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The Psychology of Political Stubbornness

A framework for what motivates rigidity among politicians helps explain the current debt ceiling debate and suggests how to resolve it.
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Politicians: They're slick and soulless, shifting positions shamelessly to stay ahead of public opinion. Unless they’re ridiculously rigid and inflexible, sticking to their principles even when doing so courts disaster.

Unfair clichés? To be sure. But in rough, unsophisticated terms, these stereotypes delineate the extreme ends of our Congressional continuum. They’re reminders that even politicians from the same party, who advocate the same policies, can have dramatically different personalities.

One political scientist argues this often-overlooked truth can help explain our elected representatives’ behavior and even help resolve deadlocks such as the current debt-ceiling standoff. As Jonathan Keller of James Madison University points out, you probably can’t change someone’s mind until you understand how they derive their sense of self-esteem.

“When a situation arises that arouses a leader’s core sources of self-validation — the criteria by which one judges one’s worth as a political leader — the leader becomes willing to endure enormous political opposition and policy setbacks in order to remain faithful to the policy that has become identified with their self-worth,” Keller writes in a 2009 paper titled "Explaining Rigidity and Pragmatism in Political Leaders", published in the journal Political Psychology.

This dynamic helps explain the rigidity of thought we’ve been witnessing in recent weeks among members of Congress. For many, bending would mean betraying their own sense of who they are and why they’re in office.

But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to eternal gridlock. It means those trying to strike a bargain need to a) understand what motivates individual members, and b) reframe issues so that less-extreme positions are no longer a threat to their sense of self-worth.

“Rigidity expresses itself differently in leaders with different sources of self-validation,” Keller writes. “Leaders who are internally validated — those whose primary source of self-validation is faithful adherence to an ideology or mission — will adhere rigidly to those policy options they perceive are necessary … and will exhibit insensitivity to a) political opposition to those policies; and b) information suggesting those policies are failing.”

Sound at all familiar?

In contrast, other political leaders are externally validated; their key source of self-worth is the approval of others, such as constituents or leaders of their party. These elected officials — Bill Clinton is commonly cited as an example — are “more concerned about listening to these other voices and fashioning their policies in such a way as to achieve and maintain the support of those actors,” he writes.

Keller’s analysis focuses on Ronald Reagan, whose writings (including his personal diaries) suggest he was strongly driven by internal validation — which is to say, a sense of mission. “Once Reagan had defined the issues in ways that implicated his self-worth, he was willing to change course only within a narrowly circumscribed range of options, and exhibited striking insensitivity to political opposition and unpleasant data,” he writes.

Keller notes that Reagan was steadfastly opposed to raising taxes but ultimately did so when he was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse: a proposal that called for $3 of budget reductions for every dollar of tax increases.

“Faced with extraordinary political pressure, and believing that the tax increase was the only way to achieve his goal of reducing federal spending, Reagan agreed (to the compromise), convincing himself that the tax increase merely closed loopholes in his original tax bill,” he writes.

As biographer Lou Cannon wrote of Reagan: “He was enough of a true believer to demand consistency in himself, a trait that encouraged aides to invent arguments designed to persuade him that proposals in conflict with his advocacies actually advanced them.”

Keller noted that the current circumstances aren’t precisely the same as those he describes in his paper. While he focused on presidents (including Woodrow Wilson and his support for the doomed League of Nations), “the current situation probably involves group dynamics that make things more complex,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, his framework helps our understanding of what motivates today’s often-recalcitrant members of Congress. Specifically, he suspects members of the Tea Party caucus “have both internal and external reasons not to move.”

“Internally, they view themselves as the ones who have come to Washington to say ‘no more’ to the excess spending and taxation,” he said. Externally, “they have pledged to their constituents, and believe they have a mandate, to hold fast on these points.”

“I think some of these freshman Republicans have intertwined their very identity and self-worth as political leaders with achieving a particular outcome to this battle, and that kind of emotional investment is a very powerful force for rigidity,” he said. “Some of the same things may be going on with Obama and Democratic members of Congress (albeit with different principles/constituents), which may not bode well for a compromise.”

His framework suggests the way to get internally driven members to be more flexible is to somehow convince them their preferred approach actually harms the larger goals they are devoted to. (Remember Reagan and taxes.) If Tea Partiers can be persuaded that raising the debt ceiling is actually a means to the long-term end they are working toward — say, smaller government — it will be much easier for them to make that internal shift and think of it as acceptable.

Externally driven members must be convinced that holding fast to their demands lowers their esteem in the eyes of those they need to impress. This suggests the views of business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce may have an effect on some Tea Partiers. Pleas from union leaders fearful of what would happen to their members in the event of a default-induced economic crash could have a similar impact on externally driven Democrats who are reluctant to deal.

As Keller notes in his paper, “leaders can typically be identified toward one end or the other of the internal-external validation spectrum.” The most effective way to approach them will depend upon which side of the line they fall on.

Either way, the key to getting a member to switch their vote is reframing the issue in such a way that it aligns with the impulse that provides them with their sense of self-worth. The good news is, as the costs of staying the course — for both the country and themselves politically — become more apparent, politicians become more open to such arguments.

In the end, Keller expects a compromised will be reached, which will allow “both sides to declare victory, and tell their constituents — and themselves — that they got most of what they wanted, and are at least alive to fight another day.”

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