The Character Myth | The Nation


The Character Myth

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Psychologists have long understood that people who hold views that are mutually inconsistent, or who perform actions that depart from their values or that threaten their positive self-image, will experience discomfort. This is known as cognitive dissonance. People naturally choose to remove the discomfort through rationalization, thus repairing their self-image as people who are reasonable and moral and act in ways consistent with their values. Bush's leadership style and use of language essentially have created cognitive dissonance in the electorate. The more that Americans observe the Bush presidency pushing policies they do not support, and would normally question, the more they confront the choice of whether to oppose him actively or rationalize away their discomfort. Many Americans have chosen the latter because the President has convinced them that the situation is desperate and that only he can handle the continuing crisis. The more they depend upon Bush, the more they rationalize away any objections they may have to his specific ideas and policies. In this manner, Bush has forged an emotional, visceral relationship with the nation, successfully bypassing conscious resistance and stripping away any sense that he needs to answer to a higher legal or constitutional authority beyond his personal moral force.

Renana Brooks's previous article in these pages, "A Nation of Victims," has been widely circulated among Democratic Party leaders and is being expanded into a book.

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Renana Brooks
Renana Brooks, PhD, is a clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. She heads the Sommet Institute for the...

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Bush uses well-known linguistic techniques to make citizens feel dependent.

President Bush wields the power of a stern, authoritarian parent over the national psyche. Just as such a parent may justify a command with the words "because I said so," Bush has often reverted to explanations in the style of "it's the right thing to do" in order to justify the war on Iraq or his tax cuts. By changing frames in this manner, a political leader can erode resistance to his actions. His shifting, ultimately arbitrary reasoning deters any listener from challenging his ideas and even leads the listener to believe herself or himself incapable of understanding the reasons given for policies or actions.

When people feel overwhelmed, as I believe Americans have been over the past few years, they tend not to think rationally about complex details. Further, many psychologists, sociologists and historians argue that Americans are prone to believe in the Great Person theory--the idea that if a person has the correct personality traits, his instincts will lead to the correct actions regardless of the details of a given situation. However, research shows that no character trait--not courage, charisma or self-confidence--correlates well with effective leadership as defined by historians. For example, Dean Simonton studied 100 personal attributes of all US Presidents, including their personality traits, and found that only one variable--intelligence--correlated with presidential effectiveness as measured by historians.

But Bush's team knows how to exploit the Great Person myth. Bush's deliberately constructed image as a moral leader who knows what is right for America takes the place of rational analysis, and his insistence that we are in an ongoing state of crisis in our war against terror helps to perpetuate this dynamic. Bush and his supporters often silence opposition and dissent by encoding in their arguments a worldview that implies that even to challenge Bush's ideas is immoral and damaging to the social order, and even to the survival of the nation and of Western civilization. Linguists call this device the lost performative. The speaker purposely leaves out the authority behind far-reaching statements in order to pass off controversial viewpoints as the absolute truth. When Bush says "Our cause is just," he purposely leaves out the "according to whom?" Saying "I think the war is just" or "Donald Rumsfeld thinks the war is just" is much different from asserting "Our cause is just." The underlying message from the authoritarian leader is, Do exactly as I say, or catastrophe follows. Overgeneralization and false generalization are powerful vehicles for such a leader.

Joan Didion captured this well in her book Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11. She writes: "We had seen the general acquiescence in whatever was presented as imperative by the administration. We had seen the persistent suggestions that anyone who expressed reservations about detentions, say, or military tribunals, was at some level 'against' America. (As in the presidential formulation 'you're either with us or you're with the terrorists.') We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of September 11 to justify the reconception of America's correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war." As Didion suggests, absolutist language overloads people with information and leaves them confused and unable to judge for themselves. They crave simplicity and fall back on the character myth.

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