The politics of fear

President Bush isn’t the only one who plays the scare card.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Today, we seem to recognise the politics of fear only in its most grotesque caricatured form.

Many commentators have argued that the US presidential election is dominated by the politics of fear. American media outlets, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have criticised the fear-mongering tactics of the election campaign organisers.

Both President George W Bush and his Democrat challenger John Kerry have been criticised – but the charge of fear-mongering is predominantly focused on Bush. Indeed, many claim that fear has become Bush’s favourite weapon of choice, and accuse him of systematically manipulating the public’s fear of terrorism since 9/11 in order to strengthen his administration’s authority. The post-9/11 curbs on civil rights, such as the Patriot Act, have been discussed as symptoms of this trend towards domination through fear.

It seems that one of the principal discoveries made by twenty-first century media pundits is that governments use fear to sustain their authority. The elevation of terrorism into the biggest threat to civilisation no doubt provides a lot of material for scripting the politics of fear – but the script is hardly original. It has been recycled in different forms for decades. In the post-Second World War era there was a continuous promotion of fear of the ‘other side’. Fear of communism underpinned Cold War ideology, with periodic outbursts of fear of crime, fear of immigrants, and fear of nuclear war.

Fear of terrorism is not new either. Even before 9/11 governments couldn’t resist the temptation to play the terror card. Speculation about ‘catastrophic terrorism’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was rife in the 1990s. It was President Bill Clinton who appointed a national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection and counterterrorism in May 1998, in order to ‘bring the full force of all of our resources to bear swiftly and effectively’. In November 1998, a group of foreign policy experts claimed that, ‘The danger of weapons of mass destruction being used against America and its allies is greater now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962’ (1).

A few weeks before September 2001, Sir William Stewart, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser, warned that the New Labour government’s difficulty in dealing with the foot-and-mouth outbreak showed just how vulnerable Britain was to any future threat from biological warfare (2). The ease with which he could jump from a crisis of British farming to the spectre of biological warfare highlighted the salience of fear as a political resource today.

Since 9/11, politicians, business, advocacy organisations and special interest groups have sought to further their selfish agendas by manipulating public anxiety about terror. All seem to take the view that they are more likely to gain a hearing if they pursue their arguments or claims through the prism of security. Businesses have systematically used concern with homeland security to win public subsidies and handouts. And paradoxically, the critics of big business use similar tactics – many environmentalist activists have started linking their traditional alarmist campaigns to the public’s fear of terror attacks.

So after 9/11, the Worldwatch Institute issued a statement entitled ‘The Bioterror In Your Burger’, which argued that although past attempts to clean up America’s food chain had ‘failed to inspire politicians’, a patriotic demand for homeland security could ‘finally lead to meaningful action’. The Detroit Project, a campaign started by liberal commentator Arianna Huffington and Americans for Fuel-Efficient Cars, links its campaign against sports utility vehicles (SUVs) with the war on terrorism, arguing that Americans need to ‘free ourselves from the nations and terrorists holding us hostage through our addiction to oil’.

Some environmentalists argue that their programmes offer the most effective counter-terrorist strategy of all. In an article for the online journal OnEarth, David Corn, the Washington-based editor of America’s left-leaning weekly The Nation, argued that ‘technologies long challenged by environmental advocates are potential sources of immense danger in an era of terrorism’. ‘Environmentalism will have to be an essential component of counter-terrorism’, he added.

Even radical critics of the war in Iraq argued against the war by ratcheting up fears of terrorism. The UK’s Stop the War Coalition said that a ‘headlong rush into war against Iraq will precipitate the very terror threats that most sane people want to avert’. George Michael caused controversy when he released the anti-war single ‘Shoot the Dog’ in 2002 – but that also was an argument against war on the basis that it would make us more vulnerable to terrorism. ‘I got the feeling that when it all goes off, they’re gonna shoot the dog’, he sang, ‘they’ being the ‘Mustaphas’ and ‘Gaza Boys’ and the dog being Blair’s Britain. The video that accompanied the song showed a map of Britain with a target sign across it.

Radical critics also use the rhetoric of terror to denounce policies they dislike. They write of the ‘terror’ experienced by poor Americans who lack access to health insurance or the ‘terror’ inflicted through racist policies on minorities. In attempting to subvert the dominant rhetoric of the war on terror, they inadvertently lend credibility to it.

There is nothing distinct about Bush’s rhetoric on terrorism. His sentiments are echoed by leaders of other interest groups and even by his opponents. Indeed, by transforming Bush into a figure that should be feared the Democrats have proved to be the most adept cultivators of the politics of fear. While Bush has adopted a one-dimensional focus on the threat of terror, Kerry has succeeded in promoting fear on several fronts.

