Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell

By William Ascher; Barbara Hirschfelder-Ascher | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Democratic Character

Lasswell's commitment to a broad definition of democracy led him to undertake many studies of the conditions under which democracy can flourish, from his 1935 World Politics and Personal Insecurity, exploring how democracy can be shielded from authoritarian reactions to international threats, to his 1966 “Conflict and Leadership, ” examining the potential for resolving domestic conflicts democratically. Lasswell asked the fundamental questions: What is democracy; how should it be defined so that it is consistent with the ultimate objective of maximizing human dignity? How can democracy be encouraged and preserved?

Of course, numerous questions of political psychology must be addressed to determine how to promote democracy to enhance human dignity. What psychological predispositions and traits underlie the potential for democracy? How dependent is democratic practice on the character of a nation's people? Are antidemocratic predispositions pathological or normal? To what degree are democratic or antidemocratic attitudes subject to change through socialization, civics education, events, or other means? To what degree is democratic practice in public affairs rooted in the orientations toward the microdemocracy of everyday interactions in the family or workplace?

These questions have been debated since ancient Greek times. Lasswell revived Plato's conception of character and constitution, but added psychodynamic functional theory. Now Lasswell's conceptions must be revived, to restore coherence to the bewildering array of findings and theories that have arisen in the contemporary era. The research on leadership, extremism, psychobiography, political culture, authoritarian personality, and related topics has yielded well over 100 conditions, experiences, traits, attitudes, or variables proposed as causes or correlates of democratic or antidemocratic predispositions. The plethora of possible mechanisms and factors has left great confusion over such issues as the essence of democratic character—or even whether there is an essence—and the mutability of democratic predispositions. At the present time, research and theorizing about democratic predispositions seem to be at an impasse, whether

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