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Fear Itself Fear Itself

Fear Itself

by Mike Salamon

March 13, 2010

How politicians use the psychological effects of fear to twist our perspective, and how we can fight back.


Politico published an article last week about a Republican National Committee PowerPoint presentation on fundraising delivered at a party retreat in Florida in February. The presentation detailed how Republican fundraisers can and should stoke fears and distrust of President Obama in the conservative electorate in order to enrich the RNC's campaign coffers.

The presentation, delivered by RNC Finance Director Rob Bickhart, encouraged the listeners to capitalize on fear of the President and his policies, and to position the Republican party as the group that will "save the country from trending toward socialism." There is even a slide which depicts the President and the Democratic leadership in Congress as cartoon villains, demonstrating the kind of images Republican fundraisers want to evoke in their pitches.

RNC Chairman Michael Steele has since tried his best to distance both himself and the RNC leadership from the most ridiculous aspects of the presentation, but this is simply the latest example of U.S. political parties using fear to advance their agendas. From the evoking of 9/11 to help justify the policies that followed, to Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad in the 1964 election, using fear to influence voters is a time-honored tradition in American politics. Both Democrats and Republicans continually turn to this strategy for one simple reason: It is very, very effective.

Psychological research has shown that when fear is inserted into political debates, a desire to mitigate that fear and reduce the threat associated with it becomes the dominant policy response. In his book The Political Brain, psychologist Drew Westen writes:
In 2004, researchers found that asking subjects to think about their own death-or just giving them subliminal reminders of the 9/11 attacks-led to significant increases in support for President Bush and his policies, regardless of political affiliation.

Further political psychological research shows that reminders of one's mortality can trigger disdain for other races, religions, and nations; a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders; and a heightened attraction to traditional mores. People deal with existential terror by maintaining faith in cherished norms and beliefs. In short, when someone feels that they or their family are in danger they default to supporting whatever party champions the policies they instinctively feel will most aggressively alleviate that danger, regardless of the moral and/or long-term implications of these policies.

In repeated experiments, mortality reminders and heightened fear not only enhanced the appeal of a more aggressive and confrontational political style and foreign policy, but also deepened and broadened the appeal of conservative social positions-regardless of people's political affiliations.

As the RNC PowerPoint shows, efforts by political parties and organizations to manipulate the public by raising the fear level in order to promote certain policy goals is not happenstance; it is but one example of concerted and coordinated efforts by the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican parties, which recognize that a fearful electorate is one that will be more easily convinced to support particular policies and donate to certain candidates.

The U.S. in the World Initiative's Managing the Fear Factor project has focused on studying the use of fear to specifically promote short-sighted and unilateral foreign policies, in an attempt to understand why and how fear has been and remains so effective, and on finding ways to combat this fear. The goal of the project is to figure out how, under the very adverse psychological and cognitive conditions created by fear of the real and perceived dangers in the modern world, to foster a climate of public thinking in which it's possible to maintain and build support for responsible, farsighted approaches to national security and foreign policy.

It is our hope that through a sustained effort, advocates and grassroots leaders will be able to help the American people cope with their fear more constructively and therefore better resist the fear-mongering used to manipulate them. After all, it might be great short-term politics to scare the populace into supporting a cause. But it doesn't make America safer, and it certainly doesn't make us better.

Mike Salamon is a Communications Fellow with the U.S. in the World Initiative and a former program associate with the Truman National Security Project. For more information about the Managing the Fear Factor project you can e-mail him at mike@usintheworld.org.

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