The Amazing Truth-Defying Bush Supporter

In the fall of 2004 the Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted two polls of Bush and Kerry supporters. A September poll focused on foreign policy issues, including questions about Iraq and terrorism, whether the US should pursue a multilateral approach to national security, and underlying issues such as US participation in international treaties. An October poll compared public perceptions to reality on a range of questions, including justifications for the war in Iraq, foreign attitudes toward the US, and foreign policy positions of public officials. (Candidate positions were documented from their own statements as recorded by a variety of sources, including the Council on Foreign Relations election web site, answers given to a questionnaire from Time magazine, and official statements from the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget.)

With regard to foreign policy, the PIPA study found that Bush supporters

... have many incorrect assumptions about his foreign policy positions.

Among the misperceptions:

  • 84% of Bush supporters incorrectly assumed that Bush favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements
  • 69% believed Bush favors US participation in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
  • 66% assumed Bush favors US participation in the International Criminal Court
  • 72% believed Bush favors US joining in the international treaty banning land mines
  • 51% assumed Bush supports the Kyoto Treaty on global warming

Moreover, majorities of Bush supporters themselves favored the positions they erroneously ascribed to Bush -- 93% in the case of including fair labor standards in trade agreements, 75% regarding participation in the International Criminal Court, etc.

The October poll found that:

A large majority of Bush supporters believe that before the war Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or a major program for building them. A substantial majority of Bush supporters assume that most experts believe Iraq had WMD and that this was the conclusion of the ... report by Charles Duelfer. A large majority of Bush supporters believes that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda and that clear evidence of this support has been found. A large majority believes that most experts also have this view, and a substantial majority believe that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission.

The PIPA study made the striking observation that these opinions were held despite that fact that Duelfer's report, as well as those of Iraq survey group head David Kay, and the 9/11 commission concluded that before the war Iraq had neither weapons of mass destruction, nor a significant program to develop them. (As noted elsewhere in The Dubya Report, the 9/11 commission concluded " date we have seen no evidence that ... contacts [between Iraq and al Qaeda] ever developed in to a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.")


  • 72% of Bush supporters continued to hold to the view that Iraq had actual WMD or a major program for developing them
  • 56% of Bush supporters believed that most experts say that Iraq did have actual WMD
  • 75% of Bush supporters believed Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda
  • 63% of Bush supporters believed that clear evidence of Iraqi support for al Qaeda has been found
  • 55% of Bush supporters said the 9/11 Commission had concluded that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda


The key reason that Bush supporters gave for holding onto their beliefs in the face of what the PIPA report called "repeated disconfirmations" was that they perceived the Bush administration was confirming those beliefs.

  • 82% perceived the Bush administration as saying that Iraq had WMD or a major WMD program
  • 75% of Bush supporters thought the Bush administration was saying Iraq provided substantial support to al Qaeda (56%) or even that it was directly involved in 9/11 (19%).
  • 55% of Bush supporters believed the Bush administration said the US has found clear evidence Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda

And while they agreed on very little else, 84% of Kerry supporters agreed with Bush supporters that the Bush administration was saying Iraq had WMD (73%) or a major program (11%).

The PIPA report also suggested that Bush supporters held on to the unfounded beliefs that Iraq had WMD and supported al Qaeda because it was "necessary to their support for the decision to go to war with Iraq."

  • 58% of Bush supporters said the US should not have gone to war "If, before the war, US intelligence services had concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and was not providing substantial support to al Qaeda...."
  • 61% expressed confidence that Bush would not have gone to war in that case

As the PIPA report noted, "This tendency of Bush supporters to ignore dissonant information extends to other realms as well. One of these is world public opinion."

  • Only 31% of Bush supporters recognized that the majority of people in the world oppose the US having gone to war with Iraq
  • 57% of Bush supporters assumed that the majority of people in the world wanted Bush reelected
  • 82% of Bush supporters believed that a world majority either feels better about the US due to its recent foreign policy

These beliefs are contrary to the findings of a number of international polls, most recently an independent project of 10 leading newspapers, which found majority support for Bush only in Russia and Israel. Majorities also opposed the US invasion of Iraq in seven of the ten countries surveyed. The latter results were consistent with a May 2004survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, which found that in the year following the invasion of Iraq, international opposition to US policies had increased.

Bush supporters also have significant misperceptions about his foreign policy views.

The PIPA report noted a " recurring theme: majorities of Bush supporters favor these positions, and they infer that Bush favors them as well." By contrast , "Kerry supporters were much more accurate in assessing their candidate’s positions on all these issues," the report concluded.

