Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Psychology, Fear and Politics

One of my favorite topics, as you will find here, is the use of fear appeals in political rhetoric. It’s a simple yet effective way for a leader to get the electorate to do what he wants them to do. So I read with great interest this article from the New Republic.

There are two really important points in this article. First is the depth of the connection between fear/mortality and political decisions. Second is the lengths the Bush administration went to exploit that (including exploiting 9/11 imagery).

The basic gist of the Judis article in TNR is that a group of political psychologists, through a variety of experiments, found a connection between being forced to confront one's own mortality and political inclinations and behavior. For example, in a study published after the 04 election they found a connection between reminders of 9/11 and feelings of mortality (duh). They also found a connection between reminders of 9/11 and increased votes for Bush (again, duh).

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." (Judis, para. 22)

At the end of the article Judis comes to the same conclusions that I have. First, for the public in general thoughts of 9/11 have been crowded out by Bush's incompetence on things like New Orleans, not to mention Iraq, and the GOP in general is being pulled down with him. This is why Democrats won in 2006. The “public mind” is not thinking about terrorism and for the most part 9/11 is far enough behind us that it doesn’t have the impact it once did. This is why we see the conservative rhetoric turn to nonsensical and offensive comments like calling for another 9/11.

Second, the one GOP candidate who can win in 2008 is Rudy, because he is the only one who can, in the “public mind”, invoke 9/11 in a credible way, using it as a mortality reminder and presenting himself as a protector and the Democrats as weak (the same way Bush did to Kerry). Can you picture Mitt Romney trying to use 9/11 in the way Bush did?

However, Judis is a little overly optimistic in hoping that "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." It would be nice if it were so, but fear is part of politics. Rudy started it months ago when he echoed Cheney with his “a vote for the Democrats is a vote to get us attacked” comment.

Judis even points out that in one experiment when the subjects are told to take their time and think about the message rationally they are less likely to be influenced by the mortality reminder. The subjects that are not encouraged to take their time and think have the opposite response. The same voters that were moved by Bush’s fear appeals also tend to be Rudy voters. Which just goes to show, after Katrina, the quality of health care (even for the insured), the state of our foreign policy, an increasing gap between the top and bottom of the economic scale and the general moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration, the only thing the GOP has left is fear.


Eric said...

This is an example of people being manipulated by politicians who obviously know what they're doing. People are blindly being taken advantage of. Are they too stupid to realize this?

What's more important, preventing gay marriage or the declining international diplomacy we've been witness to during the GW administration which will perhaps lead to a repeat worse than 9/11?

Apparently national security isn't as important as preventing Jake and Kevin from being happily united.

If they're worried about morality, there are plenty of other aspects of American culture that should be attacked - pornography, violence on TV, video games, etc.

Corvus said...