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Clinically proven politics of fear

rainey BARRETT


I’ve long believed fear drives most of our politics on the right. But it’s been more an unsupported belief than a provable fact. Until I came across some interesting work by Dr. Rose McDermott of Brown University, that seems to show there really is a direct connection. She and several colleagues published their research in the American Journal of Political Science.

Using a large sample of related individuals, researchers first assessed their propensity for fear using lengthy, standardized, clinically administered interviews and tests. In subjects who were related, Dr. McDermott and her crew identified influences such as environment and personal experience and discovered some had a genetic propensity for a higher level of baseline fear. In fact, they experienced fear at even lower levels of threat or provocation than the rest of us.

The primary research finding? “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful; it’s that fearful people are more conservative.”

In one area, there was a strong correlation between social fear and anti-immigration and pro-segregation attitudes. Individuals with higher levels of social fear exhibited the strongest negative attitudes to those two subjects. And there were others.

“People who’re scared of novelty, uncertainty – people they don’t know and things they don’t understand,” McDermott said, “these people are more supportive of politics that provide them with a sense of surety and security.”

The team also found direct links to how political campaigns can be designed to manipulate some people more than others. To make a sizeable group more fearful. Deliberately.

One of the most predictable political certainties of the far right is – and has always been – that it will always frustrate its own efforts. Step on its own feet. It always goes just so long before it splits into smaller factions. Birch Society, Liberty Lobby, Americans For Freedom – you name it. Their origins were with people who were frightened, distrustful – fearful – of conditions at the time. But soon, something in the new group sparked new fears and new distrust. And, amoeba-like, there was a split. Pick a fringe group – research its history – you’ll find a breakup. Maybe two or three. Or more. Time after time after time.

The other factor always found in that scared societal segment – certain people will step up to manipulate the fear. As McDermott’s research pointed out, “political campaigns … designed to manipulate.” I give you Karl Rove, Dick Armey, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman, Ron and Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Wayne LaPierre. And the most skilled master of political manipulation based on fear – the shameless self-promoter – Newt Gingrich.

Take just Rove as an example to prove the point. What’s happening in his foxhole world right now? A new split, of course! Capitalizing on more moderate Republican fears of losing even more political clout than was lost in November, 2012, Rove has split himself and his billionaire backers into yet another fringe group. The motivating factor again? Fear! Fear the Republican Party will be even less a factor in coming elections than it was in November. Fear there will be fewer Republican faces in Congress to carry out what the Kochs and Adelsons and other billionaires with deep pockets want done. Fear – on Rove’s part – his oversized income will be cut off. Fear! Fear! Fear!

As for Congress, McDermott added, “We get frustrated at Congress for being paralyzed if we apply rational perspectives. But we have to recognize what’s driving paralysis and disagreement has to do with emotional factors not necessarily amenable to or easily shifted by rational arguments.” Fear.

Conversely, what keeps more of us from joining Rove and his minions out there at the end of the limb far to the right? The simple answer is – we’re not the fearful. We may be unhappy. We may be frustrated with our government. We may even want to kick a few asses along the Potomac. Unhappy? Yes. Frustrated? Yes. Want to kick some ass? Yes. Alright, more than a few. But not because we’re afraid. Not because we fear.

“It’s not that conservative people are more fearful – it’s that fearful people are more conservative.”

They fear government. They fear our monetary system. They fear people of color. They fear loss of majority status. They fear fluoride. They fear change. They fear any issue they believe they can’t control.
The rest of us may be angry with them. But we don’t have to fear them. Because – in the end – they will fear each other more than us.

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