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9/11, Foreign Threats, Political Legitimacy, and Democratic Social Institutions


  • Jon D. Wisman


This paper reassesses the political reaction in the United States to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in terms of economics and evolutionary biology. The fact that war and its threat were ever-present in human evolution resulted in two social propensities that render society vulnerable to political manipulation. External threats dramatically heighten social cohesion as well as loyalty to leaders. In pre-state social groupings, all members could clearly witness and judge the nature of an external threat. And because leaders had to spearhead any response, they were most vulnerable to injury or death. In modern highly complex societies, by contrast, the nature of threats is less transparent, and leaders can command far from immediate danger. Consequently, in modern times, leaders can be tempted, especially in times of economic dysfunction, to generate fear of an external threat to rally support and detract attention from otherwise inadequate leadership. This paper explores these dynamics in the context of post-9/11. It concludes with reflections on the potential of democratic institutions and practices to lessen the potential for political leaders to exploit their advantages by trumping up external threats.

Suggested Citation

  • Jon D. Wisman, 2012. "9/11, Foreign Threats, Political Legitimacy, and Democratic Social Institutions," Working Papers 2012-08, American University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:amu:wpaper:2012-08

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    Ideology; fear; democracy; free-rider problem; social cohesion;

    JEL classification:

    • A12 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics - - - Relation of Economics to Other Disciplines
    • N40 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation - - - General, International, or Comparative
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification
    • P16 - Economic Systems - - Capitalist Systems - - - Political Economy of Capitalism


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