7 Traits of the Politics of Fear

Americans are increasingly fearful. They fear the unpredictable acts of terrorists. They fear their neighbours and have armed themselves for protection in record numbers. They fear infringement on their individual freedoms. They distrust their political leaders. They distrust government itself. Some are even drawn to conspiracy theories involving plots by surreptitious extra-governmental and global networks.

Particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans have been immersed in a climate of fear, with continual reinforcement of this theme. This climate of fear in America is pervasive. It is echoed in the news media, in Hollywood films, and in the halls of government itself.

Here are 7 important things to know about the politics of fear.

1.   The politics of fear is not new.

nazi-swastika-badgeThe Nazis knew how to politicize fear back in the 1940s. Herman Göring, founder of the Gestapo, stated

The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

2.  Fear is a powerful political tool.

Zbigniew Brzezinski DePauw 1Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, stated

Constant reference to a “war on terror” [by the Bush administration] stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.

3.   Fear is built on fantasy.

The Power of NightmaresIn the opening to the documentary mini-series, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004– ), the narrator states:

Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares. They say that they will rescue us from dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand. And the greatest danger of all is international terrorism, a powerful and sinister network with sleeper cells in countries across the world, a threat that needs to be fought by a War on Terror.

But much of this threat is a fantasy, which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. It’s a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media.


4.   Fear generates bad decisions.

national-capitol-washington-dcFear needs a definable enemy and a constructed narrative. This narrative may take the form of an imagined conspiracy or imminent threat. Focusing on the fantasy rather than on reality diverts the public’s attention from the real issues that should be dealt with. As Steve Benen recently noted in his blog article “Tinfoil Hats, Black Helicopters, and the Politics of Paranoia,”

We couldn’t pass a [UN] disability treaty because [certain politicians] believed conspiracy theories. We can’t address global warming because [some politicians] believe the entirety of climate science is a giant conspiracy. We couldn’t pass bipartisan health care reform in part because [some politicians] were too heavily invested in the “death panel” conspiracy theory.

5.   Fear is captivating.

newspaper-headlinesMedia personalities like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh regularly stoke public fears on their talk shows and have huge audiences. In the words of Danah Boyd,

Fear-mongerers leverage our willingness to pay attention to fearful stimuli in order to generate attention. A fearful newspaper headline captures people’s attention. This draws people into paying attention to the newspaper as a whole, which is precisely the intention of headlines. Likewise, when TV anchors are spouting off fearful information, people are far less willing to turn the channel.

6.   Fear leads to social disintegration.

gunLast week Farleigh Dickenson University released the results of a national survey of registered voters in the U.S. which found that “29 percent of Americans think that an armed revolution in order to protect liberties might be necessary in the next few years, with another five percent unsure.” (18% of Democrats held this view compared to 44% of Republicans.)

7.   Fear is profitable (for some).

department_of_homeland_security_sealsvgIt was recently reported that America has spent $791 billion on “homeland security” since 9/11. According to The New York Times, within 3 years after the Department of Homeland Security was set up at least 90 officials who had worked there or at the White House had already found work in the private sector as “executives, consultants, or lobbyists for companies that collectively do billions of dollars’ worth of domestic security business.” This past weekend USA Today reported that “firearms and ammo sales have surged to record highs after the December tragedy in Newtown reinvigorated debate about gun control.” Also this past weekend the National Rifle Association held its annual convention this past weekend in Houston, Texas. It reported an 86% increase in new memberships and upgrades, a 54% increase in NRA store sales and the largest attendance ever.

Overcoming Fear

Americans live in a pervasive culture of fear. But it need not be so. Fear is paralyzing rather than empowering. Fear focuses on weaknesses rather than strengths. Fear makes people defensive rather than providing confidence. Fear divides people instead of uniting them around a common purpose. Fear focuses on problems rather than striving for solutions.

f-d-roosevelt-1Eighty years ago, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave us these memorable words:

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

People can resist the politics of fear. They can see beyond its illusion, its fabrication, and its captivating allure. Fear is the problem, not the answer. Courage, determination, and hope are the solution. Fear is but the enemy.

About politspectator
Edward Clayton grew up in the US but has lived in Canada for the last 4 decades. He is a long time peace activist and committed to issues of social justice and good government. He reports on Canadian, American, and global politics from a Canadian perspective.

One Response to 7 Traits of the Politics of Fear

  1. Harry Stein says:

    That’s amazing that 44% of Republicans think an armed revolution might be necessary in the near future. I wonder what those numbers looked like for Democrats during the Bush Administration. I remember hearing a left-wing conspiracy theory that President Bush was going to find an excuse rooted in some kind of national emergency to suspend the 2008 election and give himself a third term. If you believed that was going to happen, expecting an armed revolution isn’t that big a leap.

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