Monday night, Keith Olbermann updated a report he did in August 2006 about the nexus of politics and terror to incorporate recent events. He and his staff went through the news archives and found thirteen instances where the current administration either raised the terror threat level or announced the threat or foiling of a “terrorist attack” at times that could best be described as politically convenient. More specifically, these instances all took place at times when the White House was facing a variety of political difficulties (e.g., the absence of WMDs in Iraq, political scandals, the 2004 Democratic Convention, and so forth). Crooks and Liars has posted the clip and I suggest you go watch it here before continuing with this post.
Olbermann points out that, of course, the fact that these events happened close in time does not mean that they are related. It could, in fact, be a coincidence that the White House has just happened to raise the threat of terrorism whenever it is taking a particularly bad beating in the press over its various misdeeds.
And pigs might one day evolve wings and learn to fly.
I do not believe for one moment that it is mere coincidence that the Bush administration just happens to uncover some plot or threat of attack whenever the administration is facing political troubles. Rather, I believe that we are seeing is an administration deliberately using terror management theory to deflect attention from scandals and manipulate public opinion to expand White House power in our increasingly, distressingly authoritarian society.
What is terror management theory? If you are like the vast majority of people, you have never heard of terror management theory. In all the books I have read recently by various political commentators, I have seen plenty of talk about the White House’s use of fear and 9/11, but no mention of terror management theory. It has received surprisingly little attention from the mainstream media. Nobody talks about it outside of certain academic circles, mostly within the field of social psychology, and presumably certain government officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the White House, whose discussions I am not privy to.
The DHS and White House officials are among those who know about terror management theory because they’re the ones paying for at least some of the research in this field. DHS and military officials have received briefings from some researchers in the field, and have presumably reported on those briefings to their superiors in the White House. Other research has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and similar organizations.
All this silence on the subject of terror management theory is striking, because the theory so thoroughly explains much of the Bush administration’s interactions with the press and the public that understanding the theory can change the way you interpret the news.
Several times, I have seen Keith Olbermann ask Countdown guests if they knew why the Bush administration kept raising 9/11 for purely political reasons or in seemingly inappropriate contexts, and I have found myself saying to the television at these times, “Well, it’s basic terror management theory, Keith.” And I have foolishly assumed that, because I know about terror management theory, lots of other people who are interested in the political happenings of our world must, as well, so I have not done much with that knowledge. After all, there are plenty of articles out there on the subject. So lots of people must know about it, right?
But it has become clear to me that most people don’t know about terror management theory or its implications. Most of the articles that I have read appear in academic journals. As a graduate student at a large university, I have free access to many of these journals. Most people do not. It is for this reason that I am publishing this little primer, if you will, on terror management theory and its current political implications. Because I think this is something the general public, or at least political commentators, need to be more aware of.
So take my hand, don’t be afraid…because afraid is exactly what they want you to be.
Terror management theory is primarily the brainchild of three university professors who do research in social psychology: Thomas A. Pyszczynski, at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Sheldon Solomon, at Skidmore College, and Jeff Greenberg, at the University of Arizona. They initially articulated their theory in the late 1980s, but it didn’t begin to get much attention outside of social psychology circles until shortly after 9/11, when suddenly the government became interested in funding a lot of research in terror management.
This is already going to be a long post, so I’ll spare you a detailed history of the theory’s development, and will only be hitting relevant highlights of the theory itself. The three authors mentioned above co-authored a book called In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror following 9/11 which explains much of the theory and its background (and is also a really good read) if you are interested in finding out more about it. I want to emphasize that none of the terror management theory stuff is my work – I have just read articles and books by these three men and others in the field, and have drawn my own conclusions about the theory’s implications, specifically that George W. Bush and others in his administration have been deliberately using the results of terror management theory research to manipulate public opinion (though others have written about how the theory has played out in American politics, see especially Pyszczynski, 2004, as well as several of the articles mentioned at the end of this entry). Unfortunately, I can’t provide links to most of the articles I relied on in writing this post because they are in proprietary databases, but I will provide full citations at the end of this post for those who want to track down the articles.
