Politics and the fear of death

September 4, 2007 at 3:00 am 3 comments

Kim photoThe latest issue of the New Republic has a fascinating article, which discusses what role the fear of death might play in contemporary politics. Not something I’d given much consideration to before reading this piece. But I have always struggled to understand how on earth Bush managed to get in as Prez not once but twice and the article gives an interesting perspective on Bush’s political success.

Using a somewhat inelegant term – “terror management theory”- three US psychologists, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, draw on the earlier work of Ernest Becker. Becker was an anthropologist whose book, The Denial of Death, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker’s premise was that fear of one’s own demise is at the heart of human behaviour. “Man’s anxiety“, Becker wrote, “results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation.” And so the theory goes that “..humans protect themselves against this anxiety by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or literal immortality to those who live up to established standards“. We are attracted therefore to religions that speak of immortality; we hope to leave “our mark on Earth” perhaps through music, art or literature; we have children so our lineage can continue unbroken; and some of us look towards leaders to keep us safe or give us courage in the face of adversity or an enemy.

Taking Becker’s theories, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski teased out their theory of terror management and conducted experiments to show that it’s:

“…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”.

So their hypothesis is that recognition of mortality evokes worldview defense, which triggers a range of emotions from intolerance towards other religions or cultures, to a strong identification with law and order or a strong adherence to family or community values. To demonstrate the potential link, the psychologists devised experiments using subliminal clues. Subjects were asked to look at two words on a computer screen and evaluate whether they were related. For one group, the word “death” was flashed subliminally between the words; the other group had the word “field” flashed. Both groups were then asked to complete a word-fragment test – is “coff–” completed as “coffee” or “coffin”? They were able to establish that the group which had “death” flashed at them were unconsciously thinking about death as they completed the word as “coffin”.

What does this have to do with politics and Bush you may ask. In October 2001, Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski were asked to apply their theory to political behaviour and wrote a book explaining Americans’ reaction to September 11 2001. They tested their theory by seeing whether reminders of 9/11 functioned as “mortality reminders” in the unconscious mind. The American public’s reaction to 9/11 was heightened religiosity, patriotism, support for Bush and his “evangelical swagger”. Could this reaction be explained as worldview defense? Again using word association and flashcards, the experiments showed the same pattern – subjects who had either “911” or “WTC” flashed subliminally between words went on to complete word-fragment tests with thoughts of death clearly stirring their unconscious. The conclusion was that reminders of 9/11 awakened unconscious mortality thoughts.

And so enters Bush. The experimenters tested Bush’s appeal to see if mortality reminders can dramatically enhance the image of a politician in voters’ minds. They concluded that Bush’s appeal 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.'” Integral to Bush’s victory in the 2004 campaign against Kerry was the fact that Bush’s popularity was sustained by mortality reminders eg the release of Osama bin Laden’s video on October 29, 2004 and Cheney on election eve darkly reminding everyone that “...if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again“. In a research paper, the psychologists commented that “From a terror management perspective…the United States’ electorate was exposed to a wide-ranging multidimensional mortality salience induction.”

Since his 2004 re-election, Bush’s popularity has slipped to a new low. How can the psychologists’ theory help to explain this? Time-distance seems to be one plausible factor. Rather like earlier generations of Americans remember Pearl Harbor whilst younger ones perhaps do not, memories of 9/11 have been overtaken by “growing scandals within the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Bush’s incompetence in responding to Katrina tarnished his image as a father-protector”. And so “Bush became less of a useful object to unload non-conscious anxieties about death.”

I couldn’t tell from the article what segment of the US population had been tested. If it was amongst a good chunk of the Republican right, then I wonder if the test results would hold if conducted on Afro-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Hispanics etc. I think it will be interesting to see if voters within the Republican electorate who still cling to the emotive rally cry of the War on Terror will be attracted to 2008 Republican hopeful, Rudy Giuliani. In one of his recent speeches, he kicked off with plenty of mortality reminders:

“We are all members of the 9/11 generation. The defining challenges of the twentieth-century ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Full recognition of the first great challenge of the twenty-first century came with the attacks of September 11, 2001, even though Islamist terrorists had begun their assault on world order decades before. Confronted with an act of war on American soil, our old assumptions about conflict between nation-states fell away. Civilization itself, and the international system, had come under attack by a ruthless and radical Islamist enemy“.

If you read the speech fully, it’s full of mortality triggers: a ruthless enemy congregating in the shadows ready to attack; the rallying cry of the Terrorists War on Us; a reminder of the spectre of the Cold War; reference to God and so on. Same rhetoric wrapped up in a different candidate. Doesn’t seem that Hillary Clinton is peppering her speeches with mortality reminders from what I’ve seen so far.



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Entry filed under: Politics, Psychology.

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