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

By Chris Mooney | July 25, 2011 9:50 pm

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Psychology of Ideology

Comments (16)

  1. Sidney

    Really this falls across the line of being stupid. I’m no Tea Party fan but Obama is hardly a compromise candidate. He’s really the Democratic version of the Tea Party candidate – the Daily Kos readership drove him to victory in the primaries much the way the Tea Partiers have driven the Michelle Bachmann types to wins in the Republican Party. The problem isn’t that “liberals” compromise but that both parties have effectively obliterated their moderate wings and are now driven by what would have been 20 years ago their extremist wings.

  2. J. D.

    Sidney, I don’t think you have a strong case by calling Obama the Democratic version of the Tea Party candidate. He is often criticized by his own party for acting too much like a Republican. In other words, he centrist, not extremist.

  3. Matunos

    Anyone paying attention knows that Sidney’s comment above are ridiculous. Obama is the Daily Kos candidate? Have you ever glanced at Daily Kos and their thoughts on Obama’s middle-of-the-road policies?

    Anyway, I would be careful of falling into the black-and-white thinking while categorizing others as black-and-white thinkers. But insofar as the Tea Party can be seen to be exhibiting authoritarian and absolutist mentalities, we can also see the weakness it creates for them. They might be authoritarian-minded, but Boehner doesn’t command authority, and so he is basically left herding cats. So far, the Tea Party Republicans can only unify in their opposition to Obama, and that is a source of strength, but no one has emerged that can actually consolidate their position into an actual agenda. Obama is trying to use that fact to portray them not only as extremists, but extremists who only want to gum the system up with insane policies that have no chance of passing.

    Of course, the Democrats are inherently like herding cats for their own reasons, so I guess it’ll be one clowder of cats versus another.

  4. Don't Use the TP

    Good article. We need to strike a deal- no question. This is getting more painfully frustrating every day- and it’s getting into the scary territory.

    If the markets start to dip triple digits on consecutive days- the fire will get very, very hot. It will no matter what pledge you took or who voted you in.

    Or so we can only hope.

  5. Johnny

    The Tea Party in particular is … laced with authoritarianism.

    You think the Tea Party, the most Libertarian anti-authority party in the world, is authoritarian? This must be the most illogical thing I’ve ever read here.

    Robert Altemeyer is barking at his own reflection. His entire “commentary” is obviously applicable to extremes of all political parties. Substitute Bush for Obama and it reads just as accurately in reverse.

    Chris, have you ever noticed Liberals in the media (like you) have an army of academic-psychologists analyzing the Conservative movements? Ever ask yourself why there are none of the opposite? Go be a journalist and find out.

  6. bad Jim

    I thought it amusing that John Boehner compared the U.S. to a small business that needs to balance its books. Using his analogy, the U.S. is a company that borrowed a considerable amount of money to outfit its security guards with state of the art weaponry and armor and vast quantities of ammunition and then sent them across town to take over a couple of smaller firms by killing their security guards. The same people who voted for this business strategy are now refusing to pay back the money they borrowed to carry it out.

  7. cornflower

    Robert Altemeyer tried to find left-wing authoritarians, he states, but with negligible success. I would love to see an analysis between his work on authoritarians and George Lakoff’s work on the world views of progressives and conservatives (the “family” metaphor).

    Obama appears to have learned from the health-care debate which was almost compromised entirely away. When your opponents refuse to compromise anywhere, you either give in or lessen your compromises.

  8. Chris Mooney

    #1 is fascinating. of course, if *you* think in black and white, you will think that your opponents do too….

  9. Chris Mooney

    It is time for some Star Wars. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

  10. Jody

    @5. “have you ever noticed Liberals in the media (like you) have an army of academic-psychologists analyzing the Conservative movements? Ever ask yourself why there are none of the opposite? ”

    Probably because, like you, they don’t understand the difference between anti-big government and anti-authority, let alone the subtleties of another group’s psychology.

  11. dcwarrior

    Just so that it gets said again. I don’t know where this “Obama won’t compromise” theme comes from. From the liberals’ point of view, he’s already given away the store by proposing cuts on entitlements. I don’t view entitlements as a sacred cow, but the plans Obama has proposed or supported have more entitlements cuts than the plans the House Republicans have put forward have tax increases.

  12. Chris Mooney

    @5 I just read a dissertation that psychoanalyzes liberalism, and I bet it was written by a liberal. You’re really off base.

  13. Johnny

    @12 Chris Mooney

    You “bet” it was written by a liberal?

    So you’re trying to disprove me with something you “think” was written by a liberal, but aren’t sure, and can’t provide any links to, or even a name of an author?

    Please tell me how I’m “off base” here.

  14. ╦heBigo╦

    The TEA Party is anything but “standard conservative psychology”. To understand the TP would require understanding the god father, intellectual hero and only leader the TP has. Which happens to be Ron Paul, that’s anything but authoritarian but purely libertarian.

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    Interesting item here :


    on the Stonekettle blog about the US debt issue and the disturbingly adolescent game of “Chicken” taking place over it.

    Well worth a read In My Humble Opinion Naturally.

    As for #9. Chris Mooney : It is time for some Star Wars. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

    I’m going to link this :


    somewhat relevant piece of classic footage if I may – because I love that! :-)


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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