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Death Grip

In June 2004, I went door to door in a white, working- class neighborhood of Martinsburg, West Virginia, a small blue-collar town in decline. There, I found voters disillusioned with both the Iraq war and the flagging economy. But, when I returned five months later-- the Sunday before the election--I had difficulty digging up anyone who didn't plan to vote for George W. Bush. As far as I could tell, Martinsburg voters were backing him for two reasons: first, because he opposed gay marriage and abortion ("There are two gays around the corner who are voting for Kerry," one fellow, with a Bush sign in his yard, advised me scornfully from his stoop); and, second, because he was leading the war on terrorism ("I feel more safe with Bush in there," an elderly disabled man explained). There was still grumbling over the war, the economy, and other topics--the same elderly man who praised Bush for making him feel safe also bemoaned America's lack of universal health insurance--but these issues were eclipsed by the threat of gay weddings and terrorist attacks.

Bush carried West Virginia and won the election partly because he ran a better campaign than John Kerry. But that wasn't the only reason. There was something odd about the support for Bush in places like West Virginia. Unlike voters in New York City, voters in Martinsburg had little to fear from terrorist attacks; yet they backed Bush, while New Yorkers voted for Kerry. If gay marriage were legalized, Martinsburg would be unlikely to host massive numbers of same-sex weddings; yet voters I talked to were haunted by the specter of gay marriage.

Some pundits have tried to explain away this mystery by arguing that Bush backers voted for their values rather than their interests. But this explanation is unsatisfying, since many of those voters didn't opt for "family values" in 1992 and 1996, when the country elected a well-known philanderer as president.

In fact, many political scientists can't begin to explain what took place in West Virginia in 2004. In recent years, the field has become dominated by rational choice theorists, who have tried to develop complex mathematical equations to predict voting behavior. These equations rest on a view of voters as calculating consumers choosing a product on the basis of relative cost and utility--a view that generally leaves little room for the possibility of voters acting irrationally.

There is, however, one group of scholars--members of the relatively new field of political psychology--who are trying to explain voter preferences that can't be easily quantified. The best general introduction to this field is Drew Westen's recent book, The Political Brain, but the research that is perhaps most relevant to the 2004 election has been conducted by psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. In the early 1980s, they developed what they clumsily called "terror management theory." Their idea was 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. Initially, the three scholars didn't attempt to apply their theory to elections. But, after September 11, they conducted experiments designed to do exactly that. What they found sheds new light on the role that fear of death plays in contemporary politics--and, arguably, goes a long way toward unraveling the mystery of Martinsburg.

Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski met as graduate students at the University of Kansas in the late '70s. (Today, they are professors at Skidmore College, the University of Arizona, and the University of Colorado, respectively.) In 1980, Solomon discovered the work of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist whose last book, The Denial of Death, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Becker was part of a generation of American social psychologists-- stretching from David Riesman, who wrote The Lonely Crowd in 1950, to Christopher Lasch, who penned The Culture of Narcissism in 1979--who operated outside the academic discipline of psychology and were far more influenced by Freud and Marx than by B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. Riesman, Lasch, and company are no longer avidly read--partly because of the fascination with neuroscience, but also because today's students and academics don't appear as interested in fundamental questions about life, death, love, and history.

Becker, who died of colon cancer in 1974 at the age of 49, had a checkered academic career, largely because his work failed to fit within academic departments. Although a riveting lecturer--he filled the 700-seat Wheeler Hall auditorium in Berkeley for a class on Marx and Rousseau--he bounced from school to school on short-term contracts. In 1967, Michael Lerner (later of Tikkun) and I helped organize a demonstration on the Sproul Hall steps to demand that Berkeley's anthropology department hire Becker permanently, but to no avail. Two years later, Becker finally found a home at Simon Fraser University outside Vancouver, where he wrote what turned out to be his most influential books.

In The Denial of Death, Becker tried to explain how fear of one's own demise lies at the center of human endeavor. "Man's anxiety," Becker wrote, "results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation." Becker described how human beings defend themselves against this fundamental anxiety by constructing cultures that promise symbolic or literal immortality to those who live up to established standards. Among other things, we practice religions that promise immortality; produce children and works of art that we hope will outlive us; seek to submerge our own individuality in a larger, enduring community of race or nation; and look to heroic leaders not only to fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it. We also react with hostility toward individuals and rival cultures that threaten to undermine the integrity of our own.

Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski first presented a summary of Becker's ideas at the Society for Experimental Social Psychology in 1984. As they talked, the three later wrote, "well-known psychologists jostled each other vigorously to escape." Afterwards, they submitted their take on Becker to The American Psychologist and were peremptorily turned down. "I have no doubt that these ideas are of absolutely no interest to any psychologist, alive or dead," the journal's reviewer replied. Later, the journal's editor told the three psychologists that, if they wanted to be taken seriously in their profession, they would have to find ways to test their ideas experimentally. And that's what they proceeded to do.

Their first experiment was published in 1989. To test the hypothesis that recognition of mortality evokes "worldview defense"--their term for the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger--they assembled 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but, for one group, they inserted in the middle of the personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke awareness of their mortality. One asked the judges to "briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you"; the other required them to "jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you physically as you die and once you are physically dead." They then asked the judges to set bail in the hypothetical case of a prostitute whom the prosecutor claimed was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of$455. The control group that did not do the exercises set it at an average of $. The psychologists knew they were onto something.

Over the next decade, the three performed similar experiments to illustrate how awareness of death could provoke worldview defense. They showed that what they now called "mortality salience" affected people's view of other races, religions, and nations. When they had students at a Christian college evaluate essays by what they were told were a Christian and a Jewish author, the group that did the mortality exercises expressed a far more negative view of the essay by the Jewish author than the control group did. (German psychologists would find a similar reaction among German subjects toward Turks.) They also conducted numerous experiments to show that mortality exercises evoked patriotic responses. The subjects who did the exercises took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States than the control group did and also expressed greater veneration for cultural icons like the flag. The three even devised an experiment to show that, after doing the mortality exercises, conservatives took a much harsher view of liberals, and vice versa.

In conducting these experiments, they took care not to tell the subjects what they were doing. They also devised experiments to answer obvious objections to their theory. For instance, they substituted other exercises designed to increase anxiety--by reminding subjects of an upcoming examination or a painful dental visit--to determine if these thoughts had the same effect as the mortality exercises, but they didn't. It wasn't anxiety per se that triggered worldview defense; it was anxiety specifically about one's own death.

Drawing on psychoanalysis, but looking for experimental verification, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski developed a theory to explain how mortality salience works. When they started conducting experiments, the psychologists had believed that the sheer recognition of one's mortality directly triggered worldview defense. But, when other psychologists, varying the procedure, failed to reproduce the same results, they discovered an important caveat: When they would ask subjects to make judgments immediately following the mortality exercises, the exercises would have little effect. It was only when they interspersed a diversionary interval between the exercises and the judgments that the exercises had their full impact.

Freud had distinguished between "primary processes" of thought that were unconscious and irrational and "secondary processes" that were conscious and rational. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski reasoned that, when individuals first feel anxiety about their mortality, they respond consciously by invoking the usual psychological defenses-- for instance, telling themselves that "it's not me, now." That allayed conscious anxiety, but, after the conscious anxiety about mortality had subsided, the thought remained unconscious and active and led people to erect worldview defenses. "The implicit knowledge of death rather than the current focal awareness is the motivating factor," they wrote. "Once the problem of death is out of focal attention but while it is still highly accessible, terror management concerns are addressed by ... bolstering faith in the worldview."

To demonstrate this effect, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski devised experiments using subliminal cues. They asked subjects to evaluate whether two words on a computer screen were related. One group of subjects had the word "death" flashed subliminally between the two words, while another group had the word "field" flashed. Afterward, neither group said they saw more than two words at a time. But, by using word-fragment completion tests--for instance, is "coff_ _" completed as "coffin" or "coffee"?--the psychologists were able to establish that the group which had "death" flashed before them, but not the control group, was unconsciously thinking about death. The psychologists then asked the groups to evaluate essays critical and supportive of the United States. Those who had "death" flashed before them had a much more negative view of the essay critical of the United States than those who had seen the word "field." They exhibited the same pattern of judgment as those who had done the mortality exercises but, unlike them, did not need an interval before making judgments. The psychologists still lacked a full explanation of how this worked, but they had shown that, in their words, "worldview defense in response to thoughts of death does not require any conscious awareness of such thoughts." Indeed, it worked best when these thoughts were unconscious.

