The preview for Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth declared it “by far the most terrifying film you will ever see. It will shake you to your core.” The movie never shied from summoning the prospect of global doom–and summoning it again and again. Yet the movie didn’t leave its audiences quivering in their seats, paralyzed by the thought of looming catastrophe driven by powerful forces far greater than any individual. Along with increasingly harrowing communiqués from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and now huge fires across the West, the film spurred a planet to action. Individuals and governments alike are doing things that just two years ago seemed politically unattainable eco-fantasies.
But just as fear is starting to pay dividends for the planet, many liberals are turning their backs on this most powerful of political emotions. An idea that seems to keep bubbling up in Democratic and progressive circles is that everyone from environmentalists to healthcare advocates to Democratic candidates should keep their messages upbeat and hopeful.
It’s an appealing conceit for the confrontation-averse: if fear doesn’t work, we can just go on doing the less emotionally taxing and less controversial work of delivering happy little sermons. For that reason, just three years after running a cheerful and largely fearfree 2004 convention that was blown away by the Republicans’ rhetorical mushroom clouds, lots of liberals are latching onto some recent psychological studies that suggest anxiety has an expiration date.
They say that President Bush’s use of fear is generating diminishing returns: each time Bush tries to evoke fear, it works less as more people clue into his deceptions.
“Barring another assault on American soil, the moment of September 11–and the reminder of mortality that it brought–may well have passed,” wrote John Judis in a recent article in The New Republic. “And with it, too, the ascendancy of politicians who exploited the fear of death that lies within us all.”
Judis was interpreting a series of studies by psychologists Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg that found clear evidence that evoking people’s fear of death made them more defensive of their world view, more hostile to foreigners, more willing to lash out violently at people of different political or religious beliefs and more drawn to charismatic leaders.
But these studies also found that it’s possible to limit or reverse these effects. Urging people to make careful decisions rather than rash ones, priming people to think about the value of tolerance or, critically, alerting them to the possibility of manipulation, limits the ability of death to generate a defensive response. The antifearmongers have embraced this conclusion, arguing that Republicans’ use of fear in the past fourteen years has exhausted its ability to generate the intended response and that it may even be producing a backlash.
So while it’s true that the impact of politically motivated Homeland Security alerts and strategically timed Al Qaeda arrests may be ebbing, that doesn’t mean dread is dead.
Indeed, President Bush’s monomaniacal focus on terrorism and Iraq has effectively distracted people from other lethal threats: disease, crime, state-sponsored nuclear attack and the destruction of the natural world. Clever politicians who remind people of those threats will continue to leverage the immense political power of the fear of death.