The New York Times finally took notice of the three states in which Bush still has an approval rating at or above 50%: Utah (62% Mormon), Idaho (25% Mormon), and Wyoming (10% Mormon). [See Radical Russ’s Net Approval Map. Open it up in a new window, because we are going to look at it in more detail.]
The Times author, Timothy Egan, goes to Provo, Utah, (85% Mormon) to ask the locals why they are standing by their man. He gets some superficial answers, but doesn’t ask the right question. Egan gets closest in this paragraph:
“All of the administration's perceived failures, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the budget deficit, go through a different filter in these Bush strongholds. Sounding a familiar theme, Mr. Craft said he was distrustful of news media portrayals of Mr. Bush because ‘they concentrate too much on the negative and certain small things.’”
The real question is why do the Mormons have a different filter? As a recovering Mormon and former Republican, I can tell you, but first we have to take a detour through some interesting psychology: cognitive biases.
It is an unfortunate failure of higher education that every college graduate does not know that all human beings have systematic biases in processing information. We know the other guy is definitely biased, but we think of ourselves as the paragon of fact-based objectivity. Yet psychologists have demonstrated a number of systematic cognitive biases that everybody shares, the relevant ones here being the confirmation and disconfirmation biases. As human beings, we appear hard-wired to search for and accept uncritically information that confirms our prior beliefs, and to discount and harshly criticize information that contradicts our prior beliefs. At the extreme we simply won’t listen to information that contradicts what we believe (and flip the channel over to Fox News).
For someone to change an opinion requires either a steady stream of contradictory information that eventually becomes too overwhelming to ignore, or a single big event that is so shocking it insists that one consider a new world view.
You can see this occur in the nation as a whole. From the day Bush took office, there has been a steady stream of negative information regarding the Bush administration’s job performance, but prior to the 2004 election nobody but registered Democrats was listening. After the 2004 election, this pile of information became a mountain, and more people started changing their mind. Then along came Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was the big event that shocked nearly everyone out of their belief that Bush was a great leader. But the changes in job approval didn’t occur overnight. Katrina opened everyone’s mind to the possibility that he was a lousy leader, and allowed them to give more credence to the continuing stream of bad news about the Bush administration. Look at the Net Approval map again, and click on the June 2005 through November 2005 maps. You’ll see that Katrina did not have a big impact in September on Bush’s net approval rating, but built up throughout October and November.
Did you notice something else? What’s up with those three red states? The numbers bounce around a bit, but stay pretty much as red by November 2005 as they were in June 2005. Approval ratings changed most in Wyoming, where there are the fewest Mormons. Katrina did not touch the Mormons’ opinions!
So what is different about Mormons’ world view that Hurricane Katrina did not create any cognitive dissonance regarding Bush’s leadership skills?
Mormons do not believe the federal government was negligent in its response to Hurricane Katrina. They believe the Constitution was inspired in order to allow the true church of Christ to be restored to the earth in the United States, but they have a strong historical lore full of stories of government persecution, so they want nothing more than to keep the government out of their lives. (Except regarding abortion and gay marriage.) Like western settlers in general, they are self-reliant; like religious conservatives they believe the church should be a mutual aid society – on steroids. The Mormons have a church welfare system unrivaled by any other church, and church doctrine insists that members should rely on the church before the government. They take care of themselves, and they do a damn good job.
That Louisiana was not prepared to take care of itself was tragic, but from the Mormon point of view, that doesn’t mean the federal government was lax in any duties. Bush did not fail in his responsibility, because he had no responsibility, which meant there was no cognitive dissonance for the Mormons.
If you follow the Net Approval Map animation, you’ll see that net approval ratings in the three states have continued to drop through time. That is to be expected, with increasing media criticism and the mountain of evidence piling up against the Bush administration. It’s also due to another cognitive bias: the bandwagon effect, or the tendency to believe things because many other people believe them. But as the quoted Mr. Craft indicates, most Mormons still stick with Bush because nothing has ever happened to break through their disconfirmation bias.