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Politics Of Fear In US Presidential Campaigns – Analysis

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By Monish Tourangbam*

The story of election campaigns are a curious mix of optimism and pessimism, a mirror of past follies, a vision of a better future and furious duel between “us” and “them” first within parties, then between parties. The attack campaigns feature a host of fear predictions, reflecting (with rhetorical flourishes) primary issues of the time, and often real or perceived failures of the incumbent to resolve them. Many of these fears may not be totally unfounded, but what comes forth most starkly is the scare tactics that candidates employ to entice voters to come out and vote, and not go fishing on the election day.

As clearly amplified in the notorious Daisy ad, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign reflected the horrors of a nuclear holocaust and impressed upon Americans to vote for Johnson, saying, “… the stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Ronald Reagan used the metaphorical “bear in the woods” as a campaign ad during his re-election bid to remind the American voters why they needed a more prepared President to fend off the uncertain strong bear (read the Soviet Union). If fear of communism had dictated the language of electoral campaigns during the Cold War era, another constant cycle of fear most propagated during elections is the fear of both weak as well as powerful executives. Since federalism and anti-federalism is an enduring theme in American politics, a president is either besieged for being too weak to make bold decisions for the security of America, or he is criticized for being too intrusive.

The philosophy of a government that governs the least has often guided political debates within the United States. However, when crisis strikes as during the Great Depression or the 9/11 attacks, a powerful executive is often tolerated and people rally around him to take firm decisions. As with the launch of the global war on terrorism, threat to western democracy and American way of life became a major narrative of all election campaigns. Another fear that often features in US election campaigns, both presidential and congressional, is the fear of losing American jobs to foreigners a la the fear of offshoring and outsourcing, with emerging economies like India and China being targets.

Rhetoric on outsourcing and offshoring, and the promise of bringing jobs back to America are liberally used, and more effectively in states hit by economic downturn. In election seasons, it is most commonplace to see both parties attack each other for packing off American job overseas. Negative attacks rise to such extent that fear of the other party coming to power is often the overwhelming story than the hope of either coming to the White House.

Come election season, doom and gloom dominates the airwaves with majority of candidates trying to show off how they are going to be tougher than the incumbent on issues of national security. Often American voters are reminded how afraid they should be of the world around them, and why exactly they need a particular he/she to be at the White House, and not someone else. In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran the 3 am phone call ad propagating her credentials and experience as someone who could answer the call to security threats in a “dangerous world.” The same advertisement has come under attack from Republican candidates like Rand Paul in recent times, alleging that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had failed to answer that “3 am phone call” when it mattered, referring to the terrorist attacks in 2012 at the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya where casualties included the US Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

However, a government going overboard on matters of national security also becomes a matter of concern with the American public. Debates about government surveillance over American citizens and its limitations have often been hotly debated among the candidates in the post 9/11 era. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has been speaking against excessive government surveillance. Writing for Time Ideas in May this year, he contended, “…We must do everything we can to protect our country from the serious potential of another terrorist attack. We can and must do so, however, in a way that also protects the constitutional rights of the American people and maintains our free society.”

Republican candidate Chris Christie stands at the opposite end of this debate. Speaking at Portsmouth, New Hampshire the same month, Chris Christie defended the government’s anti-terror and surveillance laws. Vehemently refuting the fears of government encroaching upon civil liberties in the name of national security, he argued, “… Let’s be clear, all these fears are exaggerated and ridiculous. When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy.”

One of the best examples of the scare tactic during campaigns came out of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, called the Wolves ad. It used wolves as a metaphor for lurking terrorists in the post 9/11 era ready to harm America, and criticized the democratic opponent John Kerry and liberals in the Congress for voting to slash America’s intelligence operations budget, putting the country in harm’s way. According to Ken Goldstein, an expert on campaign advertising and a political scientist at the University of San Francisco, regardless of general perceptions of negative advertising, political strategists swear by them as turnout tools. Goldstein emphasized that “people are more likely to take into account fear than hope in casting a ballot.”

Instilling fears of the other candidate into the minds of American voters has emerged an important feature of election campaigns. The fear mongering, through campaign rhetoric and negative ads, are distributed many times over by the power of new media technologies. As the election season heats up, the language of fear and name calling is rampant within parties and between parties. Alarm bells are being sounded forthreats of all hues and designs against the “American” way of life. Those threats might come from terrorists, rogue states, sexual orientations, abortion, illegal immigrants, socialism or a leader who was incompetent and betraying the “American dream.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” However, the politics of fear continues to be liberally employed in the greatest act of liberal democracies—”free and fair” elections.

*The author is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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