Why we should fear the politics of fear
“We have a real problem. I wanna find out… what is the problem!?” – Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America.
Donald Trump is known to say what he thinks. Never shy of claiming his farsightedness Trump has explicated why all Americans should fear the future – unless of course, he is allowed to “make America great again”. Trump is by no means alone in realizing the effectiveness of that doctrine. Throughout Europe far-right, populist politicians are slowly transcending from disruptive outsiders to the new game in town. Here in Scandinavia, parties such as the True Finns, Norway’s Progress Party, the Danish Peoples Party and the Sweden Democrats are driving the message home: Fear the world – or Face the consequences. The coming year will see many important elections in the Western world – from the US to Germany, France and Italy. In a post-Brexit and pre-Trump world, there is good reason to fear the rise of the politics of fear.
A political shift
The current shape of our liberal democracies has evolved slowly but progressively over the past three centuries. Democracy, now by far the mode of governance-of-choice, emerged as as a product of the revolutionary ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality, radically changing our conception of popular rule. The idea of having a government of, by and for the people broke fundamentally with the preceding centuries of centralised rule by the Monarchs and Nobels. A central component of this development was the belief (and faith) in the rational individual, deliberated to take responsibility for and think critically about his/her own actions and enlightened to make an assessment of his/her own interests.
Today, a shift is underway. Long in the making it has been brought to the center of attention since UKIP’s Nigel Farage triumphantly claimed Britain’s “independence day” on 23 June. The steady rise of right-wing parties in Scandinavia and of figures such as Norbert Hofer and Geert Wilders throughout continental Europe are increasingly making headlines. It signals a shift in the political orientation of voters in the West and a radical shake-up of the balance of power in the governing institutions among European democracies. What used to be a choice between a left and a right, red or blue block on the political market, now appears more a vast “supermarket” of political voices and ideologies. As the established parties have lost ground, new political movements have taken root and have proven to set the tone of the debate of a changing Europe.
Playing with fear
What is striking about this shift is how similar and parallel the development has been throughout the West over the last 10 years or so. The characteristics of the insurgent rightist parties seem to be much the same. They tend to emerge out of a dissatisfaction with the conventional parties and practices (talked down as ‘the establishment’), targeting marginalized voters who are disenfranchised with the politics of the day. Led by charismatic “outsiders”, the new political movements are built around tighter hierarchies allowing them to more swiftly reflect the popular mood. Even their methods are copy-cats: Stirring up electorates’ emotions with messages filled with pathos and nostalgia. Encouraging voters to reclaim their voice, they discredit the political correctness dominating centrist political discourse as limits to freedom of speech.
Instead they lead a different one – one of fear: Migrants are taking your jobs, Muslims are threatening your culture and security, traditional values are under attack, foreigners are intruding domestic politics, and more than anything, those you voted for (the entrenched elites) are selling you out to the haves, in favor of the have-nots.
Some might argue that this is a healthy development in modern democracies. New players in a stagnant political field means new voices, reinvigorated debate on vital topics and questioning of entrenched assumptions. The abilities of these new political parties to better and more responsively attune to current concerns among the population are impressive. After all, many of these fears reflect increasing insecurities among the electorate, unable to see how the promises of globalisation, labour mobility and free trade are benefiting them. As has been proven by extensive research the last few years, in the face of the global financial recession, some of these concerns are justified. Also, one cannot simply repress radical views in society and bully unpopular policy positions away from the formal political process. Muted in the policy-debate these voices might surface in much less favorable ways than that of political dispute.
Now however, with the mainstreaming of anti-establishment, anti-immigration, anti-globalisation sentiments, the result has proven to be to see many of these fears conflated to the extreme.
Praying on democracy?
Fear of the foreign and the foreigner has been common as long as humans have grouped themselves into social communities. The foreign and the foreign-looking have been used to blame famine, disease and bad fortune for centuries. Policy-makers have known to leverage on this fully. More so, one might argue, with the arrival of the popularly elected representative, held accountable to his electorate. It is easier to blame failed policy on foreign mischief than on flawed policy-making – or even worse; on the electorate itself.
What has proven even more of an “inconvenient truth” among students of politics is that the perception of fear seem to by far outweigh considerations of the reality of that which is feared. For instance, a recent survey done by the British research group Ipsos MORI, found that people in Europe tended to grossly exaggerate their fears of being overrun by foreigners. German respondents estimated the proportion of the population that was born abroad was 26%. The real number is 12%. The same has been shown to be the case in France, Belgium, the UK, not to talk of here in Denmark. In politics unfortunately, as described by one German AfD politician: “What people feel is what they perceive as reality. And at the moment, our citizens feel unwell, insecure.”
But where does this leave our democracies, our elected officials and the prospects for rational, evidence-based policy on complex issues such as trade and immigration in the future? Much of the far-right project is aimed at stirring up emotions by playing on public insecurities about sensitive issues and evoking nationalistic pride, essentialist identities and xenophobia. As these populist movements gain momentum, what lies in their wake is anger, resentment, skepticism and fear.
Albeit highly human, these emotions hardly enhance our ability to make rational and considered choices, in times when our choices in the ballot-box seem to matter more than ever for political outcomes (just ask the 48% Britons who voted to remain). Increasingly, far-right political leaders ask voters to trust in them evermore power on the pretext to protect them from a perceived experience of fear that was exacerbated by them in the first place.
Furthermore, the associated identity politics of the far-right play on a collective identity encouraging a group-mentality. By creating arbitrary cleavages between US and THEM, populist politicians seek to generate support based on belonging to a group rather than on a rational analysis of individual interests and concerns. Today, as Europeans are closer than ever before, the scaremongering politicians have a harder time finding a ”them” for ”us” to fear. Thus a divided Europe is this politicians wet dream.
Renaissance thinker Machiavelli knew already in the 15th century that the recipe for successful rule by the European prince included the element of Fear. “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both”, if simply because love and affection so easily wither, he said. That was in a European context of vengeful, militaristic kingdoms and duchies threatening to demolish each other. However, in a world where we rely on compromise and cooperation, common respect and understanding, we need to be rational and empirical. The fearmongering and smearing of each other that drives to hate and xenophobia cannot be the solution.