The Table

Political Anxiety, Voter Mindfulness, & Waking Up to Trust in God

By Kyle RobertsNovember 7, 2016


"If we identify strongly with a political party, it can be rather strenuous to think critically about the candidate who represents that party. We will be inclined to overlook their mistakes, their flaws, and the places where we may disagree with their policies, in order to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance that we would otherwise have to contend with."


Every four years, most Americans line up to do what they believe to be their civic duty: We cast a ballot for our preferred presidential candidate. Many people are confident, even passionate, when they walk into the voting booth. Some walk in yet undecided, and still others might change their minds. But no vote is pure, because no voter is.

Each of us is tainted by the manipulation of political messaging and by the posturing and rhetoric of candidates. Each of us is influenced by the forces already deep at work inside of us: biases, presuppositions, the need to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Perhaps in this election more than any other in recent memory, many lament that there are no really good candidates. Each has unique vulnerabilities. Pundits on either side point to flaws that have captured the attention of the public. Each candidate has drawn suspicion, for differing reasons, of whether they can be trusted.

Voting as Self-Examination

It’s not my place here to chart out those flaws or to weigh the candidates’ mistakes and weaknesses against each other (I have a strong bias!). Rather, I want to focus on a different point: That political races offer an opportunity for voters not only to exercise their democratic right to express their preference of available candidates, but also to perform an exercise in self-examination.

In Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), the authors build on available social science to articulate our propensities to self-justification; our reluctance to admit we were (or are) wrong; and our natural tendency to confirm our biases and to reduce cognitive dissonance.

If we identify strongly with a political party, it can be rather strenuous to think critically about the candidate who represents that party. We will be inclined to overlook their mistakes, their flaws, and the places where we may disagree with their policies, in order to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance that we would otherwise have to contend with. 


"When we allow ourselves to become blind to evidence, we default to the options, viewpoints, or beliefs simply because we’ve heard them so long, loud, and often, that they’ve become unquestionable and impenetrable."


Now, it might be that we are consciously aware of those flaws, and yet still cast a vote for our preferred candidate because we know that no candidate is perfect and none will allow us to completely check off all our wish-list boxes. That’s voting with awareness of the dissonance, and most of us will do this to an extent, at least.

It’s simply realism, and it’s how we live much of our lives. We try to make the best decision among imperfect options.

The Illusion of Objectivity

It’s more problematic when we lack self-awareness of these propensities and function as if we have complete control—something like a pure objectivity—over our decision-making processes. It becomes dangerously problematic when we lack epistemic humility in the way we engage our political options.

When we allow ourselves to become blind to evidence, we default to the options, viewpoints, or beliefs simply because we’ve heard them so long, loud, and often, that they’ve become unquestionable and impenetrable. Lack of critical reflection on our own preferences is cause for thoughtless action.

Wake Up!: Mindfulness, Self-Awareness, and Avoiding Self-Justification

Jesus warned his disciples to “keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt 24:42). The appearance of the Son of Man, Jesus explained, would be sudden, imminent, like a “thief in the night.” It would be as if, while two people were working in a field, one was suddenly snatched and taken away, perhaps shuttled off to some Roman prison. (This is N.T. Wright’s reading of the text. It’s a likely reference, not to the idea of a rapture of believers into the sky, but to “secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can.” N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 366.)

Jesus’ call to “keep awake” became a prominent eschatological theme in the history of theology. Watchfulness. Be mindful, be aware. The end—or the new beginning—could come at any moment.

It might seem like an odd connection to make, but this call to eschatological watchfulness is related, in a way, to the importance of being self-aware. We need to reckon with our propensities to self-justification; with our reluctance to admit we were (or are) wrong; and with our natural tendency to confirm our biases and to reduce cognitive dissonance. 



If we identify strongly with a political party, it can be rather strenuous to think critically about the candidate who represents that party. We will be inclined to overlook their mistakes, their flaws, and the places where we may disagree with their policies, in order to ameliorate the cognitive dissonance that we would otherwise have to contend with.

Now, it might be that we are consciously aware of those flaws, and yet still cast a vote for our preferred candidate because we know that no candidate is perfect and none will allow us to completely check off all our wish-list boxes. That’s voting with awareness of the dissonance, and most of us will do this to an extent, at least.