The Democrats claim that if Bush is re-elected he will conspire to reintroduce a military draft, and will turn the world into a more dangerous place. ‘Despite a lot of rhetoric, Bush has failed to provide adequate homeland security’, states one Democrat website. The message, in short, is that the security of the USA depends on the election of Kerry.

In fact, Kerry is a far more sophisticated practitioner of the politics of fear than his Republican opponents. Consider the recent controversy over the shortage of flu vaccines. Kerry seized upon this issue and declared that Bush could not be trusted with protecting the public’s health. His intervention provoked a panic; people who hadn’t previously heard about the flu vaccine started queuing up to receive it.

The narrative of fear has become so widely assimilated that it is now self-consciously expressed in a personalised and privatised way. In previous eras where the politics of fear had a powerful grasp – in Latin American dictatorships, Fascist Italy or Stalin’s Soviet Union – people rarely saw fear as an issue in its own right. Rather, they were frightened that what happened to a friend or a neighbour might also happen to them. They were not preoccupied with fear as a problem in an abstract sense.

Today, however, public fears are rarely expressed in response to any specific event. Rather, the politics of fear captures a sensibility towards life in general. The statement ‘I am frightened’ is rarely focused on something specific, but tends to express a diffuse sense of powerlessness. Or fears are expressed in the form of a complaint about an individual, such as ‘Bush really scares me’ or ‘he’s a scary president’. Ironically, in the very act of denouncing Bush’s politics of fear, the complainant advances his own version of the same perspective by pointing out how terrifying the president apparently is.

  • Fear as a perspective

As I argue in my book Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation, fear has become a powerful force that dominates the public imagination. This was the case for some time before 9/11, and its ascendancy has not been predicated on the issue of terrorism.

The defining feature is the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence. The line that used to delineate reality from science fiction has become blurred. So government officials have looked into the alleged threat posed by killer asteroids to human survival; some scientists warn that an influenza pandemic is around the corner; others claim that ‘time is running out’ for the human race unless we do something about global warming. ‘The end is nigh’ is no longer a warning issued by religious fanatics; rather, scaremongering is represented as the act of a concerned and responsible citizen.

Advocacy groups often claim that we are not scared enough and that the public should be more ‘aware’ of the risks they face. Newspapers compete with one another in the promotion of different scare stories, whether it’s Frankenstein foods, the risks posed by the MMR vaccine, economy-flight syndrome, or asylum seekers.

The prevalence of such scary stories suggests that society feels uncomfortable with itself. It cannot discuss a problem facing children without going into panic mode. Overnight we discover that obesity is an ‘epidemic’ and is likely to kill more people than smoking does. Discussions about new technology, drugs, health or the environment invariably focus on worst-case scenarios. The cumulative impact is to transform fear into a cultural perspective through which society makes sense of itself. Fear is rarely about anything specific – it is about everything. The culture of fear is underpinned by a profound sense of powerlessness, a diminished sense of agency that leads people to turn themselves into passive subjects who can only complain that ‘we are frightened’.

Politics has internalised the culture of fear. So political disagreements are often over which risk the public should worry about the most. British politics is currently dominated by debates about the fear of terror, the fear of food, the fear of asylum seekers, the fear of anti-social behaviour, fears over children, fear about health, fear for the environment, fear for our pensions, fears over the future of Europe. The politics of fear transcends the political divide.

And yet the politics of fear could not flourish if it did not resonate so powerfully with today’s cultural climate. Politicians cannot simply create fear from thin air. Nor do they monopolise the deployment of fear; panics about health or security can just as easily begin on the internet or through the efforts of an advocacy group as from the efforts of government spindoctors. Paradoxically, governments spend as much time trying to contain the effects of spontaneously generated scare stories as they do pursuing their own fear campaigns.

Perhaps the distinct feature of our time is not the cultivation of fear, but the cultivation of vulnerability. In an era where children, women, the elderly, the infirm and the poor – around 80 to 90 per cent of the population of the Western World – are routinely discussed as ‘vulnerable groups’, there is little need for an omnipotent state to remind us of our lack of power. When most forms of human experience come with a health warning, we are continually reminded that we cannot be expected to manage everyday risks. And if vulnerability is the defining feature of the human condition, we are quite entitled to fear everything.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Visit Frank Furedi’s website

(1) ‘Catastrophic Terrorism; Tackling the New Danger’, Ashton Carter, John Deutch and Philip Zelikow , Foreign Affairs, November/December 1998

(2) Biological warfare warning for UK, BBC News, 2 September 2001

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Topics Politics


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