Donald Trump Donald Trump (Associated Press)

Bringing a Becker Lens to Political Messaging

During this 2016 campaign season, the Ernest Becker Foundation invites you to join us in examining the underlying messages in the images, words, and sounds of political advertising, specifically those messages that provoke our subconscious fear of death. Becker famously argued that our death anxiety influences our choices and behaviors,stating in Pulitzer Prize-winning, The Denial of Death, “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.” More than 30 years of psychological research has provided empirical evidence validating that claim, today known as Terror Management Theory. We want to look at how death anxiety plays out in this year’s presidential campaign season and election.

Our purpose is not to support one political party against another. Both major parties use fear and anxiety to rouse our emotions because it’s an effective tool of persuasion, and persuasion is the goal of all advertising. Instead, our hope is that viewing political advertisements through a “Becker lens” will enable us to recognize when our subconscious emotions and anxieties are being used to coax our political support.

Becker, Briefly: The Source and Impact of Death Anxiety

Ernest Becker

Ernest Becker

  1. Becker described human beings as caught in a paradox: We have a powerful drive to survive, but also, an amazing ability to reflect on things as they are and to envision possibilities that might be. This capacity feeds human creativity, which has greatly expanded our ability to adapt, invent, and survive. It is also the source of our awareness of death.
  2. The problem is not just that we’re going to die and we know it. Becker argued that our greatest fear is that our lives will not only be too brief, but also, too insignificant. This arouses in us a gnawing sense of inadequacy, a feeling that there’s something missing, something wrong with us. This is “death anxiety” and although it’s mostly unconscious, it’s a core motivation in human behavior.
  3. We cope with death anxiety by trying to give meaning to our lives, to accomplish something of enduring value—something “heroic” that attests to our worth. We learn how to do that from our culture. “Culture” refers to those modes of living that humans have created to give structure, value, and significance to our collective and individual lives, and we live in lots of them: from a national culture to a neighborhood culture, from a favorite sports team to a favorite band. Cultures are also formed through our ethnic, religious, political and professional affiliations, and each of our “cultures” influences our values and our identity. But the cultures we identify with the most seems “heroic” to us and these cultures determine the measures of our success and value as individuals. In each case, what our culture values, we come to value and to desire for ourselves, and we fulfill our desires by achieving those things that culture values most. Our success in that effort yields a feeling Becker referred to as “heroism,” and it invests our lives with transcendent meanings such as, duty to our nation, service to God, the enrichment and endurance of our value system, our community, our family. This gives us a feeling that we’ve accomplished something that doesn’t die when we do, but contributes to and lives on with our culture, enabling us, at least symbolically, to transcend death through heroic achievement.
  4. Our life’s meaning and our very identity are deeply tied to the rightness and goodness of the culture(s) we identify with. Thus, it’s not uncommon to feel discomfort when we encounter other cultures or people whose values and beliefs differ from our own. But when we sense that our culture or its values are overshadowed or threatened by another, our death anxiety can intensify dramatically. Because we believe in the superiority of our culture, any other is by definition inferior, illegitimate or evil. We attempt to degrade or even destroy the threatening other. We seek or create narratives that “set the record straight” and affirm our rightful place at the top of the heap. Further, we are drawn to leaders and sources of power that we believe can defend us, stake our claim, provide salvation, defeat and punish the menacing other. As our death anxiety escalates, we see a dire situation in which even normally unacceptable risks must be taken and sacrifices made to protect what is most valuable, significant and meaningful. We fear that if we fail, all will be lost.

And so, although Becker identified death anxiety as a creative force in the development of positive human institutions and achievements, he warned that death anxiety can also arouse and legitimate our drive to attack and even destroy whatever or whoever threatens those individual and collective sources of meaning. Death anxiety is a powerful motivator, for good and for for ill.

“Anyone who is a fan of democracy should be very concerned by the fact that a relatively subtle alteration of psychological conditions can have such profound effects on political preferences.”

Sheldon Solomon on the strong findings that reveal mortality salience increases voter support for ‘charismatic leaders,’ including George W. Bush and Donald Trump

Death Anxiety in Political Messages

At their best, the institutions and activities of culture offer avenues for creating a better world. However, our motives for participating in them are invariably influenced by our mostly unconscious fear of death. Because of this, we are vulnerable to negative consequences of death anxiety; we are prone to irrational exaggeration and overreaction and we often entrench ourselves defensively and aggressively against those we perceive as opponents or threats. The world of politics is no exception. Political ads often speak to our inner longing for meaning. They tap into our quest to make a difference, if only by throwing our support behind the right leader who promises us heroic triumph over insignificance by heroism by strengthening us financially, politically or militarily, and by promoting our culture, values or religion. Conversely, political ads warn that the wrong leader might threaten our well-being and put at risk all we believe in and stand for. To protect ourselves from impending disaster, we’re urged to resist, to fight back against such leaders, their policies and even their followers.

