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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

It’s become a simple truism that the aftershocks of 9/11 had a lot to do with the Republican electoral victories of 2002 and 2004, supposedly because voters suddenly made national security, a cluster of issues on which the GOP had a natural advantage, an overriding concern, with the absence of additional terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Bush’s watch being the clincher
But something a bit deeper was going on, according to John Judis, who has a fascinating piece up on the New Republic site, drawing on research from a small band of political psychologists.
To make a long story short, these psychologists conducted a variety of experiments showing that voter perceptions of George W. Bush after 9/11 dramatically improved after they had been “cued” to think about their own mortality. Moreoever, and most strikingly, these shifts were not produced by reflection on Bush’s actual record of “keeping America safe,” or even by a preoccupation with terrorism or national security. Instead, it appeared, invoking the fear of death stimulated a general lurch towards conservative sentiments on a whole range of issues, as part of what the psychologists call “worldview defense.”
It’s hardly a novel insight to suggest that an atmosphere of national or cultural crisis tends to promote authoritarian political views. This was the central theme of Fritz Stern’s famous analysis of German fascism, The Politics of Cultural Despair. But it’s another thing altogether to demonstrate that insight empirically, as the political psychologists Judis cites have done.
So what happened in 2006? Aside from the fading proximity of 9/11, Bush’s many palpable failures made him “less of a useful object to unload non-conscious anxieties about death,” says one of the psychologists. Thus, pre-9/11 priorities and policy preferences re-emereged, to the benefit of Democrats. This, of course, is also the major hypothesis of the recent re-evaluation of their 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority published by Judis and Ruy Teixeira in The American Prospect.
But while Judis finishes his TNR essay on a hopeful note for progressives, it leaves the troubling impression that the whole phenomenon of memento mori politics is largely outside the control of Democrats. What if Republicans nominate a more “useful object to unload non-conscious anxieties about death” in 2008? And what if there is another major terrorist attack on the United States? Will the environment of 9/11 return? And what if anything can progressives do the counter the proported tilt of politics that might produce?

One possible answer lies in a slightly more flexible view of the kind of leadership voters crave when they enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death. As Judis paraphrases Ernest Becker, the anthropologist whose work inspired that of the political psychologists:

Becker described how human beings defend themselves against this fundamental anxiety [about mortality] 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.

The ability of political leaders to inspire people to “submerge [their] own individuality in a larger, enduring community” or to “not only fend off death, but to endow us with the courage to defy it” is not a set of qualities inherently limited to the Right. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II. Think of Martin Luther King. Think of Eugene Debs and other labor leaders whose enduring slogan of “solidarity” describes one of the cravings that anxiety about death may well stimulate. Think even of Bill Clinton at his best, who could hit communitarian chords pretty soundly.
So perhaps Democrats don’t simply have to hope and pray that the Shadow of Death doesn’t hang over the next election, or the one after that. And Judis’ essay suggests as well that experience or expertise on national security issues isn’t the only way, or even necessarily the best way, to appeal to an electorate reminded of its mortality. The ability to convince people that progressive leadership offers something more meaningful than competent government, or a positive “payoff” of services and benefits for taxes–in other words, that we offer a worldview worth defending–may prove crucial.

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