The Politics of Fear

As we head into the final month before the N.C. Democratic primary as a preparation for the upcoming general election, I thought I would take a few minutes to comment on an emotion that we all share in one form or another: fear, and the way it influences our reasoning.

To a certain extent, fear keeps us from making poor choices. It is one of the oldest of our primal emotions and has helped us scale the ladder of evolution to where we are today. But it can also become overpowering and debilitating in some people, to the point where they literally cannot function in society. But there is a place between those two positions, where fear wields undue influence over our reasoning, causing us to make unsound judgments. The fact that these poor judgments can actually increase our risk is seldom noted, but it should be.

For those reading this who are finding it hard to understand how America could have arrived at our current state of affairs, allowing the administration to operate as it has for so long, you can chalk most of that up to fear. From an article in Psychology Today from 2007:

Cinnamon Stillwell never thought she'd be the founder of a political organization. She certainly never expected to start a group for conservatives, most of whom became conservatives on the same day—September 11, 2001. She organized the group, the 911 Neocons, as a haven for people like her—"former lefties" who did political 180s after 9/11.

Stillwell, now a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, had been a liberal her whole life, writing off all Republicans as "ignorant, intolerant yahoos." Yet on 9/11, everything changed for her, as it did for so many. In the days after the attacks, the world seemed "topsy-turvy." On the political left, she wrote, "There was little sympathy for the victims," and it seemed to her that progressives were "consumed with hatred for this country" and had "extended their misguided sympathies to tyrants and terrorists."

Disgusted, she looked elsewhere. She found solace among conservative talk-show hosts and columnists. At first, she felt resonance with the right about the war on terror. But soon she found herself concurring about "smaller government, traditional societal structures, respect and reverence for life, the importance of family, personal responsibility, national unity over identity politics." She embraced gun rights for the first time, drawn to "the idea of self-preservation in perilous times." Her marriage broke up due in part to political differences. In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, she began going to pro-war rallies.

Granted, this represents an extreme reversal of ideology by a relatively small group of former "liberals", but the psychology behind this transformation had at least some impact on the majority of our population. The early post-911 days were painful and confusing for many, and the effects have been slow wearing off.

Political conversions that are emotionally induced can be very subtle: A shift in support for a given issue or politician is not the same as a radical conversion or deep philosophical change. While views may be manipulated, the impact may or may not translate in the voting booth. Following 9/11, most lifelong liberals did not go through outright conversion or shift their preferred candidate. Yet many liberals who didn't become all-out conservatives found themselves nonetheless sympathizing more with conservative positions, craving the comfort of a strong leader, or feeling the need to punish or avenge.

Using fear as a tool to manipulate voters probably dates back to the first aldercaveman, pointing to drawings of bears and lions to drive home his platform of "support me or die a horrible death", but we have refined the art into something close to a science:

Campaign strategists in both parties have never hesitated to use scare tactics. In 1964, a Lyndon Johnson commercial called "Daisy" juxtaposed footage of a little girl plucking a flower with footage of an atomic blast. In 1984, Ronald Reagan ran a spot that played on Cold War panic, in which the Soviet threat was symbolized by a grizzly lumbering across a stark landscape as a human heart pounds faster and faster and an off-screen voice warns, "There is a bear in the woods!" In 2004, Bush sparked furor for running a fear-mongering ad that used wolves gathering in the woods as symbols for terrorists plotting against America. And last fall, Congressional Republicans drew fire with an ad that featured bin Laden and other terrorists threatening Americans; over the sound of a ticking clock, a voice warned, "These are the stakes."

"At least some of the President's support is the result of constant and relentless reminders of death, some of which is just what's happening in the world, but much of which is carefully cultivated and calculated as an electoral strategy," says Solomon. "In politics these days, there's a dose of reason, and there's a dose of irrationality driven by psychological terror that may very well be swinging elections."

As intelligent adults, do we need fear to guide our decisions? Of course we don't, and we will usually make better decisions in the absence of this emotion:

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.

Now comes the part where self-righteous Steve takes over for a minute. We have some elections coming up, and the politics of fear has already raised its ugly head. Not from Republicans mind you, from our own party. Let me tell you what I think of this:

It is an insult to our intelligence, and it reeks of incompetence. If a candidate or anyone on their campaign staff believes they should resort to fear tactics, that means they (maybe subliminally) think that voters will not come to a reasoned decision to vote for them, so they must be tricked into a primal state.

It's really very simple: don't do it. And voters: don't fall for it. If change is what we're after, then fear must be set aside and ignored, so we can better see the future.

Comments

Aldercaveman

Nice.

I couldn't help myself. :)

That popped into my head and I laughed outloud, so I had to write him in there.

Fear, Greed, Revenge, Power and Status, all powerful, addictive,

contageous and all consuming.

These things,in the political forum, are as dangerous as any drug, weapon, or terrorist. It is in fact these very things which create Terrorist and Facist...... especially Fear.

Marshall Adame
2014 U.S. Congress Candidate NC-03

Fear Mongering

Thank you for reminding us ALL that garnishing support through fear is not garnishing support at all. I would like to think that those representing, and hoping to represent, would remember that fear-based support is nothing compared to the support of those who share your principles, who believe as we do. It is time to look forward, after 7 1/2 years of an administration that has expanded its powers, trampling on our Constitution, and being allowed to do so with the support of elected officials like Virgina Foxx who admitted "...I'm trying to scare you to death!".
Oh you have Rep. Foxx, oh you have!

I hear you, Roy.

And there's something else that Democratic candidates need to remember: as detailed in the article above, fear has a habit of driving some people into more conservative thinking.

Using fear may make turning N.C. blue a lot more difficult than it already is. If we want to grow the ranks of the party, we have to be different than Republicans.

Wow. I just used a fear-tactic to discourage the use of fear-tactics. ;/

I need more coffee.

The Emperor

People made fun of me the few times I've mentioned this, but the whole expansion of power thing always reminds me of the Emperor in Star Wars.
How he used the continuation of the Trade Wars to have the Galactic Senate elevate him from Chancellor to Emperor, giving him the power to dissolve the senate.
Ok, so maybe the making fun of me for it is valid, but I mean really... it fits!
J. Levi Knapp

A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.
William James (1842 - 1910)

Levi

Well, yeah,

But then there's the whole Darth Cheney thing... so it doesn't seem so implausible.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi
Pointing at Naked Emperors

I find that Star Wars

fits virtually every political and cultural situation I encounter. (Needless to say, I'm a big fan of Star Wars, especially the earlier movies.) Yoda is my hero.

Unless someone or something is point a gun at me,

or is trying to chew my leg off, I don't do fear.

My reaction to 9/11 was that airport security had failed miserably.

The entire event can, in my opinion, be traced back to the decisions in the early 90's that the FAA suggestion that cockpit doors be hardened, was just "too expensive". You can also point to the belief that airport security should be handled by minimum wage rent-a-cops, and whoever the genius was that thought knives and box cutters were perfectly safe to bring aboard an aircraft.

Off course,, now we have gone to the other extreme, making airport security a complete joke.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

The Bene Gesserit litany against fear.

Liberalism as a badge of honor!
No apologies, no excuses.

Liberalism as a badge of honor!
No apologies, no excuses.

I see the truth of it.

Both Star Wars and Dune references in one thread!

Awesome. :)

awesome indeed.

I must say, other thread are the less for not having those references in them.
J. Levi Knapp

A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.
William James (1842 - 1910)

Levi