THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fear, Psychology, and American Voting Behavior

Predicting American voting behavior is a game played by pollsters, politicians, and professional gamblers, and between now and the Congressional elections in 2010 you can bet your bippy that our biannual circus will be in full swing again.

But prediction is one thing and analysis is something else. Analysts are more prone to keep their feet on the ground, especially if they work in an academic setting. They need to be careful about data and careful about conclusions.

A recent study by S. J. McCann of Cape Breton University in Canada focuses on American Congressional elections from 1946 to 1992, and relates political conservatism, authoritarianism, and societal threat to the way people vote.

In psychology, "authoritarianism" refers to the idea of the "authoritarian personality"--an old concept that originated in the 1950s to describe people who for one reason or another easily submit to authority. So these are not people who are authoritarian themselves, but people who easily accept authority.

What the psychologist McCann recently found was that the degree of national societal threat preceding Congressional elections in the period 1946 to 1992 correlates with the average state percentage of people voting for Republican representatives--which supports the conventional threat-authoritarianism behavior hypothesis in social psychology and political science. In plain words, the more people feel threatened, the more likely they are to vote for political conservatives--an idea that's almost an axiom in American politics.

But there's more: McCann found that the relation between threat and conservative voting behavior holds up in conservative states but not in liberal states--and that the conventional axiom is entirely driven by the behavior of people in conservative states.

McCann's general interpretation of his data is that only people with authoritarian personalities (readiness to submit to authority) are activated by societal threat to vote Republican.

Our conclusion: The current Republican conservative dance about the threats of terrorism will work in red states but not so much in blue states.

A subsidiary conclusion is that if you want to make progress in this country, you had better start with the children and discourage the formation of authoritarian personalities.

Side note: The idea of the "authoritarian personality" was first formulated by the anti-Nazi German psychologist Theodore Adorno in 1950 to explain the rise of Adolf Hitler in German politics.

[Reference: McCann, S. J. (2009) Journal of Psychology 143(4):341-358.]

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