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October 23, 2007

Wanted: Political Psychologists
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I have come to the sad, but perhaps inevitable, conclusion that political science does not have the tools to understand the current incarnation of the Republican party. Most of mainstream political science is based around the assumption that political actors are (at least partly) rational. When actors are not rational, then, well...

It really hit me today, after I spent a good 20 minutes sifting through the Corner, the National Review's group blog). I've often read the Corner, although more for amusement than information. But, this morning, I came out of it with the weird sense that I had been transported to a parallel universe that, try as I might, I didn't - and couldn't - really understand. Concepts like institutionalism, median-voter theory, and the inclusion-moderation hypothesis really have little to say about the bizarre ideas that have increasingly come out of the Republican nexus. How to explain, for example, what happened during last night's debate, where the crowd gave John McCain a standing ovation for making a joke about Woodstock concertgoers using drugs nearly four decades ago. It's one thing to laugh, but I honestly didn't understand why a standing ovation was necessary, especially considering that half the crowd were probably smoking pot in 1969.

More important, though, is trying to understand the visceral need that some conservatives seem to have for making the fight against terrorists into a civilizational struggle, to the point of finding new (and rather creative) ways to provoke conflicts and foment actual and metaphorical civil wars between opponents and ideologies. They want to fight. It's as if they long for a cause, preferably a bloody one (as long as it isn't their blood), with which to devote themselves, regardless of whether the cause is based on a problem that has anything to do with reality. It is a craving, and it is manifested in a very personal, and emotional away, as if they have been spurned by a lover. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Sayyid Qutb, someone who also longed for epic, eternal conflict, was, in what was a key turning point in his life, spurned by a woman - perhaps the only woman - he loved.

In some cases, there are those on the Right who seem to long for another day like 9/11. After all, war requires sacrifice, especially wars upon which the future of civilization depend. Robert Kaplan, in a recent op-ed, said something that I couldn't quite believe anyone would be willing to say (publicly). And it's even worse in the context of the rest of the article:

The media is but one example of the slow crumbling of the nation-state at the upper layers of the social crust--a process that because it is so gradual, is also deniable by those in the midst of it. It will take another event on the order of 9/11 or greater to change the direction we are headed.

Fortunately, there has been a renewed effort to use political psychology to understand this troubling, yet fascinating mix of anger, desire, and projection, and, more generally, to make sense of our country's post-9/11 landscape. For example, John Judis, in an excellent article for The New Republic, introduced readers to terror management theory and to the work of psychologists like Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. We've made some important first steps, but more, clearly, needs to be done.


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The characteristic you are searching for is the "authoritarian personality" type. This is what those in the leadership of the GOP and its media supporters have in common. Psychologist Robert Altemeyer has studied this type of personality for over 40 years and has now summarized his work in a free, online book. You can read it at

His work was also the basis for John Dean's recent book "Conservatives without Conscience". Dean covers the political aspects, Altemeyer the scientific. Dean also has a useful summary on his blog at:

Scroll back a few articles to see his latest set of stories. The main characteristics of these people is a belief in a strong leader and a hierarchical social organization. They also have some "irrational" characteristics like the ability to hold contradictory ideas simultaneously and to ignore any facts that counter their beliefs.

Read the online book, I think it will clarify things...

I don't think we should refer to a post 9/11 national mindset. The American people were not changed. They were temporarily duped by Bush. We have post 9/11 policies, sure. But our national mood soon resorted to normal after the attack. Nobody I know claims that 9/11 changed their politics.

The reason the crowd gave a standing ovation is that the joke referred to his time as a POW, and they were applauding his service.

Shadi, you should watch the Power of Nightmares - a three-part BBC documentary which explores the roots of this psychology, covering Said Qutb, as well as our present day neocons.

You can watch the first of three parts at this link:

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I would like to add some pundits have tried to explain away this mystery by arguing that Bush backers voted for their values rather than their interests. But this explanation is unsatisfying, since many of those voters didn't opt for "family values" in 1992 and 1996, when the country elected a well-known philanderer as president.

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