Hillary Clinton (Brookings) Hillary Clinton (Brookings)

Demagogues and propagandists of all strains have learned with increasing effectiveness just how to present themselves and their ideas so as to appeal to our hopes while maximizing our fears and anxieties. They compel us to support people and programs by manipulating our unconscious emotions rather than appealing to our rational assent. They promise a taste of heroism to alleviate our death anxiety, but the promise is often empty, and the price, high.

Common Motifs in Political Advertising Viewed Through a Becker Lens

Still from Clinton's "3 a.m." ad Clinton’s “3 a.m.” ad Political ads skillfully connect to the anxieties, fears, longings, and aspirations that Becker identified as stemming from our most primal anxiety about mortality and the inevitability of death. In what follows, we identify four motifs that commonly show up in these ads. We invite you to participate with us in using a Becker lens to examine them, and in thinking through the implications of being psychologically manipulated by political messaging. We have identified four types of political ad content that have the potential to manipulate voters’ decision making.


When audiences are exposed to fear, rational thought can be derailed as people switch their focus to looking for protection and safeguards against that fear. This has been demonstrated empirically through Terror Management Theory, and it’s also well-known to makers of the most effective propaganda of all sorts who use fear to bypass rationality while offering a leader, party or movement (or even a product) as a shelter from the fear.

Studies of war propaganda demonstrate how widespread the tactic is of picturing the enemy as an evil and deadly threat, as diseased-ridded vermin, wild and amoral rapists and murderers. While political propaganda and advertising rarely goes this far in demonizing opponents, it’s still possible to discern the same narrative flow in its images and messages.

Ads attempting to arouse death anxiety are likely to contain images of war, bombs exploding, buildings falling, street riots, or ominous faces of known criminals and killers. The accompanying music is likely to be suspenseful, with periodic crescendo and cymbal crashes. The overall message is that ours is an unsafe world made even more unsafe by current policies or leaders, but this candidate, party, or movement has answers and can be trusted to protect and defend you and “your kind.”

A ubiquitous variant of this direct appeal to death anxiety is the more subtle appeal to fears of social exclusion, failure (or “losing” and “falling behind”), and rejection, i.e., “social death,” which can feel as frightening and dire for humans as actual death. Ads seeking to arouse fears of social death might include images of people in poverty, shuttered up houses, rejection letters, unemployment lines, and other depictions of personal alienation and failure. Such images might also include the subtle message that while we are being left behind, there are plenty of “others,” who are doing great and perhaps even benefitting at our expense.

Threats to

Death anxiety drives our efforts to give enduring meaning to our lives, to accomplish something “heroic.” It’s culture that defines what “heroism” means and gives us opportunities to achieve it and thereby gain a kind of transcendence of death. For this reason, Becker says culture is sacred. Of course, this means that any challenge to our “sacred” cultural meanings threatens our hero-systems and arouses our death anxiety, triggering our emotions in predictable ways: We want to defend our culture and demonstrate its superiority compared to others’ cultures. Not surprisingly, such responses play a role in all kinds of persuasive speech—commercial, political, religious, inter-personal, etc. We appeal to people by elevating their culture while degrading competing or “threatening” cultures.

Political campaigns effectively arouse our death anxiety by depicting our sacred culture under threat and presenting their own agendas as the solution. Such efforts quickly devolve into an “Us vs. Them” fight for legitimacy. This reduces all opposition to a simplistic zero sum game, but such clarity and urgency can win over anxious supporters in what can seems like a matter of life or death.

These political messages warn of threats to “our American way of life,” “national security,” “religious freedom,” or “right to work.” They identify certain people who they imply are “un-American” and do not share “our” values. They stoke fear that something sacred will be lost by with images of the desecration of a sacred object, like an American flag in flames, warning that if you vote for the wrong candidate, you jeopardize your very freedom! Alternatively, an ad might appeal positively to sacred images like children playing by a cornfield, or a family reading a Bible at bedtime, suggesting that if you vote for the right candidate, you can be assured that those things you hold sacred remain secure.


“Apocalypse” can mean lots of things, but traditionally it signified a revealing or unveiling of the way things really are–or the way they soon will be. The peace, order and security of life in normal times is shown to be an illusion shattered by apocalyptic revelation, most often involving dramatic, violent, and horrifying events like economic or ecological collapse, mass refugee crises, outbreaks of disease, drought and famine, terrorism and mass murders, or precipitous moral decline in society. The rise of apocalyptic fear signals desperate times that may call for desperate measures in response, measures that would never be sanctioned in normal times.

Political ads utilizing apocalyptic language and imagery suggest we are nearing or are already in such desperate economic, political or moral times that radical measures, even those which are novel and untested, may be the only hope we have for meeting current demands of the situation. These political ads tap into our basic apprehensions and gut fears, which spring from our most visceral forms of death anxiety. They evoke a menacing sense of devastating personal and collective loss, of impending disaster and social chaos.

