Political Psychology

political psychology has always been, when framed in extreme terms, the extent to which political elites can and do manipulate the general public, as opposed to the extent to which they must pander to the preferences of the mass public. Framed more modestly, this debate pits the view that the mass public is mainly responsive to elite initiatives, against the view that elites' actions are strongly influenced by the public's preferences. Discuss this question critically, drawing broadly upon material from throughout the course.

The American voter is credulous and easily manipulated. American politicians simply wish to get elected and pander to voter prejudices and engage in opinion poll-watching, rather than exercise true leadership. How can both of these sentiments be accurate? An excellent example of how both of these seemingly contradictory concepts are manifested in the American system of government is seen in the current healthcare debate. Despite the widespread popularity and relatively successful implementation of universal access to healthcare in most of the world's democracies, the American public appears to be fearful of a so-called 'government takeover' of the healthcare system. The American healthcare system is more expensive, yet provides less comprehensive access to care than most of the world's major developed democracies.

The resistance to reform in America seems rooted in the idea that government is 'bad,' innately. Yet while hatred of big government has a long-standing historical tradition within the U.S., America has passed landmark government legislation in the past, such as welfare, food stamp programs, and Medicare. These programs, especially recently, have provided necessary assistance to people in dire straits and became more popular over time. Americans seem willing to embrace government policies once those policies are taken for granted as part of life, but are afraid of government in the abstract. This reflexive anti-government sentiment, however, has allowed the American public's opinions to be easy manipulated by politicians. The resistance to government intervention is partially cultural, and politicians are able to flame the fires of anti-government rage to draw support for their reelection campaigns while pandering to the needs of insurance groups that provide them with money.

This phenomenon suggests that people are more controlled by, rather than control, the political process -- especially if they rely upon news outlets like Fox to provide them with information, given the fact that Fox is owned by a powerful right-wing media figure in the form of Rupert Murdoch dedicated to promoting corporate interests. Fox gave such prominence to the anti-government (and carefully orchestrated) town halls and tea parties protesting healthcare reform that these voices looked like they were representing 'America' as a whole, rather than a specific party or interest group.

But the level of popular, manipulated anti-government support does affect politicians. Now that politicians fearful of alienating voters, some healthcare reform supporters have taken a more conservative approach, as they do not wish to seem socialistic and lose constituent support. This shows how inflammatory rhetoric can shift popular opinion, yet popular opinion, once it is mobilized, can affect the policy efforts of fearful politicians. Health care is such a complex issue few people understand it, so they are easily manipulated.

The idea that people are 'born' into their political parties is also true regarding attitudes towards the government -- since the Reagan Revolution in particular, Americans as a whole have been highly suspicious of government intervention. Anti-government ideals have become a kind of dogma, even in the absence of factual data that government intervention will produce a negative result. Americans are less party-affiliated than before but Hyman's notion that "a man is born into his political party" may be translated in contemporary terms as thus: people hold onto the ideological sentiments they heard articulated when they were young, like the idea that the government is the source of all of their problems, and they respond to rhetoric that restates such ideas.

If politicians use anti-government ideological sentiment in their speeches, they are more apt to be re-elected. It they use such ideology in framing particular issues that are confusing and ambiguous, they can more easily rally support for their causes. For example, people who are unhappy with their healthcare coverage, who have been denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions, or who pay high premiums and do not get coverage through their employers might be open to the idea of a single-payer healthcare system. But if a shift away from private insurance is framed as an example of 'bad government telling you what doctors you can see/what procedures you can have' versus 'choice,' Americans are highly responsive to anti-government, pro-individualistic rhetoric. Once the public is mobilized in a coherent fashion, politicians seem unwilling or unable to change public opinion, despite the presence of new media tools like the Internet for them to use. While the Internet has been effective in mobilizing a neutral public and to rally support during election campaign, using new media to actually change public opinion seems to be more difficult, or something that politicians are unwilling to attempt.

Question 2: Mass political violence, whether wars or genocides or massacres, is typically executed by ordinary people at the direction of political elites. Taking up just the elite side of the equation, how do you now view the various psychological factors at play; e.g., individual personality, group dynamics, cognitive biases, group prejudices, etc.

After genocides are publicized, it is typical to revile the political figure that orchestrated the atrocities. However, this makes it easy to forget that no single leader carried out a genocide without the support of the masses. Human beings are social animals, and experiments such as Stanley Milgram's infamous 'electroshock' experiments demonstrate that people are often willing to forget their personal standards of morality if an authority figure pressures them to do so. While Milgram's experiments have been criticized as somewhat inaccurate in their results, history does seem to suggest that during periods of political instability and social uncertainty, the pressures of authority figures and what Irving Janis called 'groupthink' can cause people to behave in morally abhorrent ways.

Scape-goating people deemed 'other' is one common psychological defense mechanism. For example, after the economic depression and humiliation that gripped Weimer Germany at the end of World War I, people were more responsive to the xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the National Socialist party. After the dissolution of the ethnically diverse communist Yugoslavia into competing ethnic enclaves, warfare between ethnic and religious factions broke out. The loss of community life and a secure sense of identity was 'solved' by creating a nation and a sense of commonality defined against another group. By demonizing a group and calling the other group 'non-human,' people be trying to find a solution to the complex historical and social problems they are suffering.

Contrary to this social emphasis, Loewenberg's analysis of Heinrich Himmler suggests some individuals may be more easily influenced than others by the need for control. So-called authoritarian personalities with ego-driven psychologies are thus more apt to use the tools at their disposal to rally public sentiment against a perceived 'other.' But the emphasis upon the individual can shift the focus from the complicity of so-called normal individuals from their role in historical acts of horror. The concept of the 'madness of crowds' does not explain a systemic, bureaucratic version of genocide perpetrated by a regime, unless it is contextualized in light of a history of racism, anti-Semitism, and ethnic tensions. While historical circumstances such as economic desperation may affect the psychology of the citizens involved in the action, it would be mistaken to suggest that such actions are arbitrary -- the anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was created by a longstanding hatred of the Jewish people throughout Europe, stretching back to medieval times; the conflicts between the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croats…