The Tea Party and Blasi & Jost’s System Justification Motive

What’s been fascinating commentators about the Tea Party is the disconnect between its rhetoric and its second coming, the disconnect which seems starkly clear to the commentators, but to which the Tea Partiers themselves seem quite oblivious. Tea Partiers’ most important banner slogan is “Big Government, stay out of our lives” or any variation thereon.  The question is where were our protectors during the Bush administration, which, as a CNN reporter points out, turned a Clinton surplus into a deficit with a nearly $2 trillion swing, sending the cost of government into the $1.2 trillion figure where it stands today? After all, Obama’s contribution to the massive deficit was a drop in the bucket which was already generously filled during the Bush years.

Gary Blasi and John Jost‘s  work on System Justification Theory (aka SJT) might help explain what’s going on here. Blasi & Jost explore the non-rational decision-making that we all (including, admittedly, Blasi and Jost themselves) engage in. Specifically, they provide ample evidence that the typical self-interest and group identification biases do not fully explain our actions. Why, for example, do members of the disadvantaged groups in our society approve of the social order that continues to disadvantage them and their groups? This is the opposite of the result we would expect if we relied on self-interest and group-identification explanations alone (i.e. if self-interests and group-identification were sole drivers of decision-making we would see near-universal disparagement of the current social order among the members of the disadvantaged groups). Blasi & Jost’s argument (backed up by empirical data, of course) is that we are naturally (and unconsciously) very good at accepting the status quo as the “right” status.  Once any particular order is solidified (i.e. there is very little chance of going back to the previous status quo), we accept it as “correct” and see it “desirable.’  A perfect (and very troubling to a Dem) example was a study by Dan Gilbert where a sample of Texan Dems significantly improved their evaluation of George W. Bush only one month following his victory in the gubernatorial race against Democrat Ann Richards.

So what does all this have to do with the Tea Partiers? Let’s see after the jump.

First off, let me just show that I’m not the only one who perceives the discrepancy between Tea Partiers’ platform and their time of arrival. Here’s a link to Rick Sanchez’, a conservative CNN host, interview of one of the organizers of the National Tea Party Convention which took place earlier this month. During the interview, Sanchez asked his guest to explain why the Tea Party didn’t pop during the Bush administration, when the massive government costs were actually incurred. The response was a non-response.  Worse, Phillips, the guest, actually tried to push some bogus numbers on Sanchez, claiming that Bush’s deficit was lower than what Obama brought about (poor guy, forgot that he wasn’t at a rally, or at FoxNews).  Sanchez, of course, would have none of that.  That was a great thing to watch — a conservative pundit telling a conservative politico what’s what — but the question never got answered.

A couple of possible explanations come up. May be all the Tea Partiers just had no idea that Bush was racking up massive debt with the wars and the tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug coverage program. If they only knew, gosh darn, they would have… Although, that seems seems hard to believe. A new CNN poll of the Tea Party members showed that 40% of them are college-educated people, 36% more had “some college.” I’m not saying that all college educated people follow the news, but a good number of them must have.  Another possibility is that they are plainly mislead now: their leaders (like Phillips in the above video) say that whatever Bush did, Obama is way worse.  Possible, but still difficult to believe for the same reason.

For myself, I like Blasi & Jost’s idea on this: they didn’t rise up because they had a psychological need to justify the then-existing system.  This makes some sense. Group justification doesn’t really help explain the phenomenon: the CNN poll shows that 52% of Tea Partiers describe themselves as Independents, and 4% as Democrats. Self-interest may explain some, but not all, of it.  Bush put through significant tax cuts during his administration.  Much of that went to those already well off. Since 66% of Tea Partiers are in the medium-high to high income category according to the CNN poll, self-interest helps explain why they didn’t rise up then.  Even the support for the war in Afghanistan may be chalked off to self-interest (or self-preservation).  But Bush’s unpaid-for Medicare prescription drug program was a a very expensive entitlement program, these are usually met with much resistance from the well-t0-dos. Even  though it did not require an initial investment, it was going to have to be paid at some point. Same with the continuing support for the war in Iraq, especially after the connection between Saddam and Al-Qaeda was widely discredited.  At that point, the war was, ostensibly, just a cost with no self-preservation value. And what a cost it was: $704 Billion to date.  That too had to be paid at some point. Since 60% of Tea Partiers are under the age of 50, it would be reasonable for them to expect to have to pay for both of these things within their lifetime (setting aside the emotional appeal used today against Obama that our children will have to bear the burden of our debt). Yet, nobody was Tea Partying.

