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Mortal Coil

Is the unconscious fear of death driving the public’s response to Arizona?

Consider the following reactions to the tragic shooting in Tucson: First, President Barack Obama’s speech got rave reviews (“magic,” New York Times columnist Gail Collins called it), even though, by the standards, say, of Bill Clinton’s Oklahoma City address, it was pretty humdrum, especially during those times when the president was trying to draw lessons from the tragedy rather than eulogizing its victims. Second, Obama’s approval rating, taken after the killings but before the speech, has risen and is now above 50 percent in the average, even though he did not do anything remarkable in that period. Third, Republicans and conservatives, however much they might insist that their strident opposition to Obama had nothing to do with the killings, appear chastened. (Sarah Palin is the exception.) The House leadership postponed its treasured vote on health care repeal, and Fox News head Roger Ailes said to an interviewer, “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually. You don’t have to do it with bombast.”

What’s going on here? I don’t know, but I am going to speculate. We’ll never know for sure whether there was a link between the apocalyptic anti-government rhetoric of the right and Loughner’s actions, but the public, I believe, has drawn a connection—unconsciously if not consciously—between the killings and the contemporary political climate. I think both Ailes, who is no dummy, and the Republicans have sensed that.

In August 2007, I wrote in The New Republic about three psychologists—Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski—who had conducted experiments to show how the unconscious fear of death, and the defenses it triggers, have influenced our politics. Among these defenses were a preference for charismatic leadership and a renewed appreciation of flag and country and of traditional mores. The psychologists found, moreover, that these defenses could be triggered unconsciously by subliminal cues.

I think what happened in the wake of the Tucson shootings was, on the one hand, quite expected: People pulled together, they expressed their sympathy for those killed and wounded, and, in this way, they reaffirmed their commonality. And perhaps, if asked specifically what had caused the shooting, they would have said it was a chance medical event. But there was an added element, triggered by the nature of the event, which came partly from believing that this was a political and not merely a medical act: a renewed respect for the structure of public authority that Loughner threatened and for the leader at the head of it—which was triggered by a fear that Loughner’s act threatened that broader community and its leader, the president. That’s why, I think, Obama’s approval ratings climbed, even before his speech. And it’s why his speech itself was received so magnanimously and generously.

The reaction, of course, will eventually wear off—perhaps sooner rather than later, as Jeff Greenberg, who happens to teach psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, reminded me when I called him to share my speculations. Republicans are already plannning to introduce the repeal of the health care bill. Still, Obama has a moment, similar to Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma bombing and George W. Bush after Septmeber 11, where the country is looking to him for leadership again. 

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic.