Fear as a Political Tool

by Fernando Perfas

Military police at the White House | Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

Fear is a basic human emotion. It is fundamental to human survival, and it’s the most primitive and highly developed emotion in animals, including man. When there is a perceived danger, fear triggers the amygdala, which is the fear center of the human brain. When the amygdala is activated, it prepares the body to respond to flee or fight and freeze when fear is overwhelming. Meanwhile, the cognitive part of the brain is temporarily modulated while the body responds to an emergency. A cognitive analysis is not the most efficient mode of response when, for example, a tiger intends to chase and devour you. The amygdala’s rapid response helps in our flight from danger to safety. All these happen in a blink of an eye. However, when it’s overstimulated, as in the case of chronic trauma, cognitive development in young children is hampered. And in the case of PTSD, the slightest clue or threat of harm sets the amygdala off, which can be debilitating.

We say rather correctly that fear is irrational. It’s an effective tool used often by politicians to sway voters to support an agenda built on fear. Here is some commonly used rhetoric: “Immigrants are rapists, drug dealers, and they are going to take away your jobs,” or “The left is turning this country into a communist state,” etc. Now, conspiracy theories that evoke fear and anxiety are a favorite tactic employed in political campaigns.

Back in Lincoln’s time during the Civil War, he won his second term as president despite the war’s heavy toll on human life, resources and disastrous Union Army missteps against the Confederate Army in the early days of the war. It was an uncertain time beset with mortal threats to the Union. People decided to cast their lot with Lincoln anyway rather than on a new face who could bring an even greater uncertainty.

In more recent times, the same thing happened in U.S. President Bush’s bid for a second term in 2004. It was a time when the U.S. was going through regular terrorist alert advisories following the 911 attack. A few days before the election, a controversial terror alert level was raised. At the time, I suspected it was a deliberate ploy to influence voters by playing on their already frayed nerves over the 911 aftershocks. I was surprised by the media’s muted protest of what was an obviously unfair tactic. Bush won with a thin margin despite his dismal performance on various national issues besides the war on terror. Then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, who resigned after the election, later revealed that he was pressured to raise the terror threat level just before the election.

“As long as a segment of humanity is shackled under autocracy, their capacity to make moral choices will be undermined by fear. Under duress, there will be no free choice, and personal responsibility is forfeited. Only with freedom can man genuinely reflect on the natural consequences of his choices and be judged on their morality.”

Even in geopolitics, fear can effectively manipulate people’s sentiments to justify horrific actions and threaten adversaries. The Ukraine war is a classic example of how Putin used fear to launch an unjust war against a peaceful country with little protest from the Russian people. Whether borne of personal paranoia or a calculated gambit to advance imperialistic ambition, Putin used contrived threats from the West and conspiracy theories of Neo-Nazi and CIA plots in Ukraine against Russia to advance and get support for his ugly war. Russian citizens were cowed by his draconian law that went after war objectors. It raised the price for dissent to silence protest. He resorted to nuclear saber-rattling to intimidate the rest of the world, especially the West, to deter a tough response against his aggression.

Critical thinking is eclipsed when fear has taken hold of the mind. Irrational thinking and poor judgment take over. When this is the predominant mood, people become passive and resort to what is familiar. Taking bold action is deemed too risky, whereas going with the flow is an easier and “safer” path to take. When fear rules, not only sound judgment suffers. Moral judgment is also impaired. We are witnessing this among the Russian population, cheering Putin by giving him high marks for going to war.

We have seen this happen time and again because, regardless of nationality, we are all susceptible to the corrosive influence of fear in our collective national consciousness. Due to the pervasive cultural trauma we all have been through in the course of our evolution; none has been spared from the convulsions of warfare and human conflicts, big or small. Ancestral legacies of historical, cultural, and colonial trauma, not to mention ethnic, racial, and religious persecutions and oppression of all kinds, dot our historical landscape going back to the remotest past of mankind. Those dark clouds of collective trauma continue to echo in human consciousness down the generations.

As long as a segment of humanity is shackled under autocracy, their capacity to make moral choices will be undermined by fear. Under duress, there will be no free choice, and personal responsibility is forfeited. Only with freedom can man genuinely reflect on the natural consequences of his choices and be judged on their morality.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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