So why do Bush supporters show such a resistance to accepting dissonant information? While it is normal for people to show some resistance, the magnitude of the denial goes beyond the ordinary. Bush supporters have succeeded in suppressing awareness of the findings of a whole series of high- profile reports about prewar Iraq that have been blazoned across the headlines of newspapers and prompted extensive, high-profile and agonizing reflection. The fact that a large portion of Americans say they are unaware that the original reasons that the US took military action--and for which Americans continue to die on a daily basis--are not turning out to be valid, are probably not due to a simple failure to pay attention to the news.

... [W]hile others have peeled off, Bush supporters continue to hold onto their image of Bush as a capable protector. To do this it appears that many need to continue to screen out information that undermines this image.

Bush appears to assume that his support is fragile. He refuses to admit to making any mistakes. He admits that he was surprised that WMD were not found, but does not say that the most reasonable conclusion is that they were never there .... He asserts that he never said that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11, but maintains that there were contacts with al Qaeda in a way that implies that they were significant. Most telling, his supporters as well as his opponents overwhelmingly say that they hear him still saying that Iraq had WMD and supported al Qaeda. To remain loyal and bonded to him means to enter into this false reality. Bush may be right. Admitting his mistakes may shatter his idealized image in a way that some supporters may not forgive. But there also risks in succeeding in getting elected based on false beliefs. The number of people in the public who see through the illusion will likely continue to grow, eating away at the implied mandate of an election. Further, the cohesion of society can be damaged by a persisting and fundamental division in the perception of what is real, undermining pathways to consensus and mutual sacrifice, and making the country increasingly difficult to govern.

Fear and Loathing in America

In their 2003 study, "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," researchers John Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie Kruglanski and Frank Sulloway offered some insights from the field of social psychology as to why Bush supporters may hold the beliefs they do, and cling to them with such tenacity. They used the term "motivated social cognition" to describe relationship between people's beliefs and their "motivational underpinnings."In the post-Freudian world," they wrote, "the ancient dichotomy between reason and passion is blurred, and nearly everyone is aware of the possibility that people are capable of believing what they want to believe, at least within certain limits." Belief systems, they suggested, "are adopted in part because they satisfy some psychological needs." The authors took care to point out that they were not suggesting that "conservative beliefs are necessarily false, irrational, or unprincipled." They started from the assumption that most human beings are "subjectively rational" in that their attitudes are derived from a set of principles that the believer subscribes to, and are at least in part a response to external events and conditions, or "reality constraints."

The authors reviewed 88 sets of data from published studies, representing a combined population of more than 22,000 participants. Material was drawn from 12 countries, and in addition to experiments and surveys included political speeches, judicial opinions, etc. The study utilized what is termed a "meta-analysis" -- statistically combining the results of several studies on a single topic. The methodology is a common approach to working with historical data, and attempts to gain greater objectivity, precision, and generality than is otherwise possible.

Jost and his colleagues found that the following psychological factors were correlated with conservative political beliefs:

  • Anxiety about death
  • Dogmatism
  • Needs for order, structure, and "cognitive closure" -- the need for a firm belief on a given topic

Factors with negative correlation to conservative political beliefs included:

  • Openness to experience
  • Tolerance of uncertainty
  • Self esteem

The researchers also found that perceived threats from "system instability," such as economic decline, increased crime, or civil disturbance, correlated with conservative political beliefs.

Jost et al. identified the core ideology of conservatism as resistance to change and justification of inequality. While they acknowledged that liberals can defend the status quo and that conservatives can support change, they asserted that in general these aspects of conservatism are psychologically related to one another "for most of the people most of the time." They highlighted the obvious exception of left-wing ideologues in communist regimes who exhibit "mental rigidity and other psychological characteristics that are often thought to be associated with right-wingers in other contexts."

Jost noted that different economic groups may have different motivations for adopting right-wing ideologies. Disadvantaged individuals might be more likely to be motivated by a need to reduce fear and uncertainty, while the advantaged might be motivated by self-interest and a desire for social dominance. "System justification theory" tries to understand this phenomenon. Nearly everyone, this theory suggests, is motivated (to a greater or lesser extent) "to explain and justify the status quo in such a way that it is perceived as fair and legitimate." If the system is challenged, or threatened, then those who suffer most under it have the most rationalizing to do. "One way to minimize dissonance would be to redouble one’s commitment and support for the system, much as hazed initiates pledge increased loyalty to the fraternity that hazes them...."

Of particular interest in the context of the PIPA studies are Jost et al.'s observations on conservatives' attitudes toward uncertainty. Uncertainty is perceived as a threat. This observation is consistent with Lakoff's characterization of the conservative's hierarchy of values as having preservation of the value system itself as the highest value.

