Cognitive Dissonance And The Importance Of Impeaching Trump
While polls indicate Trump is the most unpopular president in the nearly 75-year history of polling, House Democrats haven’t started impeachment hearings despite the evidence against President Trump. As a former behavioral therapist, I want to introduce a concept that applies here: cognitive dissonance.
When it comes to our current hyper-partisan environment, I think viewing changing public opinion through the lens of behavioral science makes sense. These aren’t just opinions. These are closely held values and belief systems that people feel genuinely define them.
When we talk about shifting deeply held belief systems, the discussion turns to the idea of cognitive dissonance. It’s the concept that when faced with information that causes friction to the infallibility of our beliefs, we make 1 of 2 choices: we either embrace comforting lies or accept unpleasant truths.
Either we invest in theories that shore up our beliefs, however fantastic (see QAnon), or we come to terms with the idea that what we believe isn’t true. This process doesn’t happen overnight. It takes repeated exposure to cognitive dissonance to make behavioral change occur.
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Today, people can almost entirely eliminate the friction of cognitive dissonance by choosing to stay in their insulated social media bubbles. We are harder to reach than ever. But that doesn’t mean behavioral change isn’t possible.
We don’t need to sympathize with folks who are evading facts. But we do need to penetrate and saturate their world to make cognitive dissonance occur. This is why people keep talking about the Watergate hearings when we discuss impeaching Trump.
It’s true that there wasn’t initially support for impeachment. But the hearings in the Senate changed that. People’s personal and political worlds became saturated with dissonance they couldn’t rectify. President Richard Nixon began 1973 with a 68% approval rating. Then the scandal broke.
Even coupled with economic woes, Watergate wasn’t enough to knock Nixon down to size. And it didn’t shake his base or even the moderates. The hearings did that, slowly and over time. 71% of Americans watched those hearings televised live.
As the details of the crimes of the administration were exposed daily to the living rooms of everyday Americans, Nixon’s approval rating finally bottomed out at 31%. It took a few months but it eroded every last bit of support he had. Cognitive dissonance took its toll.
People couldn’t rectify what they knew about Nixon with their firmly held beliefs. There had been too much friction. Their minds could no longer fabricate elaborate excuses to avoid the dissonance. Democrats shouldn’t rely on polls to determine public support for impeachment, which remains below 40% at the moment.
House Democrats launching hearings would need to be part of a public campaign to reach Americans in their partisan bubbles and expose them to this dissonance. Initiating the impeachment process gives Democrats the power to break through Trump’s current stonewalling and reluctance to turn over witnesses and documents. It will be ugly at first. It will be hard to break through the Fox News gaslighting. They will get defensive. But eventually, change will happen.
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