Understanding the Politics of Fear

This article is part of the Weekly Workgroup Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2008. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Wednesday March 5, 2008.

This week’s discussion is inspired by the upcoming general election period. Conservative groups like Freedom’s Watch are already starting to use fear in attacks against progressives. Progressives need to understand how fear works in order to both respond effectively and transcend these attacks.

Welcome to the Weekly Workgroup, where topics inspired largely by your questions and comments on Rockridge Nation will be explored in greater depth. My hope is that we can foster stimulating discussions that provide grounded and useful contributions to your political life.

Each Wednesday I will post a brief introduction to a new topic. As comments appear I will attempt to nurture a healthy discussion all week through the end of my work day on Friday. This is intended to be a conversation, not a lecture. Your insights, perspectives, and questions are sought and encouraged.

I’d like to start a discussion of fear and its relationship to progressive and conservative frames. Then let’s get a conversation going.

Like it or Not, Fear is Here

We are in the midst of a time of powerful opportunity for the progressive movement. Crises abound in many forms – endless occupation, a broken health system, climate disruption, and a faltering economy. All of these disasters were created through or made worse because of inadequate governance by conservatives. They have altered the political discourse to promote their ideology and caused immense damage to our country.

We need to reclaim the discourse with true American values like compassion, community, and opportunity. This requires us to get beyond the conservative politics of fear. For too long, conservatives have raised bogeymen to promote their idea that the world is a dangerous place, so you need a strict father to protect you. They have told us to fear “terrorists” who hate our freedom, colored people who cannot be trusted, “illegals” who threaten to take our jobs, and “Islamofascists” who want to destroy our beliefs. We can respond to this fear-mongering, but we need to understand something important first:

Fear is part of the human experience. It is part of our motivation system and will always be present in politics.

We need to get beyond the false view of mind that pits Reason and Emotion against each other in order to develop effective strategies. The truth is that emotional processing is part of every decision. Problems arise when the emotions are overwhelming or inappropriate to the situation at hand.

So the question is, how do we understand the workings of fear so we can respond to it effectively (and see the role it plays in all of our decisions).

Activate Empathy to Dispel Fear

The question from a Rockridge perspective is how does fear work in the context of progressive frames. The simple answer is that progressives are motivated primarily by empathy, with fear playing a supporting role. Here are a few examples:

Aversion to Illness
I want to avoid getting sick. My motivation to avoid sickness has a fear component (such as aversion to pain or fear of death). My empathy for others projects this understanding onto them. I don’t want others to get sick either.

Losing a Job
I feel more secure when I have a job. My motivation to avoid losing my job has a fear component (such as aversion to uncertainty). I feel the anxiety of others when their jobs are lost. I want everyone to have secure employment.

Averting Disaster
I want the world to be safe for everyone. The thought of powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels, and invasive tropical insects motivate me to want to address global warming.

Each of these examples has a fear component implicit in the motivation, but empathy is the central focus. The fear is understood as part of the progressive view that we are all in it together.

Fear-mongering Promotes Conservative Worldview

A simple strategic reason to avoid fear tactics is that they promote the conservative worldview. Ticking time bombs. A deadly threat from afar. You need someone strong to protect you – in the form of a strict father government.

Conservatives have worked hard to create this impression in the populace. They created a terrorist threat meter to routinely reinforce their view of the world. All the while, they took actions that made us less safe. Promoting fear in this way achieves two things:

  1. It promotes the conservative worldview.
  2. It establishes power over the people.

Progressives don’t want either of these things. We want people to feel empowered. We want to promote a progressive worldview.

So what can we do about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts about how fear gets expressed differently by conservatives and progressives. Maybe we can finally figure out how to make the Fear Card obsolete by finding ways to nullify or at least minimize its effects.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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