At its most basic level, terror management theory has its origins in existential psychology. Human beings are, at least as far as we know, the only beings that are aware of the inevitability of their own death. This creates a tremendous amount of anxiety in most people’s minds, and we go to great lengths to insulate ourselves against that anxiety. We have, as individuals and societies, developed a number of defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from the thought of our own mortality. Religion provides us with a kind of immortality (e.g., life after death or reincarnation), as do various social institutions (e.g., I may die, but my family/country will go on).
Every now and then, though, things creep by our defenses and remind us of our own mortality. Maybe a loved one dies, or we have a conversation with a coworker whose spouse is terminally ill, or some fanatics fly airplanes into buildings killing thousands of people, forcing our minds to confront the possibility of our own deaths. This awareness of death is referred to by terror management researchers as mortality salience. This is where things start to get really interesting.
Terror management researchers have found that in conditions of mortality salience, certain predictable changes in individuals’ opinions and behavior occur as part of our defense against thoughts of our own mortality. Most intriguing for the purposes of this discussion are changes that affect the political realm, particularly how people are likely to vote.
The Intersection Between Theory and Politics
Let me repeat that last point. In italics, to show that I am not fooling around here. Terror management research can be used to influence how people vote. And it can be used by one party – the Republicans – more effectively at the present time than by the Democrats, because of the direction of changes in most people’s opinions.
You see, people in a mortality salience condition – that is, people who have recently been reminded of the possibility of their own death – are more likely to espouse more traditional opinions usually associated with the conservative end of the political (and religious) spectrum (see, e.g., Cohen, Ogilvie, Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2005; Pyszczynski, 2004). More importantly, given efforts by the Bush administration to expand White House authority and eliminate our civil rights (ostensibly in the name of fighting terror), people in a mortality salience condition are more likely to favor more charismatic and authoritarian leaders (Landau, Solomon, Greenberg, Cohen, Pyszczynski, Arndt, et al., 2004; Cohen, Solomon, Maxfield, Pyszczynski, & Greenberg, 2004).
Thus, it is very much in the interest of the Bush administration to put the public into a mortality salience condition when it is taking actions that are causing significant protest in the public arena. Not to sound like a member of the Tinfoil Hat Brigade, but I believe this is all a part of a deliberate attempt by the Bush administration to institute an increasingly authoritarian political agenda which may have continuing effects on the political landscape long after his term in office expires. I cannot prove this, of course, not having been privy to administration political strategy sessions, but I believe that the evidence supports this inference.
We saw significant evidence that this is exactly what the Bush administration was doing in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. Bush repeatedly hammered the 9/11 theme in nearly every campaign speech and public appearance – often when it seemed inappropriate given the subject under discussion. At the time, many people commented on the way he was doing it, and wondered whether this was truly a good idea given that he had not been able to find Osama Bin Laden, and given that people were increasingly of the opinion that the whole Iraq mess might well have been a huge, tragic mistake – one that has now cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
Those who know terror management theory, however, saw these constant reminders of 9/11 for what they were: a death prime, intended to induce mortality salience in the public mind in order to sway more voters in his direction. Indeed, at least one study that I am aware of found that Bush’s constant hammering on the 9/11 theme played a significant role in the final outcome of the 2004 presidential election (Cohen, Ogilvie, Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2005).
Of course, as some will be quick to point out, politicians and other leaders have been using fear as one of many tactics to sway their followers (and opponents) for as long as there have been politicians. If I am recalling my ancient Roman history correctly (and forgive me if I am not, as it has been nearly twenty years since I read of this anecdote), Cato the Elder, as part of his ongoing effort to persuade the Roman Senate to authorize war against Hannibal and Carthage, once held up a freshly cut branch from a fruit tree and asserted that it had been cut in Carthage mere days before. His point was that if a branch from a fruit tree could get from Carthage to Rome so quickly that its leaves were still unwithered and fresh, how quickly might Carthaginian troops make the same trip? This tactic – a brilliant piece of political theater for the age – worked in a way that his constant exhortations at the end of his speeches that he thought Carthage out to be destroyed didn’t. Rome was soon at war with Carthage. (And doesn’t this whole incident remind one of the selling of the whole Iraqi WMD “threat” prior to the Iraq war? Aluminum tubes and yellowcake, anyone?)
