad bunch of people. I would think that it would literally *hurt* having to carry around two opposing thoughts on such an important topic.

Maybe that explains all their misspellings and such?

Their head hurts so much they have a hard time focusing on the task at hand - i.e., Is ObamaHitler one word or two - Obama Hitler?
The problem is that people deal with anecdotes much better than data. You can find some undeserving, cheating, scamming, loafing scum to support your idea that your hard-earned taxdollar is supporting bums. You can find a struggling, handicapped widow with 5 children under age 5, two jobs and a foreclosed house to support your idea that every dollar in social services puts food in a malnourished kid's mouth.

Data is aggregating all of this into a realistic picture, but you tend to get 2.4 kids. And if you do it wrong, you can end up with the proverbially typical human who has with slightly less than 2 arms, one testicle and one ovary.
Chauncey, when people are poor, desperate, and fearful, very little needs to make sense. The ones I can't stand are the Party powerful who are catering to the deluded masses.
yes, that is the tragedy. i hate to use the once trendy and overused diagnosis of "false consciousness" but with the tea baggers it would seem to fit.

we know that the powerful are orchestrating their movement, and as always the fissures of race and class are being used to fuel white racial resentment (this information is readily available for anyone who cares to look and these folks are so immersed in the Right wing echo chamber they deny the obvious).

in the tea party imagination the problems in the country are caused by "those people"...but those people are not the corporate masters who look just like the average tea party member. they are immigrants, brown folk, some Other etc. mixed with some general anger at "the system."

such misdirected rage which is why real systemic change in this country is hard in coming.

i may do a longer post on this, but so much of this can be traced back to 1) deep rooted histories in the country where whiteness and middle class , and white privilege are conflated as part of the social contract in the Consumers Republic and 2) some really interesting research that suggests that when the tea party/former reagan democrat/white conservative hears "less taxes" or "gov't spending" they immediately are primed to think of racial minorities getting some undeserved goods from the State. It is really sick actually, how race structures public opinion on the part of Conservatives on issues that ostensibly have nothing to do with people of color.

Such easy strings to pull for their puppet masters, no?
Lenin used the phrase "useful idiots". Seems appropriate here as well.
"There's an old joke that goes something like this: my neighbor went to public schools before joining the military. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, bought his first home through the FHA, and received his health care through the V.A. and Medicare. He now receives Social Security.

He's a conservative because he wants to get the government off his back. "

Public schools have been around for a long time and began (properly) as community run and financed. The federal government had zero to do with them, and still should be controlled by the states, having not been provided for in the U.S. Constitution.
The military is a volunteer organization with contracted help, and the benefits that go along with signing up to protect and defend and perhaps get shot at. Just as anyone retiring from a major corporation with pension and medical benefits as part of the employment agreement, the retiring military person has EARNED the pay and medical benefits, as well as the G.I. Bill. If that person actually has the retirement pay and VA medical care, then they would have purchased their first home more likely through the VA loan program. These benefits are set up to make up for the fact that our military men and women are for the most part seriously underpaid, and have difficulties as part of the job that most civilian positions do not have. A person can do those things and still resent a government that has grown too large and intrusive into their lives. We can accept limited areas of government benefits (there should be SOME benefits to government after all), without accepting and inviting every possible program and benefit out there. If you are opposed to the centralization of power (which I am), you will be opposed to the massive corporations and their amassing power and influence, AND to the great powers being grabbed and legislated by the federal government. The Patriot Act is one such power grab that I am opposed to. In the health care debate, my opposition is that the government is forcing it's citizens to purchase a product from the very corporations that many believe are a huge part of the problem with health care in the U.S. I am not opposed to regulation of the insurance companies, in fact, I think the government's legitimate place is to provide a redress of grievances against the insurance companies when they break faith with current and potential policy holders.

I hope I am wrong about the health care bill. I don't give a crap about the skin color of our president, I have been a huge fan of Alan Keyes for some time, and would have happily voted for him. I do, however, think that while there are likely some who feel that their brand or color of America is slipping away, refusing to look at any of the legitimate arguments they make provides more fuel. But then again, there is little civil discourse about areas of disagreement anywhere.
These people are not very bright,
give them a gun,
and of course I'm gonna run.
maybe we should rename it the Nonsense party.
yeah the concept of a "commons" which is a basic scientific object is also very critical here. the conservatives deny the basic reality that govt controls the "commons" built up by taxes.
I don't see it as entirely dissonant. TB's idea of government on their backs is rather dark. There' are expectations of intrusion and humiliation, of "meddling" into one's private affairs, 'death panels' and such. In reality those government programs and institutions you are talking about in your post aren't that intrusive, they are most of the time designed to be user friendly and helpful to those in need, and there are no built-in humiliation mechanisms. Government programs as experienced and government programs as described by some TB lunatics are two different animals altogether, so some people fail to "grow" some dissonance. That certainly doesn't speak well for their ability to interpret what's going on around them or a certain propensity for hypocrisy, but it makes for pretty funny jokes
I saw a tea-bagger being interviewed on TV complaining about how all the freedoms they enjoy are being taken away. Huh? Exactly what freedoms are they talking about? Yet this person seemed so earnest and concerned. The interviewer pressed a bit and out came stuff about "socialism", which presumably (if it refers to anything at all) has to do with health care, a "government takeover" - while to other people it looks like a delivery of new customers to the insurance companies.

