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October 01, 2006


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» Mortality Salience and Hillary from aTypical Joe: A gay New Yorker living in the rural south.
Cass Sunstein observes that "A focus on mortality--which voters obviously associate with terrorism--seems to have a quantifiable effect on our beliefs and our judgments." And probably how we vote: For many Americans, the words "terrorism" or "September... [Read More]


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the most obvious and simple explanation for this effect has to do with incumbency rather than political affiliation. and you seem to be rather egregiously confusing the political tactics used by two major political parties with their essential "natures" or something. all in all a very strange (and weak) post for such a smart person.


The political psychology of it makes sense. The Republicans have been successful in tapping into the emotional response in terms of terrorism, even if it doesn't always work in the rational mind.

Michael Martin

There are many weird things about this post, but among them, this quote seems the weirdest:

"Once so reminded, ordinary people are significantly more likely to show racial and religious prejudice. (Note that after 9/11, there was a significant increase in hate crimes against Muslims in Chicago.)"

How can anyone believe that the violence against Muslims (and Sikhs, and so on) that followed 9/11 arose from "mortality salience" rather than a good-old-fashioned thirst for vengeance? To the extent that "mortality salience" is interchangeable with the concept of vengeance, what's to be gained from the introduction of this jargon?

This is all too postmodern for me.

Frederick Hamilton

If the election hinges on protecting the country from terrorists, of course the voters will vote for those representatives who say and do what is best to achieve a safer United States relative to the terrorists. That means predominately Republicans. The Democrats are incapable of separating themselves from their anti-U.S. left wing. The blame America crowd has a firm grip on the Democrat Party and most of America can understand the language of defeat and demoralization that comes from them. It is demonstrated in their voting. It has nothing to do with mortality salience. It is a real feeling of protecting oneself against an enemy that doesn't wear uniforms, hides among innocent civilians and is barbaric in its thinking. Who in their right mind wants to give terrorists rights? Democrats. Who in their right mind argues that to listen in on terrorists is wrong? Democrats. Who in their right mind plays Chicken Little with the Millitary Commissons Act as if it will ensnare you and I in it (it does not apply to U.S. citizens)? Democrats.

As an example: Hilary Clinton votes "Yes" for final bill on the fence to prevent illegals from entering the U.S. But on the cloture vote, the real vote to determine the fate of the fence she votes "No". Now who do you think that fools. People concerned about their safety? Nope. People who play games with U.S. citizens and pander to the pacifist left wing of America are called Democrats and many Ameicans can see that.

Is mortality salience important? Sure, it is a clever term for the old fashioned survival instinct. Instinctively (actually rationally) most Americans can't trust the Democrats with their survival. Simple as that. Sad really. The party of FDR, Truman and JFK has become the party of Carter. That is the real issue in elections. Who do you trust? Not Clinton, Kerry, Feingold, Pelosi, Reid, et al. Those folks would sell out their mother and America to get elected. They sure as hell don't care about you or I and our instinct for survival. The threat is very real. Read bin Laden. Dwell on Danny Pearle, London, 9/11, Madrid, USS Cole, Kohbar Towers, Beirut, et al. Democrats don't believe it. To them you and I and the MCA, NSA, TSP, CIA, DOD, Justice Department, Bush are the threats. Those canards may resonate with Michael Moore and the looney left. They leave most of America with a very bad feeling. If you call that feeling mortality salience and it intellectually comforts your thinking fine. To most of us it is called the survival instinct and finding, killing, capturing, and bringing to justice people like Mohammed Sheik Kahlid is what it is really all about. That is the difference.




Maybe the Democratic Party would have more credibility on terrorism if it atually had something intelligent to say in the way of a plan to defeat terrorism. Instead, from a variety of standpoints, they shoot arrows at Bush on his policies regarding both terrorism and Iraq--which is easy enough to do--but they leave just a void in their place. Even now, other than an international conference, I can't tell you waht Kerry's Iraq plan was in 2004.

Bush, we know, will undertake aggressive unilateral action overseas, preemptive strikes on terrorist supporting regimes, and harsh actions against individual terrorists, even if it offends foreigners and international treaties. In other words, we know he'll at least be aggressive, which is a pretty important quality in a wartime leader. Clinton's "we tried, but we failed" tantrum the other night looks impotent by comparison, in spite of its putative expression of Democratic vitality.

PS Sitting Michael Moore alongside President Jimmy Carter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention did not exactly do much to reinforce the party's hoped for perception as the smarter, more nuanced hawks. Frankly, their plan in Iraq is to withdraw.


