Xavier Marquez examines the political psychology of the “good Tsar,” shorthand for the phenomenon of people deflecting blame for failure from a beloved leader, shunting it off to his underlings, who supposedly betrayed him. Excerpt:
The bias comes from the failure to notice that, as Brad Delong used to say, “the cossacks work for the Tsar”; some cognitive or emotional dissonance management mechanism prevents people from acknowledging connections between the proximate and the more remote causal agents of their dissatisfaction that, in retrospect, seem obvious. After all, why, if the leader is so good, does he surround himself with such poor collaborators? In the Hitler case, Kershaw talks about the “naïvety” of the people expressing belief in the “good Führer”, and claims that this seems explainable only due to a “prevailing psychological necessity to have a national leader of stature existing in an elevated sphere outside of and removed from the ‘conflict sphere’ of the everyday political arena” (p. 119). But the dissonance management mechanism seems a bit more general than this.
Though the “good Tsar bias” seems to be related to what psychologists call the just world bias, insofar as it appears to serve as a compensatory form of system justification, it does not seem to be quite the same thing. The “good Tsar” bias does not incline people to say that the world is just, or to rationalize injustice as somehow deserved, only to deny that those leaders who are closely tied to the symbols of the nation (the Tsar, the Führer, the King, etc.) bear responsibility for bad outcomes in everyday life; that responsibility, instead, is assigned to subordinates. In this respect, the bias appears to be more closely related to what Dan Kahan and others have called “identity-protective cognition“: the closer a leader is tied to the symbols of the nation or group with whom they identify, and the closer people’s identification with the nation or group is, the more difficult it should be for them to accept that the leader is responsible for bad outcomes, since such acceptance threatens one’s identity, and the more likely it will be for them to displace that responsibility onto subordinates as a protective measure. And leaders, like Hitler, who are the focus of high-intensity rituals associated with big national occasions — plebiscitary elections, victories in war, even set-piece speeches on the occasion of good economic news — are precisely the sorts of leaders who become associated with important community symbols; indeed, in important ways, they come to symbolize the community, as long as the rituals are successful. For this reason, competitive systems of leadership selection should mitigate the bias, since they prevent leaders from being too closely identified with the symbols of the nation, whereas traditional monarchies should amplify it, given the typical association of the monarch with the symbols of the community as such. And wherever the bias operates, leaders should be able to more easily accumulate power at the expense of subordinates.
Marquez is absolutely onto something here, connecting Good Tsar Bias to system justification. Think of how in the early days of glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev tried to shore up faith in the rotten system by presenting it as a matter of Stalin having betrayed Lenin. That wasn’t true, and the system fell.
We saw it in Catholic circles post-Boston, with the desperate attempts by some conservative Catholics to wall of John Paul II from the catastrophe. If you were reading certain Catholic blogs at the time, the rationalizations for John Paul’s inaction were legion. The Holy Father was kept in the dark by disloyal subordinates. The Holy Father was too sick to act. The Holy Father has a secret plan to deal with the scandal. Et cetera.
There is no theological reason for this strategy. Papal authority, even papal infallibility, does not depend on the capability of a pope to govern prudently. Dante, in the Commedia, exemplifies the perfectly Catholic position: loyalty to the Church and to its teachings, including the papacy, but unleashing hell on the corrupt popes. The “Good Pope bias” here was not really a theological defense — a theological defense was not strictly necessary — but a psychological one.
It doesn’t have to be focused on a person. You’ve probably heard the line, “conservatism cannot fail; it can only be failed” describing, from a liberal perspective, the way movement conservatives rationalize the failures of conservative government. For these people, corruption, bad judgment, or ineptitude on the part of elected conservative leaders doesn’t disprove conservative ideas or principles; it only means they weren’t really tried. The failed presidency of George W. Bush had nothing to do with the wrongness of conservative ideas, you see; it was because Bush wasn’t sufficiently or genuinely conservative. In this case, the Good Tsar is not a person, but an ideology.
Liberals, of course, do the same thing. It’s almost a Kabuki ritual:
Liberal: “Government programs will solve the problems of inner-city black poverty.”
Conservative: “How can you really believe that? The Great Society was a failure. Don’t you there’s something more going on here?”
Liberal: “Because we didn’t try hard enough!”
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Upton Sinclair famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Similarly, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his way of making sense of the world depends on his not understanding it. It’s true for all of us. We may have different Good Tsars ruling the empire of our minds, but we all have them, and under certain conditions, we are entirely capable of being their loyal Cossacks.
(H/T: The Browser)