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.