"the Democratic Party would have more credibility on terrorism if it atually had something intelligent to say in the way of a plan to defeat terrorism."

not necessarily, eg,if prof sunshine's second explanation is true:

"visceral fear and outrage lead people to support the leader who seems firmer, stronger, and more aggressive"

as I recall, in 2004 kerry didn't receive very many acolades for trying to develop "nuanced" positions on issues. could it be because kerry "looked french" while bush "aggressively" cut brush?

it appears some commenters were so busy constructing their partisan snarks that they missed the rather simple logic of the post.


Kimball Corson


Does the "blame America crowd" include all 16 spy and intelligence agencies of the United States who unanimously contended the war in Iraq has fomented and increased terrorism? Are they all crazy democrats too?

Kimball Corson

Why Prof Sunstein, are you suggesting that fear mongering might just work . . . again? What Bush really needs is another 9/11 on the day before the elections, so this time we really can attack Mexico.

Kimball Corson

Frederick writes: "The blame America crowd has a firm grip on the Democrat Party and most of America can understand the language of defeat and demoralization that comes from them."

It is my view that bad American policies are substantially to blame for most US directed terrorism, just as the NIE suggests, but Frederick is right in that if Democrats do not come up with their own positive program of changes to reduce terrorism and explain it well, Americans may face demoralization and vote Republican, even if they are tied of the war in Iraq.

Kimball Corson

Frederick writes: "The blame America crowd has a firm grip on the Democrat Party and most of America can understand the language of defeat and demoralization that comes from them."

It is my view that bad American policies are substantially to blame for most US directed terrorism, just as the NIE suggests, but Frederick is right in that if Democrats do not come up with their own positive program of changes to reduce terrorism and explain it well, Americans may face demoralization and vote Republican, even if they are tied of the war in Iraq.


The critics of Sunstein's post do not seem to think it is important to analyze what many understand intuitively. Of course it is the case, they say, that people who feel threatened approve political formulations that seem to promise greater protection. What more need be said? Why introduce complications?

I guess they must think that such reactivity cannot be improved upon or supplemented conceptually or intellectually. In some cases it appears that the critics themselves are so convinced of the correctness of a particular contemporary collection of mortality-influenced judgments that they do not think there could be anything to question, even if the selected predicates were to contain systematically false over-estimates of the measures to be taken to achieve optimum security.

Leaving aside the prejudiced reactions, impatience with this type of analysis exhibits the fallacy of non-reformability. It is clear from history that humans have developed increasingly complex cooperative social arrangements partly by getting ever better at controlling individual and group reactivity to perceived threats and by confining measures taken to those that are related in their severity to the severity of threats. Duties to retreat and to measure the violence of one's defensive response to violence reasonably threatened are monuments in the law to that insight, however tenuously they are illustrated in some places and times.

What is important about Sunstein's work is that it illuminates for critical discourse what looks to me like a fundamental human process. Apparently, subjective feelings induced in persons merely by bringing to mind their own mortality, which is an absolutely general and necessary and non-specific fact about themselves, and not an opinion about anything contingent or controversial about who is or ought to be in charge, are an effective determinant, in some degree, of the consequent selection among political prescriptions, generally in the direction of the more aggressive.

I think the critics might well be unhappy with the implication that this emotional/aesthetic factor explains the Bush appeal better than the evils of th eliberal press or the administration's actual exploits, of which very few, at least of the type of which they boast, have illustrated the kind of success their adherents ascribe to them.

But that (to me satisfying) temporary aspect aside, the Sunstein finding does not bode well for the future of the human experiment, unless knowing how this sort of thing works can lead to the development of modes of discourse that can help us measure threats to our well-being better than the effects of mortality salience. Not knowing about it would destroy much hope along these lines.


Several presidents have used war (and its inherent fears) to get re-elected. It's nothing new, and Bush is no exception.

Frederick Hamilton

It isn't only presidents that use the issue of war. Have you missed the Iraq war issue in this years mid-term election? Every representative and senator of every stripe is required to take a position on the Iraq war. That's fine. That's Democracy. That's what we are all about. Whether president, representative or senator, your position on issues as important as war are a necessary part of the body politic. I think war making if I remember correctly is mentioned in our constitution a few times. Congress recently voted twice to go to war. Iraq and AUMF. War is it my man. The big Kahuna of politics.


I am not talking about politicians taking a position on war, I am talking about incumbent presidents engaging in a war in order to get re-elected. Two different propositions.


QED, indeed.

Frederick is the poster child of irrational fear. The guy is convinced terrorism is more of a threat to him than a car accident or smoking, and he votes accordingly.

