The news cycle in early May seemed to portend Armageddon. I noticed the psychological impact of the bad news among my heartiest, most hopeful progressive intimates. My mother is having nightmares about the incalculable impact of the BP oil disaster on the Gulf Coast. Having survived Hurricane Katrina, my friend could not bear to watch coverage of the Nashville floods. My own heart raced when I thought of how often I have stood at the corner of Forty-fifth and Seventh in New York City, where Faisal Shahzad allegedly attempted to detonate a car bomb. Evening news typically trends toward the negative and alarming, but in the wake of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, the continuing unemployment woes and the deepening foreclosure crisis, these recent stories of disasters, terrorist plots, European economic catastrophe and Wall Street roller coasters seem particularly jarring. Together they are a reminder of our staggering collective vulnerability.
These events reveal the inherent limitations of our technology, our prosperity and our government solutions. They remind us that despite tremendous progress and best intentions, we live in a contingent and often frightening world. This sense of vulnerability has political consequences. Progressives often accuse the right of using these news cycles to stoke fear, mobilize the uninformed and win battles by terrifying the public. Undoubtedly there’s some fear-baiting in the Tea Party panic over higher taxes even when most Americans received a tax cut; the racist Arizona anti-immigrant law, based in anxiety about low-wage competition; and the white-knuckled panic that equal rights for homosexuals will unravel the nation’s social fabric.
But the effects of heightened vulnerability are not exclusive to the right. During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama declared an end to the politics of fear, offering instead a politics of hope. His campaign rhetoric was steeped in a triumphant American narrative about a historical arc that bends always toward justice. He recalled the end of slavery, the growing equality of women and the triumph of civil rights. Candidate Obama encouraged Americans to rest assured that despite inevitable challenges, the world was basically a fair and just place. He promised that it was safe to be hopeful and asserted, "Yes we can." While this optimism was a clear rebuttal to the fear-based politics of the Bush administration, it also held some potential dangers. There is some evidence that believing in the fundamental fairness of the world can lead to surprisingly conservative reactions in moments of disaster and suffering.
When faced with the circumstances that reveal human vulnerability, people have two choices: they can determine that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victims must somehow be responsible for their suffering. Decades of psychological research have found that those most attached to the idea of a just world become most cognitively frustrated when they are presented with stories of victims who suffer through little fault of their own. In an unexpected twist, those most attached to the belief that the world is fair are those most likely to reconcile their distress about unearned suffering by blaming the victims. Even when we know that suffering is undeserved, it is psychologically easier to find a way to blame the victim rather than give up the idea that the world is basically fair.