Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly had a quick post up yesterday (completely with video clip and everything) pointing out that just a few weeks ago, when Conservatives were downplaying the threat involved in downgrading the nation’s credit rating, you could find people like Neil Cavuto, Fox’s vice president of business news, saying things like “I would welcome a downgrade. I really would. I think it would be the pain from which we have a gain.” And yet now that Standard & Poor has in fact downgraded the U.S. debt Fox is telling its viewers that this “is a tragedy that must be blamed on the White House.” Benen concludes with the observation that “[t]here’s a good reason Fox viewers seem so confused so often.”
Benen’s conclusion is correct, of course, but only because it includes the word “seem.” Fox viewers seem confused to people in the Reality-based community, but the fact remains that they are not confused at all. Not if you define “confused” as I do, to mean “uncertain, unsure or puzzled.” I live in a red part of a Red State, and there are plenty of loyal Fox News viewers around here. Something you cannot call these people is “uncertain, unsure or puzzled.” At any given time they have an understanding of their world that is breathtaking for its clarity, and a commitment to that understanding that brooks no doubt or indecision. The only reason their understanding “seems confused” to people in the Reality-based community is because that understanding changes constantly and fluidly as necessary to adapt to whatever change in circumstances presents itself.
A few years ago Bob Altemeyer, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, published The Authoritarians, which in part examines cognitive behavior displayed by people who score high on tests measuring a predilection for “authoritarian thinking” (i.e., the willingness to follow and/or enforce the authority of some group or institution). Although the book contains a deal of dry statistical detail intended to show the rigor and predictive power of certain tests and sampling, the book itself is quite entertaining and there is no reason the casual reader must wade through the math sections. I highly recommend the book, which can be read on-line and for free here.
One of the chief conclusions Altemeyer draws in his book is that people naturally inclined toward authoritarian thinking seem have a much greater ability to compartmentalize different and sometimes even mutually exclusive beliefs. This serves them well, because then any particular idea can be pulled out as necessary in order to justify conformity to the authoritarian structure with which such people identify.
For example, authoritarian thinkers who identify with conservative Christianity might point to and exalt the “freedom of religion” clause in the First Amendment to argue against restrictions on their religious activity like building a new church where one isn’t wanted, using public funds to proselytize, or supporting prayer in schools. “America was founded on a doctrine of religious freedom,” they might argue, “and any government interference in the practice of religion is therefore anti-American.”
On the other hand – and at the same time – these authoritarian thinkers might have absolutely no qualms about opposing, say, the construction of a new mosque in their community. “America was founded as a Christian nation,” one can imagine them arguing, “and permitting any other religion to be practiced here is anti-American”
What Altemeyer’s research shows is that examples of this type of double-thinking (America is at once a bastion of religious freedom and also a place intolerant of other religions) does not arise out of some cynical desire on the part of authoritarian thinkers to simply advance their cause by any means necessary. Instead, the people in question completely and honestly believe in both concepts and simply reach for the one that is necessary in any particular instance to advance the interests of the group or institution with which they identify (in the example above, their conservative Christian church). But they never, never perceive that they are acting or thinking inconsistently.
What strikes people in the Reality-based community as confusion – how can one believe in general religious freedom and general religious intolerance at the same time? – appears to authoritarian-minded people as perfect clarity. For authoritarian thinkers no argument that can be made in support of their overall goal can possibly contradict any other argument that can be made in support of that goal because the goal always remains the same: supporting the group with which they identify.
Which is why Steve Benen’s observation that Fox viewers “seem confused” is only technically correct. They may seem confused, but they are not. Fox viewers know exactly where they stand and – more importantly – what they stand against: Barack Obama and the Democrats.
So if downgrading the U.S. debt is what is necessary to defeat Barack Obama and the Democrats in the debt ceiling negotiations, Fox viewers will accept that downgrading the U.S. debt is a good thing. If two weeks later the U.S. debt is downgraded and the markets plunge, then downgrading the debt is obviously a bad thing and Barack Obama and the Democrats must be blamed for it. So long as Obama and the Democrats are defeated and/or blamed there is no contradiction in the minds of Fox viewers because the overall goal has never changed.
In fact, my guess is that the only thing what would blow these peoples’ minds is for Neil Cavuto to apologize on air for having been wrong two weeks ago. For Fox viewers that simply would not compute.