What is curious about the present use of fear by Bush and his minions is just how blatant it is if one is aware of the workings of terror management theory. Olbermann’s piece on the nexus of politics and terror Monday night brilliantly points out some of the many times the Bush administration has attempted to use reminders of 9/11 and threats of future terrorism in its attempts to sway the public, and specifically how these attempts have often closely followed some of the many political reversals suffered by this administration.
Reminders of 9/11 and the World Trade Center have been shown not only to induce mortality salience, but also specifically to increase support of President Bush (Landau, Solomon, Greenberg, Cohen, Pyszczynski, Arndt, et al., 2004). According to the authors of that study:
From our perspective, the increase in favorability toward Bush reflects the effects of death reminders on the appeal of a leader who promotes security and the vanquishing of evil, but an alternative possibility is that reminders of death or 9/11 simply make people more politically conservative, which in turn makes Bush more appealing. (p. 1143).
Following their data analysis, however, the study’s authors inferred that the inductions (that is, the use of the mortality salience prime in terms of the reminders of 9/11) “enhanced affection for President Bush without altering political orientation” (p. 1144) – that is, people did not change their characterizations of themselves as politically more liberal or conservative, they just changed their views of President Bush. Curiously, both groups (liberal or conservative) fell at roughly the same level in their support for President Bush in the terrorism priming condition, unlike in other conditions with a terrorism-neutral death prime or a control condition in which the student participants thought about an impending academic exam (though the differences between liberals and conservatives in the other two priming conditions were not statistically significant).
The study’s authors acknowledged the possibility that mortality salience or reminders of terrorism might increase support for anyone in the presidency or with the potential to become president, so they conducted one further experiment as part of the study. They used four groups, two each to evaluate support for either George W. Bush or John Kerry. For each candidate, the parties were in one of two conditions: mortality salience (that is, they were reminded of death) versus intense pain salience (the report is silent as to the type of pain used for the induction, but researchers in terror management theory commonly use a reminder of severe dental pain for the control condition). The data for this study was collected in May 2004 – well before the presidential election the following November.
The results of this study were striking: in the pain condition, support for John Kerry was much higher than support for Bush – suggesting that in the absence of fear of death, Kerry might well have won the 2004 presidential election. However, in the mortality salience condition, support for Bush was much higher than support for Kerry. Conclusion: reminding people of death (and by way of example of 9/11) helped George Bush and hurt John Kerry.
It is worth noting that this study was published in September 2004 – roughly two months before the election. It would be interesting to see whether Bush upped the 9/11 rhetoric following the articles publication – though of course, even if an increase were shown, it could be argued that that was more a function of the increase in all political rhetoric in the final days in the 2004 campaign rather than of the Bush administration seizing upon the findings of the study and changing its tactics.
A Bit on the Nature of Psychological Research
Do the studies cited above mean that we are mindless in our responses in conditions of mortality salience? Of course not. As with all psychological research, this research does not mean that for every person who is reminded of (or in psych-speak, primed with) thoughts of mortality will respond in the manner predicted, but there will be statistically significant changes across groups in these opinions and behaviors. Some individuals will respond more or less strongly to death primes, and their manner of response may be influenced by other factors, such as the strength of their underlying values and beliefs, temperamental factors like tendency toward anxiety, perceptions about the likelihood of the event used as a prime happening to them or those they care about, et cetera.
