The Political Brain & Inconsistency

One thing I love about the Daily Show is that Jon Stewart and his fellows take the effort to find videos which show the inconsistency of political figures. A recent episode featured a plethora of examples of such inconsistency.

The first part of the segment featured Karl Rove. When asked about Sarah Palin’s qualifications, he noted that she had been mayor of the second largest town in Alaska (with a population under 10,000) and is now the governor of Alaska. As such, his principle seems to be that experience as the mayor of a small town and as governor qualifies a person to be Vice President.

Interestingly enough, when Governor Kaine was being considered as a possible VP pick by the Democrats, Rove had this to say:

“With all due respect again to Governor Kaine, he’s been a governor for three years.  He’s been able but undistinguished. I don’t think people could really name a big, important thing that he’s done … [Kaine] was mayor of the 105th largest city in America. And again, with all due respect to Richmond, Virginia, it’s smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa, or Gilbert, Arizona; North Las Vegas, or Henderson, Nevada. It’s not a big town…So if he were to pick Governor Kaine, it would be an intensely political choice where he said, `You know what? I’m really not, first and foremost, concerned with — is this person capable of being president of the United States?'”

In this quote, Rowe seems to be following quite a different set of standards than he used to assess Palin. After all, Kaine (like Palin) was a mayor and is a governor. In fact, he was the mayor of a much larger city and is the governor of a more heavily populated state. If Rove had applied the same set of standards to both, they would either both be equally qualified or neither would be qualified.

Naturally enough, this sort of political “reasoning” is quite interesting and can be addressed philosophically.

It is tempting to respond to such inconsistency by simply rejecting what, for example, Rove said about Palin. However, to do so would be to commit one version of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. If a person makes inconsistent claims, then at least one of his claims must be false. However, the inconsistency does not (in itself) reveal which claim is in error. In this example, Rove is either mistaken about Palin or Kaine. This is because either being a mayor and a governor qualifies a person for the VP position or it does not. Not even Rove can have it both ways. Hence, he is wrong-but it must be determined whether he is wrong about Palin or Kaine.

It is certainly interesting to speculate about how intelligent people can hold such inconsistent views and apply their principles in such an inconsistent manner. It is, however, not surprising. When it comes to politics,  Mill seems to have gotten it quite right in his work on Liberty . He notes that “men very rarely chose a side because of a consistently held opinion about what is fit to be done by government.” The same can be said about the principles people use to assess political matters, such as the qualifications of a candidate.

In terms of why people are inconsistent, one possibility is that such people have poor memories. Perhaps, for example, Rove simply forgot the standards he used to assess Kaine when he went to assess Palin. Presumably people also forget that when they say something on television, it is recorded and can be replayed later.

Another possibility is that such people are simply poor at reasoning and do not grasp the concepts of consistency and inconsistency. As such, the sort of inconsistency presented by Rove and others is a sign of a cognitive defect. If so, they should seek treatment-perhaps it has an underlying medical cause.

A third possibility is that such people are simply ruled by their political passions. As such, they tend to “feel” rather than reason when it comes to political situations. For example, since Rove is a devoted Republican, his political passion might lead him to feel positive emotions for the Republican Palin and negative emotions for the Democrat Kaine. These emotions could cause him to regard Palin as qualified and Kaine as unqualified. Since his “judgment” is based on feeling (rather than a rational assessment) and he feels two different emotions, he would have no sense of inconsistency. If his assessment was based on a standard, then he would have (obviously enough)reached the same judgment for both Palin and Kaine.

A fourth possibility is that such people simply change their standards a great deal. In what can only be a series of amazing coincidences, they just happen to always change their principles in accord with their political views.

A fifth possibility is that such people say whatever they think will support the claim they are making at the time and they do not worry too much about what they say from day to day. In this case, such people do have a principle that they apply consistently: I will say whatever I think will support the claim I am making now.

While I have been using an example from the American right, the same sort of behavior occurs with equal frequency on the left. This sort of “reasoning” no doubt contributes to many of the problems in the world.

  1. “such people say whatever they think will support the claim”

    I would have thought that was self-evident in the majority of political statements. Politicians do not expect people to remember what they said before: today’s soundbite is all that counts.

  2. On the other hand Rove could be a political pragmatist who believes in what works i.e. wins elections. Kaine was someone he didn’t believe in via a gut instinct but he dressed up his answer to make it seem reasoned. S.P. for V.P. is the result of animal cunning and political nous not reason.

  3. Talking ourselves into it « downstreamer - pingback on September 10, 2008 at 12:40 am
  4. If Rove is the Conservative he is made out to be and I believe he is, then it would stand to reason that no Liberal under any circumstance would be qualified for any office. And certainly not in this case.

    Stewart’s use of this soundcut simply did not tell the whole story. Rove’s evaluation of thesae two may go way beyond his spoken words and probably does.

    Where we need to check for inconsistencies is in The Daily Show!!!

  5. Well, such is politics. As Tony says, we are not supposed to remember what someone else said yesterday, only listen to what they are saying today. Politicians may have short memory, but that does not even matter. That is just an excuse. As you say, television and recordings have lonog memories.

    Of course everyone is influenced by their political leanings, otherwise they would not be on TV touting anyone.

    It is all about the implications that people make, never what they say literally. Thats just politics, but everyone does it. Even the presidential candidates, especially the news media.

    In the particular case of Rove, no, his words really do not extend past what the clips show (in any redeeming way) (because five second sound bites are all the media show, are the people need to see).

    And being a personal fan of the Daily Show, I feel obligated to remind everyone that it is a TV SHOW! ON COMEDY CENTRAL! There is no need to check for inconsistencies because while John may be making a good point, he does it to be FUNNY. His is not a show on MSNBC or FOX or any of those. It is not supposed to tell the people who to vote for, who is right or wrong. It is supposed to be funny.

  6. Norman Hanscombe

    The phenomenon has nothing to do with politics per se. It’s part of human nature to analyse carefully ONLY those pieces of information which do NOT support our particular (current) prejudices. The term cognitive dissonance has been applied to it.

    As a trait, it had significant value in helping our primaeval ancestors cope with a hostile, dangerous world they couldn’t understand. In modern times it can still be quite useful in helping us to remain oblivious to painful truths, not to mention feeling unjustifiably good about ourselves. Perhaps its one major drawback is that sometimes it helps us avoid discovering unpleasant truths which really ought to be faced up to.

    But evolution couldn’t be expected to be perfect,; especially once technological advances outpaced anything the slow {and brutal) evolutionary process could manage.

  7. Aren’t political figures and inconsistencies synonyms? I think the fact that politicians have to sit on the fence leads to the flip-flopping. They are constantly having to (re)spin their messages to appease both sides of the fence.

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