Fear Itself

As a creative response to last night’s State of the Union Address, the N.Y. Times OpEd page today prints the lyrics to a recent Randy Newman song, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country.” If you are thinking of satire along the lines of Newman’s “Short People,” you are mostly wrong. The lyrics are mostly in earnest, with Newman noting that compared to most empires in history, the U.S. is remarkably decent. (He does note, however, that our run as empire is approaching its end.)

The most interesting stanza to me is one that echoes something that we’ve written about again and again — the fact that fear is such a powerful, reliable motivator, and that when presented by politicians, marketers, doctors, or whomever, the emotional response almost inevitably overwhelms the logical response of the average person. Here’s Newman’s take on fear:

A president once said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color coded

Hear hear. Although last night’s State of the Union Address invoked fear less often than in previous years, it was still striking to me how common it has become, especially in politics, to try to scare the crap out of the electorate whether the issue is war, energy, health care, the global economy, gay marriage — and, especially, political elections themselves. (Witness the recent news/rumor/smear that Barack Obama attended a madrasa as a child.)

Wouldn’t it be interesting if fear itself were banished from Washington for a year? What sort of rhetorical — or, better yet, logical — measures might our legislators be forced to employ if they couldn’t rely on fearmongering?


According to older relatives with whom I've spoken, while everyone knew that the nation faced grave risks during World War II there was little of the paralyzing feeling of dread that's come over America since 9/11. I'm old enough to remember parts of the Cold War, and once again people seemed to have less fear notwithstanding the possibility of nuclear annihilation.
I really don't understand what's happened since 9/11. It almost seems as if the events of that day somehow broke our nation's spirit and has left us cowering in fear.


I admire your optimism, but I don't think, in its current state, that our government would get anything done in 1 year without the use of fear tactics. It would take far longer than a single year for those bozos to agree on a new tactic, which would become useless the minute they agreed on it since they would have agreed far later than the window of time.


And the end of the tactics, included in the strategy, must also be remembered at all times. That's why there are different specializations in all areas of politics and economics.

I learned that in a quick survey of 17th-century world literature as an undergraduate student. It was a first semester of love which I dearly enjoyed.



I don't think it's as much the events of the September 11 as our leadership's political use of them that have created fear. In the days after 9/11, I know that I was scared of another attack, just as I'm sure that people were afraid of another attack in the days following Pearl Harbor. However, my fears subsided as time passed. And they should have for others. Instead, in a time of sharply partisan politics, the "fear card" has been played repeatedly. "If you don't go along with my policy, those people will do this to us again." It's a very primative view of the world. As a professor of mine in college pointed out, "President" Bush has a very limited vocabulary which is a sign of limited literacy (I am not calling the "President" illiterate, but I doubt he's the type of person who would ever pick up a book for pleasure). One of the things that comes with literacy is a widened worldview. To me, it seems that the "President's" worldview has an almost tribal us-vs.-them mentality. And fear mongering plays right into that.



The fear card is not new. Have you forgotten Nixon's recentless fear mongering that Asia "would fall like dominoes" if we lost Vietnam?

I can prove that the use of fear is not new. It works too well! Therefore it can't have just been invented. Q.E.D.


interesting comment, but where is the link to data-driven economics?


Its worth noting that FDR said that in March 1933 not December 1941


Monday night's episode of 24 specifically addressed this topic, however briefly. The President and his aides had a pointed debate about the pros and cons of using fear as a device in addressing the nation in the President's speech following a nuclear attack. (Which is all a way of saying, if they are raising it as an issue on a TV show it probably isn't striking or new, unless you think I'm selling the writers of 24 short.)


I'll say! That is why the American Council on Science and Health compiled a list of The Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2006

And we used "The Scream" for the cover of our classic report,
"Facts Versus Fears; A Review of the Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times" http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.154/pub_detail.asp


It is ironic, I think, that the "war on terror" is a central component of this incessant fearmongering.


If a national issue could be argued without using fear, it wouldn't be necessary to make any argument at all, because the issue wouldn't be important enough for us all to care about.


Because fear gets people off their asses and into the voting booth whether it is fear of terrorism, fear of neocon Halliburton oilmen taking over the world, fear of global warming, fear of massive medical bills with no insurance, fear of gays, fear of immigrants, etc.

If not for the fear people might just conclude their life is going pretty well and what difference does it really make who is in power.


I say this as an outside observer but you should look at the format of your news shows and compare it to something on the BBC for example. There's a great segment on this very issue in Bowling for Columbine ! Its all in the tone.


In economics, we often draw a comparison between an individual's success and their level of education. (If it's true that people fear what they don't understand, then a person's propensity towards being fearful is inversely proportional to their education.) Typically, equal responsibility is shared between society and that individual's participation in society for an outcome. Why is it that when we invoke the special population of politicians, all of the sudden the climate of fear is all the fault of the politician? Are they not simply exploiting a resource?

I also have to wonder if I have ataraxia, since I still haven't been 'scared' by anything a politician has said yet.


You should really ask yourself; it might very well be the case. There are many conditions related to fear and mood, not only politicians or economists are prone to those.

About the correlation of success to education, that's mainly related to what you regard as success and education. University professors are low in the pay scale but they are high on the years of schooling scale.



I forgot to mention that economists usually serve the purpose of an unknown politician. And politicians execute what economists many times propose. And level of education is not a measure in those regards or propositions.



We need to remember that fear is quite primal and something that causes physiological responses we cannot think our way out of (as stated above). This is why terrorists are called that, they are trying to instill terror in the populace, which will then affect how the leaders behave (out of fear of the response from the populace). But, also remember that terrorists know to attack the populace, not the soldiers. Pearl Harbor was an attack on military ships, with the intent of destroying America's ability to interfere in the Pacific (and our response was driven by anger and the need for revenge, not so much by direct fear in the general population). 9/11 was an attack on the populace. This affects people far more because it could be them next. If you look at how America responds to soldiers being blown up vs. the general public, it is quite different. We get disenchanted with our adventures overseas when soldiers get blown up (Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, etc), and want the US out of those places. But, when non-soldiers are attacked, we want the perpetrators stopped, almost at any cost. So, playing the fear card always works well and is almost like a drug to some politicians (notably the Bush administration). The problem is that we respond less well each time due to habituation (takes longer with extreme fear events like 9/11). Hopefully that drug is losing some of its luster and value for now, and so they will be forced to find other things to use, or will have to back down the rhetoric. This problem of habituation applies equally well to using fear for Gay marriage, global warming, oil, etc. So, whoever uses (left or right) better use it effectively rather than slapdash (as Bush has done).



In my opinion, fearmongering is not a new tactic nor is it a more frequently used tactic. One illuminating way to distinguish the right from the left in America is to examine what each side fears most. Al Gore, for example, says that the world's biggest problem is Global Warming. George Bush says that the world's biggest problem is Islamofascism.

One's perception of whether fearmongering is on the rise or not may depend on who's raising the fears and whether one agrees with them. One man's fearmongering is another man's logical measure.


"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country." -- Hermann Goering


“Even paranoids have real enemies.” - Delmore Schwartz