Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fear As A Political Weapon

John B. Judis's article in the August number of The New Republic has a hair-raising title: "How Political Psychology Explains Bush's Ghastly Success. Death Grip." The gist of the psychological arguments Judis describes is a phenomenon psychologists call mortality salience: When people are reminded about death (or events they associate with death, such as the massacres that took place on 9/11/2001), they turn not only more frightened but more politically conservative. Judis notes that George Bush's popularity may have been based on this psychological reaction and its exploitation by the Bush administration.

But it isn't just George Bush who may have benefited from the political uses of fear; it is the Republican Party in general. What a handly little tool fear turns out to be: All a conservative political speech needs to do is to add a little reminder about "timor mortis conturbat me" in the shorthand of 9/11 and -- presto -- the audience for the speech is suddenly more favorably attuned towards its conservative proposals, even if those proposals concern a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage or the general curbing of civil liberties or something else not directly associated with the underlying fear.

Fear is a powerful political weapon. The terrorists know this well, and it appears that so does the Bush administration. To understand how fear can be manipulated, ask yourself what it is that you really fear. That is what the political uses of fear will exploit, too. They will describe a mortal threat of a particular type. It will consist of an invisible yet omnipresent enemy ("hiding in the shadows" as Dick Cheney put it), impossible to quantify or to name in detail, impossible to fight on your own. The enemy is pure evil, but the signs of its presence are so unclear that almost anything could mean it has arrived: It is the monster under your bed, the muttering man who passes you by on the street, the funny smell in the subway carriage, the unattended piece of luggage at the airport. This enemy is something called "global terrorism", and it is out to kill you, personally. Never mind that your chances of dying in a car accident are higher than your chances of dying in a terrorist attack. It is the latter that you must fear.

If this nebulous fear is not enough to catch you in its grip, images of apocalypse might work. Their use is common in today's conservative political debates. As an example, George Bush once compared the jihadists to Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, individuals who are responsible for millions of deaths. This comparison does not tell us anything about the dangers that the jihadists present. It simply suggests that the danger is apocalyptic, worthy of great fear. It also prepares the audience to accept any and all parts of George Bush's "war on terror" because that is the way to keep fear at bay.

No wonder the political uses of fear have been so successful for the Republican Party. The massacres of 9/11 were televised, repeatedly, allowing the whole nation a chance to partake in a generalized form of post-traumatic stress disorder and turning the term "911" into a simple button to press whenever a fear-reaction was desired in politics. At the same time, preaching fear has few drawbacks. Should another large-scale terrorist attack occur the Republicans can say they warned us. Conversely, the absence of another such attack can be argued to prove that it was the Republican policies which have kept us safe. It is a win-win situation for the conservatives.

Or is it? Judis ends his article on the uses of fear by noting that this political tool may have outlived its usefulness. Time has passed and the "911" trigger has lost some of its potency. Problems with the Iraq occupation, the bungled aftermath of Katrina and the many Republican scandals are more recent memories in voters' minds than the image of George Bush standing with his foghorn on the ruins of the World Trade Towers, ready to defend us all against the bogeymen of global terrorism. Perhaps the new Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States will find some other tools in their kits than just having Americans feel frightened all the time?

Judis thinks so, barring another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil and excluding Rudy Giuliani who appears to campaign solely on the massacres of 911. I'm not as convinced on this. It is indeed true that Giuliani has firmly adopted the fear platform. He explains his apocalyptic views on global terrorism in a recent volume of Foreign Affairs:

"Full recognition of the first great challenge of the twenty-first century came with the attacks of September 11, 2001, even though Islamist terrorists had begun their assault on world order decades before. Confronted with an act of war on American soil, our old assumptions about conflict between nation-states fell away. Civilization itself, and the international system, had come under attack by a ruthless and radical Islamist enemy."

Giuliani gave a more colloquial version of those same views and of the Democrats' inability to defend us against the fear of death on a recent "The Sean Hannity Show" (a syndicated conservative radio program):

"They do not seem to get the fact that there are people, terrorists in this world, really dangerous people that want to come here and kill us. That in fact they did come here and kill us twice and they got away with it because we were on defense because we weren't alert enough to the dangers and the risks."

At first glance this latter statement looks almost childish. It has no facts about the terrorists Giuliani describes. Their groups and allegiances are not named; their goals are simply to "come here and kill us." But the crucial message in the statement is not a factual one. It is an emotional plea for fear and an insistence that the Democrats will not be strong enough to fight this frightening bedtime bogieman.

But Giuliani does not stand alone on the Republican fear platform. Mitt Romney has also adopted the political uses of fear from the Bush administration. In a speech given at The Young Republican National Convention he elaborates on these uses:

"The new generation of challenges we face today includes challenges to our national security as well. Violent Jihadists are intent on replacing moderate Muslim governments with a Caliphate or Imam. And they seek the collapse of our economy, our government, and our military.... Theirs is a face of evil not seen in the civilized world since the gas chambers of Hitler's horror."

The enemy in Romney's view is undefined but powerful enough to destroy the United States as a country. What is the number of these violent jihadists? What are their capabilities of carrying out attacks of such magnitude? Romney never tells us but he doesn't forget to provide a connection to images of millions of deaths by using Hitler's gas chambers as a comparison.

What connects all these quotes is the emotional underpinnings of fear. The most recent entrant to the Republican presidential race, Fred Thompson, joins Giuliani and Romney in copying this Bush administration tactic. In a recent speech at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Thompson argued that the nation is in denial about terrorism. He said: "I don't think that yet as a nation we have come to terms with the nature and the extent of the threat facing this country."

A nation in denial about the threat of terrorism? Where does Mr. Thompson live, I wonder. His campaign blog, Imwithfred, offers further evidence of Thompson's fear platform:

We're not having the kind of conversations we need to have on a range of issues, particularly the kind of threat we're facing, on a global scale from radical Muslim fundamentalists who want to bring our nation to its knees and destroy our way of life.

This is yet another take of the terrorist menace as a vague but nevertheless all-powerful enemy intent on our total destruction. Yet the best solution Thompson appears to offer in our defense is to continue the surge policy in Iraq. This is a puny defense indeed against something as frightening as the fears his blog post describes.

It is not just Rudy Giuliani, then, who plans to use fear in his political campaigning. Given that both Romney and Thompson have also adopted the language of fear, the Democratic presidential candidates will have to learn to counter this tactic. Fear will be used to invoke mortality salience, to make voters more defensive of their worldview and more conservative. Fear will be used to paint the Democratic candidates as too weak to provide the protection the fearful need, as too blind to see the true threat of apocalyptic proportions and as too naive to see what the terrorists really plan for this country.

What is the proper Democratic response to all this? Clearly it is not to belittle or to minimize the risks that terrorism causes, but neither is it to try to outfrighten the conservatives in this game. Judis points out one potential remedy for the paralysis of fear and its conservative advantages: Psychological studies have found that the fear-inducing strength of the mortality triggers can be reduced by urging study subjects to consider their answer carefully and not to surrender to instantaneous "gut-reactions". This is not unlike the way the first rays of morning sun dispel the monster under children's beds. Information on the threats and detailed plans on how to defend against them could work as a counter-tactic to fear.

And so do articles such as the one Judis has written. The more we understand how fear works the less we need to be manipulated by it.