Like I told, they say, "Coward, man".
Gonna keep some bones
And all violent man gonna weep and moan.
He that exalted him say, "Yeah!"
Shall be obeyed.

(Bob means screwface (satan) knows who are the cowards and uses them and their fear for his ends)

We've nothing to fear but fear itself. Does ring true.

War? What war.

Fear do we go now
To the rivers of ungodly waters, we'll fear no foe


Bottom line is joining the U.S. military is far more of a threat to your life than terrorism is.

I suppose quoting Bob Marley doesn't get you far amongst uptight Republican white dudes.

But Bob and Cass know - screwface knows who feels frightened. Be him Satan or Rove or whatever. Good for evil. Good for republicans.

(mushroom clouds, yellow cake, and WMD, oh my!)

The amazing thing is an educated guy like Frederick proabably still believes he is safer after the BS war and its lies, even though every intelligence agency has said otherwise.

And if a guy like Frederick, a U of C educated MD thinsk so, imagine the thought processes of a person of average intelligence.

Reminds me what another muse of mine says:

Are you ready for the country? Because it's time to go.

I'm living with war everyday
I'm living with war in my heart everyday


LAK there is something nihilist in your view, conflating accidental deaths with murder, and ordinary risks with the risks of war. If war and terrorism get too out of control, as we saw after 9/11 and as Iraq sees toda, commerce will grind to a hurt and the whole society will suffer. It's scope for freedom of action will be radically reduced. And anxiety will be induced system-wide.

After all, we'll all die some day anyway. Why bother even trying to prevent mass murder by terrorists or any other deadly threat? That's where your idiotic and juvenile "reasoning" leads.


1. Commerce grinding to a halt didn't happen after 9/11. Insofar as it was dampened,it was due to the psychological reaction to the violence, not the actual damage to our economic infrastructure. People get scared, stop spending money, sellstockhoard cash, buy shotguns and gold etc. Just supports this post. I am in nomore danger now that I was on 9/10/01.

2. Risks of war? What war. Some fundie religious freaks flyng planes into a buildng? That's a war? They were just a bit more ambitious and successful than the OK City guys. But we didn't invade the Mich. Militia and start spending 300B a year on occupying the reactionary heartland.

3. I'm all for preventing terrorism. Let the CIA do its job. I promise you it is not achieved by invading countries, eroding our constitutional freedoms, spending billions on the miltary industrial war machine, etc. It seems that every intelligence agancy now admits this.
It can only be addressed through the examination of our foreign policy and the international distribution of wealth.

I might as well add Flavor Flav to the Marley and Neil mix: "don't believe the Hype y'all, don't believe the hype"


Roach, bottom line is that if it is your life you are concerned with preserving,those resources we've spent on advancing Repuglican "war" policies have 1. Made us less safe (all intelligence agencies agree the war in Iraq has inspired more terrorism) 2. would have been better spent on combatting heart disease and automobile safety.

All I'm saying is we should spend our resources preventing unnecessary death in the most efficent way possible.Major military campaigns in countries that had nothing to do with 9/11 ain't it.

"Don't want no terror squad. Don't want no damn Jihad"


"I promise you it is not achieved by invading countries, eroding our constitutional freedoms, spending billions on the miltary industrial war machine, etc. It seems that every intelligence agancy now admits this."

Well, Afghanistan seems to have ruined a major al Qaeda training facility, which was well worth the effort. And nation-state sponsorship seems to be what puts terrorists in the big leagues. Finally, the prospect of WMD terrorism cannot really happen without a nation-state sponsor.

And, even if we agree that military action is not the chief way to fight terrorism, then the alternative must be some kind of aggressive intelligence gathering and law enforcement operation, and that means things like GITMO, interrogations, rendering, etc. You can't have it both ways, knocking both conventional and the intelligence side. Burying one's head in the sand and minimizing the problem is not a strategy. Even after OKC the FBI infiltrated almost every militia in America, and these groupings were largely dispersed.

We rightly fear massive multi-casualty events like 9/11 because they represent a serious blip in a society that has already internalized the risk of other things and where almost everyone can calibrate risk for things like murder by avoiding risky lifestyles.

I should point out we have not had a major domestic attack since 9/11, so we're only as safe as we were on 9/10 b/c we've prevented things. And clearly the 2900 people who died on 9/11 were not. It's callous and stupid just to pretend things were hunky dory on 9/10; if they had struck the buildings at a different time casualties could have been 40,000 or more. Good luck saved a lot of people. And since the psychological response to terrorism follows like night follows day, you can't just dismiss the massive economic consequences that flowed from that event and will flow from similar ones.

