Friday, October 13, 2006

Be very very afraid, and then vote!


This Wall Street Journal article summarizes findings on increased fear in the population and voting behavior:
A growing number of studies offer clues as to how terrorism and other deadly events affect people's voting decisions. The latest research shows that because such violent political acts are brutal reminders of death, they make conservatives, but not liberals, more hostile toward those perceived as different, and more supportive of extreme military policies, according to a study in April in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

For 20 years, researchers have been exploring how people manage the fear engendered by intimations of mortality. Reminded of the inevitability of their own death (which happens to a lesser degree by merely walking past a funeral parlor), people try to quench or at least manage the resulting "existential terror" in several ways. They become more certain of their worldview or faith. They conform more closely to the norms of their society. They show greater reverence for symbols of their society, such as flags and crucifixes.

All of these make people feel more secure and, crucially, a part of something larger -- something that will outlive them.

Building up your own worldview requires disparaging (even unconsciously) that of others. If beliefs that contradict yours have any worth, then by definition they call into question the absolute validity of your own. The result is stronger feelings of hostility toward those with different values and beliefs.

This "worldview defense," says psychology researcher Sheldon Solomon of Skidmore College, "reduces the terror that reminders of your own death bring." These results have been replicated in some 300 lab experiments, including in cultures with very different ideas about an afterlife.

Which brings us back to the effect on voters of a terrorist attack and its brutal reminders of mortality. Although some voters would feel betrayed by incumbents who failed to protect them, researchers say, these days that trend would more likely be swamped by a surge toward candidates perceived as hawks on national security.

"We feel that unconscious thoughts about death do influence people's voting decisions, especially for folks who are not strongly committed to a candidate," says Prof. Solomon, expressing a consensus of those who have studied terrorism and voting behavior.

Note that the same mechanism may make committed liberals more determined to preserve civil liberties and egalitarian policies, because those are their most basic beliefs. Thus, terror and fear may not cause a uniform shift of beliefs toward militarism and xenophobia but rather increased polarization, with a minority holding on to strongly liberal views.

This account meshes with much of post 9-11 politics and it vindicates the logic of the Bush/Rove political strategy of polarization. As I argued in this op-ed written shortly after the 2004 election, the 2004 campaign was successfully waged on issues of fear. Note that if the research cited above is correct, making people with traditional values afraid may also make them more hostile to homosexuality and other forms of cultural permissiveness, because they will cling to their worldviews ever more fervently. Hence the one two punch of the War on Terror and gay marriage was a potent combination in the 2004 campaign for a key set of voters, the so-called "values voters."

It is an interesting fact that the September 11th attacks changed the key issues of American politics but did not remedy the country's polarization. If anything, political polarization become even more enhanced, and the most extreme conservative commentators have felt free in the current political climate to accuse liberals of destroying the country, endangering it, and even being traitors.

But all things must pass. The United States went through other periods of terror during the Red Scare and the McCarthy Era. It is worth noting that during the Cold War, when Americans were afraid of something much worse than suicide bombings-- thermonuclear annihilation-- the country eventually became much freer, with greater equality and greater respect for civil liberties. Although politicians can maintain political support through fear, they can't do so forever.

That does not mean, however, that they won't continue to try.


Read more about "Terror Management

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There is this story in the news today about a Navy SEAL who threw himself on a handgrenade to save his fellow sailors (Yahoo link so it might not last). There are people who are not motivated by fear but by something greater and they do not even need to outnumber those who think that they "can preserve the pleasures of wine, adultery and civilized conversation simply by refusing to fight" for there to be hope for the preservation of our country.

divide and conquer is the name of the game

I found the following succinct statement by a doctor who is retired military official. He registered his complaint before congress passed the military commissions law ('MCA'), which Bush-II plans to sign two days from now. The humanness of the doctor's reminder based on his sensibilities and adherence to the Hippocratic oath seem to rank outside of the political categories of conservative-v-liberal. The paragraph following that doctor military official's views discusses the secret agencies' sections in MCA. Looking at the simple roughing up the prisoner permissions, reminds one of crude justice in many "civilizations". The legal underpinnings of due process for appeal restructured in MCA to undermine quantifiable chunks of habeas and to parse international treaties like scholastic schoolmen do some worn tautology are more worrisome because of the MCA's effect of diluting the tradition in which western nations had shown leadership in habeas.

I guess I address these because the milieu still is seething.

On the fear mongering, it is like talking football during the days which bracket before and after the Super Bowl; those days are demographically and epidemiologically known to have high occurrence rates of fisticuffs and other physical acting out which are more suppressed during the rest of the year.

When I hear this administration talking in a way that fear mongers I think they miss their oponents by miles. The challenge is in the cleanup phase; now we see Kissinger of Dobry-Kiss, and Baker-III former secys of state possibly helping resolve some of the mess of haphazard diplomacy. The fear mongers will have less opportunity to exercise that crass strategy when two secretaries of state are trying to exercise their international diplomacy missions, although there is much to be learned by studying the history of these two emeritus SoS's.
In history there have been several times Democratic Party presidents jumped into wars, only to have aristocratic Republicans put a diplomatic end to the destructive military gambits of the Democrats.

However, what I am hearing a lot currently is the same old tired rhetoric of the Viet Nam days directed against any opponent of the current ways the administration is prosecuting its wars.

The media were full of that societal opposition in all its polemical fervence for years. If the polls are accurate, America has seen this re-run before, and is preparing to flip the channel knob at the polls three weeks from now. Congress will help temper the administration's efforts to begin to make peace and redefine its wars efforts.
The questions of identity of the nation are ponderous, probing, and will be there for asking by our heirs. First the elections; then the fear mongering will be at the fringe.
There are many other ways to approach learning and improving our country in these trying efforts. It is welcome that JB's blog site explores those.

Thanks for the optimism in this post, I need it - I have the same concerns as Henry, but I don't want to get too depressed yet.

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