March 2006 The League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area Education Fund

Politics of fear (POF) is the use of fear as a tool to gain or to maintain power, particularly in the politics of governance.

Politics of Fear

Committee: Susan Dill, Leslie Vandivere and Shirley White.


Fear is a pervasive part of everyday life. We buckle
seat-belts, lock doors, get physicals, and stop at red
lights. Listening to or reading the news, one could
conclude that the country, the world, is full of calami-
ties and "listener beware!" Well-meaning interest
groups want their message out: warning of AIDS, the
warming globe and the extinction of species, decreas-
ing water on the continent, the shortfall of money in
social security for future generations. Interest groups
compete for attention and money in order to promote
their causes.

Politicians are no different. They want to remain in, or
gain, power. POF implies that politicians self-con-
sciously manipulate people's anxieties in order to
achieve their objectives. Occasionally scare tactics are
effective in undermining opponents and gaining the
acceptance of the general population. However, POF
is not only a consequence of political exhaustion and
the manipulation of public opinion, but also a force in
its own right.

The use of fear to control behavior has been a recognized
political tool since the publication of Thomas
Hobbes' The Leviathan in l7th century England. Fear
turns us into children; politically it turns us into the
vulnerable, the easily led. Politicians tend to exaggerate
threats for their own advantage; but, in the 21st
century amid all the "noise," the traditional single
threat has morphed into a constant barrage of things to
fear. In every single aspect of daily life we are told
there is something to fear.

Beds harbor microscopic mites, germs flourish in
bathrooms and kitchens, and using the wrong sort of
cleaning product could put your family at risk. Use
the right toothpaste and you will get the perfect mate;
use another brand and you will end up alone. All day
and every day our natural fears are manipulated for
"our own good." Give me money (taxes) and I will
solve your transportation problems. Give me your
trust and I will keep you safe.

Thomas Hobbes and the Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes ( 1588-1679) was the first proponent
of social contract theory, a dominant influence on
modem Western moral and political philosophy. He,
followed by John Locke 0632-1704) and Jean-Jacques
Rousseau (1712-1778), rejected the then-current view
that a sovereign ruled by hereditary or divine right and
asserted the belief that all individuals were free. They
envisioned rational individuals creating a government
by agreeing to cede their individual rights in exchange
for peace and safety.

Born in an English coastal village threatened with
imminent invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588,
Hobbes lived during a period of extraordinary civil
strife, the English Civil Wars. A scholar, tutor, and
writer, Hobbes was an associate of Renee Descartes
and knew many prominent scientists including Galileo.

His understanding of their work was the basis of his
belief that skeptical deductive reasoning resulted in
valid scientific theories. He applied the same process
to develop his science of natural justice or political
philosophy: ".. . . . theorems of moral doctrine that
men may learn thereby how to govern and how to
obey." (Hobbes, Ch. 31, p. 287.)

Hobbes wrote the Leviathan, a classic both in English
literature and in political thought, in 1651. His thesis
is that the primary concern of humankind in a state of
nature is self-preservation. Unrestrained competition
for survival results in "war of every one against every
one" (Hobbes, Ch. 13, p 108) and, "which is worst of
all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the
life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
(Hobbes, Ch. 13, p 107.)

Rather than this condition of war, the logical thing to
do is to seek peace; but since each person has the right
to do whatever is necessary to preserve one's life, it
isn't safe for anyone to give up that right unless
everyone does. Hobbes's solution is a social contract
in which everyone agrees with everyone else to give
up this natural right. Then, everyone is united in a
commonwealth. "This is the generation of that great
Leviathan . . . to which we owe . . . our peace and
defense." (Hobbes, Ch. 17, p. 143.).

Hobbes explains that the essence of the Leviathan or
commonwealth is one person. This one person is the
sovereign on whom essential rights of sovereign power
are conferred to use "as he shall think expedient for
their peace and common defense." (Hobbes, Ch. 17,
p. 143.)

The duty of the sovereign, whether a monarch or an
assembly, is to assure the safety of the people. By
"safety" is not meant mere preservation, but a state in
which all persons, by their own industry, can acquire
all the good things they desire without danger or hurt
to the commonwealth. The first duty of the sovereign
is to maintain the essential rights of sovereignty
because, if they are relinquished "the commonwealth
is thereby dissolved and every man returns into the
condition and calamity of a war with every other man,
which is the greatest evil that can happen in this life."
(Hobbes, Ch. 30, p. 262.) The sovereign's second duty
is to make sure the people understand the reasons and
grounds of the sovereign's essential rights so they
won't resist him when the commonwealth requires that
he use and exercise those rights.

