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16.9.05

Ideological Coherence

I normally can't stand Daily Kos, but I happened to be skimming it today and a post caught my eye. Kos links to an AP report that the federal government is trying to turn up evidence that would allow them to blame the failure of the levees in New Orleans on environmental groups' lawsuits obstructing the Army Corps of Engineers. (Emily Gertz has more about one such claim that has already been raised.)

Kos is dismissive of the likely impact of such a claim, rattling off a list of other excuses that the administration has given for its mishandling of the hurricane. I agree that blaming environmentalists is not going to make much difference in public opinion -- but for a quite different reason. In Kos's world, the President's approval ratings are plummeting. Katrina blew the lid off his pretensions to competence, and so any feeble attempt to shift blame will never hold up.

In my world, however, Katrina has changed nobody's mind. It merely added another arrow to all the pre-existing quivers. Blaming environmentalists won't persuade anyone because there isn't anyone to persuade. The argument will be eaten up by those who already exonerate the administration, and rejected out of hand by those (like myself and Kos) who already assume the worst about the President. The folks at Gallup seem to inhabit my world, finding in their latest poll that the partisan divide on Bush's handling of Katrina is nearly perfect, and that his overall popularity has bounced right back to pre-hurricane levels.

But blaming environmentalists is actually a clever strategy here, rather than a waste of PR money. And it's clever not because it's going to sway anyone on the fence about Bush's handling of the hurricane, but because it speaks to those who are already Bush partisans. People hold their views more strongly the more they feel that they "hang together," mutually supporting each other. Libertarians, for example, are able to maintain a viewpoint that runs orthogonal to the prevailing camps not because they just happen to agree with lassiez-faire economics and abortion each on their own merits, but because they have a meta-narrative that tells them that those positions go together (indeed, that they go together much better than the mix of positions held by either of the major parties). The explanations for any one event (such as Katrina) by ideologues serve not just to promote their side's take on the issue at hand, but also to tie it into all of the other positions that side holds. So blaming environmentalists for the levee breaches assures conservatives not only that Bush is not to blame, but also that that view goes well with the conservative dislike of environmentalism and (perhaps more importantly) the judiciary. When your beliefs seem to cohere like that, your confidence that you have correctly judged the merits of any one of them increases. The ideologies of the major American parties need a good bit of this shoring up of coherence, because they're not all that much different (or all that coherent). But they're strong enough that there would be a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting this one pro-Bush argument without taking on the whole package.

(At the risk of being unnecessarily snarky, you have to wonder how Bush has enough loyalists left even just to fill his cabinet if his popularity has really taken the number of critical blows that Democratic partisans like Kos claim it has. Every week a new issue is the last straw that will finally turn the country against the President.)

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