If you’ve been reading the news lately, you might think that the apocalypse is upon us. The recent referendum vote by the people of the United Kingdom (U.K.) to leave the European Union (E.U.) is just one of the latest signs.
The fear-mongers are in full-swing telling us that the ‘Brexit’ will destroy the economies of the U.K. and E.U., that millions of immigrants and workers abroad will be rounded up and sent home, that trade will grind to a halt, and a new world war will break out. Young Britons, the majority of whom wanted to stay in the E.U., are accusing their elders of destroying their futures in the name of racism and antiquated notions of national pride.
Of course none of this is true . . . but what does the truth have to do with anything these days?
It is true that the ‘Brexit’ may have negative consequences for the U.K. and the remaining nations of the E.U., although even that much is not guaranteed. It may, on the contrary, have a number of benefits—not least of which being that the people of the U.K. will get to manage their own affairs through their own democratic processes. National self-determination, in and of itself, is a valuable end. Indeed, that principle is supposedly affirmed by all members of the United Nations (U.N.).
The Purposes of the United Nations are: . . . To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.
— U.N. Charter, Chapter 1, Article 1, Number 2
The ‘Brexit’ will certainly have negative consequences for the E.U. itself as an institution, but it is unlikely to change much for the member nations or their people. The U.K. and the E.U. have years to work out the details of their separation, and neither side wants to ‘pull up the drawbridge,’ as former London Mayor Boris Johnson (Conservative), a leading ‘Brexit’ supporter, recently put it. Immigration and working abroad may become a bit more paperwork-intensive, but it won’t stop. Trade restrictions between the U.K. and E.U. may be put in place in a few specific areas, but will generally remain free. And the government of the U.K., while freed from E.U. micromanagement, is likely to keep similar regulatory regimes in place.
The only major change likely to come from the ‘Brexit’ is that the people of Scotland, one of the constituent nations of the U.K., may wish to leave the U.K. in order to remain part of the E.U. But if that is what the people of Scotland want, that is also their right under the principle of self-determination. Good for them. When Scotland had their last independence referendum in 2014, ‘Better Together’ campaigners engaged in many of the same scare tactics that the pro-E.U. side did in the E.U. referendum, and they won. They probably won’t be so successful next time.
The British have named this phenomena of using scare tactics, exaggeration, and outright lying in an attempt to frighten the public into supporting a particular political position: Project Fear.
Fear can be beneficial . . . if it is confined within the bounds of reason, is motivated by some real threat, and is proportional to the severity of that threat. For example, we should be afraid of terrorism, and particularly of Islamic terrorism. We should be afraid of giving too much power over our lives to faraway governments. We should be afraid of war, civil unrest, and crime. It is perfectly rational to let our fear of these things and others influence our opinions about policies and politicians, as long as that fear remains firmly rooted in reality and is appropriately balanced against other principles . . . like, for example, human rights and civil liberties.
But many have learned to exaggerate and exploit fears in the interest of gaining power or advancing some political goal. This is nothing new. In one of the more notorious examples from the last century, Adolf Hitler exploited people’s fear of civil unrest to gain political support for declaring a national emergency, suspending the constitutional government, and making himself chancellor of Germany. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. . . .
Hitler is, of course, an extreme example, and thankfully one with no parallel in any western society today. But the basic approach of using fear to push an agenda (which may be only tangentially related to the object of that fear) has become a well-established political strategy.
This technique has mainly been used by ‘nanny state’ elites who believe that they know what’s best for us (and we don’t). For example, progressives here in the U.S. have successfully stymied every effort at reforming Social Security by playing upon retired and near-retired citizen’s fear of losing the benefits they have spent their lives paying for. Of course any rational analysis would lead us to reform; one would think that reducing Social Security benefits or otherwise modifying the program is preferable to just letting it bankrupt itself and disappear. But it’s not about rational analysis. It is about those individual politicians getting some votes and staying in power so they can continue to impose their will on others. They don’t care if Social Security goes bankrupt, especially if it doesn’t happen until after they retire from Congress with their own pension already secured.
This is one of countless examples over the last couple of decades. If you don’t give billions of dollars to failed banks and car companies, the entire country will spiral into a depression! If you don’t support the Affordable Care Act, millions of children will die! If you don’t act to stop climate change now, New York City will be underwater by 2000 . . . I mean 2010 . . . I mean 2020 and the whole world will descend into war and anarchy! If you don’t vote to reelect President Barack Obama (D), then Mitt Romney (R) will lead a Contraceptive Gestapo Force through the country confiscating your birth control!
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
There are (or were) good debates to be had about each of these issues. Should we reform Social Security, and, if so, how? Should we have bailed out the banks and car companies? Should we have passed the Affordable Care Act? Should we do more to protect the environment? Should we have reelected President Obama? I have my opinions on each of these issues and many others, and I’m willing to engage in a civil debate about them. But I am not going to form my opinions on the basis of hyper-exaggerated doom-and-gloom nonsense that never seems to come to fruition.
Right now, many people who have been subjected to this kind of fear-mongering for decades have tired of it. The classic form of Project Fear is losing its effectiveness. This is easy to explain; we need only refer to the classic Aesop’s fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. When we reject the fear-mongers, things never turn out as badly as they said it would. When we listen to them, things never turn out as great as they promised. And so, eventually, we just stop trusting them altogether.
People are realizing that when normally-staid elites and intellectuals resort to breathless exaggeration, it is often the sign of a weak (or non-existent) argument, and it is often being put in service of some other motive. They know that we will not be convinced by the merits, and so they resort to fire-and-brimstone threats. They keep doing it because, until very recently, it usually worked.
What are the real motives? There are countless issues and countless variants, so that is far too complex a question to answer in this essay. But I will briefly summarize the two main examples that I have observed.
First—as in the aforementioned Social Security example—it is sometimes as simple as a politician trying to hold on to personal power. Politicos are afraid to touch Social Security because doing so will likely end their political careers. But the second type is much more interesting; these are the most vehement and over-the-top campaigns, like the one the one forecasting climate doom, or the opposition to the ‘Brexit.’ They all seem to share a striking parallel: They seek to move political power (and money) further away from the people.
The fear-mongers almost always want to vest faraway governments, multinational organizations, and bureaucracies with powers that ought be left to smaller, nearby governments . . . or to the people themselves. Perhaps their motivations are ideological, and perhaps they are just selfish power grabs, but they all seem to end at a strangely coincident place.
The New Populism
President Obama (D), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI 1st), and former Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (D)—among others—have all been part of past Project Fear campaigns, but now loudly condemn those who seem to use fear (and its cousin, anger) for political gain. Perhaps this is understandable; Obama, Ryan, and Clinton’s brand of fear-mongering is of the faux-intelligentsia kind that is rapidly falling out of favor, while a new populist brand—starkly represented by the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump (R) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—is rising.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between these two styles of fear-politics.
The classic Project Fear campaign is about cultivating an irrational fear that is either entirely unsupported by the facts, or is far disproportionate to the actual severity of the problem. For example, nobody would be overly concerned about anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change if it weren’t for seemingly trustworthy people making fallacious pronouncements-from-authority. Given that the seas aren’t rising, severe weather isn’t increasing, the air is cleaner than it has been in decades, and global temperature averages have changed by less than a degree in the last century, it is unlikely that anybody would believe that humans are negatively affecting the climate just from boring things like data and observation. We had to be relentlessly instructed to see a climate bogeyman in every rain cloud, and the data had to be repeatedly ‘adjusted’ into compliance.
Likewise, young people in the U.K. probably wouldn’t have been overly concerned about the prospect of leaving the E.U. if they hadn’t been relentlessly told, without any supporting evidence, that it would mean national isolation and economic catastrophe. The facts weren’t scary enough, so the pro-E.U. side made up new ones and pronounced them with an air of authority. And a lot of people bought it, though not enough to turn the outcome in their favor. Indeed, there is some evidence that the hyperactive fear-mongering backfired and actually pushed more people to support the ‘Brexit’ than might have done so otherwise.
The two parallel populisms of Trump and Sanders, however, are not built upon Project Fear campaigns.
Some of their supporters are (at least in part) driven by fear, and both candidates are perfectly happy to play to those fears to drum-up support. But Trump did not create a fear of unchecked illegal immigration, or of lopsided trade agreements, or of America losing its greatness. And Sanders did not create a fear of lifelong college debt, or of government by oligarchy, or of the erosion of the middle class. No, Trump and Sanders have tapped into people’s real fears . . . fears that did not need to be invented or cultivated because they developed naturally.
Ideally politics would not be based on fear at all, except when that fear is well-founded and rational. But the common fears in the U.S. today run the gamut from perfectly reasonable to bizarrely misguided, and neither Trump or Sanders seems to be very interested in being selective. But it would be wrong to call either of them fear-mongers. Neither of them created the fears that their campaigns are exploiting. Trump shrewdly remade himself in the image of many right-wingers’ frustration and worry about the direction of the country. Sanders, for his part, was merely the beneficiary of many left-wingers’ shift toward the radical socialist positions that he already held.
There is much to criticize about the state of politics in the U.S. today. But the fact that true Project Fear-style campaigns are losing their efficacy bodes well for the future, even if the rise of the new populism—still too far divorced from rationality—seems to bode ill.
Neither form of fear-based politics is ‘good,’ per-se, but it is refreshing to see that people are becoming less likely to believe complete nonsense just because it comes from well-dressed and seemingly-intelligent people. The most successful politicians in today’s America aren’t those who pronounce from on high what they think is best for you, but those who at least seem to embrace the real hopes and fears—for better or worse—of the people they seek to represent.
With strange birds like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders passing for serious presidential candidates, you might not believe me . . . but these are signs that representative democracy is in the process of making a resurgence. For decades we have been told that we aren’t smart enough to understand the issues, that we should just do what we’re told and trust the experts, and that we should live by the whims of faraway bureaucrats. Lots of us have had enough. We have started to peek behind the curtain, and have begun making tentative steps to reclaim our sovereignty from the people who have spent a lifetime telling us that we just can’t be trusted with it.
The ‘anti-establishment’ movement that drove the ‘Brexit,’ and still drives one of the strangest U.S. presidential election seasons on record, is likely just getting started. It seems that we are entering a period of change and upheaval. Many will no longer be coerced by Project Fear campaigns or imposed upon by so-called elites who think they know better. No, we will make our own decisions. And sometimes we, the people, will make mistakes . . . but at least they will be our own.