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Stacy column: Cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Those who know me well know my favorite Montgomery watering hole has always been Bud’s. Being the COVID-cautious type, I’ve only been a few times since March, but I found myself filling a barstool this past Friday long enough to grab a to-go order (the chicken sandwich is undefeated) and catch up briefly with old friends. As much as I enjoy visiting with my barfly buddies, it’s a special treat seeing Bubba, Montgomery’s most beloved bartender. We were careful not to talk too much politics, but in a week when the U.S. Capitol was just ransacked by a mob, the subject was hard to avoid.

“What can you say?” I told Bubba. I really didn’t know what to say.  

He did, thankfully, in just a few words.

“Cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug,” he said. 

Like the many wise barmen who have come before him, Bubba was right. 

So much of what has occurred these last few years in our politics can be attributed to cognitive dissonance, the psychological theory that explains why we often choose self-delusion over facts that conflict with our own beliefs. It came from Leon Festinger, who observed that the human mind experiences this dissonance, or mental pain, when confronted with information that contradicts our beliefs or behavior. Like nails on a chalkboard, it hurts our heads, and we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it, including rationalizing or explaining away what we believe to be true so that the dissonance fades and the pain stops. 

In the heat of a football game, it’s a lot less mentally painful to believe that the referees are blowing it than to accept the reality that our team just isn’t as good as we thought (Take one look at my Twitter account during an Auburn game and you’ll see this on full display). For some parents, it’s a lot easier to think a teacher or coach is out to get their kid than it is to come to the realization that their seemingly perfect child might have learning or behavioral problems. 

In politics, cognitive dissonance is everywhere, especially in our current hyperpartisan environment. Conservatives and liberals barely coexist in the same reality. It’s not just our views that differ, but our sense of what’s real and true. It’s a trend that has been exacerbated by Facebook algorithms and media companies who profit from catering to what we want to hear, rather than confronting us with ideas we’ve not considered. Maddow and Hannity spin eight minute monologues of performance outrage every night, producing dopamine-infused anger binges because that’s what partisans crave. When people are rarely confronted with information they don’t like, they learn little about how to deal with it. And so we find ourselves in a society where, as Malcolm Gladwell observes, fellow countrymen can barely communicate with one another. 

I’ve argued for a while that this trend whittles away the foundation of our Republic, but I honestly never imagined it could almost crumble it. The atrocity we saw last Wednesday as the mob stormed the United States Capitol was the logical end to a dangerous road we’ve been going down for some time. 

Here’s what I mean: the mouthbreathers who stormed the Capitol absolutely believed in every fiber of their being that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump and, in a way, from them. Why did they believe this so ardently? To start, much like a favorite sports team, they wanted him to win. In some cases that went deeper into religiosity, and when God is on your side, the other side must be cheating if they win, right?  Also, Trump himself had been directly and repeatedly telling supporters for months that the only way Biden could win the election is if Democrats stole it, a sentiment that became a cemented belief among most Republican voters after rattling around the conservative echo chamber for months. 

So, when allegations of systemic voter fraud did occur, many Republicans eagerly accepted it as fact because it reinforced an already strongly held belief  — a belief that would not change even when confronted with evidence that some allegations were misinformed and others outright made up. This belief survived through multiple recounts, several dozen state and federal court cases, state vote certifications, the meeting of the Electoral College, right up to the point when Congress was certifying the election for good. These Americans truly believed in their souls that our democracy had been stolen away, and when you truly believe that, storming the halls of government doesn’t seem all that crazy to you. 

As Voltaire wrote, “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” 

I’m not excusing the rioters. Far from it. Every one of the insurrectionists ought to be arrested and sent to Leavenworth as far as I’m concerned.  I just want to figure out how we can do better.

The effort in Congress to object to and overturn election results from several states didn’t cause the riot by itself, but it was a factor. Why? Because 147 Republican congressmen and senators, including seven from Alabama, communicated to their constituents that they were right, the election had been stolen. Those pronouncements may not have come in so many words from each one, but that’s what Trump supporters heard when these lawmakers lent their credibility and authority to this frightening belief. 

I don’t think Congressman Mo Brooks’ speech to the Trump rally caused the riot by itself, but it didn’t help. Telling any Washington crowd to “stop at the Capitol” and that “today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass” would be out of bounds on any Wednesday, but when the crowd is full of people convinced their country is on the brink of an illegal, traitorous takeover, they take it as pretty instructive. Now in his sixth term, Brooks should know better. 

