Four Political Attachment Styles: avoiding the downward spiral of our democracy

A working democracy requires more than just voters: it requires informed, engaged voters.

We are losing them.

We are losing them to poverty—it’s tough to be fully engaged when just surviving takes so much concentration and effort—and we are losing them to disinformation campaigns waged by oligarchs who want to maintain their control—and in the long term to their defunding of public education.

And without informed, engaged voters, we end with a voter base as easily purchased—with false political ads or mere name recognition—as politicians are with campaign donations.

That’s how we lose democracy: not with a bang, but with a cha-ching.

But there are ways to reach out—and while some voter types are harder to reach than others, pro-democracy activists have a real chance to make positive change. To do so, though, it will require understanding political attachment styles.

There are four basic styles of political attachment: secure, disengaged-anxious, disaffected-dismissive, and disorganized-fearful. These political attachment styles are informed by how well a citizen’s needs are being met. Understand, most of us do not fit solely into one style, but have some characteristics of each. Still, knowing where voters predominantly fall can help inform outreach efforts. Reaching voters is not just a matter of using persuasive language to slide opinions left to right, or right to left.

Let’s take a look at how political attachment styles can help us reach likely, disengaged, and disaffected voters.

Secure Political Attachment Style

Shaking hands

Voters with a secure style of attachment generally believe that their needs are (or can be) met by extant political figures and structures. 

They believe laws are generally fair, and exceptions are rare or can be addressed fairly easily—and are likely to be addressed soon after any unfairness is uncovered. They have faith in government and believe that corrupt officials are infrequent, or have little effect on citizens, or that the effects of corruption can usually be redressed without lasting injury to those wronged. They also have faith in democracy in general, and in their fellow citizens making wise choices for the most part.

They may have great resiliency in their own lives, meaning that they have the financial means to be able to easily bounce back from setbacks, and they assume others can do the same thing (even where that is not the case).

These voters are more likely to be moved to action if they see that action as a part of an existing political process—because they believe existing processes are working well for most people. They may resist large, systemic changes because they like the system.

Outreach to voters with a secure attachment style is less fraught than outreach to voters with other styles of attachment, but that’s not to say that they’re easy to persuade. After all, these voters generally believe that the political process is working reasonably well. They tend to vote for establishment figures—a problem when those same political establishment figures have been purchased.

What it means is that in some cases, those with a secure attachment style may be ready to fight certain anti-democracy activists, by promoting their own anti-democracy activists. They can be persuaded to fight oligarchs, but not necessarily the oligarchy.

Such voters may seldom consider the lasting impact of legal injustices experienced by others, or they may believe that injustices happen only in a minority of cases. In fact, studies have shown conflicting results: that those with secure attachment styles tend to favor both liberal and conservative views. I would suggest that secure attachment styles favor incrementalism over change, while those with other, insecure attachment styles (below) favor more radical change. 

Even so, the voter with a truly secure attachment style is generally open to fact-based persuasion. They tend to classify themselves as moderate, whether democrat or republican, and they take their duty to be an informed voter seriously.

The challenge with these voters is presenting them with facts, engaging their empathy for others, and offering effective actions that operate within the system. They are especially vulnerable to disinformation. When swept up in too much disinfo, they may transition to a disengaged-anxious style of political attachment.

Insecure Political Attachment Styles

Disengaged-Anxious Political Attachment Style

An disengaged-anxious style of attachment views the needs of other citizens as either selfish or as less important to democracy than political structures, or their own needs. They are not only uninformed (or in some cases disinformed) about our democracy, but may have to make efforts to stay that way. This is a voter who may stridently oppose the needs or rights of other people… until they find themselves personally affected, at which time—seemingly without a shred of self-awareness—they will demand for themselves the same reforms against which they may recently have fought, tooth and nail. Their epiphanies on one issue do not extend to other issues they have not experienced personally. They remain disengaged from other citizens in that way.

This voter may be doing well personally, and attribute that success to their chosen party’s policies, or they may feel that their current personal success is threatened by the opposing political party. Alternately, this voter may be doing poorly, and attribute their failure to opposing politics or figures.

Whatever the case, though, voters with this attachment style blame problems on out-groups, whether that out-group consists of the “other” party, immigrants, a different generation, or even whole states or regions for their political leanings. They are not confined to one party, but can be blue “coastal elites,” or red homophobes. They generally lack real empathy and understanding, or may cling to a view of the world they developed 50 years ago when they were 20 years old and conditions were vastly different. They buy into the idea that Boomers—every Boomer—can never understand, or that Millennials would be fine, were it not for all that avocado toast.