Abandonment and destruction are typical images in such ads: towns, freeways, and businesses abandoned; communities destroyed, leaving people – especially veterans, the sick, the elderly, the orphaned – homeless, helpless. More recently such images also include floods of refugees spilling over the borders, with strong hints that Muslim/terrorist immigrants are infiltrating our country, setting up sleeper cells and planning attacks in stadiums or elementary schools. The picture is one of political and moral chaos in an unstable, leaderless society. These ads may tap into present/actual suggestions of apocalyptic demise or future/imagined suggestions of apocalyptic demise.

The intention of such ads is to stir up a sense of desperation and desire for a strong, charismatic leader to pull the nation out of the chaos and protect us from danger, cultural demise, and moral defeat. The message is clear: In a time of immanent apocalyptic danger, the choice is between tough leaders and weak leaders and the stakes are high. Don’t be afraid to take a chance if a tough leader calls for action outside the box—after all, God helps those who help themselves!


Our most expansive opportunities for heroism come from religion, a chance for cosmic heroism. Cosmic heroism differs from cultural heroism (achieving significance through the symbols and institutions of culture) in that religion provides significance and meaning through the pursuit of ultimate truths, the aspiration toward ideals (sometimes universally shared and trans-cultural) and the quest to experience transcendence through the symbols, rites, and practices of religion. Religions can be thought of as our greatest “immortality projects;” most offer hope that the limits of mortality will be overcome via the promise of life after death. The most benign and constructive expressions of religion as cosmic heroism emphasize the experience of transcendence and the renunciation of materialism, greed, and violence through connectedness with the divine, with creation, and with fellow human beings. They speak to the “holy longing” for transcendence and deep (and cosmic) significance that appears to be universal to the human experience.

Unlike negative, fear-mongering, apocalyptic visions of desperation, ads that appeal to our desire for transcendence and connectedness are generally positive and uplifting. They encourage us, as participants in a blessed community, to dream big about our social hopes and possibilities. They tap into a deeply human sense of longing, hope, and desire for a deeply spiritual communal connection, which transcends the isolation and selfishness of individualism. Ads that appeal to such “holy longing” aren’t generally overtly religious, beyond perhaps quick visuals of churches or ministers at soup kitchens and civil rights rallies. Instead, they highlight images of community productivity: neighbors assisting each other and people coming together around a common cause. These ads contain a promise (whether explicit or implicit) that the politician, party or social movement can provide these things, or can at least set the stage of possibility for the fulfillment of these longings. Whether through charisma, ingenuity, dedication/hard-work, moral fiber, or connectedness to God, we can trust these leaders to understand our longings and step in to actualize or achieve them. In this perspective, death anxiety is less about death than it is about a meaningless life. These ads tap into our most basic need for a feeling of significance, for feeling that we matter (what psychologists simply call self-esteem). For the individual, it says the featured politician will bring you jobs, financial security, public safety and health care. For your community, it says the featured politician will deliver national security, community, togetherness, a sense of common humanity, and happiness.


As humans, we don’t like to dwell on our human frailty for good reason: Everything in us protests the inevitability of the end of life. Our lives are filled with beauty and wonder, and with suffering and sorrow, too. But on the whole, death feels like a great injustice, and so our energy is directed toward fending off death, at all costs. The anxiety this feeling generates makes us vulnerable. That vulnerability makes us susceptible to all kinds of manipulations, including manipulations performed by the political machinery of our culture.

Our earnest hope is that we have unveiled the reasons why emotional and psychological manipulation happens so easily and so persistently, especially in the political arena. We also hope that by peering into the most basic and primal motivations of the human experience, we can more readily recognize the manipulations in political messages and make the effort to reflect more thoughtfully on their language, tone and potential emotional impact. To that end, we invite you to analyze current presidential campaign ads with the themes in mind that we have laid out here, and we invite you to suggest ads that would be useful for such analysis.


Merlyn MowreyMerlyn Mowrey (Ph.D., Temple University) teaches social ethics in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University. Her courses examine issues at the intersection of ethics, culture, and religion, including “Violence and Religion,” and “Death and Dying.” Since 2000, she has participated in numerous projects of the Ernest Becker Foundation.
Kyle RobertsKyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality.
Daniel LiechtyDaniel Liechty (Ph.D.) is a Professor in the School of Social Work at Illinois State University, where he teaches courses on Human Development in the Social Environment. He keeps his fingers in a number of pies, and has been referred to good naturedly as the Dean of Ernest Becker Studies.

Additional Contributors

Kirby Farrell
Matt Motta
Matt Motyl
Sheldon Solomon

We invited TMT and Becker students to analyze political ads through a Becker lens using the common motifs identified. Click here to read the analyses.