There would be no one to frighten you if you re-
fused to be afraid. Mohandas K. Gandi

Fear Itself

Fear underlines the fragileness of life. We fear death,
power, gods, loss, and the unknown. Webster defines
fear as (n) anxiety caused by real or possible danger,
pain, etc. and (vt) to expect with misgiving. American
psychiatrist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs
lists safety as second of five needs to be satisfied.
Maslow's premise is that human behavior is based on
deficiency and growth needs. Before growth can be
achieved to a higher need, deficiencies must be met.
If an individual's needs are achieved to higher levels,
and then if a deficiency on the lower level occurs,
activity is redirected to satisfy that lower need before
maintaining the higher growth need. Our security,
personal and otherwise, is a basic instinct. The need
for safety must be met before the need to know and
understand (part of the fifth level of needs).

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Fear is a physiological event. The primal reaction sets
off a chain of physiological events. Facially, eyes
widen, the upper lip rises, brows draw together, and
lips stretch horizontally. The blood and oxygen is
pulled from non-essential areas into large muscle
groups. Pain response is suppressed. Adrenalin is
released into the body. Fear is also an emotional
event, a negative emotion. The first reaction is to back
away. It is an unpleasant feeling of risk or danger.
Fear can immobilize, especially the reasoning capac-
ity. Rational thinking is unable to take place. On a
positive note, fear is an advantage that keeps us from

Public health notices often use fear to obtain compliance
for the public good. Wash your hands, use condoms, stop
smoking and those famous "this is your brain on drugs"
television ads that use the image of frying eggs to grab the
attention of a sometimes apathetic public.
We all have to make choices in our daily lives and sometimes
fear can be a very useful tool to keep us safe.
To make critical choices we need to separate accurate
information from rumor or speculation.

Mr. President, the only way you are ever going to get this is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.

Senator Arthur Vandenberg, 1947

What's Really Scary

What is man's greatest fear: violent death. In actual fact heart disease and cancer cause over half of all deaths. We are more likely to die of one of these two things than die in a terrorist attack. You are in more danger driving to the supermarket than flying on a plane. With all the information readily available, why do we fear a terror attack when the most deadly form of terrorism we face is within our own bodies? We do more danger to ourselves on a daily basis than Al Qaeda ever did.

Deaths in the US in 2003

Cause Percent
Heart disease 28.00 %
Cancer 22.70 %
Stroke 6.40 %
Lower resp. diseases 5.20 %
Accidents 4.50 %
Diabetes 3.00 %
Influenza/pneumonia 2.70 %
Alsheimers's 2.60 %
Nephritis/nephrosis 1.70 %
Septicemia 1.40 %
Suicide 1.30 %
Liver disease/cirrhosis 1.10 %
Hyper-/hyper-renal disease 0.90 %
Parkinson's 0.70 %
Homicide 0.70 %
All other causes 17.00 %

Assessing Risk or Rational Decision Making

When assessing risk most people consider the worst
case rather than the probability that the worst case will
actually occur. What is rational in today's world? Is
it rational to fear a foreign terrorist more than the
possibility of poor dietary choices leading to an early

The voice of intelligence is drowned out by the roar of fear.

Karl A. Menninge

When planning for personal safety, consider the
probability of the events you are trying to protect
yourself from. Do your concerns arise from reasoned
thought or inflammatory rhetoric? Are you well
informed about the source of your fear? Is your
knowledge based on reliable sources?

The Leviathan Today

Hobbes's social contract provides a good framework
for a discussion of today's politics of fear. The sover-
eign must constantly remind people of the dangers that
will follow if the commonwealth dissolves--a return
to a state of nature and war. Today's citizens are
frightened into giving up some of their liberty so that
they can feel secure. How much power should we
grant the Leviathan in exchange for our safety?

During the Clinton Era talk about "catastrophic terror-
ism" and "weapons of mass destruction" was common.
By the late 1990' s, fear about catastrophic terrorism
was being used by a variety of political and special
interest groups.

The war on terror is frightening. ALL war is frighten-
ing. Any government that has engaged in war has
used fear to rally its citizens. Support the war or you
will die, or even worse, you might provide comfort or
aid to the enemy. "You are either with us or against
us" - sound familiar? The current War on Terror
maintains us in a constant state of low-grade fear. Will
we ever see condition green or are we to live in a
constant yellow state?

