February 7, 2014
One device of leadership is to control individual behavior by psychological means. Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 book “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” outlines this phenomenon. The leader uses events to short-circuit rational thought and regress people to their unconscious and ancient fears, drives and instincts. I don’t believe, as he did, that there is a crowd “mind” but he did identify a real process by which the leader’s suggestions create a primitive, unreasoning and emotional response among many listeners, so that they become willing to follow him. They become united as a crowd in how they are reacting and as a group of followers.
The power of a leader expert in the technique of creating a crowd and who uses events as a backdrop to his appeals and stories is enhanced when he can reach millions upon millions of viewers through mass media. It is further enhanced when the media repeat over and over his messages. It is his goal to tell a simple story that frames the issue so effectively that it cuts off rational criticism and creates a mass following.
I posit that the term “nation” is a frequent trigger to create the unthinking crowd reaction. The leader wants a unified public (crowd) support for his policies, and he appeals to people’s belonging to a group, in this case, a “nation”.
George Bush’s 9/11 address is an example of how he went about creating crowd support for his policies. Over and over, his words stressed the idea that the terrorism that day was an attack on every American. He led off with “…our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack…” He went on to shape the psychological reactions that would provide the ground for his policies: “…have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness and a quiet, unyielding anger.”
At this point he invoked the nation: “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.”
He was appealing to the feeling of every listener and viewer of belonging to a large group, the nation, that he suggested was under attack. He then switched to the term “America”, using it several times to reinforce this appeal. He continued to stress “we” and “our”, again saying “our nation saw evil”.
Toward the end of the message, he outlined his actions and policies. The most important two policies were radically different from one another. They appeared in two sentences. The first was “I’ve directed the full resources for our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and bring them to justice.” That policy was one of regarding the attackers or those behind them as criminals to be brought to justice.
The second approach was much more serious. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” This was a somewhat oblique and veiled reference to initiating hostile actions, wars as it turned out, against whole countries accused of being terrorist havens.
Bush went on to say something even more serious that set off an entirely new policy and direction: “…we stand together to win the war against terrorism.” He announced a new war. In order to do this, he had first to frame the attacks as a war on the nation, on “us”, on “America”, on all “Americans” that called for going to war against the attackers and their host countries.
A second example is that of John Rizzo, a CIA lawyer who approved torture under the name of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In an excerpt titled “I could have stopped waterboarding before it happened“, he mentions what went through his mind when he approved it. It becomes quite clear that he was laying aside the moral considerations against torture as well as the many pragmatic alternatives to torture. Why? One of the reasons: “…the nation was still in the throes of fear and dread about another catastrophic attack…” And so was he. Rationality had been laid aside. The “nation” was under attack. Bush had rallied the crowd to this view and Rizzo was just as much part of the crowd as anyone. True, he had other reasons and those in the CIA who were making this proposal had their reasons. But emotions and atavistic drives were strongly at work. The CIA interrogators were simply frustrated by the defiance of a man they had captured, Abu Zubaydah.
Presidents refer to the nation quite frequently in order to create the crowd support for their policies. In Obama’s second inaugural address, he uses the word “nation” eight times (and national once). He affirms that Americans are one group by expressing what he thinks “binds this nation together…” Over and over and over, he speaks of “we”. He speaks of what “…a great nation must care for…”
He urges “…we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.”
He speaks of “…a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American…”
He speaks of “…its most powerful nation…”
The rhetoric of American leaders that invokes the “nation” is frequently after one thing, the shaping of simple stories that appeal to instincts and urges that are not checked by rational thought, and the shaping of individuals into a collective crowd that either remains quiescent in the face of government actions or approves them.
One of the items in the long indictment against government is that it governs by appealing to the lowest urges, drives and instincts that human beings ordinarily keep under control, if not repress. One of the many ways government does this is by appealing to membership in a group called the nation that, in this era, is closely tied to the state, the nation-state.