Mortality Salience and Politics
(This is a mildly revised and updated version of a post of mine from the New Republic website, a while back.)
Some intriguing social science evidence, with implications far beyond the coming election, strongly suggests that the politics of terrorism touches a chord that produces much more support for Republicans than for Democrats: our own mortality. One question is whether the underlying dynamics will continue in their present form.
A little background: A focus on mortality--which voters obviously associate with terrorism--seems to have a quantifiable effect on our beliefs and our judgments. How, for example, are you likely to be affected if you are asked to think, for just a moment, about the fact that, at some point, you are going to die? An interesting body of psychological research tries to answer that question. Organized around the idea of "mortality salience," this research finds that, if people are reminded of their own mortality, their views and behavior tend to change. 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.) Once so reminded, people show more physical aggression toward other people with different political beliefs. Once so reminded, even judicial behavior changes: In one study, judges who were reminded of their own mortality gave stiffer sentences to nonviolent criminals (prostitutes). An understanding of mortality salience, and its effects, helps to illuminate a great deal of behavior in the legal domain, including the decisions of juries.
When mortality comes up, as it often does in the context of terrorism, even political judgments should follow the same pattern. For many Americans, the words "terrorism" or "September 11" make mortality highly salient. The likely political consequences have been carefully tested in a serious of studies by Mark Landau and his colleagues. In a 2004 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they offer three remarkable findings:
(a) Suppose that people are merely reminded of their own mortality--by being asked, for example, to describe "what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead." After that reminder, and in answering seemingly unrelated questions, they showed stronger support for President Bush and his policies in Iraq.
(b) After people were reminded either of their mortality or of the September 11 attacks, they became more favorably disposed toward Bush and less favorably disposed toward John Kerry.
(c) Both mortality salience and a reminder of the September 11 attacks had similar effects--in increasing support for Bush among liberals and conservatives alike. Astonishingly, the reference to the terrorist attacks increased support for Bush among liberals even more than among conservatives.
Of course, we are speaking of an increase in appeal, not of unanimous or majority support; most committed Democrats should be expected to be critical of Bush even after being reminded of September 11. The key point is that, among liberals as a whole, there was a statistically significant shift in Bush's direction. The upshot is simple. Unless circumstances have relevantly changed since 2004, Bush--and almost certainly Republican candidates more generally--are likely to benefit from any reference to terrorism or the September 11 attacks. So Karl Rove knows exactly what he is doing.
To be sure, there is no inevitable connection between support for Republicans and concerns about national security. At some points in our history, mortality salience worked in favor of Democrats. In 1964, President Johnson's campaign famously used a "mushroom cloud" advertisement against Barry Goldwater, seeking to exploit people's fear that the Republican candidate would lead the United States into a nuclear war. To understand the current situation, we need to understand why, exactly, mortality salience and the September 11 attacks have worked in the favor of Republican leaders.
There are two possibilities. The first is that, across the political spectrum, many people believe, on reflection, that President Bush is simply likely to be better in protecting national security and hence in protecting people against the threat of dying from a terrorist attack. When the debate centers on education or clean air or social security or even Iraq, Democrats may win; when it focuses on terrorism, Republicans have won. And the reason has to do with people's considered judgments about which party would do best on particular issues. If this is right, then the task of Republicans and Democrats alike is to try to shift those considered judgments in their favor.
The second possible explanation hinges on more unconscious judgments--that a reminder of mortality, or of the September 11 attacks, triggers a kind of visceral fear and outrage, and that visceral fear and outrage lead people to support the leader who seems firmer, stronger, and more aggressive. If this is right, then the challenge for candidates of both parties (and a harder task for Democratic candidates) is to show the same kind of firmness and resolve--and capacity for aggression--that people have associated with Bush. The social science is not entirely clear here, but the best reading is that visceral fear and outrage are responsible for the tilt in Bush's direction.
Democrats would like to think that the situation is very different now from what it was in 2004, and that the issue of terrorism may even work in their favor. With the war in Iraq apparently going badly, perhaps a reminder of the September 11 attacks no longer has the effect that it had even two years ago. It's possible, but there is reason for doubt. There has been no successful attack on the United States in the last five years, and it remains true that Republican candidates have been able to project greater firmness, aggression, and resolve. If the 2004 data predict behavior, nontrivial numbers of undecided, moderate, and even liberal voters will be moved in the Republican direction by any news about terrorism--whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. The electoral results in 2006 and 2008 will depend, in large part, on whether the underlying dynamics are changed.