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How Political Psychology Explains Bush's Ghastly Success. Death Grip

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    How Political Psychology Explains Bush s Ghastly Success. Death Grip by John B. Judis Post date: 08.17.07 Issue date: 08.27.07 n June 2004, I went door to
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      How Political Psychology Explains Bush's Ghastly Success.
      Death Grip
      by John B. Judis
      Post date: 08.17.07
      Issue date: 08.27.07
      n June 2004, I went door to door in a white, working- class neighborhood of
      Martinsburg, West Virginia, a small blue-collar town in decline. There, I
      found voters disillusioned with both the Iraq war and the flagging economy. But,
      when I returned five months later-- the Sunday before the election--I had
      difficulty digging up anyone who didn't plan to vote for George W. Bush. As far
      as I could tell, Martinsburg voters were backing him for two reasons: first,
      because he opposed gay marriage and abortion ("There are two gays around the
      corner who are voting for Kerry," one fellow, with a Bush sign in his yard,
      advised me scornfully from his stoop); and, second, because he was leading
      the war on terrorism ("I feel more safe with Bush in there," an elderly
      disabled man explained). There was still grumbling over the war, the economy, and
      other topics--the same elderly man who praised Bush for making him feel safe
      also bemoaned America's lack of universal health insurance--but these issues
      were eclipsed by the threat of gay weddings and terrorist attacks.
      Bush carried West Virginia and won the election partly because he ran a
      better campaign than John Kerry. But that wasn't the only reason. There was
      something odd about the support for Bush in places like West Virginia. Unlike
      voters in New York City, voters in Martinsburg had little to fear from terrorist
      attacks; yet they backed Bush, while New Yorkers voted for Kerry. If gay
      marriage were legalized, Martinsburg would be unlikely to host massive numbers of
      same-sex weddings; yet voters I talked to were haunted by the specter of gay
      Some pundits have tried to explain away this mystery by arguing that Bush
      backers voted for their values rather than their interests. But this
      explanation is unsatisfying, since many of those voters didn't opt for "family values"
      in 1992 and 1996, when the country elected a well-known philanderer as
      In fact, many political scientists can't begin to explain what took place in
      West Virginia in 2004. In recent years, the field has become dominated by
      rational choice theorists, who have tried to develop complex mathematical
      equations to predict voting behavior. These equations rest on a view of voters as
      calculating consumers choosing a product on the basis of relative cost and
      utility--a view that generally leaves little room for the possibility of voters
      acting irrationally.
      There is, however, one group of scholars--members of the relatively new
      field of political psychology--who are trying to explain voter preferences that
      can't be easily quantified. The best general introduction to this field is
      Drew Westen's recent book, The Political Brain, but the research that is perhaps
      most relevant to the 2004 election has been conducted by psychologists
      Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. In the early 1980s, they
      developed what they clumsily called "terror management theory." Their idea was
      not about how to clear the subways in the event of an attack, but about how
      people cope with the terrifying and potentially paralyzing realization that, as
      human beings, we are destined to die. Their experiments showed that the mere
      thought of one's mortality can trigger a range of emotions--from disdain for
      other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over
      pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores. Initially,
      the three scholars didn't attempt to apply their theory to elections. But,
      after September 11, they conducted experiments designed to do exactly that.
      What they found sheds new light on the role that fear of death plays in
      contemporary politics--and, arguably, goes a long way toward unraveling the mystery
      of Martinsburg.

      olomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski met as graduate students at the
      University of Kansas in the late '70s. (Today, they are professors at Skidmore
      College, the University of Arizona, and the University of Colorado, respectively.)
      In 1980, Solomon discovered the work of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist whose
      last book, The Denial of Death, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker
      was part of a generation of American social psychologists--stretching from
      David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd in 1950, to Christopher Lasch, who
      penned The Culture of Narcissism in 1979--who operated outside the academic
      discipline of psychology and were far more influenced by Freud and Marx than by
      B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. Riesman, Lasch, and company are no longer
      avidly read--partly because of the fascination with neuroscience, but also
      because today's students and academics don't appear as interested in fundamental
      questions about life, death, love, and history.