Voters with this attachment style are disengaged, not disaffected. A disaffected voter sees no point in participating; a disengaged voter participates without being informed—or they participate in some cases even though they are disinformed. “Disengaged” refers to the fact that they alienate themselves from others who are not like them or who don’t share their same privileges or experience. They define themselves by whom they hate or exclude. They may often put significant energies unquestioningly into party politics, voting straight ticket regardless of the values of the candidate, or fixating on a certain candidate in a cult-of-personality fashion. Meanwhile, because they are less likely to empathize with others, they may project that same cult-of-personality obsession onto other people who favor a different candidate in a more healthy way.

Of note is that citizens with this insecure style may appear to have a secure style of attachment when political figures in their in-group hold powerful positions. Additionally, when those with this attachment style are directly in positions of power, they will often seek to keep others from sharing it, such as when WV Democratic Party Chair Biafore encouraged the trampling of minority voices in an infamous executive committee meeting, or when WV Governor Jim Justice contra-legally ignored County Executive Committee guidance on whom to appoint to a vacant House of Delegates seat. Their instinctual interpretation is that their own experience is the only one that matters, and that they know what’s best for everyone else. 

The challenge with these voters is getting them to recognize that their own needs are not the same needs everyone has; their own experience is not the experience everyone has. They will readily join a movement—they believe in structures and organizations—but they want the movement to have a strong leader. Sarah Chayes writes, “The conceit of leaderlessness [in anti-corruption movements] has limits.” I would suggest that at least part of those limitations are because this style of political attachment is moved primarily by leaders: they are not independently motivated to help fellow citizens who have different needs than their own. Their values are informed by the values of a leadership figure. In movement-based politics, they will have a special need to understand any hierarchies, and how the organization functions.

Disaffected-Dismissive Political Attachment Style

When a voter’s needs aren’t being consistently met because governing bodies are rife with corruption or incompetence, some voters will become disaffected-dismissive, because their formative political experiences tell them that the shared human need for a just society is not only unmet, but it is likely to remain unmet in the future. They have little hope that democracy—or at least the form of democracy they’re currently experiencing—will ever address important issues. Their government, they believe from experience, may work to protect an elite, advantaged few, but most certainly does not work for the vast majority of people. They understand that when our laws do work to provide a little protection for the average citizen, corporations purchase politicians to simply change those laws, and buy a greater latitude to exploit

As one would expect, this perspective is common in resource extraction colonies like Appalachia. 

Voters with this type of attachment style may respond to legal or structural injustices by throwing up their hands; they often come to believe there is no point in voting at all (or in participating in democracy in other ways), because nothing will change; they see the status quo as too deeply ingrained. To them, the battle to preserve democracy is already lost, and it’s a tragedy.

Those with a disaffected-dismissive style of attachment view government and political structures as unworthy. While both corruption and incompetence are all-too-common in our struggling democracy at the moment, these disaffected voters don’t generally seek a way to achieve meaningful political reform because they often believe such efforts are pointless—and especially if they find themselves among disengaged voters who put their trust in what the disaffected voter sees as a corrupt structure—they often feel quite alone. They empathize with others, but feel powerless to bring meaningful change. Underlying this can even be a sense that our current political system should simply be abolished.

A voter with this type of attachment style may be disaffected for real reasons: they may see how difficult it is to address disproportionate incarceration or maternal death rates or income inequality, for example. They may have witnessed or experienced a great injustice in their lives that they were helpless to address, such as watching as a foster child they’re trying to help is abused by the system. Voters with this style of attachment may also be disaffected for completely imagined reasons. One would expect that a number of Jan 6 insurrectionists, imagining a “stolen election”—have this attachment style.

Some severely disaffected voters of this type may favor and align with political figures, organization, or movements based primarily on the politics of shared grievance. Ideally the movement or organization has a realistic plan to address the grievances—such as labor unions—but voters may align even if the cause of the grievance has little prospect of being addressed by the aligned movement or figure, and they may take actions that have no prospect of addressing the issue itself—but which instead seek to destroy the corrupt political structure they view as maintaining the injustice.

Disaffected voters are likely to flee participation in movements and unions when they become “too organized,” because those movements begin presenting just another organization that the person’s default setting is to mistrust. So, they may throw themselves fully into the beginnings of organizing because it feels like fighting the corrupt government or … but as quickly become disillusioned and leave when presented with relatively minor challenges. This happens especially when they are forced to interact in their new org with those who have a strong disorganized fearful-wrathful attachment style (below).

