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The Will 2 Believe

Kevin Drum expressed some amazement today at the fact that the ABC News poll puts Bush's approval for handling of Katrina at 46%, vs. 47% disapproval. As Kevin says, "Even if you're a more forgiving sort than I am, what exactly has he done that deserves approval?"

True. But there's a factor here that I think is always neglected in these polls: There's always a thin line between what we believe and what we wish to be true, or need to believe to be true. Unless you've given up completely on the Bush presidency, you naturally want to think the president and the government are doing the best job they can do with the disaster, because to believe otherwise is kind of terrifying. After Sept. 11, Bush's ratings went sky-high not so much because he did anything particularly distinctive in response, but simply because you have no choice but to trust the president under such circumstances. Similarly, especially if your own family is affected by the war in Iraq, you have to believe that the president is making the right choices and started the war on the best intelligence and on honestly held beliefs. It's simply a fact of human nature that people have an easier time believing the thing that makes them feel a little more comfortable and secure in their previous assumptions and their trust.

Jon Stewart put it well in his interview with Christopher Hitchens, when Hitchens obnoxiously asked if Stewart was really saying that he was "on the President's side," responding, "No, I need to believe that the president is on my side."

And that's a fact about public opinion that I believe Bush and Rove understand better than anyone. Whether they learned it only after Sept. 11, or knew it all along (the interview with fired Bush ghostwriter Mickey Herskowitz that came out right before the election suggests that Bush had an early instinct that what he calls "political capital" could be created not just by persuasion, but by creating extreme situations -- notably war -- in which people essentially have no choice but to defer their trust to the president), they know it now.

And this is part of the story of the Bush presidency: at each point they have created situations in which to believe the worst about the president requires a difficult and unsettling surrender of your own assumptions and sense of security. It's easy and comfortable to believe that the president gets blowjobs from interns, and even to get comfortably outraged about it. But it's much more difficult to accept that he would lead us into war on false pretenses, or countenance the betrayal of a covert agent for political gain, or treat the federal disaster management agency as a "turkey farm" for cronies of cronies who washed out at their previous trivial jobs, or ignore warnings of a terrorist threat, or...

That's also part of the disconnect or polarization in American politics. Those of us who at some point crossed over the river -- we've come to grips with the fact that our lives and our assumptions are in some degree of peril because of the president, in a way that we never felt about Nixon, Reagan or Bush I -- will believe anything, and have trouble understanding those who haven't crossed over, who still want to believe where it's possible to believe.

It's why it's extremely important not to fall into the trap of "let's not be political at a time of crisis." This is a moment where the unthinkable finally becomes real for a lot of people. Because it is real.

(crossposted at tpmcafe.com)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 6, 2005 | Permalink


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Out of all the comments from Democrats I have read about the administration's handling of various affairs these past years, this is by far one of the most incisive observations.

Problem is, how can Dems counter the administration's cynical manipulation of the public's need to trust? That is, how to reach those who haven't yet "crossed over"?

Fundamentally, this isn't (or shouldn't be) a Dem vs. Repub issue. This is principally about demagoguery vs. good governance, not about differing policy prescriptions.

Posted by: J R Peck | Sep 6, 2005 10:13:08 AM

How do you explain FEMA's abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina only one year after its swift action in the four storms of 2004?

Well, Louisiana isn't Florida. And Kathleen Blanco isn't Jeb Bush.

For the full story on the politics of Bush-era disaster relief, see:

"FEMA: Florida Election Management Agency."

Posted by: Jon | Sep 6, 2005 12:45:09 PM

Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, etc.

It takes something to shock or further dismay a longtime dyed in the wool cynic (converted at 14 by Richard Nixon). Thanks for the demagoguery and dereliction cocktail!

On the bright side, it's becoming blindingly clear that the Democrats need to find another strategy: Given their current stances it would take decades for them to reach and comfortably operate at the Bush/Rove levels. And how can one win a race to the bottom against someone who's already there?

Posted by: MaryCh | Sep 6, 2005 3:24:18 PM

Great piece; thanks.

Ironically, the simple truth about people that
you distill in your piece is the one that I happen
to be uncomfortable accepting. For most of my
life I have been baffled by rally-to-the-flag
behavior, because in my case I find it extremely
discomforting to accept that masses of my fellow
humans really do behave that way.

Distrust comes naturally, on the other hand.
The only thing I found surprising in Iraq, for
example, was that Hussein had not lied (much)
in his weapons declarations.

To answer the "what do we do" question for the
opposition to Bush's skilled use of mass behavior,
the hope would be to expose his stagecraft for
what it is. If you can make the word "Republican"
mean "incompetent liar" the way "liberal" now does
"pinko commie peacenik," you win.

It is, alas, only a tiny advantage that at the
moment Republicans really are incompetent liars.
Jefferson knew it all along: "Wonderful is the
effect of impudent & persevering lying."

Posted by: wcw | Sep 6, 2005 4:02:11 PM

You went directly to the heart of the matter.
Thank you.

Posted by: Plenty | Sep 6, 2005 10:33:25 PM

What's neglected in such polls all too often is the basic point that a 50/50 split on a two-option answer doesn't mean half of people prefer one versus other. Everybody has to pick one, and the equal split suggests random cluelessness. The electorate is apathetic and doesn't know what to think, is what it means. In terms of the theory of information, all these polls are recording is noise.

Posted by: murky | Sep 7, 2005 12:45:12 AM

Kevin, there's a term for this:

Cognitive Dissonance

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Sep 7, 2005 10:27:01 AM

Potentially useful sound bite:

"FEMA was better when it was bigger."


Posted by: Chris Phoenix, CRN | Sep 7, 2005 12:36:00 PM

Bravo. Bravo.

Posted by: Nilda | Sep 8, 2005 4:16:58 PM