Interestingly, the strength of an individual’s response to a death prime might vary given the specific nature or strength of the prime. Now, in psychological research, researchers are limited in the sorts of stimuli they can use in the course of their research. They are not permitted to cause their research subjects undue anxiety simply in the name of furthering this research, and all research that uses human subjects must receive prior approval from an institutional review board which examines the materials and procedures to be used in a study and may request changes to the study or refuse to authorize it entirely if they believe it may be in any way harmful to the participants. Thus, most research in the field of terror management theory merely induces some thoughts of death or some control stimuli (like the previously-mentioned thoughts of dental pain), either directly or with subliminal stimuli.
As a result, the degree of response to mortality salience in experimental settings (known in statistical terms as its effect size) is often relatively small – maybe only a few percentage points different on the dependent variable being studied (e.g., support for a given political candidate, degree of agreement with certain statements, level of anxiety), even though the difference is considered statistically significant.
However, in conditions of mortality salience in the real world, the impact of a death prime on thoughts and behaviors can be far more significant. One need only recall the crazy things many normally sane people were saying and doing in the immediate aftermath of the events of 9/11 (I, myself, actually expressed gratitude that Bush was our president instead of Al Gore on the day of the attacks, to my now great embarrassment), to realize the potential impact of a disaster of that scale.
Political Ramifications of the Research
Which brings me to some of the political ramifications of terror management theory, some of which we have seen and are continuing to see.
If you will recall, in the days before the 2004 presidential election, the race was really too close to call, with Bush and Kerry jockeying for the lead and a very closely divided electorate. In every speech and political appearance, Bush and his supporters kept hammering on the 9/11 theme – an attempt to raise mortality salience in voters, to sway those who were swayable to vote for Bush over Kerry.
Now, talking about 9/11 and the terrorist threat would not be as strong a death prime as an actual terrorist attack in those final days of the campaign would have been, but in a close election, Bush would not need to achieve a very large effect size, in terms of the overall percentage of voters swayed by reminders of 9/11, in order to tip the balance in his favor. And of course, when all was said and done, Bush won by a vary narrow margin of the popular vote, and by a single state (Ohio – a race which many still question the result of) in the electoral college. I am aware of at least one study that attributed his victory to reminders of 9/11 and the effects of terror management theory (Cohen, Ogilvie, Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2005).
When differences in the parties’ levels of support are much greater, as we saw at the midterm elections last fall, the relatively small effect size obtained by mere reminders of 9/11 would not be sufficient to overcome the many other factors influencing voter decisions (such as concerns over the continuing, deteriorating situation in Iraq, frustration with White House scandals and the rubberstamp Congress, etc). Thus, in 2006, we saw a change in the power structure in both the Senate and the House of Representative, in spite of White House officials repeatedly raising the specter of 9/11 and the terrorist threat.
All of this hasn’t really stopped the alleged president and many of the Republican candidates for the 2008 election from continuing to beat the 9/11 drum. Rudy Giuliani in particular has been guilty of this offense (and really, is there any wonder?).
And with the 2008 presidential election looming, I find myself getting increasingly nervous about the potential implications and effects of terror management theory in the run-up to the election. Care to venture into Paranoid Conspiracy Theory Land with me, my dear non-existent readers?
Your Humble Author Heads into Paranoid Conspiracy Theory Land
Okay, then. Let’s fast forward to, say, late September of 2008. Both parties have had their conventions by this time, and have nominated their respective candidates. For the present hypothetical, let’s assume that the Democratic Party has nominated Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton and the Republicans have nominated Rudy Giuliani and/or Fred Thompson, though the actual identities of the candidates may not matter all that much.
The war in Iraq is continuing, and who knows, we might also be fighting a second front, either Afghanistan (again) or Iran, or maybe both if Bush gets his wish. Members of the military are on their fourth or fifth combat rotations since the start of the Iraq war, and there is talk of reinstituting the draft to fill a desperate need for more troops as the military has been stretched beyond capacity. Also as a result of the wars, the deficit has reached truly breathtaking new heights (more than it already has, that is), and the economy is suffering as a result.
The United States is essentially standing alone in the world, as Bush has completely alienated our few remaining allies. Most people have lost count of the number of Congressional investigations into various administration actions and scandals. The Democratic Congress has been unable to rein in an increasingly isolated and intransigent President Bush, because they lack the votes necessary to overturn his vetoes, and there are continuing rumors that the president has returned to the hard-drinking ways of his youth. Even Barney has abandoned him in disgust at this point.
