Cognitive dissonance theory states that people unintentionally blind themselves so they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or convictions. As human beings, we have an innate desire to see ourselves in a positive light. Therefore, when presented with information that makes us appear wrong, immoral, unjust or incorrect, our primal instincts incline us to refute that info, so we can keep a harmonious self-image. Additionally, confirmation bias prompts people to see the absence of information or evidence as evidence in itself. Ultimately, both lead us to exert an abundance of mental energy in order to avoid having to change our beliefs. The truth of the matter is that most Americans, by virtue of propaganda and indoctrination, hold dissonant political beliefs, and are constantly justifying, trivializing and denying information in order to live comfortably.
Dissonance has caused both Democratic and Republican voters alike to be completely unaware of the fact that both parties are what distinguished research professor Dr. G. William Domhoff refers to as “corporate-conservative parties,” which act as tools for the ruling class.
We saw this in the last four presidencies, with President Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, ‘94 Crime Bill, welfare reform and deconstruction of remnant Eastern-European socialist countries like Yugoslavia through NATO bombings.
We saw this with President Barack Obama’s mass deportation of immigrants, coups in Honduras and Ukraine, drone strikes in Syria, Affordable Care Act (which was drafted by the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation) and arms deals with the Israeli aparthied regime.
And we’re seeing it now with President Joe Biden, as his administration, so far, has tripled the number of detained immigrant children, expanded military equipment to police, continued drone strikes in Syria, reinforced Trump-era refugee policies, privatized the Afghanistan war and persisted in the seizure of land along the border wall.
Evidently, both Democratic and Republican parties operate within different factions of the corporate elite, often colluding together and leaving any systemic change out of the question, since all legislation introduced in electoral politics operates within the framework of neoliberal capitalism. Any opposition between parties is controlled, performative and designed to create a facade of democracy that masks the true nature of the American political and economic reality. This controlled opposition is reproduced via the false liberal-conservative dichotomy that exists within our American political system.
In the U.S., the term “liberal” is a widely perverted term incorrectly used to define any political ideology left of “center.” Liberalism, in reality, favors free-market reforms and slow economic progress. On the other hand, neoliberalism refers to free-market trade, deregulation of financial markets, privatization, individualization and a shift away from state-welfare provision. Both Democrats and Republicans (under the Washington Consensus) operate under neoliberal capitalist ideologies, and really only differ in terms of social policy. As we saw with the aforementioned presidential policies, both parties serve ruling class interests that favor neoliberal free-market policies. It is the great success of the ruling class that has convinced the American populace that they are diametrically opposed despite sharing more in common than they do in differences. Yet in reality the “liberal” Democratic Party is a moderate-conservative party and the Republican Party an ultra-conservative party.
But let’s get one thing clear: Liberals are not leftists, and leftists are not liberals. On the political compass, liberals exist in the center or to the right of the center, while leftists exist to the left. Leftist is an umbrella term (a pretty useless one at that due to its immense breadth) that can be used to describe social democrats, socialists, communists, etc. In the same vein, social democracy is not socialism. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders incorrectly co-opted socialist terminology despite his policies being socially democratic in nature. Socialism requires the democratic and socialization of the means of production in the hands of the working people and the elimination of the profit motive. Thus, Sanders’s proposed reforms are not socialism, and they do not involve the dismantling of capitalism. Instead, they are a form of state-capitalism. Bernie is a state-capitalist, not a democratic socialist like he or the conservatives would like you to believe.
It’s important that we clear away misconceptions about these terms because part of what keeps the corporate elite in power is a politically illiterate working class who has no idea what terms actually mean. Mass media often blurs these terms, further inspiring delusion of actual social reforms and to label any progressive policy as “socialist” or “communist” when in reality all progressive policies, even the ones championed by U.S Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, such as the Green New Deal, exist within the framework of capitalism.
This false dichotomy makes it seem as if American liberalism and conservatism are opposing ideologies when in reality, they are both right-wing ideologies that interplay with one another. In their article, “Hitler Is Not Dead: On Bourgeois Electoralism, Liberalism as the Left-Wing of Facism, and the Politics of Exceptionalizing Donald Trump,” cultural worker Joshua Briond puts this notion into perspective. He states, “The misunderstanding of fascism begins with the deliberate political positing of (neo)liberalism as in-opposition or an alternative to the fascist order. When in actuality, history has shown us that it is in cahoots with, if not an actual strand of, fascism in and of itself.” Briond underlines the ways a false illusion of opposition has been upheld, obfuscating the truth that these parties are united in their serving of capital, upholding Western hegemony and exploitation of the Global South. Breaking away from this commonly held belief that liberalism and conservatism are rivaling ideologies surely evokes a lot of dissonances. Especially when one might ask: If the liberal-conservative dichotomy is false, why does it seem like factions of mainstream media are constantly at odds with each other?
