“Many times, the thought of fear itself is greater than what it is we fear.”
Much of modern society and technology is structured to predict future and consequences that help reduce the fear of the unknown and restore some degree of control. Despite that, fear pervades our lives and affects us on a primal level. Today sociologists talk about a risk society, describing a culture that is increasingly preoccupied with threats to safety, both real and perceived. And of all the fears, the fear of the unknown is the strongest. People hang on to the security of familiarity and it somehow seems safer to embrace what we know (howsoever miserable) than let go of it and risk the fear of the unknown. Fear creates desperation and indecision that paralyzes our logic, thinking and actions.
Politicians and the media know this. They are masters of fear, invoking it in concrete and abstract ways and channeling it to their benefit. From well-timed soundbites and headlines to carefully worded speeches or tweets, fear is regularly employed because it always works, and provokes predictable reaction. Fear distracts and divides people by taking away their ability to reason or analyze, and politicians exploit it. The results have been alarmingly successful throughout the world. During elections, subtle auditory and linguistic clues are now replaced by a more direct and flagrant approach. A real or imaginary threat is peddled with great zeal and conviction, and voting for a particular candidate seems to be the only way out. “Make people fearful and they will turn to you”, is the mantra. Amazingly, voters buy this election after election.
After 9/11, the fear of more attacks was felt by Americans, making them ripe for psychological manipulation. Many civil liberties were given up without question and the otherwise unpopular George Bush won a second term with remarkable approval ratings. He even took fear to the next level by taking his country to war, portraying foreign governments as evil villains constantly conspiring to attack the USA, a baseless charge completely disproved later.
In the recent bitterly fought US election, both parties resorted to fear-mongering, although for some reason (and perhaps not unduly), only Trump got the rap for it. Both campaigns whipped up fear around each other’s policies and presented a fearfully bleak and grim future in the eventuality of the opponent’s win. Worse, they even tried to validate their visions. Trump kick-started his campaign by creating a distorted and exaggerated fear of Mexicans and Muslims, revving it up later on with the fear of losing civil liberties. He could have chosen to present these simply as illegal immigration and terrorism issues, but would likely have been unable to make the impact, as he did, on his voter base with such generalities and politeness. Fear came handy albeit at the cost of being labelled a racist, but in the murky world of politics, no publicity is bad publicity, more so for a rank outsider.
Hillary’s campaign needed to unite the fractured Democratic Party after the Sanders fiasco before appealing to her base. Creating a fear of Trump was going to be a powerful binding agent. Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, stated that the fear of a Trump administration would be the single biggest factor in Clinton’s victory. She reacted with a calibrated rhetoric, painting America’s stark future as racist and bigoted under a Trump presidency. She catalyzed the fear by claiming that women, minorities and LGBTQs would no longer be safe and would likely be targeted, and that American values of equality, acceptance and tolerance would be under serious threat. As if that wasn’t enough, she claimed that Trump was in cahoots with Putin and Russia would essentially run the United States if Trump would win. The picture painted was that of irreparable damage to the country and the only shining light was Hillary. Her voters suddenly felt a visceral sense of insecurity. You were either with her or a demagogue, and no one wants to be a demagogue.
The media, unabashedly liberal leaning, did not remain a passive recipient of narratives created by Hillary. They actively contributed to stir up fear about Trump with extreme prejudice. Real issues about economy, healthcare and national security took a backseat as the media kept stoking the fear of Trump. “Be afraid, be very afraid”, they said of the possibility of a Trump victory, heaping skepticism even on the undecided voters.
For Hillary, it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trump has actually won the presidency and Hillary has walked away into political oblivion, leaving her 60 million voters faced with the false stark eventuality that she had warned them about. There is a social media frenzy powered by the intellectually challenged Hollywood elite, calling for a ‘Revolution” in utter and complete disregard for democracy and common sense. Allegedly a globalist billionaire is adding fuel to the hysteria by being the driving force in a top-down nationwide protest against Trump. The media and talk-shows are talking about “collective healing” in complete disregard for the people that voted the other way. From chants of “you are not my President” to “Kill Trump”, protestors are starting to turn violent, burning the American flag, desecrating the ideals of democracy, free society and tolerance that they ironically think they are fighting for. Some far right Trump supporters made fearful of immigrants by Trump are talking about “Make America White Again“, a preposterous and utterly racist slogan. A nation which felt divided during a divisive fear-driven election has it’s fault lines dug deeper for no fault of the common citizen. The beacon of democracy is fighting to save it’s own, and the politics of fear is to blame.
Politics can be run without fear.India’s Narendra Modi deserves enormous credit for running his campaign entirely on the agenda of progress, economic growth and social justice in a country that has fear-mongering deeply ingrained in the political psyche. Despite consistent baiting from his rivals and the media, he has refused to be drawn into anything else but performance. Canada’s political system may have it’s fair share of problems, but it is thankfully still driven by issues and has never seen anything like the fear-mongering in US politics.
As the dust settles, the memory of fear grows fainter, but people tend to stay polarized politically. They cling harder to their own ideologies and beliefs and demonize others as they see their own endangerment in them. This emotion driven anxiety and response creates a social and politically divide that is not healthy for any society or country. People need to see through the politics of fear and vote with their heads rather than their hearts. People deserve better. In the end, regardless of who wins an election, the people must never lose!