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Amash’s Critics on the Right Are Betraying Their Own Principles

June 3, 2019
Amash’s Critics on the Right Are Betraying Their Own Principles
GRAND RAPIDS, MI - MAY 28: U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) holds a Town Hall Meeting on May 28, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Amash was the first Republican member of Congress to say that President Donald Trump engaged in impeachable conduct. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Justin Amash’s notorious devotion to the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility has led to numerous clashes with both Republicans and Democrats. But his tweets last week, calling for President Trump’s impeachment for obstruction of justice were deemed a step too far for some who had previously been his allies.

“I think Justin is wrong and so does every member of the Freedom Caucus we talked to,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, founder of the House Freedom Caucus. “My guess is every single member disagrees with Justin and like me, strongly disagrees with his assessment.”

It was unsurprising when the president and lackeys like RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel attacked Amash. But the condemnation from former allies is much more alarming because its an indication of widespread cognitive dissonance.

Social psychologists have identified three ways people deal with feelings of cognitive dissonance—when they face discomfort because attitudes, beliefs, and/or behaviors are perceived as inconsistent.

First, people may simply change a dissonant behavior. We may stop smoking  to reduce dissonance between our desire to be healthy and our desire to smoke. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.

Others emphasize information that allows them to ignore the inconsistency. Smokers might claim that “research hasn’t proved that smoking causes lung cancer.” Thus, the information that we use to reduce dissonance needn’t be valid or true; it simply must alleviate the perceived inconsistency.

Lastly, some simply downplay the importance of a dissonant element. Again, a smoker might say “I’m here for a good time, not a long time, and smoking helps me to have a good time.” The motivation, again, is to reduce the perceived inconsistency, not necessarily to make a prudent or responsible decision.

It’s all well and good to talk about smoking, but what does this have to do with Justin Amash? Let’s look at the response that Amash has received from his supposed ideological allies. The House Freedom Caucus was founded (with Amash among its original members) on the principles of limited government and fiscal conservatism. Its own mission statement reads “We support open, accountable, and limited government, the Constitution and the rule of law, and policies that promote the liberty, safety, and prosperity of all Americans.” Turning Point USA’s website stresses the importance of “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.”While both organizations might disagree with Amash’s specific conclusions regarding impeachment, one would expect them to at least respect the most fiscally conservative man in Congress, given the consistency of their underlying political philosophies.

However, the House Freedom Caucus voted to condemn Amash for his comments on impeachment. TurningPoint founder Charlie Kirk accused Amash of betraying America for his own business interests with China and tweeted:

It’s possible to disagree with Amash without casting unwarranted aspersions on his character or misrepresenting his record. Rand Paul has managed to support the president throughout the Mueller investigation without attacking Amash. Lawrence Reed, former president of the Foundation for Economic Education, even went so far as to say “While I don’t agree with my friend Justin Amash on the impeachment issue, I have the highest possible respect for him. He consistently and courageously speaks his mind and bases his decisions on what he regards as right and constitutional.” Thus, the vitriolic and excessive responses from Amash’s former allies indicate that they don’t just disagree with him; they are trying to reduce their own cognitive dissonance.

One can reduce cognitive dissonance by abandoning the behaviors or attitudes which caused it, by seeking new information (even wrong information) to reduce perceived inconsistency, or by downplaying the importance of the inconsistency. To take the first strategy would be to oppose Trump who, as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, has the power to make that incredibly costly. And so many of Amash’s ideological allies have opted for strategies two and three.

If one values small government, individual liberty, and fiscal responsibility, President Trump is a hard man to support. However, as the 2020 election looms closer, and the threat of a Republican defeat becomes more concrete, we have a situation ripe for cognitive dissonance.

The accusations that Amash has somehow betrayed the Constitution or that he is a leftist are clear manifestations of the second strategy for reducing cognitive dissonance. Amash’s voting record and his pattern of transparency both reveal that he has always placed ideology above party loyalty. This highlights Amash’s former allies’ own inconsistency when they support Trump’s non-conservative agenda. However, by claiming Amsh is an ideological “traitor” or some sort of secret leftist, they can use this “new” (and clearly wrong) information to ignore their own inconsistency and the dissonance that it has provoked.

Worse still, Amash’s opponents also are engaging in the third strategy by valuing party loyalty at the expense of principle. The House Freedom Caucus seemed more than able to rally and condemn Amash, but were strangely absent from the conversation about the budget, allowing a series of financial decisions that contradict the very principles of their founding. And not for the first time.  House Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney, for example, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that the government couldn’t afford new deficits, and yet completely switched positions two years later when he’d become Trump’s budget director. It seems that “the party line” has become more important than the fundamental principles that are meant to underlie the party itself.

One need not agree with Amash on everything to acknowledge his record as a principled defender of limited government and fiscal conservatism. As Amash himself said in his town hall on Tuesday evening, “I haven’t changed. I am who I was.” His convictions have helped him maintain the support of his constituents. We can’t say the same about his former allies.    

The attacks on Amash by those who should be his supporters say far more about them than it does about him. Their criticism is about their own inconsistency, and they have opted to assuage this dissonance by betraying their own principles rather than changing their behavior. The only response to such attacks, in the words of Justin Amash himself, is “to do the right thing regardless.”

Aaron Pomerantz

Aaron Pomerantz is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma.