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Deplorable Toxicity

Cuomo’s marriage veto and a powerful dissociative reference group.

Recently New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill with nearly unanimous bipartisan support of both the New York Assembly and the New York Senate. In doing so, he illustrated the power of dissociative reference groups. The proposed bill would have allowed federal appeals and district court judges to preside over marriage ceremonies.

So who can officiate weddings in the State of New York? Traditional clergy, members of the New York Legislature, current and former mayors of cities and villages, county executives, tribal officials, leaders of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, federal district judges from New York jurisdictions, judges from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, state judges, and the governor are allowed to officiate weddings in the State of New York. Additionally, there are easy online avenues through which to become eligible to officiate weddings in New York.

The legislation was sponsored by a Democratic Senator, passed the Democratic-controlled Senate 61-1, passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly 148-2, and was subsequently vetoed by the Democratic Governor. In vetoing the bill, Governor Cuomo gave the following rationale:

“I cannot in good conscience support legislation that would authorize such actions by federal judges who are appointed by this federal administration. President Trump does not embody who we are as New Yorkers. The cornerstones that built our great state are diversity, tolerance, and inclusion. Based on these reasons, I must veto this bill.”

Cuomo vetoed an inclusive bill voted on nearly unanimously by two bodies of the legislature controlled by his own party. It would have expanded options for those seeking marriage and allowed more federal judges to preside over ceremonies that pretty much any citizen can preside over. His actions excluded any Obama appointees as well. He did this, as he expressed, based on his personal dislike for the President and fear that a Trump-appointed judge might perform a marriage ceremony.

Dissociative (also called negative) reference groups are groups of people an individual wants to avoid being associated with. In three empirical studies, White and Dahl (2006) found that consumers are more likely to avoid choosing a product associated with a dissociative reference group when consumption of the product was to occur in public. Thus, product avoidance was due to concerns about self-presentation.

Governor Cuomo’s dislike of President Trump is so great that he is willing to penalize citizens wishing to get married and federal judges willing to officiate weddings. He does this to avoid any connection to a dissociative reference group: in this case, anyone with a connection to President Trump. Additionally, this fulfills the value-expressive function (Katz, 1960) and the social adjustment function (Smith, Bruner, & White, 1956) of his negative attitude toward President Trump. As you can see, reference groups have effects beyond those individuals who hold formal group membership (Wood, 1999).

Let’s recap this psychologically powerful scenario. Democrat Cuomo vetoed a bill written by a member of his party and overwhelmingly supported by two governing bodies controlled by members of his party. The bill would have allowed Democrats (and anyone else) the option to ask a federal judge (Democrat-appointed or any other) to perform their marriage ceremony, including expanded types of marriage that were supported by Democrats (and others). As a social psychologist, I would have bet everything that the power of the ingroup (for Cuomo, the Democrats) would have won out in this scenario (Mather, 2013; Tajfel & Turner, 1986; Turner et al., 1987), but it didn’t. This shows the power of a dissociative outgroup and the enormous negative evaluation associated with President Donald Trump for some Democrats.

This is scary stuff. If four years ago, an entire group of people (62,984,825 people voted for President Trump in 2016) were labeled “deplorable” for casting a ballot for a candidate of a mainstream party in a national election, what further discrimination will come to individuals who express their support for the President and identify with what is for many individuals a powerfully anchored dissociative reference group?

Cuomo’s veto is emblematic of the political conflict that U.S. citizens will endure during 2020.


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