      Becker, who died of colon cancer in 1974 at the age of 49, had a checkered
      academic career, largely because his work failed to fit within academic
      departments. Although a riveting lecturer--he filled the 700-seat Wheeler Hall
      auditorium in Berkeley for a class on Marx and Rousseau--he bounced from school
      to school on short-term contracts. In 1967, Michael Lerner (later of Tikkun)
      and I helped organize a demonstration on the Sproul Hall steps to demand that
      Berkeley's anthropology department hire Becker permanently, but to no avail.
      Two years later, Becker finally found a home at Simon Fraser University
      outside Vancouver, where he wrote what turned out to be his most influential books.
      In The Denial of Death, Becker tried to explain how fear of one's own demise
      lies at the center of human endeavor. "Man's anxiety," Becker wrote,
      "results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal
      limitation." Becker described how human beings defend themselves against
      this fundamental anxiety by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or
      literal immortality to those who live up to established standards. Among other
      things, we practice religions that promise immortality; produce children and
      works of art that we hope will outlive us; seek to submerge our own
      individuality in a larger, enduring community of race or nation; and look to heroic
      leaders not only to fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it.
      We also react with hostility toward individuals and rival cultures that
      threaten to undermine the integrity of our own.
      Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczyn- ski first presented a summary of Becker's
      ideas at the Society for Experimental Social Psychology in 1984. As they
      talked, the three later wrote, "well-known psychologists jostled each other
      vigorously to escape." Afterwards, they submitted their take on Becker to The
      American Psychologist and were peremptorily turned down. "I have no doubt that
      these ideas are of absolutely no interest to any psychologist, alive or dead,"
      the journal's reviewer replied. Later, the journal's editor told the three
      psychologists that, if they wanted to be taken seriously in their profession,
      they would have to find ways to test their ideas experimentally. And that's
      what they proceeded to do.
      Their first experiment was published in 1989. To test the hypothesis that
      recognition of mortality evokes "worldview defense"--their term for the range of
      emotions, from intolerance to religi- osity to a preference for law and
      order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger--they assembled 22 Tucson
      municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the
      relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they
      inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant
      to evoke awareness of their mortality. One asked the judges to "briefly
      describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you"; the other
      required them to "jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will
      happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead." They
      then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute
      whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality
      exercises set an average bail of $455. The control group that did not do the
      exercises set it at an average of $50. The psychologists knew they were onto
      Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate
      how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what
      they now called "mortality salience" affected people's view of other races,
      religions, and nations. When they had students at a Christian college
      evaluate essays by what they were told were a Christian and a Jewish author, the
      group that did the mortality exercises expressed a far more negative view of the
      essay by the Jew- ish author than the control group did. (German
      psychologists would find a similar reaction among German subjects toward Turks.) They
      also conducted numerous experiments to show that mortality exercises evoked
      patriotic responses. The subjects who did the exercises took a far more negative
      view of an essay critical of the United States than the control group did and
      also expressed greater veneration for cultural icons like the flag. The
      three even devised an experiment to show that, after doing the mortality
      exercises, conser- vatives took a much harsher view of liberals, and vice versa.
      In conducting these experiments, they took care not to tell the subjects
      what they were doing. They also devised experiments to answer obvious objections
      to their theory. For instance, they substituted other exercises designed to
      increase anxiety--by reminding subjects of an upcoming examination or a
      painful dental visit--to determine if these thoughts had the same effect as the
      mortality exercises, but they didn't. It wasn't anxiety per se that triggered
      worldview defense; it was anxiety specifically about one's own death.
      Drawing on psychoanalysis, but looking for experimental verification,
      Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski developed a theory to explain how mortality
      salience works. When they started conducting experiments, the psychologists had
      believed that the sheer recognition of one's mortality directly triggered
      worldview defense. But, when other psychologists, varying the procedure, failed
      to reproduce the same results, they discovered an important caveat: When they
      would ask sub- jects to make judgments immediately following the mortality
      exercises, the exercises would have little effect. It was only when they
      interspersed a diversionary interval between the exercises and the judgments that
      the exercises had their full impact.
