The Politics of Fear in a Season of Campaigning

[1] “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” As he stood in the Ellipse, my father-in-law remembers that the only thing he was really afraid on that wintry day was frostbite. But I am not worried about the weather. What concerns me is how far this country has traveled from Roosevelt’s insight. Fear has become the lingua franca of this campaign. No robust sense of hope challenges fear in this political season. Rather, pundits market it; politicos manipulate it; and the electorate is left in a terminal state of anxiety, waiting for the next shoe to drop. On November 2nd, we won’t vote our party or our values; we won’t even vote our head or our heart. We’ll vote our fears, and whichever candidate manipulates them most cleverly will have won. The political fallout of this politics of fear is three-fold: manipulation, incantation, and enemies.

[2] First, fear is easy to manipulate. If one measures the relative bounce from the party conventions this summer, fear wins out as a more potent motivator than hope. Democrats talked of jobs, healthcare, and restoring international respect in a city of the Founding Fathers. Republicans met in the shadow of the World Trade Towers to nominate an incumbent who put words like “war on terror” and “axis of evil” into the political lexicon. The incumbents in this election have chosen to run on fear. Vice President Cheney made this strategic move transparent. In numerous campaign appearances, he cautioned people to make the right choice – or be hit again. The strategy plays to our darker natures. Is that a good thing?

[3] The second fallout is a kind of incantational politics. Slogans repeated over and over again gain the appearance of truth, even if they prove false. By the time the US invaded Iraq, almost three-quarters of all Americans thought Saddam Hussein supported Osama bin Laden, simply because they’d heard it repeated so much. Sheer repetition eclipsed the fact that Hussein governed a secularist Muslim regime of the sort bin Laden despised. Now we watch the surreal juxtaposition of carnage in the streets of Sadr City and leaders who repeat the mantra: “Things are getting better; things are getting better; things are getting better….” No wonder so much of this country finds Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” more credible than FOX news.

[4] The final fallout of the politics of fear is the need for enemies. Fear feeds on having an enemy – and if there is no enemy lurking, create one! While you’re at it, create a whole “axis of evil.” But be forewarned: it’s very hard to negotiate with a country you’ve so labeled. And it’s even harder to keep up the good appearance that rendering such judgment demands.

[5] The perfect love that casts out fear comes with the eschaton, but how can we be a little less daunted in the interim? Christian citizens ought to have a healthy respect for the darker side of human nature, but smart enough not to let it ruin their political judgment. Part of the Reformation’s vaunted “freedom of a Christian” is the freedom to ask question, check facts, and challenge mere slogans. Finally, as both saved and sinning (that simul justus et peccator piece), we get to challenge the judgment of an opponent, so long as we remain suspicious of our own as well.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).