John Judis on the application of some psychological research to trends in American politics:
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.
This seems in line with the American Environics data that Garance wrote about a while back which showed a large and rather sudden upsurge in patriarchal sentiments following 9/11. At any rate, I think there’s good reason to be a bit skeptical about the current faddish enthusiasm for Drew Westen (remember George Lakoff?), but it certainly is true that thinking about politics does seem unduly reliant on a particular mode of public opinion polling and could benefit from deeper engagement with contemporary psychological research.