      Freud had distinguished between "primary processes" of thought that were
      unconscious and irrational and "secondary processes" that were conscious and
      rational. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski reasoned that, when individuals
      first feel anxiety about their mortality, they respond consciously by invoking
      the usual psychological defenses-- for instance, telling themselves that
      "it's not me, now." That allayed conscious anxiety, but, after the conscious
      anxiety about mortality had subsided, the thought remained unconscious and active
      and led people to erect worldview defenses. "The implicit knowledge of death
      rather than the current focal awareness is the motivating factor," they
      wrote. "Once the problem of death is out of focal attention but while it is still
      highly accessible, terror management concerns are addressed by ...
      bolstering faith in the worldview."
      To demonstrate this effect, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski devised
      experiments using subliminal cues. They asked subjects to evaluate whether two
      words on a computer screen were related. One group of subjects had the word
      "death" flashed subliminally between the two words, while another group had the
      word "field" flashed. Afterward, neither group said they saw more than two
      words at a time. But, by using word-fragment completion tests--for instance, is
      "coff_ _" completed as "coffin" or "coffee"?--the psychologists were able to
      establish that the group which had "death" flashed before them, but not the
      control group, was unconsciously thinking about death. The psychologists then
      asked the groups to evaluate essays critical and supportive of the United
      States. Those who had "death" flashed before them had a much more negative view
      of the essay critical of the United States than those who had seen the word
      "field." They exhibited the same pattern of judgment as those who had done
      the mortality exercises but, unlike them, did not need an interval before
      making judgments. The psychologists still lacked a full explanation of how this
      worked, but they had shown that, in their words, "worldview defense in response
      to thoughts of death does not require any conscious awareness of such
      thoughts." Indeed, it worked best when these thoughts were unconscious.
      y the end of the 1990s, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski had made their
      reputation among social psychologists. Psychologists around the
      world--particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel--were using their theories to
      devise experiments of their own. In October 2001, the American Psychological
      Association asked the three to write a book on how their theories could
      explain Americans' reaction to September 11. In the Wake of 9/11, which appeared in
      2003, recounted more than a decade of experiments and speculated on how the
      public's reaction to the attack-- including heightened religiosity,
      patriotism, and support for both Bush and his evangelical swagger--could be explained
      as worldview defense.
      The three scholars also began devising experiments to test this theory. The
      first of these explored whether reminders of September 11 functioned as
      mortality reminders. In the spring of 2002, the psychologists, along with five
      colleagues, conducted an experiment at the University of Missouri, where
      subjects had either "911," "WTC" (for the World Trade Center), or "573" (the area
      code for Columbia) flashed subliminally between word associations. Afterward,
      they completed word-fragment tests to see whether thoughts of death were
      stirring in their unconscious. The psychologists found the same pattern between
      "911" and "WTC," on the one hand, and "573," on the other, that they had
      earlier found between "death" and "field." They concluded that reminders of
      September 11 awakened unconscious mortality thoughts. Later experiments would
      further confirm this.
      They then explored whether Bush's popularity in the years after September 11
      stemmed in part from Americans' need for a charismatic figure who could help
      them overcome these thoughts. Bush's appeal, the psychologists speculated,
      lay "in his image as a protective shield against death, armed with high-tech
      weaponry, patriotic rhetoric, and the resolute invocation of doing God's will
      to rid the world of evil.'" In 2002, the psychologists, aided by two
      colleagues, conducted an experiment at Brooklyn College that showed that mortality
      reminders dramatically enhanced the appeal of a hypothetical candidate who told
      voters, "You are not just an ordinary citizen: You are part of a special
      state and a special nation."
