In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proudly proclaimed: “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.” Referencing the recent repeal of the U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Policy (DADT), Obama expressed confidence in a relatively swift timeline for the repeal of the longstanding policy. In the days that followed Obama’s address, multiple government officials have echoed this sentiment, eliciting praise from long-time critics of the policy. Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, the nation’s largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans, commented: “Generally we are pleased with how swiftly this is moving forward.”
The rate at which repeal is ostensibly progressing is somewhat of a surprise given the strong objections to repeal voiced by members of Congress and the Military throughout the policy’s history. The insights of system justification theory (SJT), as described by Blasi & Jost, can help explain the apparent mismatch between the vehement opposition to repeal and the complicity (and perhaps even vigor) with which it is being implemented. By examining the public comments of one particularly strong critic of repeal, Senator John McCain, I will explain this apparent mismatch by invoking the insights of SJT and other mind science theories.
McCain has been a longtime supporter of DADT, often buttressing his stance by noting that several military leaders had also professed support for the policy. In a 1999 interview that typifies McCain’s historical stance on DADT, McCain told the Boston Globe that he supports the policy because “Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, all of the military leaders that I respect and admire came up with this policy … They thought it was the best way to address a very difficult problem within our military.” However, recent insights from the mind sciences suggest that McCain’s cited rationale for his policy stance may not be the true source of his policy attitude. As Jon Hanson and Mark Yeboah note: “our reasons, far more often than we can perceive, are not connected to our behavior as much as they are rationalizations or confabulations to help make sense of that behavior.” Sure enough, even when Powell changed his own stance on DADT, Senator McCain continued with his opposition.
In fact, and as predicted by SJT, McCain’s opposition to repeal grew stronger as those he had previously cited as shaping his preferences came out in favor of repeal. Blasi & Jost explain that “people respond to threats to the social system by … defending the status quo more vigorously.” This response, which is often unconscious, satisfies several needs, “including epistemic needs for consistency, coherence, and certainty.” Threats to the existing system stimulate defense of the existing system and vengeance against those who threaten it. In the final days before Congress voted to repeal DADT, McCain indeed became even more forceful in his defense of DADT and his opposition to repeal, demanding dozens more hearings and attempting to block the bill on the Senate floor. As the status quo was threatened, McCain defended it with increased vigor in order to assuage the psychological effects of this threat. How, then, would McCain react upon the repeal of DADT?
Blasi & Jost explain, somewhat counterintuitively, that once the threatened change becomes inevitable, people begin to accept it and rationalize the new regime rather than continue to oppose it: “People perceive the emerging social arrangements in increasingly favorable terms and begin to justify and rationalize the new regime. Defending the old system no longer has psychological benefits, so people will cease to justify it.” The theory postulates, then, that McCain would begin to support repeal once it passed through Congress and became the law. Indeed, McCain has now promised to do anything he can to help repeal proceed smoothly:
“I have to do whatever I can to help the men and women who are serving … I will do everything I can to make it work.”
To be sure, without a further inquiry into the political backdrop of McCain’s position over the years, his comments can be viewed as mere political posturing followed by a pragmatic abandonment of an unpopular political position, rather than the result of a psychological process as explained by SJT. However, the stark contrast in the tenor of public debate before and after repeal do suggest that more is at work than mere political posturing, especially given the similar accommodating stance taken by non-elected military officials. Surely, a study of widespread public attitudes (both in terms of preferences and strength of preferences) throughout the life of DADT would offer more insight into the potential effect of system-justification on policy attitudes related to DADT. For now, at the very least, SJT offers an alternate explanation of seemingly contradictory behavior by Senator McCain and other former supporters of DADT as they proceed to ensure that Americans can serve in the military regardless of their sexual orientation.
For a Monty Python-tinged example of McCain’s opposition to repeal (before repeal was passed), check out the clip below from The Daily Show. Coverage of McCain starts at the 4:05 mark, but the whole thing is worth a watch.