1 - The Role of Affect in Symbolic Politics  pp. 14-40

The Role of Affect in Symbolic Politics

By David O. Sears

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Humans often are intensely emotionally involved in remote and abstract political events with only modest direct personal costs and benefits. These involvements have energized many of history's most devastating social, political, and religious conflicts. Why such intense emotions are evoked by situations with so little that is tangible and personal at stake has long been a central puzzle for social scientists. This chapter proposes one psychological approach to the problem.

Political symbols often evoke and mobilize human emotions. Virtually every American war has been fought around such rallying symbols. The Boston Tea Party symbolized the colonials' rebellion against British authority. The Confederacy's attack on Fort Sumter and “Remember the Maine!” were the great rallying cries for the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, respectively. The sinking of the Lusitania served the same purpose as America entered World War I and the “sneak attack on Pearl Harbor” for World War II. A less successful effort to create the same kind of rallying symbol was the Tonkin Bay incident in 1965, which succeeded in momentarily mobilizing support for the Vietnam War in Congress but not in the general public. Nonetheless, the Vietnam War had its share of wonderfully symbolic phrases, such as the American officer's statement that “we had to destroy it [a Vietnamese town] to save it,” symbolizing for many the pointlessness of that conflict.