By the end of the 1990s, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski had made their reputation among social psychologists. Psychologists around the world--particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and Israel--were using their theories to devise experiments of their own. In October 2001, the American Psychological Association asked the three to write a book on how their theories could explain Americans' reaction to September 11. In the Wake of 9/11, which appeared in 2003, recounted more than a decade of experiments and speculated on how the public's reaction to the attack--including heightened religiosity, patriotism, and support for both Bush and his evangelical swagger--could be explained as worldview defense.

The three scholars also began devising experiments to test this theory. The first of these explored whether reminders of September 11 functioned as mortality reminders. In the spring of 2002, the psychologists, along with five colleagues, conducted an experiment at the University of Missouri, where subjects had either "911," "WTC" (for the World Trade Center), or "573" (the area code for Columbia) flashed subliminally between word associations. Afterward, they completed word-fragment tests to see whether thoughts of death were stirring in their unconscious. The psychologists found the same pattern between "911" and "WTC," on the one hand, and "573," on the other, that they had earlier found between "death" and "field." They concluded that reminders of September 11 awakened unconscious mortality thoughts. Later experiments would further confirm this.

They then explored whether Bush's popularity in the years after September 11 stemmed in part from Americans' need for a charismatic figure who could help them overcome these thoughts. Bush's appeal, the psychologists speculated, 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.'" In 2002, the psychologists, aided by two colleagues, conducted an experiment at Brooklyn College that showed that mortality reminders dramatically enhanced the appeal of a hypothetical candidate who told voters, "You are not just an ordinary citizen: You are part of a special state and a special nation."

Next, they began testing Bush's appeal directly. In October 2003, the three scholars, together with five colleagues, assembled 97 undergraduates at Rutgers to participate in what the students thought was a study of the relationship between personality and politics. One group was given the mortality exercises. The other wasn't. They then read an essay expressing a "highly favorable opinion of the measures taken by President Bush with regards to 9/11 and the Iraqi conflict." It read, in part:

Personally I endorse the actions of President Bush and the members of his administration who have taken bold action in Iraq. I appreciate our President's wisdom regarding the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power and his Homeland Security Policy is a source of great comfort to me. ... We need to stand behind our President and not be distracted by citizens who are less than patriotic. Ever since the attack on our country on September 11, 2001, Mr. Bush has been a source of strength and inspiration to us all.

This was not the kind of statement that would appeal to most Rutgers undergraduates, and indeed, on average, members of the control group rated it unfavorably. But those who did the mortality exercises on balance favored the statement. In February 2004, the psychologists repeated the experiment, but this time they used September 11 cues. They had one group of students write down the emotions that September 11 aroused in them and describe what happened on that day. They got the same results as before: On average, those in the September 11 group approved of the statement, while those who didn't do the exercises disapproved. Based on political questionnaires they had the students fill out, they also found that the September 11 and mortality exercises "increased both conservatives' and liberals' liking for Bush."

Then, in late September 2004, the psychologists, along with two colleagues from Rutgers, tested whether mortality exercises influenced whom voters would support in the upcoming presidential election. They conducted the study among 131 Rutgers undergraduates who said they were registered and planned to vote in November. 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."

In their experiments, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski make a good case that mortality reminders from September 11 enhanced Bush's popularity through November 2004. But, on the basis of their research, it is possible to draw even broader conclusions about U.S. politics after September 11. Mortality reminders not only enhanced the appeal of Bush's political style but also deepened and broadened the appeal of the conservative social positions that Republicans had been running on.

For instance, because worldview defense increases hostility toward other races, religions, nations, and political systems, it helps explain the rage toward France and Germany that erupted prior to the Iraq war, as well as the recent spike in hostility toward illegal immigrants. Also central to worldview defense is the protection of tradition against social experimentation, of community values against individual prerogatives--as was evident in the Tucson experiment with the judges--and of religious dictates against secular norms. For many conservatives, this means opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This may well explain why family values became more salient in 2004--a year in which voters were supposed to be unusually focused on foreign policy--than it had been from 1992 through 2000. Indeed, from 2001 to 2004, polls show an increase in opposition to abortion and gay marriage, along with a growing religiosity. According to Gallup, the percentage of voters who believed abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" rose from 17 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2002 and would still be at 19 percent in 2004. Even church attendance by atheists, according to one poll, increased from 3 to 10 percent from August to November 2001.

