Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fear of the Other in Politics

Newsweek had a short interview with the author of Why Good People Do Bad Things, which you can read by clicking on the link in this entry's title. The reason for the interview was the sad case of Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who is charged with trying to hurt a romantic rival. In this interview he noted that there are two basic fears that humans have: a fear that "the other" will overwhelm us, and the fear that "the other" will abandon us. According to this author, each of these basic human fears can lead to extreme and even violent actions. He goes on to theorize that it was her fear of abandonment that led to Ms. Nowak's actions.

While his interview was about romantic obsession and why a person as accomplished as Lisa Nowak would do something that appears incredibly stupid, his remarks have application to politics. One thing that all political ideologues who preach intolerance and hate have in common is that they base their appeal on fear of "the other." Think of Hitler and Stalin. Both of them were able to convince followers that "the other" was a threat to those followers. Think of homegrown ideologues such as the KKK or the John Birch society. Each of them tell their followers that "the other" such as Afro-Americans or liberals are a threat to their existence, or at least the existence they have known. It doesn't matter that the threat may be trivial or even non-existent, what matters is that they are able to convince their followers that the threat is real. They are able to raise fears in the minds of their followers that have their origins in out primal past.

Listen to the statements of people like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh and analyze them to see if they are based on appealing to a fear of "the other." "The other" being liberals, Democrats, feminists, non-Christians, or anyone else that isn't like them. They raise the spectre that their listeners will be overwhelmed by "the other" and that they have to aggressively resist "the other" to preserve their lives and the lives of their families. It is very hard to rebut such emotional appeals with reason or facts. The reasoning part of the brain isn't involved in processing such appeals.

Of course, fear of "the other" isn't always illogical. There are people in the world who do wish to destroy others, or harm their families. Think of people like Osma bin Laden who seem nothing wrong with killing people who have never met him or his followers, let alone harmed them.

This fear of "the other" explains the rise and fall of George W. Bush between 2001 and 2006. Following September 11, 2001, it was easier to convince Americans that "the other", in this case Islamic terrorists posed a direct threat to our existence than it was on September 10, 2001. It was easy to get political support for attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan. Then, before emotions could subside, he started hyping the threat from Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11.
That's why it was essential to the Bush administration that Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons.

Once, though, the invasion took place and no WMDs were found, then Bush's popularity began to fall. Although it had not yet caught up with him by 2004, it had by 2006. His administration's attempts to use fear of "the other" to gain political power weren't successful since now Americans had plenty of evidence that instead of increasing our security, the Iraq War was hurting our security. Unlike 2002 or even 2004, fear of "the other" wasn't enough to overcome the empirical evidence of the harm that Bush's policies were doing to America.

The political use of fear of "the other" also explains why the Republicans in the House of Representatives don't want to debate the merits of Bush's plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq. Instead they want the focus of the debate to be on Islamic terrorists because such a debate appeals to people's fears and not their reason. They can possibly win a debate based on fear, but not win based on reason.

All this is not to say that there aren't Islamic terrorists that present a threat to America and Americans. After 9-11 only a fool would think that such threats don't exist. It is to say, however, that use of fear of "the other" can be a tool for political manipulation and as a instrument for obtaining and wielding political power, one that the radical right-wing Republicans won't hesitate to use.


Jill said...

Excellent post that raises a point I've repeated for years: failure to be able to trust that results from a fear of losing control or at least not being confident that someone else can look out for your interests, maybe not in the same way but at least as a decent caretaker, is at the root of so many problems in our world. We just want it our way and that's the only way. Except, it's not. It never is.

Team Member said...

Thanks. I have been fascinated for many years by the psychological side of political message development. Too often progressives ignore the emotional argument in favor of the rational or intellectual argument. The radical right doesn't make that mistake as often.