The answer to this goes back to the idea of controlled opposition. One may mistakenly believe that there exists a distinction between mainstream liberal media and conservative media, but in reality, all mainstream media is conservative media. 90% of American news media is owned by six billion-dollar corporate conservative organizations who, despite some small differences in social opinions, unanimously push pro-capitalist agendas to their viewers. Corporations like CNN and Fox News appear different at face value, but in reality, serve the same ruling-class interests. Both outlets, like all other corporate news media outlets, are enemies of the working class. Their “opposition” is controlled and performative. While there are certainly matters in which Democrats and Republicans differ, they remain united in their corporate interests, which is what dominates electoral politics and national policies.
The mass media is an example of a state ideological apparatus, or a tool the state uses to inflict its capitalist ideology onto the people. In this sense, freedom of the press is limited in America, because the majority of the news media is owned by a few billionaires. These billionaires are the same billionaires who exert their control over the state. In this vein, one could make the case that news corporations like Fox, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and other ruling-class propaganda are state-owned media, considering the immense role they play in collaborating with and carrying out the agenda of the [settler-colonial] state that is the U.S.
But it’s not just news media that is conservative. One could argue that virtually all media in America is conservative. This claim might evoke dissonance for some since there’s such a vast amount of celebrities in the entertainment industry who push their Democratic agenda. But, social policy and economic policy are two separate spheres, and while these actors may be in favor of social reforms like gay marriage or women’s rights, they all unilaterally stand behind capitalism and the corporate machine that is Hollywood. And why wouldn’t they… they’re rich! In cultural critic Michael Parenti’s book, “Make-Believe Media,” he discusses how the U.S. military works hand-in-hand with Hollywood and even funds films that push patriotic narratives. Just look at how films like Marvel movies depict fictional characters such as Tony Stark, serving to normalize billionaires and tech giants. Villains are often of foreign agency, and filmmakers often use certain color palettes to paint countries in the Global South in a negative light. Furthermore, television shows from “Saturday Night Live” to “Parks and Recreation” humanize politicians despite the atrocities they commit. Many entertainment networks are owned by big corporations such as General Electric (which is also a defense contractor) and despite having “diverse” casts with actors who are socially liberal in their beliefs, Hollywood still remains one of the most successful conservative propaganda machines in the world.
Speaking of propaganda, let’s talk about schools. The dissonance in the reality of the school system arises when we discover how truly conservative our education system is. The American education system is another ideological state apparatus. In fact, it’s the biggest ideological state apparatus according to Louis Althusser, who originated the concept. He asserts in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’” that the education system serves as a reproduction of the relations of production, i.e. of capitalist relations of exploitation. This occurs through the system’s formal curriculum (lessons, material and subject matter taught) and its hidden curriculum (unwritten, unofficial values and perspectives that students learn in school). The hidden curriculum in many public schools exists to prepare the working class for a life of exploitation by encouraging submission and deference to authority. The formal curriculum, on the other hand, consists of warped economic curriculums, many of which, as Domhoff cites in “Who Rules America?,” are created by the National Council on Economic Education, a council funded by corporations like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo and Citigroup, which spew capitalist propaganda into universities, educator training programs and public school curriculums. Domhoff asserts that these corporations also provide educational books, videos and other content aimed at elementary and high school students, allowing for their ideologies to be spread at a young age. Meanwhile, private schools also act as ideological state apparatuses by offering high-rate education to children of rich families, perpetuating the cycle that keeps wealthy families in power. According to Domhoff, virtually all graduates of private secondary schools go on to prestigious universities in which they major in business, finance or corporate law, allowing themselves to continue to uphold and maintain their power in the corporate community. Domhoff claims that in a study of 100 high schools that sent the highest percentage of their students to Harvard University, Princeton University or Yale University, 94 out of 100 were private schools. He states that one-third of those who oversee the nation’s largest firms attended Harvard, Yale or Princeton, and two-thirds studied at the twelve most well-endowed schools in America.
So American corporations exert great control over the news media, entertainment industry and even the education system… but at least we’re not an authoritarian country where power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Oh wait.
Beyond the institutions of news media, entertainment and education, there’s another often overlooked institution in which American corporations exert massive control over: the family. Our daily lives are dominated by material possessions, all of which stem from wealthy corporations that manufacture and produce these products. And since the means of production are owned by a private few, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and consumer choice thus becomes a myth. Even the food we eat comes from a dominant agribusiness complex which consists of a few wealthy corporations that operate the majority of farms across America. Domhoff claims that 7% of farmers account for over 75% of farm sales. These agribusinesses effectively are pushing small farmers out of business through their consolidation and growth. Yet in a country in which corporations control what we eat, wear, learn and watch, many still hold the dissonant belief that we are the freest country on Earth.
Nonetheless, hearing these truths has the capacity to evoke a strong sense of dissonance within all of us because the ruling class has spent billions of dollars to carefully craft a society in which think-tanks, the mass media, educational systems, advertisements and the entertainment industry effectively delude the American populace into believing their capitalist propaganda. All this in order to sustain an inequitable, violent, poverty-inducing, imperialistic regime. How interesting that it costs so much to convince Americans that they are free-thinking.
MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.