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How Anxiety Makes Americans Susceptible To Propaganda


“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Thus spoke Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, and it always seemed to me like a pretty dumb thing to say. Fear is not the only thing to fear. What about antibiotic resistance? The collapse of our financial system? Tornadoes?

FDR is a liberal hero of course, so I figured it must be some kind of wacky postmodern thing. All of a sudden, however, I’m starting to come around on this point in 2017. Maybe fear really is the most fearful thing.

Our Closets Are Full of Monsters

The boogeymen of our time are somewhat more elusive than in FDR’s. He we addressing a nation in the midst of a deep depression as European politics turned toxic. We don’t have immediate, tangible problems on that scale. We worry about possible hidden terrorist cells and possible looming fiscal crises and possible super-germs. In a way that’s really the problem. There are a zillion possible threats out there, and it’s hard to tell which ones are real.

Has there ever been a society that was simultaneously so safe and so panicked? We have long lifespans, capable law enforcement, and medical capabilities that would have seemed positively magical to most humans historically. We have elaborate disaster-response provisions, along with a network of public and private institutions that make starvation a non-concern for most Americans. We even have safety caps on our pill bottles.

Still, we find reasons to panic. Right now, for instance, the public seems to be deeply concerned about terrorism. Terrorism is pretty scary, and a lot less abstract than FDR’s “fear.” From September 11, 2001 through the end of 2014, terrorist attacks (of all sorts, not just those perpetrated by jihadists) claimed almost three thousand lives on American soil. Just over 2,900 of those were on September 11 itself. All violent deaths are tragic, of course, but consider that your chances of being a victim of terrorism in the new millennium have been under one in 100,000. That doesn’t seem like a level of risk that should cast a pall over your daily life.

What if it gets worse, though? Jihadists are still out there, thirsty for American blood, scheming about The Next September 11. Plus, the climate change people keep telling us that our planet may become uninhabitable in a shockingly short time. (Should I even bother planting peas this next year?) Plus, I’ve been reading recently that sugar is actually poison. I’m having nightmares about all those oatmeal crème pies I ate in childhood, just wondering how I’ve even survived this long.

Past a certain point, it gets hard to tell the conspiracy theories from the real threats. Lots of prescient people, after all, were called kooks when they first started issuing warnings about some pending catastrophe. Which of that army of apparent cranks is really next Steve Eisman?

Something Wicked This Way Comes

It seems overwhelmingly likely that something bad is waiting in our future, which someone out there has wisely foreseen. But we live in the midst of a cacophony of warnings, and most of us lack the time and resources to do a careful sorting. Meanwhile, our world is changing so rapidly that hardly anything seems settled or certain anymore. So we snatch at the “danger theories” that seem most intuitively plausible to us, and manage the other warnings by lingering in a perpetual state of low-level fear.

It’s not great for our quality of life. Even worse, though, it’s a potent tool for opportunists. Demagogues and con men can be very skilled at fanning that low-level sense of foreboding into a full-scale panic. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that much, as when cagey capitalists con the financially comfortable into buying placebos for invented health problems. Sometimes, though, it might matter very much indeed.

Although America is in some respects deeply divided, it’s amazing how many areas of agreement we can find if we move from concrete social theories to more abstract claims. For instance, almost everyone across the political spectrum seems to think that our government and institutions are losing legitimacy, and that this is a threat to civic order. Almost everyone seems to feel that the future is frighteningly uncertain, and is even now imperiled by dangerous failures of leadership. Almost everyone frets that at least some of our “truthy” organizations (media, schools, religious structures) have massively failed in their core function, unmooring our society from hard, cold reality.

We fight incessantly about other questions. Whose fault is this? What is to be done? What specific shape is our impending doom likely to take? These anxieties cluster together to keep us enclosed in a cloud of angst. What if that turns out to be the greatest actual danger?

The Perils of Fear

Recent events have inspired a lot of discussion of twentieth-century political disasters, from Nazism to the Soviet Union. Some of the comparisons are hysterical and overdrawn, but it’s not stupid to be looking at historical precedents, and thinking about the different faces and forms of political religion. The twenty-first century has made it 17 years without a major world war, so it’s marginally ahead of its predecessor.

Some of the general conditions, though, are worrisomely similar. People are discombobulated by rapid change and widespread social breakdown. Cults and conspiracy theories seem to spring out of the grass at every turn.

Fear weakens society’s “immune system,” undercutting the mechanisms by which it resists internal threats to order. Think about it like this. Potential Josef Stalins and Fidel Castros walk among us in every age, probably not around every corner but certainly embedded within Western societies. There will always be power-hungry and bloodthirsty people in this world, ready to prey on their fellow men as opportunity allows.

Some turn directly to crime, but at least a few prefer to shoot higher, setting their sights on government. We protect ourselves against the tyranny of the unjust by building institutional, constitutional, and cultural barriers to their would-be predation. Without those barriers, democracy has the potential to be much worse than monarchy, because it potentially opens the way for any citizen to become the head of the state. Needless to say, the corrupt and rapacious are disproportionately likely to want such an office, so it is extremely important that we not allow an elected president to become, de facto, a king.

When democracy is healthy, there is a shared consensus about this, and checks and balances function the way they should to prevent an unjust person from seizing the levers of power and wreaking havoc. Democracy continues its usual imperfect churn, and people don’t always get what they want. But most, even in their disgruntlement, still understand that it’s not worth capsizing the whole boat to achieve some limited good. The few who don’t appreciate this end up being marginalized to the point where they don’t pose a serious threat (at least not to the republic as a whole).

When people are living in fear, those calculations start to change. If all we can see ahead of us is storm clouds, there doesn’t seem to be much to lose by rocking the boat. We’re going to be wet soon anyway, right? So it might as well happen on our own terms.

We Hold These Truths

“Living in fear” might be slightly dramatic for describing the lives of most ordinary Americans, but the anxiety does seem to be ramping up quickly. Through the Obama years we laughed about the liberal “panic narratives”: the trigger warnings and gun hysteria and apocalyptic climate change prophecies. Recent events have made clear that the right-leaning panic narratives are also pretty potent.

That kind of fear is hard to defuse, because it’s already driven more by a political and social narrative than by observable facts.

Most Americans are still (certainly by historical standards) extremely safe and materially comfortable. Yet  that’s not necessarily reassuring for political stability. It means that our panic narratives are driven by something other than on-the-ground, measurable danger. They contain strong “interpretive elements,” reading relatively minor and not-immediately-threatening things as evidence of massive injustice or looming peril. That kind of fear is hard to defuse, because it’s already driven more by a political and social narrative than by observable facts. It’s relatively ungrounded in facts, and thus hard to falsify.

Almost nobody wants to live in such a climate. But it is a veritable playground for one particular sort of person: the power-hungry demagogue. He knows how to use widespread fear to crush the cultural and legal barriers that might otherwise thwart his tyrannical ends.

Beware fear, Americans. This is a non-partisan message. Fear makes us stupid and susceptible to manipulation. Especially in a time of widespread fear, we need to prioritize stability and the rule of law, and try to build rapport with those who don’t agree with us. Let’s not allow our future to be written by the worst of us.