It’s simply realism, and it’s how we live much of our lives. We try to make the best decision among imperfect options.

The Illusion of Objectivity

It’s more problematic when we lack self-awareness of these propensities and function as if we have complete control—something like a pure objectivity—over our decision-making processes. It becomes dangerously problematic when we lack epistemic humility in the way we engage our political options.

When we allow ourselves to become blind to evidence, we default to the options, viewpoints, or beliefs simply because we’ve heard them so long, loud, and often, that they’ve become unquestionable and impenetrable. Lack of critical reflection on our own preferences is cause for thoughtless action.

Wake up!: Mindfulness, Self-Awareness, and Avoiding Self-Justification

Jesus warned his disciples to “keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt 24:42). The appearance of the Son of Man, Jesus explained, would be sudden, imminent, like a “thief in the night.” It would be as if, while two people were working in a field, one was suddenly snatched and taken away, perhaps shuttled off to some Roman prison. (This is N.T. Wright’s reading of the text. It’s a likely reference, not to the idea of a rapture of believers into the sky, but to “secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can.” N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 366.)

Jesus’ call to “keep awake” became a prominent eschatological theme in the history of theology. Watchfulness. Be mindful, be aware. The end—or the new beginning—could come at any moment. 


"The creative minds behind the political machine are master-manipulators of our self-justification and biases. They know we’d rather accept a message handed to us ready-made on a plate, rather than struggle with any cognitive dissonance it might create."


It might seem like an odd connection to make, but this call to eschatological watchfulness is related, in a way, to the importance of being self-aware. We need to reckon with our propensities to self-justification; with our reluctance to admit we were (or are) wrong; and with our natural tendency to confirm our biases and to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Staying Awake in Election Season

These propensities may be highly active during the election season—a season in which politicians, marketers, and media moguls are all working intensely hard to tap into our anxieties, our fears, and our biases.

Political advertisements take advantage of our sleepiness. The creative minds behind the political machine are master-manipulators of our self-justification and biases. They know we’d rather accept a message handed to us ready-made on a plate, rather than struggle with any cognitive dissonance it might create.

You might remember the famous (or infamous) “Daisy Girl” ad. The ad was created by president Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964, and was a strategic response to his opponent Barry Goldwater’s suggestion or implication that he (Goldwater) might be open to using a nuclear weapon to end the Vietnam war. The ad’s message was clear: If you elect Goldwater, we’re going to have the apocalypse. Nuclear Armageddon. Everything you love will be destroyed.

The ad was aired only once (though replayed countless times in news reports), but Johnson won by a landslide. And politicians and media experts learned that lesson and never forgot it.

At the Ready

Jesus tells his disciples to be “at the ready.” Their disposition, their attitude, should be expectant, watchful, on the ready. They were to avoid falling into that deep, hypnotic sleep, a sleep so deep that they couldn’t hear the footsteps of the secret police in the night or the false, manipulating promises of a vacuous empire. They were to live at the ready, poised by their expectation for the appearance of Christ. 


"People will always fail, and nations and temples will eventually crumble. But the reason for failure should not be an unwillingness to come to terms with our limitations, our flaws, and our mistakes."


Rather than anxious worrying about the future, or frantic, desperate strategizing, we can live with an openness to the future, replacing fear with contentment, anxiety with peacefulness, drowsiness with watchfulness and hopeful anticipation.

God Is in Control

Apart from salvation itself, the greatest gift that Christianity gives us is a deep, settled conviction that God is in control of all things; the burden of fear and anxiety can be lifted—not always and not in every case. There are real things to be worried about. But the grace of God takes away the temptation to try to control our situations at all costs, to manipulate or be manipulated, to frantically place our hopes on other human beings or even on the grandeur of a nation, or to give in to despair at the latest setback.

People will always fail, and nations and temples will eventually crumble. But the reason for failure should not be an unwillingness to come to terms with our limitations, our flaws, and our mistakes. 


For more about the phenomenon of voter manipulation through political advertisement, see "Voter Manipulation: Death Anxiety in Political Messaging."

This is a second installment of a review of  Mistakes Were Made (by not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (Mariner Books, New York, 2007, 2015). Click here to read Kyle Roberts previous post, "Making Mistakes and Making a Murderer."

Kyle Roberts is Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Click here to read his Patheos blog, UnSystematic Theology

The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.

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