Searching for the root of all evil: An existential-sociological perspective on political enemyship and scapegoating

Daniel Sullivan, Mark J. Landau, Zachary K. Rothschild, Lucas A. Keefer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Political enemyship is common and diverse, ranging from the scapegoating of minority parties by dominant ones to conspiracy theories about the alleged power of one individual to control wide swaths of society. Many social scientists have argued that enemy figures and out-groups play an essential role in the construction and defense of political identities. We propose that to understand why this is the case, we should first analyze the diverse psychological functions that enemies serve at the individual level. To this end, we begin this chapter by summarizing a theory that explains how perceived relations of enmity in both personal and political arenas allow individuals to maintain a sense of having personal control and a valued identity – beliefs that ultimately serve to buffer threatening thoughts about personal mortality. We then review evidence from the social-psychological literature supporting this existential theory. In the second half of the chapter, we turn from the question of the functions that enemyship serves to the question of when (i.e., under what sociohistorical circumstances) enemyship is most likely to be employed for those functions. Drawing on insights from sociology, we propose several hypotheses concerning both quantitative and qualitative variation in enemyship processes. We believe that our integrative existential-sociological framework has considerable potential to explain why political enemyship and scapegoating take place, and to predict when these phenomena can be expected with reasonable certainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPower, Politics, and Paranoia
Subtitle of host publicationWhy People are Suspicious of their Leaders
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781139565417
ISBN (Print)9781107035805
StatePublished - Jul 1 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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