Color me underwhelmed by the social science research cited by John Judis in this article, which purports to show how sub-rational responses associated with the fear of mortality explain the political success of George W. Bush specifically, and social conservatism more generally, in the wake of 9/11. On the one hand, it seems unsurprising to the point of banality to suggest that a heightened awareness of one's own mortality can increase the attraction of religious traditionalism, in-group solidarity, and so forth. On the other hand, the specific examples Judis cites to demonstrate how these psycho-political tendencies have impacted the politics of the last six years seem tissue-thin:
For instance, because worldview defense increases hostility toward other races, religions, nations, and political systems, it helps explain the rage toward France and Germany that erupted prior to the Iraq war, as well as the recent spike in hostility toward illegal immigrants. Also central to worldview defense is the protection of tradition against social experimentation, of community values against individual prerogatives ... and of religious dictates against secular norms. For many conservatives, this means opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This may well explain why family values became more salient in 2004--a year in which voters were supposed to be unusually focused on foreign policy--than it had been from 1992 through 2000. Indeed, from 2001 to 2004, polls show an increase in opposition to abortion and gay marriage, along with a growing religiosity. According to Gallup, the percentage of voters who believed abortion should be "illegal in all circumstances" rose from 17 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2002 and would still be at 19 percent in 2004. Even church attendance by atheists, according to one poll, increased from 3 to 10 percent from August to November 2001.
Moving backward point by point, there's no evidence that the post-9/11 spike in church attendance persisted beyond a very narrow window of time. On an issue where polls vary as wildly as they do on abortion, a three percentage-point swing would seem to be at most barely meaningful, and probably just statistical noise. Maybe the debate over gay marriage was more salient in 2004 than 1996 because of "worldview defense" in the wake of 9/11, but Occam's Razor would suggest that a certain Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, and the predictable public backlash against judicial activism that ensued, might have had at least something to do with it. (Gay marriage wasn't much of an issue in the '02 midterms, you'll recall, when "worldview defense" should have been at its height.)
The rising hostility toward illegal aliens sounds like a better example of what Judis's researchers are talking about, since immediately after 9/11 there was a spike in the percentage of Americans who suggested that we should admit fewer immigrants every year. But by the time immigration surfaced as a major political controversy, in the autumn of last year, the numbers had settled back to around pre-9/11 levels, which suggests that the salience of the issue lately has far more to do with normal politics - specifically, voter hostility to a sweeping immigration reform proposal championed by none other than President Bush - than with some atavistic hangover from September 11.
Finally, I don't know how much outright "rage" there was toward France and Germany - I think it was more a question of people jumping at the chance to crack jokes about effete, weaselly Europeans - but sure, the whole "freedom fries," pouring-out-French-wine business was dumb and chauvinistic, so I'll give that one to Judis. It doesn't change the fact that much of his piece seems like typical liberal heavy breathing about how certain voter preferences - for security over liberty, and tradition over experimentation - are illegitimate and dangerous because they tend to favor conservatives, and because they helped George W. Bush win re-election.
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