The Centrality of Fear in Right-wing Hegemony

originally published on September 11, 2010

Paul Rosenberg nailed it yesterday in his article on Taxes & Terrorism (Open Left):

…the basis of conservative politics is fear.  The basis of liberal politics is reason.  The conservative try to flood the zone with fear, so that people can’t think straight . . . If the GOP can turn anything into a flashpoint of fear, then they can keep on repeating it, and all thought shuts down–perhaps not for everyone, but for enough. But for them to be really secure, they need the Democrats to buy into their logic as well.  Once the Democrats are gripped with fear, and unwilling to talk about a given issue, then that issue belongs to the GOP.  Their position on it doesn’t have to make any sense.  Making sense is beside the point.  The point is scaring people.  The point is, in a word, terrorism.

As today is September 11, it’s fitting to address the subject of fear – especially considering the chorus of stupid that’s been ringing from Gainsville to Manhattan.

Paul’s spot-on analysis reminded me of a few related articles on the subject. The first is something I wrote in 2007 on fear-based narrative strategies. This is from Beyond the Choir’s Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (PDF):

9/11 jostled Americans’ anxieties like a rock on a hornets’ nest. Many people struggled to make sense of the attacks, working through feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The Bush Administration quickly wove together a story to explain the attacks in ways that would channel people’s emotions and draw lessons favorable to the neo-cons’ ambitious agenda. Their story was first and foremost about why we must go to war. They used classic narrative devices; America was the victim, al Queda the clear villain. The story started on what would have been a pleasant Tuesday morning in September, with America waking up to a new day, only to be savagely surprise-attacked by a villain so evil that his only rationale was a rabid hatred of freedom itself. He might have destroyed freedom and “our way of life” entirely, unless…

In stepped our hero, George W. Bush, already resolute while most Americans were still reeling. He knew who did it, and he knew what he was going to do to them. The only thing America could do in this story was to fight back, to not be a victim. These colors don’t run! The story demanded that we go to war. It precluded any other options.

I discuss how “coining and parroting phrases like War on Terror, Homeland Security, Axis of Evil, and so on” was a narrative strategy to “preclude alternatives or dissent.”

False dichotomies are a hallmark of fear-based control narratives… “You’re with either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” In the thick of the political climate of fear that followed 9/11, to argue with this statement was to be relegated to the latter of the two options.

But there’s an important psychological component that I didn’t discuss in this essay. It reads as if the Bush Administration operated as a 100% cold and calculating Machiavellian control machine. I mean, that’s mostly true – operatives on the right understand the playbook for stoking and manipulating fear. But what this misses is that fear-mongering comes so very naturally for most of them. It’s not only their strategy. It’s also their psychological disposition – and their morality.

Progressives like to view far right-wingers as either crazy or evil or both. It’s challenging to think of someone who wants to burn a Koran – or someone who wants to invade and occupy another country – as moral. But if we want to get anywhere in understanding the foundations of what we’re up against, we need to look through the lens of morality. I use the word morality very neutrally here.  I’m certainly not saying that Newt Gingrich and company are acting on my moral code when they try to stop an Islamic community center in Manhattan.  But they are acting on their morals. They are operating under a different moral system, in which authority is more important than nurturance – so fear becomes a primary tool.

Linguist George Lakoff has done amazing work in mapping the two primary moral systems most people operate under (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think is a good Lakoff book to start with).  He calls these systems Strict Father Morality and Nurturant Parent Morality. Choose your label. They actually contain many of the same components, but in a different order. Strict Father Moralists, for example, also value nurturance (who knew?) – but it’s further down the checklist.  These contrasting sets of values are based on our conceptions of the family and how to raise children – which we project onto government’s relationship to society. So a person who believes that fathers should show love by first and foremost instilling discipline and obedience in their children, and a person who believes parents should first and foremost nurture their children, will tend to make very different moral judgments on most every political issue.

One of Lakoff’s key assertions is that “conservatives understand the moral dimension of our politics better than liberals do,” and have therefore been able to “use politics in the service of a much larger moral and cultural agenda for America,” while “liberals have been helpless to stop them . . . because they don’t understand the conservative worldview and the role of moral idealism…”

Progressives need to understand both the calculated game of fear-mongering and the underlying moral system and psychology that enables the Gingrichs and Roves to win that game. Paul’s breakdown that “the basis of conservative politics is fear” and “of liberal politics is reason” makes me picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground. It’s not a winning equation for the nerd and all his smart reasoning skills. The bully commands fear. We feel the need to respond to him and accommodate him because when he doesn’t get his way he’ll hit us and kick us and bite us and pinch us (yes, he fights dirty) or call us a terrorist-lover or a Muslim or a communist.

We need a better story than the story of the bully and the nerd.

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