      Next, they began testing Bush's appeal directly. In October 2003, the three
      scholars, together with five colleagues, assembled 97 undergraduates at
      Rutgers to participate in what the students thought was a study of the
      relationship between personality and politics. One group was given the mortality
      exercises. The other wasn't. They then read an essay expressing a "highly favorable
      opinion of the measures taken by President Bush with regards to 9/11 and the
      Iraqi conflict." It read, in part:
      Personally I endorse the actions of President Bush and the members of his
      administration who have taken bold action in Iraq. I appreciate our President's
      wisdom regarding the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power and his
      Homeland Security Policy is a source of great comfort to me. ... We need to stand
      behind our President and not be distracted by citizens who are less than
      patriotic. Ever since the attack on our country on September 11, 2001, Mr. Bush
      has been a source of strength and inspiration to us all.
      This was not the kind of statement that would appeal to most Rutgers
      undergraduates, and indeed, on average, members of the control group rated it
      unfavorably. But those who did the mortality exercises on balance favored the
      statement. In February 2004, the psychologists repeated the experiment, but this
      time they used September 11 cues. They had one group of students write down the
      emotions that September 11 aroused in them and describe what happened on
      that day. They got the same results as before: On average, those in the
      September 11 group approved of the statement, while those who didn't do the exercises
      disapproved. Based on political questionnaires they had the students fill
      out, they also found that the September 11 and mortality exercises "increased
      both conservatives' and liberals' liking for Bush."
      Then, in late September 2004, the psychologists, along with two colleagues
      from Rutgers, tested whether mortality exercises influenced whom voters would
      support in the upcoming presidential election. They conducted the study among
      131 Rutgers undergraduates who said they were registered and planned to vote
      in November. The control group that completed a personality survey, but did
      not do the mortality exercises, predictably favored Kerry by four to one. But
      the students who did the mortality exercises favored Bush by more than two
      to one. This strongly suggested that Bush's popularity was sustained by
      mortality reminders. The psychologists concluded in a paper published after the
      election that the government terror warnings, the release of Osama bin Laden's
      video on October 29, and the Bush campaign's reiteration of the terrorist
      threat (Cheney on election eve: "If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is
      that we'll get hit again") were integral to Bush's victory over Kerry. "From
      a terror management perspective," they wrote, "the United States' electorate
      was exposed to a wide-ranging multidimensional mortality salience induction."

      n their experiments, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski make a good case
      that mortality reminders from September 11 enhanced Bush's popularity through
      November 2004. But, on the basis of their research, it is possible to draw
      even broader conclusions about U.S. politics after September 11. Mortality
      reminders not only enhanced the appeal of Bush's political style but also deepened
      and broadened the appeal of the conservative social positions that
      Republicans had been running on.
      For instance, because worldview defense increases hostility toward other
      races, religions, nations, and political systems, it helps explain the rage
      toward France and Germany that erupted prior to the Iraq war, as well as the
      recent spike in hostility toward illegal immigrants. Also central to worldview
      defense is the protection of tradition against social experimentation, of
      community values against individual prerogatives--as was evident in the Tucson
      experiment with the judges--and of religious dictates against secular norms. For
      many conservatives, this means opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This
      may well explain why family values became more salient in 2004--a year in
      which voters were supposed to be unusually focused on foreign policy--than it
      had been from 1992 through 2000. Indeed, from 2001 to 2004, polls show an
      increase in opposition to abortion and gay marriage, along with a growing
      religiosity. According to Gallup, the percentage of voters who believed abortion
      should be "illegal in all circumstances" rose from 17 percent in 2000 to 20
      percent in 2002 and would still be at 19 percent in 2004. Even church attendance
      by atheists, according to one poll, increased from 3 to 10 percent from
      August to November 2001.
      In the months after September 11, most Americans were caught up in the same
      reaction to the tragedy--and that included adulation for Bush, even among
      many Democrats. But over the next few years, faced with two elections, Bush had
      to maintain his popularity; and he did so by constantly reviving memories of
      that dark day. As the 2002 election approached, voters turned their attention
      to the recession, as well as Enron and other scandals--all to the Democrats'
      favor. At that point, Bush, who had stood aside in the November 2001
      gubernatorial elections that Democrats won, sought to base the 2002 election on
      terrorism. Bush and Karl Rove used the full arsenal of scare tactics to evoke
      fears of another September 11. The result was that the electorate became sharply
      polarized between conservatives and liberals and between Republicans and
      Democrats, while those caught in the middle tended to side with the Repub-
      licans--exactly as the psychologists' experiments might have predicted.
