December 8, 2019

Fear as a Campaigning Platform

Today the people of the United Kingdom will vote to decide if they wish their country to remain a member the European Union or not – the subject of a domestic debate possibly more heated and vitriolic than any seen in British politics in recent decades. Both halves of the campaign, dubbed Leave and Remain, have been accused of using fear to scare voters into siding with their argument. 

The venom with which both sides campaigned was suddenly, and temporarily, halted last week following the killing of Jo Cox, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, by a suspected British nationalist. 

Cox died after being attacked in the street in the middle of the day in her local constituency. Her alleged attacker is 52-year-old Thomas Mair who when asked to identify himself in court said, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”

Should this incident be a warning to all of the cost that using fear as a tool to win an argument might exact? If so, then this is valid for a wider audience than just the UK.

Across the Atlantic Ocean billionaire-businessman Donald Trump is accused of continuously using fear to whip up support for his bid to become the next President of the United States. Elsewhere, in Israel last year incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was mocked when in response to a critical domestic report into housing he evoked the existential threat posed to the country by Iran. 

Are politicians leaning on our fears more heavily than in the past in order to sway our attitudes and if so what are the consequences?

“As a kid growing up in the States during the Cold War I remember being told by Republicans, ‘don’t vote Democrats (because) if you don’t vote for us the Communists are going to benefit,’” Scott Lucas, a professor of politics at Birmingham University in the UK, told The Media Line. Playing to our fears has routinely been a tactic used by politicians, Lucas said. 

However, with Trump’s campaign to capture the White House or the ‘Brexit’ (shorthand for British Exit from the EU) debate the prevalence of this rhetoric has increased, the professor suggested. 

Campaigning by, “projecting all kinds of anxieties without having to spell them out or having any empirical evidence is an old trick,” being employed by the populist right in Europe, Ruth Wodak, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University and author of The Politics of Fear, told The Media Line. The difference is now these groups are attracting attention and, increasingly, voters. 

An accompanying tactic to fearmongering is to find somebody to blame for these now enflamed fears. “It is a simplistic solution to say that if we get rid of the scapegoat then that problem will be solved,” Wodak said, arguing that this is a central campaigning method of the populist right. 

The problem with pouring this sort of rhetoric into your debate is eventually it can lead to somebody getting hurt. “Mobilizing fear and appealing to emotions of such a negative kind is a step towards aggression against others. It implies envy, aggression and eventually violence,” Wodak said.

In order to be scared people need to have someone to be fearful of. By painting a group in this light politicians then begin to represent them as enemies, Scott Lucas said, opining that both the Trump campaign and the Leave faction in the UK referendum are guilty of this. 

“This language of enemy and threat, it means that by extension if you support the rights of immigrants or refugees, it may be possible that you are an enemy,” Lucas suggested. Though this language did not directly lead to the death of Jo Cox, “a person could have certainly drawn from that environment of fear and hate to reinforce his own deluded views that she represented a traitor.”

To lay all the blame at right-wing politicians might be missing the point however. After all, the Leave campaign in the UK debate is viewed as representing the right-wing argument and yet it is the Leave camp that has been dubbed (admittedly by its opponents) “Project Fear.” While Leave politicians have been warning of the dangers posed by European bureaucrats, immigrants and Turkish absorption into the EU their rivals have countered with concerns over a second recession and European devolution into a Third World War.

It is accepted wisdom that when people become scared they shift to more conservative modes of thinking – however what might be more accurate is that people on the left and right are alarmed by different threats, Gilad Hirschberger, a professor of social and political psychology at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, told The Media Line.

 Physical threats, such as terrorism or immigration, the chief concerns of the right are more attention grabbing as they are immediate and psychologically closer, Hirschberger explained. By contrast, symbolic threats like racial profiling, government attitudes to human rights or climate change, those more likely to scare people on the left, are “vague and somewhere in the future,” he argued. 

The reason fearmongering is an effective tactic is that there is always a grain of truth behind it, the psychologist suggested, citing the wave of stabbings that have taken place in Israel in the last year. 

Statistically speaking an individual walking down the street is extremely unlikely to be attacked, “but if you are a smart and cynical politician and you can focus people’s attention on (this) threat, which is minor, then you can get a lot of political power.” People scared about being stabbed are less likely to complain that the cost of housing is exorbitant.