A second theoretical perspective seems particularly appropriate to events of the last few years. This approach, called "terror management" theory, suggests that worldviews -- religion, for instance -- provide people with a means to symbolically transcend death. An awareness of one's mortality combined with the instinct for self preservation "creates in humans the capacity to be virtually paralyzed with fear," which in turn triggers a defense of one's worldview. "... [S]ocial intolerance is the consequence of worldview-enhancing cognitions motivated by the need to buffer anxiety-inducing thoughts."

"Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" created something of a stir when it was published, in part because the study had received federal funding. Some conservative commentators, pundits, and would-be pundits attempted to dismiss the study as if it had simply as declared conservatism to be some kind of neurosis. One such attempt, dressed up in academic language, but short on analysis was published in The New Atlantis, a publication of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. EPPC was established in 1976 "to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues." EPPC's vice president is Michael Cromartie, former special assistant to Christian Right activist Charles Colson. EPPC is closely aligned with the American Enterprise Institute, with whose religious programs it often overlaps.

Not surprisingly the EPPC reviewer seemed not to have read or understood the entire paper. More likely, he or she simply chose to dismiss it rhetorically, by pretending that one one portion of one theory -- namely the effect of parenting styles on a child's attitudes toward authority -- represented the entire thesis of the study. In fact, Jost et al. are somewhat critical of attempts to correlate political conservatism with parenting styles. "Good research linking parental behavior to the political attitudes of their children is scant and insufficient ... for the obvious reason that it would require 20 or 30 years of continuous snooping to do it comprehensively," they wrote. " ... [M]ore research is needed before concluding that (a) political conservatives are more pessimistic or contemptuous than others and (b) their negative emotions stem from experiences with parental aggression."

Left, Right, and Rigid

One critique of the Jost group's report that avoided the defensive posture taken by conservative commentators came, not surprisingly, from other social psychologists. Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona, and Eva Jonas of the University of Munich suggested that "the fear-and uncertainty-driven motives ably presented by Jost et al. (2003) contribute to ideological rigidity independently of whether the ideology is right-wing or left-wing." As Jost et al. acknowledged, attempts to theorize about authoritarianism have been subjected to this line of criticism since the 1950s. Greenberg and Jonas argued that, contrary to the Jost group's characterizations, conservatives do advocate change. They cited as examples of this Ronald Reagan's platform and policies of change, and the Christian Right's efforts to change the basis of all government policy to an explicitly Christian framework. Jost et al. referred to this as the "conservative paradox" and cited Hitler and Mussolini as examples of "conservative revolutionaries" who wanted "change in the direction of decreased egalitarianism." They suggested that in some cases what appears to be a desire for change is "an imaginatively transfigured conception of the past with which to criticize the present."

Greenberg and Jonas didn't find this explanation sufficient, and suggested that it doesn't explain how the exceptions square with resistance to change as a core principle of conservatism.

With regard to Jost's second key component of conservatism, tolerance for inequality, Greenberg and Jonas noted that a common conservative argument against liberals is "that liberals advocate inequality through advocacy of preferential treatment through affirmative action programs and social services." This kind of thinking, Greenberg and Jonas suggested, "is based on the conservative tendency in the United States to deny the reality of discrimination, which, given the empirical evidence, can only be viewed as ignorance or another product of motivated social cognition. One can thus view this conservative reasoning as a smokescreen to hide a preference for inequality."

Greenberg and Jonas pointed out, however, that historically left-wing governments have exhibited considerable tolerance for inequality. Citing the Soviet Union and communist China as examples, Greenberg and Jonas suggested that "the needs to reduce uncertainty and fear drive those in power to defend their ideology and squash dissent despite the inherent contradiction with the principles associated with the ideology." When combined with an ideology that advocates government control over economic behavior totalitarianism can emerge.

Greenberg and Jonas applauded the Jost group's research, and having derived "convergent predictions" from a variety of social-psychological motives. But they disagreed with the conclusions that the motives that Jost identified uniquely characterize political conservatism. Rather, they suggested, "embracing the prevailing ideology, even if it ostensibly advocates a form of egalitarianism, may be the best way pragmatically to serve social dominance needs because doing so aligns one with the powers that be."

Greenberg and Jonas proposed a coordinate model in place of Jost's linear model.