Finally, The goal is not just to prevent "unnecessary death" but also to preserve our way of life. It's not a good thing to have the jersey barreirs and prolonged security at airports. It's not good to have Muslims shutting down art shows and having riots in France. I think the least invasive and most efficient thing we can do is get control of our borders and to identify and remove illegal immigrants and not let in additional immigrants from the Middle East. But our liberal civil rights culture, open borders, innane foreign policy in the Middle East, and the wackiness of the Muslim world create an unsustainable multi-way collision where some kind of choices need to be made. To just pretend this is no big deal because the results to date have been only(!) a few thousand New Yorkers killed is not the height of sophisticated statistical analysis, it just shows a callous and nihilist mind-set that almost everyone will rightly reject.


PS, almost none of the 9/11 guys were poor. Bin Laden is super-wealthy. You international distribution argument taken from some Marxist pamphlet you read in a patchouli-soaked coffe shop is bogus. Poor Mexicans and Africans are not blowing us up; it's middle class Arabs who are emboldened by a religion that preaches violence and a culture that does little to condemn such violence.


You really think our "way of life" is threatened in any meaningful way? Jesus. Talking about someone who has bought the rove fear mongering hook line and sinker. And how is preserving our way of life not achieved in part by preventing unecessrary death? This is a zero sum here, so if you are spending on bombing Iraq, you aren't spending on curing cancer and heart disease. Last time I checked a lost human life is worth the same no matter how he or she died.

As for the terrorists being middle class, that does not mean that their anger and support doesn't stem in part from pervasive poverty, third world citizenship and a feeling of exploitation throughout the Muslim world at the hands of the west over the last 200 years.

"then the alternative must be some kind of aggressive intelligence gathering and law enforcement operation, and that means things like GITMO, interrogations, rendering, etc."

Agressive intellignce, yes. GITMO, rendering no. I'm not going to get into this debate, but as McCain will tell you, torture and rendering don't work. Or were you not aware that the lies about Iraq and Al Qaeda connections came from a rendered source?

I don't think everything was hunky dory on 9/10. Just probably a little safer for us all compared to now.

patchouli? I prefer Nag champa.

I agree that ther are factors other than poverty, namely religion, that contribute to the violence of muslim fundamentalists. However, to deny the presence of violent revolutionary types in both the Black and Latin communities is silly. Or should I point you to the Nigerian oil rebels, Chavez, and the myriad violent latin revolutionary groups. You just aren't the target of their violence (but certainly your "way of life" is)


I like your selective use of fear mongering. What are you afraid of? The government finding your child porn collection as it intercepts Khalid Sheik Mohammad's emails? I like this selective psychopathologizing of the opposition.

The nice thing about Nigerian oil rebels and the FARC is that they don't hurt us in our homes and neither could al Qaeda if we got control of our borders and carpet bombed the occasional terrorist supporting nation. Last time I checked they didn't have aircraft carriers. So this is all brought on ourselves by our stupid immigration policy championed by naive people like you that dismiss rational concerns as paranoia.

PS Your tone kind of sucks . . . I don't "buy into" what Rove or anyone else says, per se. I have my own opinions. While we're on the subject, though, I see you've bought into the Marxist explanation of history. Last time I checked the Soviet Union didn't surpass us as predicted.


I'm scared of nothing. I'm just a lawyer with respect for the rule of law and certain our fundamental constitutional principles. Legitimate concern about unchecked executive power is hardly irrational fear. Especially when the Executive is quite obviously engaged in conduct that violates the plain language and spirit of the 4th Amendment. See e.g. all of the discussion about the 4th Amendmnet and the separation of powers of the founding fathers. Unlike your irrational fear of death at the hands of a bunch of idiot fundie terrorists, which is of incredibly low probability, there is a legitimate basis for concern about constitutional rights being violated. There is a reason we prohibit search and seizure by the governmeet without cause or a warrant, and it has nothing to do with the fear of being caught doing something illegal. The probability of my constitutional rights being violated is very high, in contrast to your irrational fear of being kiled by some terrorist. That is what I'm scared of - the violation of my rights. Not being caught doing anything illegal. You so badly miss the whole point, it is kind of amazing. Or have you not taken note of the reasons we decided to revolt against the Monarchy?

My tone kind of sucks? I'd rather it be my tone than me. You want to carpet bomb innocent human beings. Have fun rotting in hell, if there is one!

I've certainly bought into a few of Marx's observations about humanity. The early humanist Marx is one of the great philosophers of all time. And I can tell you, he'd be the last one to predict the Soviet Union would have surpassed us. Check out One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse, you could use reading it.

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