Although the Republican candidates have attempted to distance themselves from Bush and link themselves to the memory of Ronald Reagan, their continued support for the unpopular war(s) concern many voters, and Giuliani’s positions on a number of social issues, particularly abortion, have alienated many in the traditional Republican base. Democrats are ahead in the polls by a substantial margin, both in the presidential race and the various Congressional races, and barring any unforeseen catastrophes, look likely to win the presidential race and increase their margins of control in both houses of Congress. Clearly, at this point, merely banging on the 9/11 drum will not be sufficient to turn the election in the Republican party’s favor.
Cut to a smoke-filled back room somewhere in Georgetown, where Dick Cheney and Karl Rove (who in my hypothetical finally left the White House early in 2008 to “pursue other options” following increasing revelations about his involvement in various White House scandals) meet with a number of Republicans and certain business leaders who have traditionally worked in a behind-the-scenes sort of way to maintain and expand Republican Party power in this country. Also included in their number are several less-savory types with connections to a number of organizations that Republicans would never publicly associate themselves with, in spite of utilizing their services on occasions when normal political channels will not produce the results desired. Cheney and Rove, of course, are aware of the particulars of terror management rheory and its implications, as they would have been briefed by DHS and military officials who were, in turn, briefed on the research by some of the researchers themselves.
[NB: I have picked Cheney and Rove for my little paranoid speculation because I believe them to be fully aware of terror management theory and because I think they are evil bastards, not because I have any substantive reasons to believe they actually have been or necessarily will be directly or indirectly involved in anything as sinister as I am about to describe. It could involve people mostly uninvolved in the current administration who have found out about terror management theory by reading the research, or hearing about it at other backroom political gatherings in the past, or whatever. Not that this is ever going to happen, of course. Just paranoid ranting on my part. But still, very, very plausible…]
Our evil back room cabal discusses the election, which at the moment looks bleak for the Republican party, and lets those not already in the know into the implications of terror management theory. After some debate, the group decides on a course of action. The meeting adjourns, and one of the less-savory types leaves to place a few calls from a secure line to some, for want of a better term, business associates in a country in Eastern Europe.
Flash forward again to Monday, October 20, 2008. The election is now fifteen days away, and the evil back room cabal’s plot is about to come to fruition. This part could play out one of two ways:
Scenario 1: Federal agents, acting on a tip, raid a storage locker near downtown Los Angeles, and discover a nuclear warhead that has somehow been smuggled into the country. The warhead is real – perhaps one that was lost around the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, perhaps from some other source. Federal agents then raid the home of the Islamic immigrant in whose name the storage locker was rented, accidentally killing him in the process. A search of his apartment reveals no evidence of co-conspirators, but does provide “evidence” (planted by associates of the aforemention member of the evil back room cabal) tying him to the storage locker.
The White House immediately calls a press conference, showing everyone the nuclear warhead and touting the raid as a significant victory in the war on terror. Immediately following the press conference, there is speculation that the President may declare martial law and postpone the election, though that never actually comes to pass. People around the country, and particularly people who live and work in Los Angeles, lose a lot of sleep over the next few nights, thinking about the bullet they dodged.
Suddenly the presidential election looks too close to call, and the outcomes of a number of Congressional races look less certain, as well. Republicans return to the familiar territory of harping on 9/11, terrorism, and the Los Angeles plot. Political observers everywhere bite their nails as November 4th approaches.
Scenario 2: The above-mentioned Soviet nuclear warhead is smuggled into Los Angeles, but this time, there is no successful raid by federal agents. It seems some of those, um, business associates had a real desire to wreak some havoc here, and moved the warhead from the locker where it was supposed to be discovered to some undisclosed location – actually, to an unused office on one of the upper floors of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The warhead is detonated, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the surrounding area, vaporizing the entire downtown section of Los Angeles, and injuring and sickening millions of others outside the primary blast radius. (I pick on Los Angeles in this scenario because it is a city the neocons probably wouldn’t miss much if something went wrong with the plot – though San Francisco might be better from that perspective – plus a nuclear warhead seems a somehow fitting, Sodom and Gomorrah type ending for that town.)