I do think it ultimately comes down to the older, lower-middle-class, white people whose world is collapsing - but that's due to (a) Bush and his wars, and (b) globalization, very little to do with the past year where a non-white, etc. person has been trying to fix things...

Here's hoping demographics make this less of a problem in coming generations...

Meanwhile, I'm happy to watch from afar...
My question is this: does one have to be able to think in any kind of coherent fashion to experience cognitive dissonance? The thought patterns of the teabaggers seem to be organized along purely irrational lines.

And they're crazy, too.
Somehow, their freedom to march around carrying mis-spelled signs with ignorant slogans never seems to be in doubt!
There's an old joke that goes something like this: my neighbor went to public schools before joining the military. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, bought his first home through the FHA, and received his health care through the V.A. and Medicare. He now receives Social Security.

He's a conservative because he wants to get the government off his back.

There is a big difference what the government can do for you and what they can do TO you.
First, Chauncey, I must say that this piece is mostly well-done, so kudos. Maybe a bit heavy on the name-calling, which I don't really disagree with but seems to do little to elevate your position. Second, love your pic.

Most of all--I have never liked the "but WE deserve it" excuse for the greed and self-serving attitude, nor have I had any stomach for letting the government do things for us. Yes, veterans have earned it. Frankly they've earned a free ride for the remainder of their lives if you ask me--if you don't think so, then I'll see you down at the recruiting office. But to say that one must "deserve" to get life-saving, vital treatment? I don't mean chiropractic treatment or annual Pap smears...I mean the big stuff. Apparently little Sarah with the mom who lost her job at the day care doesn't deserve to get treatment for her diabetes because she hasn't earned it. And Joe and Martha, who ran their own successful hardware store for fifteen years until WalMart came to town, can just forget about Joe's heart surgery unless they sell everything they have left and put themselves on the dole for the remainder of their lives. Years of volunteering for and donating to Habitat for Humanity? The son they lost in Iraq? Means nothing, I guess. Obviously they, too, should not expect to be able to get any relief, because, after all, they didn't earn it. I am not a history scholar, but I do recall the whole bit about ", liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..." See the "life" part? Yes, there should be a limit to what the government does for us. But I do not believe we should be spending billions of dollars every month to wage 2 wars, not to mention the other meddling we do, only to leave our own people dying and destitute while, while we cry about the taxes we pay. It's more than dissonant. It's crazy.

There was a recent NYTimes article with ideas from doctors on how we really could have reformed health care in a good way.... it's at .
I mention this mostly to say that the article mentions things that almost all Americans (with the obvious exception of insurance companies) could get behind. Because, by and large, they are common sense.

Where did common sense go in this argument-turned-battle-turned-travesty? I don't like the bill that was passed, not one little bit. It's loaded with crap, and it is certain to just make insurers even more profit in the long haul. But the response of the anti- crowd seems so over-the-top, and I don't just mean on YouTube. A guy at work, normal family-man Republican guy, when he mentions the people spitting and talking about oiling their guns and such, says, "Well, when you go against what the people want, what do you expect?" I mean, ...damn. No longer, apparently, should the constitutional remedies for addressing your concerns be followed. No longer can people be expected to follow the law and protest peacefully. All for the almighty BUCK. People have lost their hearts and minds.
Very well and rationally written mister DeVega. Like others, I take a bit of issue with the name calling, but you stay mostly outside the shrill ranting a lot of authors have been showing and don't just flat out dismiss the movement as stupid people.

Let's not forget the height of this, when the whole healthcare debate started "Keep the government's hands out of my medicare"

To complete the use of the cognitive dissonance phenomenon as an explanation for the tea baggers, you have to specify how they accomplish reduction in dissonance. As you said: "when someone does experience two or more dissonant cognitions (or conflicting thoughts), they will attempt to do away with the dissonance."

In this case, you could say that they believe they are independent and self sustaining people, but their behavior demonstrates that they rely and depend on government, so to reduce the dissonance, they form the thought that the government is their oppressor.

Or you could say that they reduce dissonance by simply not thinking at all.

... or you could skip the social psychology explanation and go right for the Freudian interpretation: they are attached to the role of the government as mother (suckling at the breast) and seek to destroy the father (the government as authority) in an Oedipal fashion.

I have some thoughts on this in my post about the IRS plane bomber/terrorist at

These teabaggers are not in anyway experiencing "cognitive dissonance". A rational person would experience cognitive dissonance, which would make him or her uncomfortable. These people are motivated by primeval hate and stupendous selfishness; its as simple as that. They like their government "assistance checks" medicare etc., they expect that from the government except they do not want or like the idea that African-Americans are getting it too...after all, as far as they are concerned African-Americans have no needs that they (the racists) are bound to acknowledge; no rights they are bound to respect. All this hyper-ventilation about the constitution and the federal debt and second amendment rights is just a smokescreen to cover the shame of their own bestiality and moral degeneration.
Nice analysis but wrong. A better understanding of Tea Baggers can be had by reading the Right Wing Authorial Followers which is a free book available on line.
Favorite teabager line:


Great piece, nice work!
Oh, btw, I posted it on my FB page!
Well...The irony is almost more than I can bear... To claim that your position is the intelligent one while insulting those who disagree should be the poster boy/girl for your understanding of cognitive dissonance. That's what Rush Limbaugh does, by the way, if you didn't realize it.

You want people to accept your intelligent opinion and then call them stupid. Great.