The Politics (and Effective use) of Fear

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Image by Here and now from Pixabay

Both the Democrat and Republican parties employ Fear and Hope messaging in marketing their campaigns.

The Republicans present Fear like a paperback novel you can’t put down. Will you be murdered on an evening stroll by someone who doesn’t look like you? And did you notice there’s more of them moving into your neighborhood? For the Democrats, Fear is like a chapter in an assigned textbook. There are x number of guns in America, unless we reduce them by 10 percent, thousands of lives will be lost by gunshot wounds. 

Hope is treated similarly by the parties. Under the influence of Former President Trump, Republicans treat Hope like a weapon: we must fight the Democrats, in the hope they don’t turn America into a Socialist prison. Republicans hope to go back to a peaceful era when there were fewer problems and less troublesome minorities. 

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Democrats’ most passionate messaging is also wrapped around hope. But to be effective it must go beyond producing thoughtful position briefs, as Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren excelled in releasing. Former President Obama grasped more than any president since President Kennedy that there was a popular yearning for a more open and just society. Both Democrats gave hope to those that wanted the nation to move forward as a community to improve everyone’s life. They did it through projecting hope in a personal way. 

But fear and hope are emotions, not separated from facts but not confined by them either. Both parties cherry pick the data and the real-life stories that reinforce their positions. The nation’s demographics show an aging population and a greater ethnic diversity. Democrats argue that these growing cohorts deserve new social, political and economic programs to meet their needs. These changes will benefit the national community-at-large. It is not a sum-minus view where someone’s gain is another’s loss. 

That change and those trade-offs are what Republicans fear. As a result, Republicans are getting a wave of populist support, particularly from white males who perceive that they have the most to lose, regardless of their economic status. The battle between the two parties comes down to a clash between individualism and communitarianism. 

Democrats have not appreciated the extent that individualism has been a central national value since our founding. It is directly tied to protecting our liberty and freedom from an authoritarian government. For the original 13 colonies, the King of England had been the enemy. Trump Republicans now see the federal government as the enemy. New laws passed by Democrats are characterized as oppressing their individual freedoms, such as owning any type of gun or choosing not to wear COVID virus-filtering health masks.

Democrats on the other hand, embrace a communitarian approach that emphasizes a community’s welfare above that of any individual. This has led them to encourage an increase in the federal minimum wage and restrict the use of chemicals such as Freon that destroy the environment and ultimately the public health.

In sum, each party’s messaging, particularly those based on fear or hope, reflects an underlying cultural perspective that prioritizes either the defense of an individual’s rights or protection of a community’s welfare.

This conflict has been politically manifested and executed from the beginning when a national federal framework for the United States of America was created. It attempted to balance the powers of individual states and those of the central government. Our future has been guided to the extent that state rights or constitutional rights rule. It’s a question of whether the status quo can be altered nationally or limited to self-selected states. That struggle began when each state originally possessed a level of sovereignty that far exceeds what they can muster today. 

The high point for emphasizing state sovereignty was reached when the Supreme Court in 1857 issued the 7–2 Dred Scott decision – five of the nine justices were from slave-owning families. The following year, the Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas and Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln debated the correctness of the court’s decision. Douglas accurately explained that the court declared “that each State has the right to settle the question of suffrage for itself, and all questions as to the relations between the white man and the negro.” Hence, Blacks could be enslaved indefinitely, and only a state could decide to set them free. The Civil War defined the moment when state’s rights as an exercise of sovereignty ended. They were part of something larger, the Union, and they could not withdraw from it. Consequently, they were forced to end slavery, against their will. 

Limiting states’ sovereignty has since been pursued by the Supreme Court as demonstrated by two landmark decisions, reached over two generations ago. The court’s 1954 unanimous opinion in Brown vs Board of Education ruled that racially segregated public schooling by states was inherently unequal and a violation of constitutional rights. In the Roe vs Wade case, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the US Constitution protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive state government restrictions.

For Republicans, hope is tied to the fear of losing the freedom to live as one wishes, without any federal government interference. The right to carry a loaded gun is now a touchstone for measuring freedom. Ironically the other touchstone for state’s rights is their ability to effectively deny a woman’s right to control her body. That contradiction is explained away by conservatives as a religious conviction on abortions, which has a higher authority than government. 

The differences in the parties’ messaging are already shaping the crucial 2022 November elections, which will select one third of the Senators and all of the Representatives. At Trump’s first post-election rally, held in Lorain County Ohio on June 26, a 32-year-old physical therapist was interviewed by NPR at the rally. She said that it was scary not having Trump as president. The role of fear remains strongest among Republicans and conservative independents. For them, without a strong leader to stop the Democrats, bad things will happen. 

The only bulwark the Republicans have is that the majority of state legislatures are controlled by conservative Republicans. But if the Democrats win a clear majority in Congress, new legislation will accommodate voters who want dramatic structural changes. That is why Republicans oppose retaining measures that have encouraged voting. Those improvements led to Joe Biden becoming president and could bring out new voters in deep red states like Georgia, where the Republicans lost two US Senate seats. 

Democrats also fear the Republicans, but rather than holding rallies they issue policy papers about how Republican’s social and economic policies favor the few over the many. Which party’s approach attracts lines of people waiting to attend their events?  Democrats do not have to mimic the scare tactics of the Republicans to win elections. However, they must energize their constituents to the same degree. To accomplish that feat, Democrats need to unabashedly promote community welfare while protecting the livelihood of everyone regardless of racial identity. 

A message of hope can beat a message of fear, if it provides a clear road ahead and the messengers radiate optimism.

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Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

5 COMMENTS

  1. Nick, i agree with most of what you have stated, but think the issue is the “Politicians” that represent us. They seem to be of one mind depending on the party and they don’t seem to represent all. Seattle’s political atmosphere is a prime example.
    Thought that Biden would be an example of the needed type of leader, but so far that person has not shown up.

    BTW : If the democratic message is the truthful path for most Americans, why are most states republican controlled ?

  2. I would add that tinkering with election laws in Seattle could trigger the boomerang warning. Shifting to by-district elections, pushed by two conservative women who wanted councilmembers with more appeal to the districts, turned out to produce a strong majority of progressive, entrenched councilmembers. It was all an effort to get Mike O’Brien off the council, when he probably would not have been re-elected anyhow. Now we have a 7-2 majority of O’Brienites.

  3. Fear as a brand and tool also extends to the ads that clutter right wing media, where Mike Lindell’s pillows notwithstanding, it’s otherwise wall-to-wall products built on fear. Your car will break (so get Car Shield). They’re trying to steal your home (so get Mortgage Lock). They’re trying to steal your identity (so get IdentityLock). And on and on. It all reinforces the idea that you’re constantly under threat and you need protection.

    That fits in with the political message that you need protection from threatening change that is ruining a country that “used to work.” In this scenario, you don’t need or want solutions that go forward to a better future for more people; protection is going back to what (at least in the hagiographic accounts they reinforce) was a better — and safer — past.

  4. Nice overall description of the role of fear in the American culture. In one of Michael Moore’s documentaries he compares how Canadians have much less of that personal fear than Americans. I don’t know if that is true or not. But it would be interesting to see if there is an international scale or poll done on how each nation’s population views fear.

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