I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Fear as the driving political belief

The NSA eavesdropping scandal is rendering more vivid than ever the central role which fear plays in driving many people to support the whole range of George Bush’s policies that are justified in the name of fighting terrorists. At bottom, so many of the public policy debates we are having end up at that destination, where this one simple though incomparably potent emotion -- fear -- stands revealed as the true engine driving support for the Bush world-view.

When all else fails, what we end up hearing from Bush supporters, usually in quite strained and urgent tones, is that we have no real choice but to consent to the latest item of controversy on the Bush agenda (which now even includes allowing the President to break the law when he decides that our protection requires that), because if we do not, we will all die violent and horrible deaths at the hands of the powerful Islamic terrorists. Our very survival is at risk -- the people who want to kill us all are coming -- and given our dire state, anything and everything is justified to stop them.

There have been two excellent posts on this subject recently -- one by Maha and then one by Digby -- and I posted my own views on this and related topics here and here. Now, researchers in the Social Psychology program at Rutgers University-New Brunswick are offering some empirical evidence which demonstrates the critical role which fear plays in driving people to support George Bush. These social scientists are reporting on their findings from a study which sought to measure the impact which fear had on voting choices in the 2004 election:

Their findings demonstrated that registered voters in a psychologically benign state of mind preferred Senator Kerry to President Bush, but Bush was more popular than Kerry after voters received a subtle reminder of death. Citing an Osama bin Laden tape that surfaced a few days before the election, among other factors, the authors state, "the present study adds convergent support to the idea that George W. Bush's victory in the 2004 presidential election was facilitated by Americans' nonconscious concerns about death…" The authors believe that people were scared into voting for Bush.

More than 130 registered voters participated in the study. Split into two groups, the first group was asked to write down a description of their emotions regarding the
thought of their own death and, as specifically as possible, write down what will physically happen when they die and after they are dead. The second group responded to parallel questions regarding watching television. Within the first group 32 responded that they would vote for Bush and 14 opted for Kerry. In the second group, the decision was reversed as 34 selected Kerry and 8 selected Bush.

The full article itself is behind a subscription firewall. I have e-mailed the editors of the journal to request a copy of the article and will elaborate on the study if I receive it. I find this study far from dispositive, to put it mildly, and, as is usually the case with endeavors of this sort, my guess is that the structure of the study was influenced by lots of preconceived beliefs on the part of the researchers with regard to the subject they were studying.

Nonetheless, its conclusions are consistent with what is quite apparent to the naked eye: a large segment of Americans have had instilled into them a deep-seated fear of terrorism which is the predominant factor in how they form their political views. Does anyone doubt a correlation between the quantity of fear as an emotion and the likelihood they will support George Bush -- that the more someone lives in emotional fear of an Islamic terrorist attack, the more likely it is that they are a Bush voter?

It is not difficult to find the source of these fears. Here is George Bush in a randomly selected and quite typical speech delivered on October 6, 2005, doing everything he can to inflame those fears in order to bolster support for our occupation of Iraq:

We know the vision of the radicals because they've openly stated it -- in videos, and audiotapes, and letters, and declarations, and websites. . . . Their tactic to meet this goal has been consistent for a quarter-century: They hit us, and expect us to run. They want us to repeat the sad history of Beirut in 1983, and Mogadishu in 1993 -- only this time on a larger scale, with greater consequences.

"The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region, and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia. With greater economic and military and political power, the terrorists would be able to advance their stated agenda: to develop weapons of mass destruction, to destroy Israel, to intimidate Europe, to assault the American people, and to blackmail our government into isolation."

"Our enemy is utterly committed. As Zarqawi has vowed, 'We will either achieve victory over the human race or we will pass to the eternal life.' And the civilized world knows very well that other fanatics in history, from Hitler to Stalin to Pol Pot, consumed whole nations in war and genocide before leaving the stage of history."

The murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals is the great challenge of our new century. Yet, in many ways, this fight resembles the struggle against communism in the last century. . . .

With the rise of a deadly enemy and the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history will be remembered for new challenges and unprecedented dangers.

Islamic terrorists here, as always, are depicted as omnipotent villains with quite attainable dreams of world domination, genocide, and the obliteration of the United States. They are trying to take over the world and murder us all. And this is not merely a threat we face. It is much more than that. It is the predominant issue facing the United States -- more important than all others. Everything pales in comparison to fighting off this danger. We face not mere danger, but "unprecedented danger" -- the worst, scariest, most threatening danger ever.

And literally for four years, this is what Americans have heard over and over and over from their Government – that we face a mortal and incomparably powerful enemy on the precipice of destroying us, and only the most extreme measures taken by our Government can save us. We are a nation engaged in a War of Civilizations whose very existence is in imminent jeopardy. All of those plans for the future, dreams for your children, career aspirations, life goals – it’s all for naught unless, first and foremost, we stand behind George Bush as he protects us and defeats this enemy.

There is virtually no policy incapable of being justified with this fear. It is an all-purpose tool. We have to invade and occupy Iraq because the terrorists will kill us all if we don’t. We have to allow the Government to incarcerate American citizens without due process, employ torture as a state-sanctioned weapon, and even allow the Administration to violate the law, because the terrorists will kill us all if we don’t. It is the one and only argument which enables the Bush Administration to win again and again. The more afraid of terrorists people are, the more likely they are to support the Bush world-view. And another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, which is certainly likely, is sure to ramp up that dynamic -- both the fear itself and the policies it enables -- by several orders of magnitude.

Acknowledging a threat, even a serious threat, and taking steps to address it, does not require fear. But what does require fear is an agenda which demands that blind faith be placed by the citizenry in the power of the Government in exchange for being protected by it. And it is that fear, inflamed more and more every day, which is now driving America’s political choices.

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