We all feel vulnerable, but is it necessary to surrender
our privacy to keep us safe? Is this a realistic choice
to ask the public to make: privacy or safety?

The reference to fear in the 21st Century is a predominant
feature of public life since September 11, 2001. POF
has been associated with the current administration.
POF is the weapon of choice with those who disagree
with the White House. It is a tool when ratings de-
cline. Since the 2004 election, opponents frequently
portray initiatives of President Bush as examples of the
use of fear. January 2005, Democratic Senator Ken-
nedy argued that Bush's policy on Social Security was
pushed through using POF. In Great Britain, the Blair
government is frequently accused of similar tactics.

The 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential campaign is the
best-known campaign for using fear and terrorism to
convince the electorate that each candidate would
make the best leader and that it would be a calamity to
vote for the other candidate. Ads stated that Kerry was
weak on national security, intelligence and defense,
and other ads said President Bush has made the U.S.

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator John
Edwards accused House Speaker Dennis Haslett of
using "politics of fear" when he said al Qaeda terror-
ists would use an attack to swing the vote to John
Kerry's favor. Vice-President Cheney at another time
said that "terrorists will strike again" if we make the
wrong choice." Voters received ads via speeches and
television ads from Bush, Kerry and political groups
designed to convince the voter that the world would be
more dangerous and that there would be an increase in
casualties if the other guy won.

In the campaign in England preceding the 2005 British
General Election, commentators adopted POF as a
frame through which they interpreted events. The
Tory party was criticized by the police association for
suggesting that crime had risen in areas where the seats
were marginal. Through an open letter, the Arch-
bishop of Canterbury urged that all candidates stop
using fear-driven politics. Candidates frequently
accused one another of using the fear card.

Politicians lack vision argues Frank Furedi in Politics
of Fear. Political jargon is low on specifics and high
in rhetoric. Political vocabulary is designed to obscure
the truth and to distract from underlying ideas and that
there are no BIG IDEAS. With no vision there is little
to change.

There is a loss of effectiveness in government.
Policies are no longer the result of thoughtful
debate but rather the result of fiddling with policies,
making little adjustments and thinking that dilemmas
are created by global forces and are beyond anyone's

There is a pervading sense of underestimating human
capabilities. In Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan's
time, a feeling that "there is no altemative,"
known as TINA, implied a lack of choice which in
turn indicates the end of political discussion. This is
fatalistic. The American presidential campaigns of
2000 and 2004 lacked substance. There was no "plat-
form" either by the candidates or the political parties.
Peoples' identities and lifestyles have become politicized.
Same sex marriage, religion, working parents,
and guns have become debate issues. Politicians do
not persuade: they sell ads on television.

In the chaos that followed the flooding of New Orleans
in 2005, many people wanted the President to send in
the military to control the situation. As the populace
descended into fear there were calls for strong, force-
ful leadership. Because of the Posse Comitatus Act of
1878, the president was unable to send in the military
to enforce civil laws. The Posse Comitatus Act prohib-
its using the Army to enforce civilian law without a
specific act of Congress.


When applied to politics, fear cancels choice and
provides an "either - or" situation. Who do we think
will keep us free from terror? If we question current
politics, are we giving aid and comfort to the enemy?
Does giving up freedom of speech guarantee us
freedom from terror? Where do we draw the line?
These are difficult questions with no easy answers. Do
we understand the political implications of fear?

Fear is a mental and physical reaction. Natural,
healthy fear warns us to avoid pain. We fear that
which could inflict pain on us by others who wish to
harm or kill us. Politically, we fear for ourselves and
for our neighbors.

As threats are thrown around with wild abandon, one
should remember that there is always an alternative.
Even if a choice does not seem readily available, there
are always choices and the one we select depends on
whether we see ourselves as vulnerable or resilient.
Furedi says we can succumb to a culture of fatalism or
we can take a positive approach by believing in human
resourcefulness and by engaging, in the political
process. Only a positive, deliberative approach can
effectively respond to the emotional panic created by
the politics of fear.

There is a critical need for citizens' voices in this ongoing public discourse and an equally critical needfor citizens to act as watchdogs to ensure that the integrity of our democracy is preserved.
LWYUS President Kay J. Maxwell


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