The idea is consistent with Blasi & Jost’s finding that system threat generally increases people’s system justification motive. During the Bush administration, ample system threat was provided by the terrorist attacks on 911 (an attack on our way of life). But the Bush administration was quite capable at providing or amplifying system threat on its own. Jon Stuart (The Daily Show) and Saturday Night Live made plenty of satirical references to the administration’s liberal usage of the word “911” in seemingly unrelated contexts.  If you’re thinking “what’s that got to do with economic and social issues, though?”, I point you to Blasi and Jost’s mention of a study that found that every time the administration raised the terror alert levels, Bush’s approval ratings on the economy increased. As Blasi & Jost point out, a good system threat creates the negative affect that increases the vigor of the system justification response. I.e. it becomes harder, for each of us personally, to challenge the status quo in our minds.

Sounds good, but we have a problem. Blasi & Jost predict that once any particular system has been entrenched, we fall in line even if we initially opposed it.  But Obama is now into his second year, and Tea Partiers are still partying. If Obama is the new established status quo, what gives? My thinking is that the Tea Partiers did initially fall in line.  First day on the job, Obama was already at nearly 70% approval. This is consistent with JST: Tea Partiers were unhappy with Obama before he won, but once he took the helm, they adjusted his “desirability.” So what happened four months into his presidency? I see two things. First, several things betrayed Obama’s lack of invincibility. Congressional Republicans were successfully holding up his agenda on the Hill.  The economy was still in decline despite the troubled TARF program (tautology intended). Don’t-ask-don’t-tell was not repealed. And his popularity stated slipping. This is all to say that, perhaps, the new status quo didn’t sink in quite enough to truly turn on the system justification motive.

The second factor was the Republican’s and ultra-conservative pundits’ (read Limbaugh, O’Reilly, not Scarborough)  increasingly belligerent portrayals of Obama as a threat to our way of life (this time socialism vs. democracy and capitalism).  A system threat, in other words. This message was reinforced by consistent and unflinching (Roman phalanx style) disinformation about the so-called “grandma death panels.”  The death panels talk was, of course, very effective in sparking the well-covered violent outbursts in the town hall meetings . Blasi & Jost point out that making mortality salient leads to higher reliance on system justification as well as a desire for revenge against the source of the system threat.  The most recent Republican attack mode, that Obama is soft on terrorism, reinforces the salience of mortality: he has allowed and will continue to allow more attacks on our soil. Thus, it is likely to increase the system justification motive.

Final note.  Blasi and Jost see system justification as separate from group justification (i.e. I am a member of this group, hence I act in the best interest of my group). Although they note that there is some interaction, they see the two justifications theoretically separate.  It is possible that the Tea Party phenomenon is merely a manifestation of group justification: I am a conservative, thus I will protect other conservatives (Bush & Republicans) but I will attack liberals (Obama and Dems).  That may be right, but as labels go, these ones are not really stable: e.g. see Blue Dog Democrats, Joe Lieberman (Dem who spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2008), Arlen Specter (from GOP to Dem). As fiscal conservatism goes, Dems have been much more conservative. If the Tea Partiers were Republicans, the “system justification” argument would be stronger.

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6 Responses to The Tea Party and Blasi & Jost’s System Justification Motive

  1. Portia says:

    Very nice. I liked how you weaved Blasi & Jost in and out of your discussion about the tea party. Might be nice to have some more pics.

  2. jrpote says:

    I also like this post a lot, and I think you are right to look for a psychological (read: “non-rational”) explanation of the Tea Party phenomenon. This reminded me of a joke which I think was Bill Maher’s to the effect that the Tea Partiers, who are chiefly concerned about taxes, have little idea what has been going on with taxes.

  3. Brian says:

    It seems to me that “system justification” is just one part of a bigger mental phenomenon. Psychologically, our minds have a palliative effect that can make the bitter pills we have to take in life easier to swallow (i.e the “sweet lemon” idea). It’s not always easy to live under the idea that we are not getting what we want, so, it makes sense that we, in varying degrees, convince ourselves we are more comfortable with what actually happens then we really are. Maybe this theory should be called something more like “occurrence justification” to better capture the mental phenomenon causing this.

  4. anna says:

    Really interesting post! I think I agree with the “occurrence justification” idea that Brian proposes, because I wonder how long it takes something to become a “system” that one can justify–i.e. a government that’s only been in power for a year or so to me seems a bit short to call a system, but then it seems that even something that’s been around for that short a period of time can engender a system-justification-type reaction.

  5. tae0000 says:

    Hi…this is a very nice summary.

    One important point I am noticing here is a mere acceptance versus an appraisal of a new status quo. People do not need to see a new status quo desirable. In case of a presidential election, people simply need to wait for another 4 years.

    I am wondering if he explains the driving force that makes people appraise a new order.

  6. Amit says:

    Tea Partying is such an interesting phenomenon. It’s difficult to categorize a movement defined by the desire to “shake up the system.” It’s also difficult to analyze a movement from the perspective of SJT when its platform is grounded in anti-establishmentism. As Robin Wright says on Blogging Heads: “Isn’t all that connects them populist rage and a distaste for taxes?”

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