Politics and the Fear Factor

“The whole aim of practical politics,” wrote H.L. Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s color-coded “threat level” system, introduced in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, fit Mencken’s description to a tee, and was indeed answered with that quote by many observers at the time.

It should therefore surprise no one that in 2004, Bush regime officials pressured “Homeland Security” Secretary Tom Ridge to use that “threat level” system as a tool to influence the outcome of a presidential election.

While Ridge claims in his new memoir to have resisted that pressure, there’s at least some evidence that the system was abused, with the “threat level” being raised immediately after the Democratic Party’s national convention — timed, in other words, to overshadow, or at least monkeywrench, coverage of and reaction to that convention — based on what turned out to be old “intelligence.”

While this particular system and its uses go to a topic of current interest, it’s not a departure from the norm. Rather, it’s merely the trail end of a thread which runs, bright red, through our history.

Yes, bald force and coercion are the state’s ultimate recourse, but the political class prefers to curry support instead … and fear is their primary tool in that endeavor. It’s far easier to “lead” a populace “clamorous to be led to safefty” than it is to forcibly crush mass resistance. Few will resist, and the sheer bulk of the consenting majority will tend to cow those potential resisters.

Indeed, we’d probably have to go at least as far back as the mid-19th century’s road and canal projects, and possibly all the way to the Louisiana Purchase, to find a major American policy initiative driven by a sense of opportunity rather than fear. Even the choice of Panama as the location of an Atlantic-Pacific canal (an idea originally conceived by the Spanish government from fear of disadvantage versus Portugal in the “New World”) was largely determined by a fear-based public relations campaign, using the false claim that a volcano had erupted — and might erupt again — near the proposed route across Nicaragua.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Look at any major policy initiative of the day, and you’ll find the rhetoric of its proponents and opponents — in and out of the political class — suffused with fear.

The Obama administration’s plan for “health care reform,” for example, is primarily pitched as a response to “crisis,” not as exploitation of an opportunity for improvement. Opposition to “Obamacare” is generally concentrated on what is perceived as its threatening aspects (“death panels” and rationing), not on alternative proposals to “make health care better.”

If force is the ultimate recourse of government, fear is its primary rationale, and has been since at least the time of Hobbes, who justified the state as a peacekeeping force versus the bellum omnium contra omnes — “the war of all against all” — which he claimed, in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, must characterize its absence.

Is it to the benefit of humankind to exist in, and be driven in all collective action by, perpetual and pervasive fear? The answer to that question is also the answer to the question of whether or not we need — or, indeed, can tolerate the continued existence of — the state.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory