Revitalizing Political Psychology: The Legacy of Harold D. Lasswell

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

Chapter 6
Political Climate, Mood,
and Crisis

The psychology of political character and political symbols goes a long way toward understanding the baseline behavior of political leaders and citizens under typical circumstances—the “political character” that typifies individuals or, perhaps, entire peoples. However, additional considerations must be invoked when circumstances give rise to collective moods that push public sentiment and action into different and often unpredictable directions. How can a political psychology based on political character account for political behavior that is out of character? How and why do extended periods remain in the grips of moods that define the political and policy discourse, highlighting particular preoccupations such as intergroup hostility, unbridled greed, religious fervor, or rigid conformity? How and why do such moods change?

Much of Lasswell's work explains why great variation exists among individual personalities and political predispositions. Yet, political moods represent both a departure from normally prevailing predispositions and a convergence of predispositions that are all the more baffling in light of this variation. Some earlier psychologists created entire theories of “crowd” or “mob” psychology with necessarily fuzzy transindividual constructs. Lasswell combined his framework of individual psychological traits and dynamics with his theory of symbols and communication to account parsimoniously and clearly for collective moods, and to demonstrate, as did Freud in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921/1959) 95 that there is no need to develop the concept of a separate “group mind. ” His framework can account for how diverse characters come to share predispositions that clash, in many cases, with their normal predispositions. His approach can explain how usually ethical and cautious people can participate in a destructive mobs, but also how the media, government, and interest groups precipitate and perpetuate more enduring moods.

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