      Some political analysts harshly criticized Kerry in 2004 for failing to
      counter Bush's charismatic style with an equally attractive appeal of his own.
      Many, like Slate's Chris Suellentrop, complained that Kerry lacked vision.
      "Vision without details beats details without vision," Suellentrop wrote. Others,
      like Thomas Frank, wrote that Kerry should have countered Bush's "cultural
      populism" with "genuine economic populism." But, if Solomon, Greenberg, and
      Pyszczynski are right, it would have been very difficult for any
      politician--not just the stolid Kerry--to overcome Bush's built-in advantage from being the
      nation's leader at a time when many voters feared another attack. In 2004,
      Bush, as the commander-in-chief, still had the unconscious on his side. And
      that advantage may have proven insuperable.

      oon after the 2004 election, the mood in the country began to shift.
      Reminders of September 11 lingered, but they were increasingly displaced by worries
      over the Iraq war and anger over the growing scandals within the Bush
      administration and the Republican Congress. Bush's incompetence in responding to
      Katrina tarnished his image as a father-protector. Says Solomon, "Bush became
      less of a useful object to unload non-conscious anxieties about death."
      One explanation for what happened psychologically can be drawn from
      experiments that Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski conducted in the mid-'90s. These
      showed that there were conditions under which the mortality exercises had a
      reduced impact. One such situation occurred when the experimenter repeatedly
      told the subjects to make a "careful" response to the questions rather than a
      "gut-level" or "natural" or "first" response. In those cases where the
      experimenter urged care and deliberation, the psychologists concluded, subjects
      acted on a "rational" basis that reduced the influence of unconscious anxieties.
      Something like that might have happened after the 2004 election, as voters,
      forced to weigh other concerns--Iraq, Katrina, the Abramoff
      scandals--subjected reminders of September 11 to greater thought and skepticism. These
      associations made Bush "less of a useful object." It could also be that active
      memories of September 11 have begun to fade for many Americans--just as memories
      of Pearl Harbor did for an earlier generation--reducing the effect that these
      memories have on unconscious fears. The reduction of mortality salience is
      evident not just in growing public dissatisfaction with Bush, but in reduced
      support for conservative social causes. The average annual percentage of those
      believing abortion should be illegal dropped from 19 percent in 2004 to 15
      percent in 2006, and the percentage believing it should be legal "under any
      circumstances" rose from 24 to 30 percent. The postSeptember 11 outburst of
      religiosity also began to abate, particularly among the young. These changes in
      public sentiment, which reflected the diminished psychological impact of
      September 11, help explain the Democratic triumph of 2006.
      Of course, there are still voters within the Republican electorate whose
      hearts beat to the rhythms of September 11 and who are still engaged in a
      passionate defense of their worldview. They continue to identify the war in Iraq
      with the war on terror; they worry about illegal aliens and terrorists crossing
      the border; some even judge the growing public opposition to Bush as further
      confirmation of his role as protector. These voters appear particularly
      attracted to Rudy Giuliani, whose entire campaign is based upon reminding voters
      of September 11. And, if Giuliani is the Republican nominee in 2008, the
      election may pivot on his ability to use reminders of September 11 to provoke the
      public into another massive bout of worldview defense.
      But, right now, it doesn't look promising for any candidate who hopes to
      follow Bush's 2004 script. The voters of 2008, including those in Martinsburg,
      will probably be buffeted by competing emotions about Iraq and the war on
      terrorism, and therefore less inclined to base their decisions on gay marriage.
      Barring another assault on American soil, the moment of September 11--and the
      reminder of mortality that it brought--may well have passed. And with it,
      too, the ascendancy of politicians who exploited the fear of death that lies
      within us all.
      John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic and a visiting scholar
      at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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