Bush Is Endangering Our Lives - 2: The Psychology

01/09/2006 06:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"We have to take extraordinary measures ... We're up against a very tough adversary and need to do everything we can to protect the American people."
-- Richard Cheney, 12/18/05
Nightline, justifying spying, torture and increasing Executive Branch power

If America is to successfully fight the genuine threat of terror, we first need to understand how dramatically Mr. Bush is endangering our lives by his present policies. The major obstacles to doing so are psychological, both on the part of those who irrationally believe Mr. Bush is protecting us, and his critics -- many of whom are psychologically uncomfortable with proposing the kind of military and police measures that are needed to actually reduce the ranks of our adversaries.

Why Many Irrationally Believe Mr. Bush Is Protecting Them

In September 2004, social psychologists raised the issue of death to a group of college students prior to assessing their preferences in the upcoming Presidential election. Bush beat Kerry 32-14. A control group with the same politics who were not reminded of death supported Kerry over Bush by 35-8. "Bush's election in November 2004 may have been the result of NONCONSCIOUS concerns about death rather than rational support for the president per se," the psychologists concluded. (emphasis added.)

This was only one of dozens of studies by the "Terror
Management Theory" school of psychologists which explain why the public continues to maintain the irrational belief that President Bush is protecting us from terrorism. (For further information on TM theory, please contact Skidmore Professor Sheldon Solomon c/o, and/or check out In The Wake of 9/11. Please see also my website, "VI. Species Wellbeing and Survival," and on the work of Dr. Robert Firestone, and, for the Ernest Becker Foundation.)

The key word is "nonconscious." Many conventional Democratic strategists say Democrats should try to "change the subject" to education and healthcare because swing voters often do not mention "death from terrorism" in polls and focus groups. As TMT indicates, however, voters are often not conscious of their death-fear, and/or are reluctant to mention it when polled because they do not want to seem weak or are denying their fears.

But it seems clear that voters' fears of terrorism deeply influence voting behavior because: (1) the public still gives Mr. Bush high marks for his "war on terror" despite the obvious evidence that he has failed; (2) Karl Rove, Richard Cheney and their minions maintain relentless message discipline that the President is protecting us from death because they have found the same thing as the Terror Management theorists: that reminders of death build support for the President. They would not have consistently used this theme for more than 4 years now if they did not find it worked.

Terror Management Theory is based on the work of Ernest Becker, and is consistent with similar findings by thinkers like Robert Firestone, Irvin Yalom, Robert Jay Lifton and Daniel Liechty. This work posits that each of us is motivated by a largely unconscious but extremely powerful desire to escape death, the origin of organized religion. People cede their powers to leaders so as to be protected from death. It is for this reason that for most of human history Executive power was in the hands of religious leaders and monarchs, who combined both a secular and sacred power promising life after death.

The Presidency is the one office in America that retains this psychological power. We address the President as "Mr. President" rather than by his name, play "Hail To The Chief" when he enters the room, and unconsciously look to him for protection in a time of crisis.

9/11 was one of the most significant events in American history not because of the number of people killed -- a fraction of the annual toll from automobile accidents -- but because the first major attack on American soil killing large numbers of ordinary citizens dramatically triggered both our latent death anxiety and desire to be protected by the President. Only such an explanation can account for the fact that immediately after 9/11 the President's poll-ratings soared and he was given carte blanche to wage war despite his obvious inexperience and lack of knowledge; and that he still enjoys high poll ratings for his handling of the war on terror despite that fact that it has been totally mismanaged.

Democrats cannot ignore this psychological fact and hope to win power and govern successfully. It is impossible to "change the subject" to healthcare and education. Only if they unite and wage a protracted campaign to convince Americans they can better protect them than Mr. Bush will they be able to break through many people's unconscious but powerful tendencies to turn to the President for protection.

Why Critics Have Not Successfully Exposed Mr. Bush's Failures

This will require first that Mr. Bush's critics confront their own psychological issues. Most of us grew up opposing the wrongful use of the American military and CIA abroad, police and FBI power at home, and fighting for civil liberties. We are not psychologically comfortable fighting for a tough anti-terrorism strategy that is in fact needed given the threat we face. It is often easier to justifiably attack the Administration for its frequent "fear-mongering," rather than to undertake the psychologically difficult work of developing a strategy -- including military, police AND "soft" measures -- to defeat people who really intend to and can kill large numbers of American civilians.
Of course, Democrats should ALSO speak out loudly on moral and legal issues, develop bold new programs that differentiate themselves from conservatives, and so forth. But the necessary psychological precondition for being heard on these other issues is to convince Americans that they can better protect them than conservatives. This will prove particularly true in the event of another domestic 9/11.
As we shall discuss in future pieces in this space, it is not difficult to develop a far better strategy than the President's. Our problem is overcoming our own psychological discomfort about fighting for it as tenaciously as do intellectually and morally bankrupt conservatives who promote expanding Executive power in violation of their own ideology of limiting government.