“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And politics. Don’t forget politics.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who uttered that famous quote, lived in a time when Americans had a lot to fear: first from the Great Depression and then from World War II.
Fear is front and center these days, too. And it isn’t just a tool of politicians, it’s what drives their message.
Fear is a survival mechanism. It’s there for a reason. Think we should simply dismiss all our fears? Ask the gazelle at the watering hole who ignores the approaching lion. On second thought, don’t bother: That hypothetical gazelle is almost certainly dead.
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The biggest crowd I’ve seen at a Cambria Community Services District meeting turned out recently when a proposed ballot measure to fund three firefighters was on the agenda.
The high turnout led board President Amanda Rice to remark: “I hope the rest of the community comes out when we have to add staff to the other departments.”
Until you reach the level of fear inspired by the current severe fire danger, however, that isn’t likely. Fear drives turnout better than just about anything else, and when you live in forest during a drought, the fear of fire is both natural and rational.
Lessons of history
Sometimes, however, fear is irrational — perhaps increasingly so of late. The shocking tragedy of 9/11 shattered our sense of invulnerability and put us on the defensive. Protecting the nation against violent aggression became paramount for voters following the 2001 terror attacks, just as it had been after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. FDR won a fourth term and George W. Bush a second based largely on the same promise: to keep America safe.
World War II ended and Osama bin Laden was eventually killed, but the country remained on edge even as the economy boomed in the 1950s and rebounded in the 2010s. When fear takes hold, it’s difficult to shake it, and there’s no shortage of threats, real or imagined, to be addressed.
Sometimes, the threats are both real and imagined.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Union and its nuclear program posed a legitimate threat to the United States, as anyone who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis can tell you. But politicians on both sides of the aisle magnified Americans’ fears, creating mountains out of molehills and warning of doomsday scenario to further their own careers.
Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy relentlessly persecuted those he suspected of being “commies” — particularly artists and entertainers — regardless of whether there was any merit to those suspicions. Then, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic presidential campaign ran an ad featuring a young girl and a menacing countdown to the image of an atomic explosion. The ad concluded with the message: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” It implied that Johnson’s opponent, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, was apt to lead the nation into a nuclear war.
Johnson won in a landslide.
Worst-case scenarios like that lie at the bottom of slippery slopes, which are fertile terrain for politicians seeking to further their careers. Want to know why Congress fails to pass gun legislation after every new mass shooting? You could follow the money back to the gun lobby, but don’t forget to follow the fear down that slippery slope.
Politicians know that fear drives voter turnout, so they’re motivated by their own self-interest to exaggerate the level of threat to constituents. They magnify problems and cast themselves in the role of savior. Then-candidate Donald Trump epitomized this strategy by portraying a nation in decline and boasting that “I alone can fix it.” But he was neither the first nor the only politician to invoke what amounts to a psychological protection racket.
Politicians love to play Chicken Little, running around screaming that the sky is falling. Restricting the use of rapid-fire weapons is a sure sign “they’re going to take away all my guns.” Immigrants “are going to take all our jobs.” Choosing to wish someone happy holidays rather than a merry Christmas is a sure sign that religious freedom is under attack.
Politicians use such rhetoric to make voters feel like they’re standing on slippery slopes. Fearful that the ground beneath their feet is about to give way, they dig in their heels when and fight all the harder for the politicians they see as their champions. There’s an unintended consequence of this, though: Fear makes voters — and the politicians who represent them — less likely to compromise … which in turn leads to the very gridlock these same voters claim to hate.
Fear leads to distrust of the other side, which creates gridlock, which appears to confirm those initial fears that opponents can’t be trusted to compromise. It’s a vicious circle.
Knowing the difference between rational and irrational fears isn’t easy, and it’s more difficult than ever in an era when politicians can reap big rewards by scapegoating, fear mongering and spreading conspiracy theories. It is, however, essential to the health of the republic.
Not to mention our own peace of mind.