The Politics of Fear

Well understanding how fear, as a powerful motivating force, can induce irrationality in the arena of public sentiment and public policy, President Franklin Roosevelt famously declared in his first inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Indeed, America has seen some rather infamous manifestations of this when, for example, Roosevelt himself ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and with two so-called Red Scares—one shortly after the Russian Revolution, in which President Woodrow Wilson imprisoned Americans for their political beliefs, and then another after World War II, in which the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the committees of Senator Joseph McCarthy imagined widespread Communist infiltration of the United States government and sought to ruin the lives of so-called “Communist sympathizers” and anyone associated with them.

Of course, fear in the arena of politics is not always irrational. Those conscientious Germans who feared the rise of Nazism were certainly justified. A fear that our federal government will be unable to implement a more sustainable fiscal policy before a damaging fiscal crisis occurs is not without some foundation either. But among politicians, the peddlers of fear are very often unconcerned with informed and rational conviction. They just want to win. So they seek to exploit fear that can be induced by deception.

Fear is very often a product of uncertainty and, particularly when accompanied by its companion—loathing—a product of ignorance or misunderstanding. Politicians and political advocates of all stripes routinely make exaggerated claims and use quotes or data out of context to incite conviction for their cause among constituents who lack a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand. They not only induce fear of the effects of alternative points of view through subtle or even not so subtle deception, they often succeed in demonizing the advocates of those alternative points of view. Once a political figure is sufficiently demonized, people are apt to fear and believe that they are capable of a multitude of evils.

All Americans, whether they may tilt to the political Left or the political Right, are vulnerable to the politics of fear. It can be said that those on the Left tend to fear corporate greed and malfeasance, overpopulation, global warming, pollution, government intrusion into personal matters, war or an unwarranted use of military force, and the agricultural use of pesticides, hormones and genetic engineering. It shouldn’t be suggested that these things are not important and should not be of concern, but there is little doubt that their pernicious effects can be exaggerated, resulting in irrational fear among some.

On the Right, fear resulting from uncertainty, or fear of uncertainty itself (or at least an uneasiness with uncertainty), may be an integral part of what induces one to lean to the Right to begin with.  A Stanford University social psychology study, encompassing some fifty years of data and published in 2003, concluded as much:

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear. Specifically, the avoidance of uncertainty (and the striving for certainty) may be particularly tied to one core dimension of conservative thought, resistance to change. Similarly, concerns with fear and threat may be linked to the second core dimension of conservatism, endorsement of inequality.

By “endorsement of inequality,” the authors appear to have merely meant that conservative thought is in acceptance of inequality as the necessary price to pay for the preservation of its perceived natural order of society.

We might easily dismiss such a study as the psychobabble of liberal university professors, but we need not look very far to see that many on the Right quite readily respond to the politics of fear. We certainly cannot assume that everyone who holds conservative political views does so as a result of fear. There are some very practical and principled reasons to hold conservative views. Nevertheless, we can find quite an abundance of behavior and convictions motivated by fear on the Right.

Have you ever wondered why all of those purveyors of minted gold coins as an “investment against inflation” find such fertile ground on Fox News and on AM (conservative) Talk Radio? While such coins might be fun to collect, they are a horrible investment. These proprietors are capitalizing on an underlying fear that the economy might suddenly collapse and/or that run-away inflation will ensue (particularly with that “socialist” Obama at the helm). On these venues, Glenn Beck in particular has been a successful merchant of the fear of economic collapse and massive inflation.

Among those on the Right, we also find fears of government intrusion into our businesses and societal or religious choices, government incompetence, very competent government wickedness (ironically), socialism (being asked to contribute to the benefit of undeserving people), illegal immigrants, foreign invasion or subversion, the U.N. and the possibility of a one-world-government (villainous black helicopters and such), drones, religious persecution, losing one’s cultural or religious identity (the so-called Culture Wars), gun confiscation, crime, men of other races, homosexuals and gay marriage, sharia law (this danger appears greatest in the state of Oklahoma), Common Core, and the possibility that President Obama is a socialist, Muslim, or even the Anti-Christ. If you find yourself on mailing lists resulting from having given to Republican campaigns, you’ll likely see emails from a variety purveyors of survivalist supplies taking advantage of fearful and gullible people. One need only have a couple of Right-leaning friends or family members who forward circulating emails to witness a pervasive sentiment of impending doom resulting from the deceitful and nefarious motives of President Obama and the Left.

It is little wonder then, that when the Democrats and President Obama passed comprehensive (very voluminous and perhaps too complicated) healthcare reform without any support from Republicans, the political opposition had little trouble in instilling fear of the law’s allegedly pernicious provisions. After all, they say, the law provides for “government run” healthcare and includes “death panels,” an assault on Medicare, forced participation, a “job-killing” burden on the nation’s businesses, and will result in reduced care and greater costs for us all.

Ironically, given the fervor of their rhetoric as they endeavor to repeal the law before its implementation, perhaps what Republicans fear most is that people will discover that there wasn’t really all that much to fear after all.

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