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Cognitive dissonance is sometimes described as the mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong. In many ways America today is experiencing this dissonance. It threatens to derail our democratic process and our ability to respond constructively to major national and global challenges. When emotions conflict with facts, emotions tend to have the upper hand.
The rising economic clout and increasing political influence of China, Brazil, India and other nations challenges America’s self-image as the world’s pre-eminent power. This is jarring for those whose belief in American exceptionalism is intrinsic to their sense of identity.
The fact that the majority of babies born in the US are from minority communities is disconcerting for people who grew up with a view of America as a predominantly Anglo culture. Yet Spanish settlers came to many parts of this continent hundreds of years before those of British or German stock (Native Americans, of course, were already here). And demands for a fence along the southern border flies in the face of data showing that the inflow from Mexico has declined steeply in recent years.
For many Americans the belief that we could maintain an economic system and lifestyle based on ever-increasing consumption is now in conflict with the reality of diminishing global resources. And the pursuit of happiness does not entitle us to live beyond our means. But we resist these truths.
In order to satisfy a theology in which government is always the enemy and the threat of world government is the ultimate bogeyman, climate change is denied despite overwhelming scientific evidence. In some extreme cases, sustainable urban development is portrayed as a UN conspiracy.
Facts that might be accepted if presented by one’s own political party are discounted if they might redound to the credit of the opposing party. Thus the successful turnaround of the US motor industry is portrayed as irrelevant to the overall employment picture by Republicans because it was accomplished under Obama.
The liberal left is just as guilty of refusing to face inconvenient truths. Although it is obvious that some pension deals made by state and local governments with public employee unions, often in exchange for political backing, are unsustainable, and that social security and Medicare entitlements must be adjusted, Democrats have refused – at least in public – to acknowledge this reality. This dissonance results in a deep dishonesty with the American public.
On another level, few on the left have admitted the role that the embrace of relative morality played in America’s widespread social and cultural disintegration as well as the collapse of ethics in the financial sector. Relativism is actually in conflict with rising social consciousness and with widely acknowledged values of respect, equality, and honesty.
Perhaps the biggest cause of dissonance is Americans’ lack of understanding of the respective roles of government and the individual in our history. Absent a well-informed citizenry, extremists can fan the fires of discontent through talk radio and the 24-news cycle. E. J. Dionne, in his new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, notes that two irrepressible elements have been constant in America’s story: “our love of individualism and our reverence for community… both of these values animate the consciousness and consciences of nearly all Americans.” The problem comes when political parties insist that one trait explains our success as a nation and dominates our story.
America works best when we recognize that individual enterprise and responsibility go together with a shared commitment to building our national community. Leaders who can affirm these two traditions will help America face the future with courage and creativity.
Rob Corcoran is the National Director of Initiatives of Change and founder of Hope in the Cities.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.
Who we are: Initiatives of Change (IofC) is a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own.
Purpose: We work to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves, in the areas of trustbuilding, ethical leadership and sustainable living.
Omnia Marzouk, President, IofC International
'Nothing lasting can be built without a desire by people to live differently and exemplify the changes they want to see in society.'