Fear Tactics and The Dominion of Feelings

Facts and feelings are both pulling weight with voters in the 2016 political ring — as Democrats and Republicans run campaigns fueled by fear.

John Oliver did a segment last Sunday on the RNC, discussing how Newt Gingrich brought “feelings to a fact fight” with a news anchor who challenged him on the assertion that Americans feel unsafe because crime is rising. Gingrich cherry-picked a few cities as examples that it had risen, even thought it is way down across the United States (and as the anchor pointed out, this is based on FBI reports).

Gingrich responds that even despite the waning crime rates, the average American “feels” more unsafe today than ever before. This is probably untrue (or I hope it isn’t true), and if it is true, it is only at the behest of fear-mongering politicians like Trump and Gingrich himself.

The Republican Party has been using fear to grab votes and support for awhile (Bush as the most recent example prior to Trump).

However, the Democrats and the Clintons have also used fear-tactics in the past (Hillary’s infamous super-predators comment; Bill’s continuation of the war on drugs and mass-incarceration politics/welfare criminalization and demonization) in order to spur support and policies. They are also using it right now — to get Hillary Clinton elected and reign in voters who wouldn’t likely vote for her if the other option were not Donald J. Trump.

For a country that calls itself the “land of the brave” the great majority of Americans seem to be chock-full of cowardice and the desire to shirk their de-facto responsibilities to other human beings (particularly non-citizens). I would call it cowardice that we refuse to reconcile with our slaveholding past, cowardice that we refuse to take in refugees from conflicts that we cause in the Middle East [and elsewhere], cowardice that we continue to prioritize the status quo and our neocolonial policies above the lives of black and brown people across the world, and cowardice that we continue to segregate ourselves into communities based on race and class across the country. This list just keeps growing. Don’t get me wrong — in our fearfulness, Americans aren’t much different than any other group of human beings. But we are also comparatively well-educated and highly privileged (in relative terms). Because we are so fearful, we have failed again to use our privilege for good. It is also a fact that the majority of these fearful, cowardly Americans I’m referencing happen to be white (and white privilege, cowardice, and fear protects them/us from thinking much about the plight of others, and from the consequences of their/our fears). I would suggest, as I have in the past, that this fear mostly stems from a sense of entitlement and ignorance, with a dose of (psychological) tribalism.

Hillary Clinton using this fear (and the cowardice that stems from it) in her own way. She uses fear of Donald Trump as the centerpiece for her campaign’s marketing nowadays, as Trump uses ISIS, immigrants, corrupt elites, and the fear of perceived American decline (which, yes, is undeniably more reprehensible). Hillary Clinton knows that leftist liberals will not flee the confines of the Democratic party and move leftwards (towards Jill Stein or #bernieorbust) right now because this is likely a risky move, and might just be the thing that gets Trump elected (her selection of Tim Kaine basically shows she’s betting the house on this leftist fear).

ED NOTE: Based on my FB feed exploding with anti-non-hillary-content over the past 24 hours, she’s been right to make this bet.

So, I think most can agree that both sides are guilty of using “feelings” and “fear-tactics” (to some extent) in order to gain votes and gain power. It is obvious that there is technically a greater and lesser evil in this election — but we must not make the mistake of believing that one side is actually entirely “good” and that it is only the Republicans that are running a manipulative and feelings-based campaign and making feelings-based arguments, even if those arguments have their roots in what most rational people agree to be facts (though both are also guilty of using cherry-picked partial facts and studies that counter the feelings-assertions of their opponents).

Make no mistake, though, this piece is not a tirade against feelings or their use. Feelings are useful in both positive and negative ways. Facts are subject to a similar dichotomy. Both can unite us or divide us. Feelings and emotion without facts and/or without basis are dangerous — and facts-based thinking unguided by empathy and emotion can be equally so. Both have the potential to be incredibly harmful in the hands of the power-hungry.

What determines whether using feelings-based rhetoric is positive or negative (or both) is how they are used, what the feelings themselves are (hatred, anger, happiness) that are being triggered, and what the end goal of the user of these feelings is. For example: using fear of immigrants to gain political power (definitely bad), using fear of worldwide destruction to get elected in spite of neocolonialist foreign policy that will likely destroy a few countries full of black/brown people (definitely bad), using fear of death at the hands of police to create positive change in your community, organize, and unite against oppression (good).

Feelings as Political Tools

It is certainly interesting that candidates and leaders can create/manifest feelings just by saying certain things are true, but this can also be reversed. Feelings of being left behind have created/engendered Trump and his campaign, and he has stoked these feelings to create his own reality — one that his supporters subscribe to.

Clinton does a similar thing, though (arguably) not nearly with the same manipulative skill — she offers pragmatism, safety, and sometimes tries to counter Trump with facts — but it seems that discourse has been degraded a bit as she has resorted to simply stoking the flames of anti-Trumpism by making him look ridiculous and frightening (not a difficult task).

Increasingly, there is “red world” and “blue world” in America — and you choose which one you live in and consume the information that affirms your beliefs. The other side seems more and more incomprehensible: Republicans (if you can call them that anymore — the Republican Party has been transformed by Trumpism) are aghast that Democrats are rallying behind “corrupt” Hillary Clinton, and Democrats are equally aghast at the fact that Republicans have rallied around Trump.

As a student/researcher of social media, and an avid consumer of political news from sources on both sides, I can see social media (alongside the proliferation of camera phones and Facebook’s move towards video content) has an undeniable role in fueling both these feelings of fear and the divisions that are becoming ever more prominent.

The constant exposure to news makes it feel like the world is more dangerous than ever — even though it’s more just that this is our perception because social media has increased our exposure to violent incidents. Just as with candidates and feelings, this perception of danger is creating a reality — and also being created by the reality that there is a lot of horrible shit out in the world that went unseen and unexposed for a long time.

This feedback loop, bolstered in power by social media, algorithms, and the political echo-chambers that they create, has become a defining element of modern American politics, society, and culture.

Taking Ownership of Our Problems

This high visibility of the worst in ourselves and the worst things about our country make us fearful for the present and future, and has given rise to a very ugly election. It feels as if the dark underbelly of America is exposed — that our past is finally coming home to roost (I could keep going with these cliches but I’ll stop lol) At the same time, however, there isn’t really anywhere left to hide from it. The pervasiveness and power of these feelings mean that we cannot shirk our responsibility as a society to own up to our own awfulness.

I hope that these manifestations of the worst in America will result in our finally overcoming them. I hope that we can watch all of this unfold while learning from it, and ultimately not repeat the mistakes of the past. I hope that it will help us achieve legitimate progress and growth, and that the negative parts of our culture are in their death throes, rather than experiencing a rebirth or resurgence.

It is truly up to us to counter this as privileged citizens and to reconcile and recognize our differences through empathy, wisdom, and substantive conversations about what comes next. Thinking this through is one thing, and intellectually knowing strength is good — but acting it out is another entirely — and it remains to be seen just what kind of nation we will become.