When Rusty Bowers spoke at the Tuesday, Jan. 6, congressional hearing, he captivated millions with his testimony about Donald Trump’s planned election sabotage. Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona House, described how Trump and Rudy Giuliani asked him to help name fake voters in 2020 — and how he turned them down. Bowers stressed that he would never break his vow to uphold the Constitution. “For me to do this because someone just asked me to is alien to my very being,” he said. “I won’t.”
Yet the day before, in an interview with The Associated Press, Bowers threw a curve ball. Although he bravely denounced Trump’s election interference, he insisted he would still vote for him in 2024. “If he’s the nominee, if he was against Biden, I would vote for him again. him,” Bowers said. “Just because what he did the first time, before COVID, was so good for the country. In my opinion, it was awesome.
Bowers’ choice to stay on the Trump train as he hurtles off a cliff may seem disconcerting. But from a psychological point of view, it is not so surprising.
Most of the resulting online furor was: Holy Cognitive Dissonance, Batman. How could Bowers possibly support a candidate who – as his own testimony so clearly showed – has flouted the rule of law and undermined the country’s democratic foundations?
Bowers’ choice to stay on the Trump train as he hurtles off a cliff may seem disconcerting. But from a psychological point of view, it is not so surprising. It’s one thing to draw a moral line and refuse to endorse fake voters. But it’s quite another to give up the political tribe you’ve supported for so much of your life – a pillar of attitudes, values and beliefs that underpins key aspects of your identity.
As Bowers contemplated Giuliani and Trump’s plan to nominate new Arizona voters, he faced a clear question: Is it legal or not? After determining the scheme was illegal, he correctly concluded that the green light would mean breaking his oath of office. In accordance with his decision, he took a stand against Trump’s actions which earned him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award this year.
But even for brave people like Bowers, disavowing an entire political party and its current standard bearer is a daunting psychological challenge. Once we buy into a certain narrative about the world – a narrative, for example, that big government is bad, lower taxes are good, and immigration is suspect – we engage in what we calls for reasoned reasoning to support this narrative.
Out of a desire for stability and well-being, we adopt arguments that support our worldview and reject those that do not. In study after study, people prefer to seek out evidence that confirms their political or moral beliefs while circumventing evidence that threatens those beliefs.
Leaning towards the familiar and the accepted can be an essential survival skill since humans thrive in cooperative groups where people mostly agree on the best way to live. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, abandoning the tribe could mean death, and breaking away from our communities can seem just as threatening today. “Literally, our views and opinions can help protect us, keep us safe,” wrote risk perception expert David Ropeik. “So it’s no wonder we fight so hard to keep these walls strong and high.”
Bowers is no exception to this rule. To reject the bogus voter’s scheme, he had only to clear a single moral hurdle. But to dismiss the Republican Party and its future nominee, even if it is Trump, he would have to abandon decades of assumptions about which ideas and people are valuable and which are not. He would also upset lifelong relationships with people who share his views.
This broad disavowal would not be as perilous as deserting the tribe with savannah predators on their trail. But he would have involve taxing mental labor, forcing Bowers to assemble a new web of social bonds, reevaluate the values he takes for granted, and redefine his place in the political arena. It’s much easier for Bowers to remain cocooned in “my party no matter what” thought — even if his support for Trump seems utterly contradictory — than to attempt this kind of identity redesign.
That’s not to say Bowers, and others like him, shouldn’t give it a try. Motivated reasoning makes people feel safe and maintains their social connections, but it can also twist them into logical knots and undermine their credibility, as Bowers’ interview with The Associated Press showed. And while the human desire to confirm pre-existing opinions can be strong, people can learn to overcome their own biases by exposing themselves to facts that refute their ingrained beliefs.
Until more politicians accept this challenge, however, we are likely to see a steady procession of public servants like Bowers: ready to put their lives on the line to talk about corruption, but unwilling to challenge ideas and beliefs. who fueled this corruption in the first place.