In the months after September 11, most Americans were caught up in the same reaction to the tragedy--and that included adulation for Bush, even among many Democrats. But over the next few years, faced with two elections, Bush had to maintain his popularity; and he did so by constantly reviving memories of that dark day. As the 2002 election approached, voters turned their attention to the recession, as well as Enron and other scandals--all to the Democrats' favor. At that point, Bush, who had stood aside in the November 2001 gubernatorial elections that Democrats won, sought to base the 2002 election on terrorism. Bush and Karl Rove used the full arsenal of scare tactics to evoke fears of another September 11. The result was that the electorate became sharply polarized between conservatives and liberals and between Republicans and Democrats, while those caught in the middle tended to side with the Republicans--exactly as the psychologists' experiments might have predicted.

Some political analysts harshly criticized Kerry in 2004 for failing to counter Bush's charismatic style with an equally attractive appeal of his own. Many, like Slate's Chris Suellentrop, complained that Kerry lacked vision. "Vision without details beats details without vision," Suellentrop wrote. Others, like Thomas Frank, wrote that Kerry should have countered Bush's "cultural populism" with "genuine economic populism." But, if Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski are right, it would have been very difficult for any politician--not just the stolid Kerry--to overcome Bush's built-in advantage from being the nation's leader at a time when many voters feared another attack. In 2004, Bush, as the commander-in-chief, still had the unconscious on his side. And that advantage may have proven insuperable.

Soon after the 2004 election, the mood in the country began to shift. Reminders of September 11 lingered, but they were increasingly displaced by worries over the Iraq war and anger over the growing scandals within the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. Bush's incompetence in responding to Katrina tarnished his image as a father-protector. Says Solomon, "Bush became less of a useful object to unload non-conscious anxieties about death."

One explanation for what happened psychologically can be drawn from experiments that Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski conducted in the mid-'90s. These showed that there were conditions under which the mortality exercises had a reduced impact. One such situation occurred when the experimenter repeatedly told the subjects to make a "careful" response to the questions rather than a "gut-level" or "natural" or "first" response. In those cases where the experimenter urged care and deliberation, the psychologists concluded, subjects acted on a "rational" basis that reduced the influence of unconscious anxieties.

Something like that might have happened after the 2004 election, as voters, forced to weigh other concerns--Iraq, Katrina, the Abramoff scandals--subjected reminders of September 11 to greater thought and skepticism. These associations made Bush "less of a useful object." It could also be that active memories of September 11 have begun to fade for many Americans--just as memories of Pearl Harbor did for an earlier generation--reducing the effect that these memories have on unconscious fears. The reduction of mortality salience is evident not just in growing public dissatisfaction with Bush, but in reduced support for conservative social causes. The average annual percentage of those believing abortion should be illegal dropped from 19 percent in 2004 to 15 percent in 2006, and the percentage believing it should be legal "under any circumstances" rose from 24 to 30 percent. The post-September 11 outburst of religiosity also began to abate, particularly among the young. These changes in public sentiment, which reflected the diminished psychological impact of September 11, help explain the Democratic triumph of 2006.

Of course, there are still voters within the Republican electorate whose hearts beat to the rhythms of September 11 and who are still engaged in a passionate defense of their worldview. They continue to identify the war in Iraq with the war on terror; they worry about illegal aliens and terrorists crossing the border; some even judge the growing public opposition to Bush as further confirmation of his role as protector. These voters appear particularly attracted to Rudy Giuliani, whose entire campaign is based upon reminding voters of September 11. And, if Giuliani is the Republican nominee in 2008, the election may pivot on his ability to use reminders of September 11 to provoke the public into another massive bout of worldview defense.

But, right now, it doesn't look promising for any candidate who hopes to follow Bush's 2004 script. The voters of 2008, including those in Martinsburg, will probably be buffeted by competing emotions about Iraq and the war on terrorism, and therefore less inclined to base their decisions on gay marriage. Barring another assault on American soil, 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.