My work as a psychologist suggests that five core concerns often dominate our individual and collective lives. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Briefly, for most of us nothing is more powerful than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about (vulnerability). We often react to perceived mistreatment with anger and resentment, and an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible (injustice). We tend to divide the world into those who are trustworthy and those unworthy of our trust, in an effort to avoid harm from people with hostile intentions (distrust). We frequently aspire to be better than others in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny (superiority). Finally, we strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives (helplessness).
Political leaders should be responsive to these five core concerns in identifying broadly shared goals and pursuing positive social change. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and its supporters have instead chosen to exploit these concerns in an effort to promote their own narrow ideological agenda. Perhaps the most tragic example is the profoundly ill-advised and costly war in Iraq.
In arguing first for the invasion, then for the war itself over the past four years, and now for his latest escalation strategy, the president has attempted to bring the American people to his side by repeatedly highlighting five seductively simple questions, one for each of the core concerns noted above:
1. Do you care about the safety and security of your loved ones and your country?
2. Do you care about right and wrong and believe that perpetrators should be
brought to justice?
3. Do you recognize that the world includes people with hostile intentions toward us?
4. Do you take pride in the greatness of your country’s goals and accomplishments?
5. Do you believe in standing up to adversity and persevering in the face of obstacles?
At the same time, the president’s persuasion campaign has revolved around a stark claim: Americans cannot legitimately answer “Yes” to these five questions AND simultaneously oppose the administration’s current Iraq War policy (whatever it may be at the time). Furthermore, anyone who fails to respond with an unequivocal “Yes” to each question is labeled as someone whose views on the war don’t deserve serious consideration anyway.
Thus, the president and his supporters have sought to promulgate a mindset whereby any American who does not support the war in Iraq is someone who (1) doesn’t care enough to protect loved ones from danger, (2) doesn’t want to bring wrongdoers to justice, (3) doesn’t recognize that there are people who want to do us harm, (4) doesn’t embrace the greatness of our country, and (5) doesn’t recognize the value of persevering in the face of adversity. Now who would want to be a person like that?
This combination of psychological bullying and rhetorical sleight of hand has proved extremely effective against a public and a press made pliable by painful memories of the 9/11 attacks, dire warnings about WMD in Saddam’s hands, assurances that the Iraqis would greet us as liberators, and recurrent claims that victory in Iraq is on the horizon. In fact, this program of intimidation and manipulation was so effective that it took years—and thousands of lost or ruined lives—to reach the point where we find ourselves today. But finally, the tide is turning. Despite the Bush administration’s redoubled efforts to silence dissent and doubt, even influential Republicans in Congress are now breaking rank with the president. At least temporarily, “Yes, BUT” replies to the five questions have gained the upper hand:
1. “Yes, I do care about the safety of my family and country, BUT the war in Iraq has made us less safe by multiplying our enemies and by distracting us from other pressing security concerns.”
2. “Yes, I do want wrongdoers brought to justice, BUT our ongoing occupation of Iraq does not advance this cause and instead serves to incite new injustices while contributing to the further unwarranted loss of life.”
3. “Yes, I do realize that not everyone can be trusted, BUT our reckless military adventurism in Iraq is not the answer to this reality, while cautious political negotiation with adversaries often is.”
4. “Yes, I do appreciate America’s greatness, BUT the calamitous war in Iraq—promoted through misrepresentation and characterized by grievous mismanagement—has only served to tarnish our country’s luster.”
5. “Yes, I do believe in determination and perseverance, BUT only when the goal is achievable and worth the price that must be paid—neither of which is true for us in Iraq today.”
In the days and weeks immediately ahead, the Bush administration and its allies will not only push for an escalation in troop strength to re-establish control over Baghdad. They will also escalate their rhetoric in an attempt to re-establish control over the war debate itself. It is therefore critically important for us to press forward with these “Yes, BUT” responses as the president attempts to exploit our core concerns to advance his war agenda.
As a final note, the exploitation of our core concerns by conservatives today is a broad phenomenon and is not limited to the Iraq War. I describe this general approach in detail in an online video entitled “Dangerous Ideas: How Conservatives Exploit Our Five Core Concerns” that can be viewed HERE.