... one content dimension and one content-free dimension and view them as orthogonal. From this perspective, one dimension could be called right–left, referring to the content of ideology. Right wingers favor a free-market economy, individual responsibility, genetic or will-based theories of individual differences, and equity principles. Left-wingers prefer a socialist or communist economic system, communal responsibility, social theories of individual differences, and equality principles. The content-free dimension could be called ideological rigidity, its pole varying from low to high to describe the strength of orientation toward an ideology. Those who are ideologically rigid closed-mindedly and unquestioningly cling to their ideology, seeing it as absolutely right and seeing alternatives as absolutely wrong. They are therefore biased against different others and live certain in their knowledge. Low-ideological rigidity people are open-minded and tolerant; they view their preferred ideology as a personal choice but are open to questioning it and willing to consider and acknowledge the possible virtues of alternative views.

Greenberg and Jonas's criticism of the Jost group's work is theoretical and technical. And while suggesting that the Jost group's findings might not hold in the Soviet Union or China, for example, they acknowledged that the findings may well hold in the contemporary United States.

One could argue that in the United States and most other capitalist nations there are not many advocates of the extreme left or much in the way of a coherent left-wing ideology and that therefore, as the research reviewed by Jost et al. (2003) suggests, it may very well be the case that in such nations, on average, right-wingers are more ideologically extreme and rigid.

Simplest Terms

One item in the Jost study that seemed particularly to irritate conservatives was the finding that "conservative ideologues are generally less integratively complex than their liberal or moderate counterparts." Essentially proving the assertion, conservatives tended to respond as though identifying them as "less integratively complex" was equivalent to calling them simple. This, not surprisingly, is an oversimplification. Integrative complexity is a technical term that refers to what is sometimes called a "cognitive style." Persons who exhibit high levels of integrative complexity tend to "use different dimensions to discuss an issue."

For instance, if a person uses a single dimension (e.g., good-bad) to discuss the issue, there would be no differentiation. Assuming that there is differentiation, the second aspect of integrative complexity concerns the degree to which two or more dimensions are related or connected. There can be no integration, some integration, or complex integration. The greater the degree of integration, the greater the integrative complexity. A person exhibiting the lowest level of integrative complexity recognizes only one perspective to a problem or an issue. Persons with higher levels of complexity recognize the existence of alternative perspectives, but see them as independent and unrelated. At the highest level of integrative complexity, there is recognition of the trade-offs among perspectives and solutions.

John Di Iulio's account of the workings of the Bush White House suggested that, regardless of the theoretical context discussed here, the Bush administration is targeting its efforts to an audience with limited integrative complexity. On his way out of the White House, after resigning as head of Bush's Office of Faith-based Initiatives, DiIulio wrote Esquire's Ron Suskind, that there was not really any domestic policy making apparatus. Rather, "Mayberry Machiavellis -- staff, senior and junior ... consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."

The Global Change Game

One of the leading contemporary researchers on authoritarianism is Bob Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba. Altemeyer developed the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) scale, which is widely used by researchers in political psychology. In 1998 Altemeyer used a computerized global simulation game to explore what might happen if the world were populated entirely by individuals with a high RWA score, and ruled by RWAs who also score high in Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). (SDO essentially measures how much someone values social equality. High SDOs place a low value on social equality.)

The game ran for two sessions, each simulating a period of 40 years. At the end of each session, nearly 2 billion people had died of starvation and disease. "One of the great benefits of the simulation, for the North Americans who participate in it, is a realization of how daunting are the problems that most of the world faces," wrote Altemeyer. In one session, a war was declared, and global military escalation followed. The facilitators believed that nuclear war was imminent as the game ended. The leaders also consistently appropriated funds from the public treasury for their personal use. "Perhaps the most striking aspect of the simulation," wrote Altemeyer, "was how automatically right-wing authoritarians, placed in a room filled with people rather like themselves, still divided the world into small enclaves of 'Us' versus the global 'Them.' ...In general, I think you have to give the worlds they created ... an 'F.'"

Altemeyer, of course, was talking about a game. Whether the right-wing authoritarians now in control of the legislative and executive branches of the US government can do any better with reality remains to be seen. One can hope, however, that they will not have 40 years to try.


Kull, Steven, et al. Public Perceptions of the Foreign Policy Positions of the Presidential Candidates Program On International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). 29 Sep. 2004.

Kull, Steven, et al. The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters Program On International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). 21 Oct. 2004

"Out of Their Right Mind" The New Atlantis 3 (2003): 103-105

Jost, John T., et al. "Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition" Psychological Bulletin
129.3 (2003): 339—375

Greenberg, Jeff and Eva Jonas. "Psychological Motives and Political Orientation" Psychological Bulletin
129.3 (2003): 376-382

Antonio, Anthony Lising and Kenji Hakuta ."Integrative Complexity" Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students Stanford. 22 Jul 2003

Szegedy-Maszak, Marianne. Rev. "Enemies of Freedom: Understanding Right Wing Authoritarianism" by Bob Altemeyer Psychology Today Mar. 1989