Is Charlie Black right? A few writers are now saying the idea that terrorist attacks help Republicans is merely a social construct.
I'm not so sure. While it's logically nonsense to think a terrorist attack would help Republicans, there are powerful neurobiological reasons it might.
As John Judis explained in detail last August, there's actually a good deal of scientific evidence showing people become more tribal and conservative--more attracted to grand, apocalyptic rhetoric about good and evil--after they've been reminded of their own mortality. And not just in the abstract. One experiment in the run-up to the 2004 election showed test subjects were 400% more likely to support President Bush after being asked to contemplate what would happen when they die--or hearing someone invoke 9/11. Subjects also became more intolerant of out groups, like gays and people who seem un-American.
Of course, the political landscape is a lot different now than it was in 2004. Democratic critiques of Republican foreign policy are more developed and more widespread. If we're attacked, it's possible the left would provide a counternarrative that channels the us vs. them-type fear and recrimination against Republicans, blaming them for distracting us from fighting al Qaeda; not securing ports; whatever. And Barack Obama, now the left's standard-bearer, might figure out a way to channel the tribal desire for transcendence and unity more effectively than John McCain.
Nevertheless, scientific evidence and political precedent both suggest Charlie Black's hypothesis is reasonable. If San Francisco were nuked, it would drastically alter our psychology and knock issues like health care off the table. Watching their countrymen die, voters would almost certainly give McCain's campaign--with its obsessive focus on foreign affairs and a transcendent war against Islamic fascism--a second look.
Update: For a look at why this is a specifically Republican advantage, check out Peter Scoblic's book U.S. vs. Them.