Words matter. When you’re a congressman or senator, they matter a great deal. And when you’re communicating to an audience as amped up as the Trump loyalists are, your words can have dangerous consequences. 

Joe Biden won the election. Donald Trump got more votes than any Republican in history by a lot, but Biden got more and, most importantly, won the states he needed to secure the presidency under the Constitution. I get that’s a drag for a lot of folks, but that’s what happened. Were there cases of voter fraud? Absolutely. There are every year, and it should not be taken lightly. But it never came close to the level needed to overturn the election results, and the stories floating around alleging otherwise are either outdated, disproven or both. That is the truth. If you need to take the time that I did to research the election and arrive at this conclusion, please do. But it’s all there in black and white, and any assertion to the contrary is false. The fomenting of this falsehood among public servants, knowingly or not, is unbecoming of a great nation.

I worked in politics for 15 years. My candidates have won. My candidates have lost. I understand as much as anyone the need for elected officials to be popular and well-liked. I know the unique thrill of a tweet that goes viral and the adrenaline rush of a quality Fox News hit. I also know what it’s like to get cursed out by a stranger, shamed at a town hall and threatened with the end of my career. Politics will always require an element of popularity, but holding public office demands more than telling people what they want to hear. It demands leadership. All leaders must listen to those they represent, but true public servants will also level with them when they are wrong. 

I get that asking Republican politicians to admit to constituents that Trump lost the election is like asking them to drink primary poison. I also understand that some have the greater good in mind, thinking that tolerating the crazy for a few more years is preferable to a true looney toon replacing them. I’d simply say this: feeding the monster only keeps it alive and, if you can’t be honest with those you represent, maybe public office isn’t for you. 

This goes for staff, too, by the way. Too few political staffers are willing to speak truth to power. Maybe your boss would punish you for it or maybe you think it’s easier just to go with the flow, keep this job, and set yourself  up for the next one. Trust me: having the courage of your convictions will ultimately serve you far better than quiet capitulation. I’ve taken some political beatings by speaking truth to power — I’ll spare you the details — but I’ve never regretted it in the long run. You won’t either.

Sadly, there is still plenty of cognitive dissonance at play within the delegation. Brooks has quadrupled down on his “kicking ass” speech, the latest being a bizarre 2,800-word essay explaining his actions to his colleagues trying to censure him. My personal favorite: by “ass” he meant donkey, for the Democratic mascot. So, if we take him at his word he really meant to tell the crowd to go kick Democrats. Okay, Mo — if you say so.

Brooks was on the radio in Mobile Monday spouting off already disproven theories, including that 200,000 votes in Pennsylvania were stolen and that Antifa was behind the insurrection at the Capitol. I happened to follow him during the next segment and had to provide the correct and updated information that could have easily been found with a two-minute Google search — had he wanted to.

Newly installed Congressman Barry Moore spent this weekend tweeting false equivalencies and rationalizations, even throwing race into the mix of the killings during the riot. He was suspended from Twitter, then deleted his account, which may be for the best until he figures things out. 

The only Republican in the delegation who stayed factual was Sen. Richard Shelby, who has the good sense to care about being taken seriously across the political spectrum. He’s sure to encounter some mean words on the Internet, but the respect he’s earned will be crucial to our state when Democrats control the House, Senate and Presidency. We should all thank him for being smart enough to know that appropriations and respect have a greater impact on Alabama than tweets do.

Here’s the good news: the other part of cognitive dissonance theory is that it can lead to changed behavior and beliefs. If we take on the information that troubles us and wrap our heads around it, we’ll come out on the other side wiser, the headache gone, and with a firmer grasp on truth. It just takes a little self-awareness, focus and courage. 

With any luck, I’ll soon get to go back to my favorite bar, my favorite barman and my favorite chicken sandwich. Five people, including two Capitol police officers, won’t be so lucky. Let’s choose the pain of cognitive dissonance – the discomfort of telling ourselves and our friends hard truths – over the pain of last Wednesday. I can handle the truth, but I can’t handle another insurrection.


Todd C. Stacy is the publisher of Alabama Daily News. Email him at [email protected].

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