So, although voters with this disaffected style have the potential to be the real movement-builders—they are people who empathize/seek fairness for everyone, who oppose corruption, who have the drive to unite, and who seek and pursue real solutions—they can also be quick to leave if confronted with minor disagreements or problems in the movement, or if movement leaders allow them to be bullied. They feel that no progress can be made in an incompetent or corrupt organization. This, even if the organization as a whole is far from incompetent or corrupt, but their personal experience of it is one of incompetence. 

In the worst cases, voters with this style sometimes may essentially give up trying to make change because they see no way forward. They may find it simpler and more gratifying to express outrage at the shared grievance than to find and propose changes to address the causes of it, and they find it more emotionally satisfying to express their wrath than it is to do the work—often tedious and slow-moving and with imperfect fallow-laborers—of addressing long term structural problems. 

Worse, after a grievance alignment has solidified, any out-group or politician proposing real reforms that legitimately address the grievance can actually—and counter-intuitively—provoke a heightened hostile or rejecting response from this type of disaffected voter. The reason the stronger rejection happens when facing real solutions is because when a prospective reform is offered by an out-group political figure, it re-triggers the disaffected voter’s past experiences of victimization by a corrupt or incompetent government. They expect the solution to fail, or to be “too little, too late,” and so expect to be a victim once again, unless they protect themselves with rejection of the overtures.

Triggering those authentic victimization feelings exacerbates the grief response from the disaffected voter because the government’s action (or lack) is perceived to have led to their experience of injustice. Thus, the motivations that prompted the disaffected voter to develop the disaffected style of attachment to the aligned political figure in the first place are reinforced, becoming stronger regardless of whether the aligned political figure actually holds positions favorable to addressing the grievance or fixing the injustice—or not.

In politically dichotomous environments particularly, it’s psychologically difficult to individuate or break away from a group of like-minded grievance voters who have selected the same political avatar for their shared experience of injustice. Because of the financial or emotional pain they are still authentically experiencing, severely disaffected voters with this dismissive attachment style will misinterpret political discourse that doesn’t follow familiar, safe, in-group talking-points. They see it as reinforcing the same system that originally caused their pain.

Importantly, when public political discourse attacks groups with a shared disaffected political attachment style, then leaving the in-group, even for a group that is seeking real solutions, can be viewed as equivalent to becoming one of the perpetrators of injustice. It is seen as a betrayal. Much of today’s political discourse actually strengthens these types of divisions rather than heals them.

Essentially, the disaffected voter is facing a situation where an out-group’s overtures are in practical terms also an invitation to experience rejection and derision by their in-group. The in-group members will unleash righteous-feeling anger at their unification efforts. It’s no surprise then, that in public discourse, a large percentage of these voters are characterized as “voting against their best interests.”

When one’s political identity has aligned primarily with grievance, unifying with a political figure in an out-group with real solutions means working to abolish the grievance. And that endangers the whole identity of the grievance-group itself, including a part of the voter’s own identity. “If the grievance is gone, who are we? Who am I now?”

The disaffected attachment style is a defense mechanism: so long as the grievance exists in conjunction with a politically-aligned figure, these disaffected voters have an avatar whose primary purpose is to channel their anger, not to effectively reform.

The challenge in reaching these voters is that they must often be convinced that it’s even worth making the effort to reform. Voters with this style are never going to vote for a candidate who is not seen as an ally to their grievance. Further, they need a strong movement to be reached—not merely a single politician. They need others around them who share their experiences of injustice, and who have a way forward: a movement based on solutions, not grievance. And more, that movement must be perceived as one that doesn’t challenge nor attack members of their grievance-alignment, so as to avoid triggering feelings of victimization. Rather than having their identity be informed by persistent experiences of powerlessness to address injustices, it must be informed by experiences of power to make positive change, of camaraderie with others who are working to fight the injustice, and of progress (even if slow) toward their goals. They don’t want praise; they want success and empathy. 

Fearful-Wrathful (Disorganized) Political Attachment Style

People with a fearful-wrathful (disorganized) style have a fluctuating view of citizens and government—a combination of both the disengaged and disaffected attachment styles. Their most defining feature is that their default setting is to feel that others judge them as not good enough, while also being sure that others are far worse. They see everything through a negative lens, and feel constantly accused of wrongdoing by colleagues, while at the same time continually blaming others, even when there is no fault to be had in either direction. They have a deep distrust of systems and organizations, as well as other individuals. 

They both despise and crave government control. They want the government to stay out of their own affairs, but they also want it to force others to behave according to their own values. They want the government to stop the horror of socialism by making the government keep their hands off social security!

