Why San Bernardino Polarized America and What It Means for Our Political Future

Think back a couple of weeks to when the news broke of the shooting in San Bernardino. What sorts of commentary did you encounter on social media? Likely your Facebook and Twitter feeds consisted of some amalgamation of friends advocating for gun control, encouraging "thoughts and prayers," and expressing outrage at the rise of terrorism. Combining elements of gun violence, religion and terrorism, the events that unfolded in San Bernardino were the perfect political storm. Politicians and the American public alike voiced their concerns on gun legislation and/or the rise of radical Islam. From a psychological perspective, the thoughts and behaviors that surfaced in the aftermath of San Bernardino are particularly compelling.

Gun control and opposition to terrorism are reactions that social scientists conceptualize as frames, differences in the description of an issue that can influence opinions. First identified by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, laureate of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, these frames can operate in different contexts. For example, which of the two options sounds better to you: Pay your bills after Friday and incur a 30% late fee, or pay your bills before Friday for a 30% early discount? Frames can also manifest in the political sphere, and they are largely shaped by our political ideologies. Should the KKK be allowed to host a rally in Times Square? You may say, yes, because they should be allowed free speech. You might also answer, no, because they are a threat to public safety. A similar logic applies to the divergent perspectives that Americans have adopted since the San Bernardino shooting. Some have pinpointed unsatisfactory gun legislation as the cause of the tragedy, while many others have identified radical Islam as the source.

These frames play into the hand of the American political system because of their associations with particular political ideologies. Proponents of gun control tend to be liberal, while conservatives more often emphasize counterterrorism. Now, throw this into the context of the American political parties. According to a recent poll by Pew, Democrats and Republicans are currently more polarized than at any other point in recent history. Not only do these factions disagree, but Democrats are more liberal and Republicans are more conservative than ever before on a wide swath of issues.

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The American political climate is at all-time highs of partisan polarization.

In the context of the shooting, however, political identities are not the only ones that are framed at odds with one another. Beyond Democrats vs. Republicans and liberals vs. conservatives, San Bernardino is about immigrants vs. Americans, Muslims vs. Christians and even the East vs. the West. Each of these identities can shape a person's worldview.

There is something unique about tragedies like mass shootings. They remind us of the inevitability of death, that at any moment we too may become a victim. Even though most of us will die in less tragic ways, the mere concept of death carries with it an overwhelming sense of discomfort. Thinking about our own death can be a real downer. However, humans are unique in our ability to protect ourselves and our self-esteem by reaffirming our world views -- things like our political ideology, national identity, religion and culture. These identities serve as reminders that we belong to systems that will continue to exist long after our deaths. By relying on these identities in the face of tragedy, we preserve our self-esteem. These are the tenets of terror management theory, a widely documented psychological phenomenon originally elucidated by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon.

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Religious Polarization: the New York Daily News criticizes GOP leaders for offering prayers after the San Bernardino shooting, a striking example of terror management theory.

An extension of terror management theory is that death can also increase prejudice against other groups. In addition to relying on our worldview to cope with tragedy, people can similarly protect their self-esteem by inflicting bias against other groups. It is, thus, not surprising that we have recently paid witness to increases in xenophobia and Islamophobia. Societal attitudes shift in conjunction with behaviors, and one consequence of increased bias is an uptick in discrimination. Last week there were 19 hate crimes against Muslims, and 2015 has already surpassed all-time highs in anti-Muslim violence. When Donald Trump (a man with apparently very high self-esteem) and his supporters proclaim that all Muslims should be prohibited from entering the country, they exemplify these ramifications of terror management on prejudice and discrimination.

What might this all mean for America's future? The psychological lessons from the September 11th terrorist attacks may shed some light on the answer. In one 2003 experiment, Mark Landau and colleagues demonstrated how terror management theory may have influenced the 2004 presidential election. The study's participants read an essay praising President Bush's response to 9/11. They were then randomly assigned to think of their own deaths or not, before being asked to rate Bush's favorability. The researchers found that the participants were more apt to favor President Bush after thinking about their own deaths.

Why would thinking about death increase support for President Bush? His terrorism frames may have something to do with it -- Bush aroused suspicion when he raised the terror alert in August 2004, a few months before he faced Kerry in the election. It may also relate to his leadership style. A 2004 study conducted by Florette Cohen and others revealed that after thinking about their deaths, people tend to favor charismatic candidates (e.g. Donald Trump and his "Gatsby-esque charm") instead of those who emphasize getting things done and public relations, strategies perhaps somewhat reminiscent of President Obama's insistence on sticking to his counterterrorism plan to defeat ISIS. President Bush's leadership and firm response in the face of the 9/11 attacks bolstered his candidacy for a reelection bid -- his favorability skyrocketed 50%.

It also turns out that when reminded of their deaths, people are more likely to prefer leadership qualities associated with men - assertiveness, independence, decisiveness -- versus stereotypically feminine qualities such as concern for others, helpfulness, and nurturance. These findings may not bode well for 2016 Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. She might also not be thrilled to hear that these constant reminders of death consistently result in significant shifts toward conservatism.

If gun violence and terrorism remain in the news, psychology may provide us with some knowledge in explaining current political behavior and forecasting our American political future. Politics aside, however, we can all agree and hope that these frequent reminders of evil will one day soon subside. The last month has been fraught with signs of death and terror. From Paris to San Bernardino, people around the world have come together with common goals of ending violence and uniting in peace. In these times of tragedy, one can only hope that we may some day move past the politics and no longer pay witness to the horrors of violence in our communities.