For years, political experts and the arm-chair electorate alike have been scratching their heads as otherwise rational people would seemingly rather prevent people of the same sex getting married than work to better their own lives through just and equitable legislation. Why would the astronomical odds of being involved in a terror attack trump something as real and tangible of being able to get decent health care? Are we that afraid? Does raw fear really have that much of an upper hand on rational, logical and intelligent thought even in today's coddled culture?
It's been pretty well accepted and understood that Bush and Company have been using the Leatherman of fear in varying degrees and applications to keep the voting public cowering in their well-appointed homes. But this recent piece in The New Republic lights up the otherwise dark corners of the deeper psychological machinations that are at work.
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.
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.
Of course, it is a tad depressing to think that, in general, people are that easy to manage - that easy to control - by merely reminding them that someday they will die. By reminding them that they, as human animals, are not immortal but merely organic.
And life - being alive and conscious - is a fucking incredible thing. And no one wants the ride to end.
Related: Nothing to Fear...