Since President Obama became president, more and more conservatives in and out of government have trumpeted fear and thus distrust of federal government and institutions. Following are some examples. The NRA president pronounced that the federal government would take away our guns if there were universal background checks.
Peg McEntee, in a Salt Lake City newspaper, reported recently that state Sen. Margret Dayton, R-Orem, links the International Baccalaureate Program in Utah to UNESCO and considers it a threat because it exposes students to ideas like global disarmament, sustainable development, and population control. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and some other Republican congressmen fear infiltration of Muslim Brotherhood into our government, and many in the Congress call the president a socialist. Many Senate Republicans expressed fear of the U.N. by voting down the U.N. treaty protecting disabled people.
A Pew Research Center poll, from Jan. 9-13, showed that 53 percent fear that the federal government threatens personal freedom, an increase from 36 percent in May 1995. Pew poll also showed that at the start of the second term of President Obama's administration, 73 percent distrust the federal government, especially the Congress. This fear of government leads to the slippery slope of distrust in government and its policies. The fear could be based on non-factual information. However, those who have a vested interest in pushing their public policy agenda, are media savvy, rich in resources, and wish to keep control of their followers, may engage in non-factual fear mongering against the government and its policies.
Why is it that followers of fear mongers do not check facts and reason their way through to question such demagogues? Most economists and philosophers in the past, such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, and many today have assumed that most people are rational and have the capacity to reason. However, recent developments in behavioral economics, an integration of economics and psychology, have questioned that assumption in explaining human behavior. The psychological concept of cognitive dissonance sheds light on fear mongering and ensuing distrust of government. The most cogent and simple description of the concept of cognitive dissonance is given by Professor George Akerloff, a Nobel Laureate in economics, in his essay "The economic consequences of cognitive dissonance," which is in his book An Economic Theorist's Book of Tales (1984).
His three propositions in the essay describe the concept that he uses to build his economic model to explain certain economic behaviors. Those propositions (supported by experimental research), listed below, also explain how fear and distrust of government becomes part of the belief system. First, people "have preferences about different states of the world, (and) ...over their beliefs about the state of the world." For example, if fear and not to fear are two states of the world and an individual chooses fear, then he "will try to reject the cognition" that he is fearful. Second, given information, people can exercise some control over their beliefs, but they can also manipulate their beliefs by seeking information that confirms their desired beliefs. Third, chosen beliefs have a tendency to persist over time.
Resource-rich special interest groups have used the power of the media to create a belief among many conservative Americans and congressmen that President Obama's administration should be feared, and that the president's stance on public policy should not be trusted. Following the findings on "priming effect" by Professor Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate economist-psychologist and author of "Thinking Fast and Slow," I would argue that many conservatives are "primed."
According to Professor Kahneman, priming can take many forms, such as "influencing an action by the idea." According to Professor Kahneman, discoveries of studies on "priming effects" "threaten our self image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices." For example, a voting patterns' study in the precincts of Arizona in 2000 showed significantly higher support for funding for schools in polling places in schools as opposed to polling locations not in schools. Professor Kahneman further states, "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth." That is what we have noticed in some of the electronic media outlets, supported by resources-rich special interest groups.
Trust in federal government and its policies is the first causality of fear mongering perpetrated by some special interest groups and their sympathizers in the Congress. Professor Eric M. Uslaner (www.bsos.umd.edu) considers trust as the key for social capital, a concept developed in1988 by late Professor James Coleman. Social capital consists of aspects of social structure and exists in networks of interpersonal relations. It is productive like physical and human capital. To preserve vibrancy in our democracy it is imperative that Americans pay attention to the degradation of trust of elected government, its policies and institutions by resource-rich fear mongers.
Mathur is former chair and professor of economics and now professor emeritus, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He also writes blogs for the Standard-Examiner at http://blogs.standard.net/economics,etc. His articles also appear in mathursblogonomics.blogspot.com.