The Politics of Fear

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When we think of leaders who rule with fear we usually think of historical overlords in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes – such as Stalin, Hitler or Mao. What gets ignored is the reality that fear seems to be a subtle, but even more prevalent weapon, in current democratic political discourse. It is now an institutionalized practice for political leaders to use fear instead of inspiration in order to maintain power.

Leaders who rule by inspiring are meant to make people optimistic about the future, and push for a change in the status quo or the system. Many modern leaders, however, who attempt to wield inspiration are seen as weak, naïve and idealistic – traits that are futile when it comes to creating practical outcomes. We have become too scared to put our trust in inspirational leaders because they seem to have either perpetually disappointed us, or actually created new fears.

Barack Obama went into the U.S. election with the weight of the people on his shoulders, hoping to build a new, progressive America after the presidency of George Bush. A hostile congress, however, meant that it was extremely difficult for him to implement some of his most important reforms surrounding improved health care and gun regulation.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is another modern leader who has become renowned for leading by inspiration throughout Europe. She is a leader taking ambitious measures on issues such as refugees and climate change. However, despite her ability to actually implement reforms – such as having the highest refugee intake in Europe and having a higher quota for renewable energy – the fear that this has created within the German public about the instability and threat this could have to their own wellbeing, has caused her popularity has plummeted.

The fear that is fostered by leaders in modern, industrialized democratic systems is not a ‘fear for our lives’ like seen in traditional authoritarian regimes, but instead, is a fear of our Western “lifestyles” being compromised. This anxiety is vulnerable to exploitation by politicians who exaggerate danger, fuel the fear, and offer themselves as a solution. This is no longer simply a policy platform of the conservative side of politics, but has merged into popular discourse. Parties on the progressive side of politics perpetuate fear of how the conservative politicians could threaten welfare, whilst the conservatives threaten that the progressive side could endanger social norms and conventions.

This can be seen in the current U.S. presidential debate. Donald Trump and Clinton have engaged in pure fear mongering, and through the process of “mud throwing”, are simply trying to convince the American public that the opposition poses a greater threat than they do. Trump promotes the fear that the lives of the underrepresented working class will not change, while Clinton promotes the fear that Trump will create catastrophe if he were elected.

Australian politics demonstrates how issues that are deemed ‘controversial’ and stir up significant common fear in the public are always tackled conservatively, because other approaches pose too much of a risk to the popularity of the politicians. On the issue of asylum seekers, for example, both Labor and Liberal have reached the same consensus in their alternative terms in Government – that people who immigrate to Australia by boat should not be settled in Australia. Despite all the humanitarian or ethical issues this has raised, deciding policy courses through the lens of fear rather than with a moral compass, is seen to be a more reliable option to ensure that power is maintained.

It is the unfortunate truth that it is currently easier and more common for a leader to rule with fear, if their priority is to hold onto authority, and even popularity. No matter what the political system, fear always wins.