Chaos reigns, and people across the country go into a sort of dazed shock over the magnitude of the loss – it is like the aftermath of 9/11, but several orders of magnitude greater.
Bush declares martial law with himself under more-or-less complete control, under the provisions of that little policy directive for continuity of government that made the news a few weeks ago. Elections are cancelled. There is no real help for the residents of Southern California, because the bulk of the National Guard troops and equipment in California and the surrounding states are all in the Middle East fighting Bush’s wars, so Bush calls on his buddies at Halliburton and Blackwater to restore order. Civil rights are suspended, not only in the disaster area, but nationwide. Oddly, given the effects of terror management theory and the general public’s fear of further attacks, there is almost no protest against the President’s actions, and those few who dare to speak out are swiftly arrested, classified as unlawful enemy combatants and sent to Gitmo, never to be heard from again.
Of course, none of this could ever possibly happen. Clearly, I am allowing my distrust for the current administration and certain Republican politicians override my good sense and push me into paranoid fantasies. And strictly speaking, neither of these attack scenarios in the days leading up to the election are particularly original. I have heard both scenarios or variations on them discussed elsewhere, with two significant differences: (1) in the scenarios I have heard elsewhere, the attack or threatened attack in the days before the election would be the result of the actions of foreign terrorists, not a plot by American citizens hoping to influence the election; and (2) I have heard no mention of terror management theory in connection with any of these scenarios.
It is terror management theory that makes my scenarios believable to me – and makes me willing to speculate that the events I discuss could actually arise from the intentional action of Americans, rather than being the unfortunately-timed acts of real foreign terrorists. One implication of terror management theory, after all, is that it is possible for someone with knowledge of the theory to actually manage terror (though I am quite certain that is not the intent of any of the researchers who developed the theory).
So am I some paranoid person, looking for trouble where there is none and trying to create problems where none exists? Possibly. I certainly hope so, because the alternative – that I am correct in my speculations in this humble little blog entry – is really too terrible to imagine. Clearly, though, as this post from Crooks and Liars suggests, I am not the first to have thought of the possible political consequences of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Nevertheless, just in case I haven’t made this clear already, I really think that Bush and Cheney ought to be impeached.
Addendum: I have tried to be as complete as possible in citing the studies I refer to directly in this article. If I have inadvertently omitted any citations or mistakenly cited the wrong study for one of the points I attribute to research in the field of terror management, please e-mail me at janedoe [at] inbox.com (particularly if you are one of the authors on a study where I’ve omitted the correct citation) so that I can make any necessary corrections to this entry. And as always, thoughtful comments on or criticisms of this entry are welcome and encouraged. Thanks! –jd
Addendum 2: I should probably note that I’ve made a couple of minor changes to this post, mostly in terms of fixing grammatical errors or clarifying some confusing phrasing. I didn’t specifically call out the changes, as they were non-substantive, but thought I should probably mention it.
Cohen, F., Ogilvie, D. M., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T. (2005). American Roulette: The effect of reminders of death on support for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, 177-187.
Cohen, F., Solomon, S., Maxfield, M., Pyszczynski, T., & Greenberg, J. (2004). Fatal attraction: The effects of mortality salience on evaluations of charismatic, task-oriented, and relationship-oriented leaders. Psychological Science, 15, 846-851.
Landau, M. J., Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Cohen, F., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Miller, C. H., Ogilvie, D. M, & Cook, A. (2004). Deliver us from evil: The effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1136-1150.
Pyszczynski, T. (2004). What are we so afraid of? A Terror Management Theory perspective on the politics of fear. Social Research, 71, 827-848.
Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Greenberg, J. (2003). In the wake of 9/11: The psychology of terror. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.