They also both hate and desire alignment with movements or parties. They want groups to bring meaningful reforms to government, but they also don’t believe those reforms can be effective… or they hold movement members or leaders to impossible standards of perfection. Any disagreement leads to an unhealable divisions. They cannot conceive of being generally aligned with someone or some group while having any kind of disagreement. And they are punishing of others, and tend to perceive their current emotional experience as a persistent state. 

They might claim to stand with workers, but treat servers or customer service personnel with anger, contempt, and derision for any error. They tell struggling workers to get a better job, then are filled with rage when businesses that underpay their employees can’t find staff and have shortened hours. They fight with people who are trying to agree or sympathize with them.

They can also be superficially charming and likable. Because they often do not like themselves very well, they have learned to present a friendly, funny exterior. They can initially seem like a people-person—but in the long term, their presence can create significant morale problems. They should not be placed in  leadership or field roles, even though they readily join with groups and movements, and have great energy… because they ultimately resist working well with others.

Alternately, they throw themselves deeply into working with others for a time, but then just as quickly and viciously attack their teammates for perceived slights or minor differences of opinion, or things that are completely out of the control of anyone in the movement.

They may view themselves as operating on what they consider to be a strict set of values, but what characterizes this style is the inconsistency of those values in practice. They require respect for themselves that they refuse to grant to others. They demand forgiveness and understanding for themselves that they scorn to give to fellow team members. Although they have little or no sense of loyalty, they demand it from everyone around them. And although they may frequently complain of having too much to do, they simply pass off frustrating or slow work onto others. Even with this, they can also get angry at any learning curve, or even at blockages that they were aware of even before offloading the work. They want lots of work from others for little (or grudging) appreciation, but not only do they share little detail about what they want, but they get angry about being asked for more information. They tend to target their wrath at those who don’t get angry easily, or people they perceive as vulnerable or passive.

Worse, if approached about these various hypocrisies, they have numerous justifications for the behavior, most surrounding genuine feelings of being overwhelmed or being unable to accomplish their goals. Unfortunately, they perceive those minor or temporary failures as being caused by others, or by not having enough help, or enough capable help. For tactical failures, rather than regarding them as “a question answered, so let’s try out a new tactic,” they create scapegoats and seek people to blame, even when they know the blockage is external or systemic.

They leave chaos in their wakes.

This type of political attachment style is held by the insurrectionist who strongly supports “back the blue,” but who physically attacked (or approved of attacks on) capitol police officers. This is also the style of a party member trying to exclude or blame other members for offering input and trying to work as a team: “I have enough work already!” This is the voter who is PRO DEMOCRACY (in all caps), but who is enraged that someone is challenging another party member in a primary (the actual purpose of primaries). This is the movement member who asks for your help with or endorsement of their own project, then spends months “getting revenge” if you don’t assist/endorse (or not to their standards)—even if it’s because you are diligently working on a different project to support the same or an aligned goal. This is the voter who says s/he believes strongly in representation, yet will reject knowing that citizens in DC and Puerto Rico don’t have voting representation in congress—not someone who doesn’t know, but someone who refuses to.

This voter type may have changed political affiliation—at least once, but possibly more than once. They may have an abiding hatred for their former affiliation, or for some subgroups of their current affiliation. Disagreements are not always in good faith, but arise from shifting goals, a vague or ineffective plan if any, and an unstable view of what government or citizen groups should do or attempt to do. They may need help with follow-through, because they are easily bored. They want to give the appearance of organization, even if they tend to spiral out of control.

Disagreeing, even vehemently, with members of one’s party or organization is healthy and normal—but the key here is that the scapegoat or out-group is not afforded fair treatment for even minor disagreements, or that out-groups or individuals are rejected based on false information or biased judgments. Disagreements for securely-attached, emotionally healthy persons are seen as opportunities to learn; but disagreements for those who have this fearful political attachment style are seen as personal attacks. Their views are inconsistent and conflicting, and they are defined by internal feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

The challenge with this type of voter is that their unstable internal emotional state is a driving factor of their interactions with others. More: they tend to attribute their emotional state solely to outside forces, which will be blamed for any bad or anxious feelings of inadequacy, and for any difficulty in achieving their fleeting goals. So, normal disappointment that a desired ballot initiative did not pass might be wrongly blamed on the same group that worked hard to pass it, a great candidate who didn’t win is suddenly a target of scorn and derision, an aligned group is absolutely shunned for endorsing (or not endorsing) an aligned candidate with minor differences,  or a flat-out win in getting an ordinance passed could be instantly and wrongly attacked by people who lack a basic understanding of the nuance of the work.

