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Obama Gets "Tough": The Psychology of the Debt Ceiling Battle, Part II

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJuly 26, 2011 6:50 AM


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I wrote last week about the psychology of the debt ceiling battle. Broadly speaking, the science tells us that Democrats are going to be more inclined to compromise than Republicans, because they are inclined to see more shades of gray, rather than black and white. This puts them at quite the negotiating disadvantage when Republicans behave in a hard-line fashion, as they're doing right now. Remember the dogmatism scale, and this item on it:

“To compromise with our political opponents is dangerous because it usually leads to the betrayal of our own side.”

And remember who is more likely to strongly agree with this type of statement. As this situation moves closer to the brink, we have just seen President Obama again address the nation and call for compromise--like a good liberal--and John Boehner take the opposite tack, blaming the whole problem on Obama. At the same time, though, Obama seems to be toughening some: He does not appear about to blink in the face of the other side's brinksmanship. This is disastrous overall, and yet, I don't see another way for Obama. He has seen what he is dealing with, and giving in to it does not work. You can't compromise with those who won't compromise. You can only hold your line, knowing that you hold more cards. And politically, I believe that Obama does hold them. The Tea Party in particular is not just a movement exhibiting standard conservative psychology; according to Robert Altemeyer, a psychologist who made his career studying the phenomenon, it is also laced with authoritarianism. Authoritarians are characterized by righteousness and black and white thinking--following leaders unquestioningly, viewing their enemies as absolutely wrong, sometimes even evil. Once again, that is going to create quite the hard-line negotiating strategy. If it's fundamentally us against them, zero sum, why compromise? It is tragic that we are here, but it is consistent with an extreme version of psychology and worldview difference. However, there are still other sides to human nature than the ones we're seeing right now. Let's hope they still have time to show themselves.

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