Politics of Fear

We should be wary of political candidates who try to evoke non-specific fears in us about terrorism, impoverishment or racial conflict. They do so to divert us from the rational and challenging discussions needed to confront real tactical challenges we face and to soothe us into believing that they will handle it for us.

The roar of a lion next to the bed in which we are sleeping elicits a practical response, as we focus quickly on what we need to do to survive, whereas the idea that some predatory animal might attack us evokes only malaise about which we can do little.

The responsibility of leaders or candidates of any political cast is to tell us the truth as they see it, detailing for us the social and economic challenges and laying out what they would do to solve or alleviate them. Above all they must inspire us to own and be a working part of those solutions.

The politics of salvation from non-specific threats has been used throughout history to achieve or entrench power and is invariably designed to cloak and implement a specific ideology. Hitler successfully deified himself as the savior of the German people by evoking fears in an electorate already impoverished demoralized by the prior World War, of a Jewish conspiracy to subjugate the German people through their success in banking, an enterprise to which they were often limited by the anti-Semitic policies prevalent throughout Europe.

Whether or not each fact in Ron Suskind’s new book The Way of the World can be proven, it is now evident to Americans of all persuasions that the ginned-up evidence designed to elicit fear of WMD’s in the hands of an acknowledged madman, had no basis in fact.

Evoking fear in the electorate distracts and preoccupies us with worrying rather than helping us to define problems precisely and think creatively about solutions. In effect, an electorate subjugates itself by allowing this to happen and falling prey to the paranoid nostrums of demagogues. FDR said it well, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

This is the choice we face as an electorate. Do we rely on rational thought, hard data and intellect to solve social and economic problems or do we cast our fate to those who would whip up and sustain diversionary fears and promise salvation? After all, even the least experienced among us know instinctively to be careful when someone whispers “trust me.”

“Telling truth to power” is often the hardest thing that citizens in a democracy must do to maintain their freedom and control over their destiny. We do it by thinking creatively, talking among ourselves and by voting with our hearts and minds, rather than our fears. It is hardly the easier, softer way. Democracy is the framework that allows us to follow this more difficult path. It is ours to keep or lose.

One Response to “Politics of Fear”

Hello Bill,

You may remember me as the operations director at Vermont Life. We spoke a few times while I was there. I’m now on my own as a strategy, marketing and Web publishing consultant to smaller and independent magazines.

I’m just writing to say how much I enjoy your commentaries on VPR, especially the recent one, Politics of Fear. Your ideas and words are consistently a very rare combination of probing inquiries into complex subjects and good old common sense.

I’m glad I have (after not finding a way to contact you from the VPR.net site) discovered your blog site. I’ll be checking it regularly.

Best wishes,
Andy Jackson (Montpelier)