Importantly, debunking disinformation or misunderstanding has no effect, so things like the myths of the “welfare queen” or “Bernie Bro” persist with them despite ample evidence to the contrary. They may even acknowledge it one day, then bring it up again weeks later as if the conversation had never happened. 

Anyone can misunderstand complicated legalities—or be misled by disinfo—but this political attachment style uses blame to avoid pain and cognitive dissonance. They may leap to conclusions before getting full information (or sometimes double down in spite of it), and then because they already feel inadequate, they refuse to own their mistakes or misunderstandings. They feel morally superior when they can decry former friends or allies—when they burn bridges rather than building them. This is not just one or a couple instances of a person having a misunderstanding or having trouble acknowledging a mistake, but a persistent pattern of projecting their negative feelings onto other people.

They see inadequacy in their own work, even good work, so they assume their colleagues or associates regard their work as inadequate, too. Protestations that this is not the case are simply disregarded as dishonest. Because people with this attachment style don’t generally appreciate the work of others (in the long term), they tend to assume others don’t appreciate them. This volatile type usually sees things, and even people, in all-good or all-bad terms, and will always have the potential to be disruptive in groups and movements because they have such a severe fear of rejection and betrayal that they see it where it doesn’t exist, and it will be extremely difficult to convince them otherwise. That’s because they can even eventually create it with their constant defensiveness, cynicism, and hyper vigilance. They imagine others dislike them, and then attack them for it, even when the dislike was something completely created in their own minds. Then, committed to being right in their unprovoked attacks, they do their best to pick a fight so they can justify their feelings of anger and their fear of being seen as an impostor. Most individuals, no matter how secure, cannot withstand this sort of antagonism without reacting with anger of their own, and thus the fearful-wrathful voter has had their behavior justified.

All this is not to suggest that people with this attachment style are unreachable, or don’t have a place in movement-building politics—although they may seem to be at first blush. We’ll delve more deeply into movement roles for each attachment style in future pieces, but in brief, while people with this style need a great deal of validation and praise—having likely been surrounded primarily with invalidating relationships in the past—their strength is that they also have a desperate desire for a more just world, and a lot of energy to dedicate if it can be productively channeled.

If they feel appreciated and can be redirected from attacking, blaming or overburdening other team members, they can be effective, and can be led toward a more healthy and secure attachment style that could see them begin to heal. But because of their disruptive nature, importantly, other movement members having to work with or be in contact with them before they have healed to a more secure style—even those who don’t personally require validation—should be praised in front of them. They need to be able to appreciate the work of others and become less self-focused: their work is not the only work; they are not the only busy person on the team, and they are not the only one deserving of praise. 

The challenge is making certain people with this volatile political attachment style use their abundant energy to unite, not divide.  They must also be focused on stable goals with clearly defined and achievable deliverables—and any steps they take in furtherance of those goals should be quickly accomplishable so they feel progress is being made, and so they can receive the praise they need in order to stave off persistent feelings of insecurity. They will quickly lose interest if the work isn’t “fun” or if they don’t feel appreciated.


So… what does all this mean? What does understanding these political attachment styles avail us if we want to reach voters and preserve our democracy?

It tells us first of all that movement-based political organizing is necessary to reach some types of voters. It tells us also why some other types will attack movement-based organizing, even when they share the same values or political affiliation.

Every voter can have some characteristics of each of these four types. We all may leave groups that are corrupt; none of us may be able to empathize perfectly with others who are not like us; we all may get fooled from time to time by mis- or disinfo. But an attachment style is your default setting—the lens through which you interpret the political world, our government, and fellow citizens.  And there are certainly extremes, as well. Some individuals are so deeply in a territory that it’s difficult to get them engaged in participatory democracy in a meaningful way, or hard to help them see the needs of others who are not like them, or that makes it challenging to incorporate them into movement-building without causing chaos. Recognizing the needs of each style is important to building a coherent, lasting organization that can achieve meaningful change.

Understanding these motivations also offers a clue to how we can improve the effectiveness of pro-democracy outreach such as canvassing that includes attempts to identify political attachment styles. Such segmenting would give us an avenue to determine what type of messages and outreach will be most effective for each style, independent of their political affiliation—and what types of roles they would most enjoy—and in which they’d be most effective—in movement-building.

For the health of our democracy, we need informed, engaged voters who can distinguish information from disinformation, and who believe that fighting to preserve democracy is a worthwhile endeavor and a battle that can be won. They must feel a real connection for other voters—even those who are not like them—because a rising tide lifts all boats. Finally, we must help voters understand that where their needs aren’t being met by the status quo, they CAN be met—if we fight for it.

A functioning democracy, free of corruption, is something worth fighting for.

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