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The Politics of Fear

Politics has become not what you stand for, but how to make you afraid of something

We live in a world politically, that is dominated by fear. Turn on any news network, or listen to most political ads, and you will see or hear messages that prescribed less about what that candidate will do, and more about how bad it will be if their opponent is elected. Most people I personally come across vote against a candidate than for a candidate. Politics is becoming less about what I am for and more about what I am against.

Do not get me wrong, I understand why campaign managers and political consultants use this tactic, it works. I have seen first-hand how fear can turn poll numbers around by going negative. This has been a tactic as long as campaigns have been around. Throughout history, when traditional institutions have become less trustworthy and fear is created, people have turned toward strongmen. In the long term, this is never worked out well. The beauty of our founding is that America has always been about principles, not about personalities. I am not suggesting that we have a kumbaya moment where everyone gets along and policy differences are not compared. Disagreements are good. The beauty of our democracy is that we do not live with majority rule, that the minority has a voice. A voice is a seat at the table. What I am writing about is selling fear with no substance. My frustration is when candidates create boogymen that having nothing to do with the actual problem.

I not here to point fingers. Both sides use fear. Blaming one side over the other will not help. We must start acting like grown-ups. Mature adults fix problems not just blame those who started the problem. If we get in the cycle where we are always reacting what someone else said, we will never get out of the cycle. Politics is always downstream from culture. The true reason fear works in politics is that culture has shifted away from stable anchors in life (families, faith, community engagement). That change has allowed fear to creep in. Anger, which can come from fear, is instructive and most people tend to be frustrated about important things. Social media has allowed us to change that. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram were originally intended to bring individuals closer together. It was a form of digital community. Instead, it has isolated many and created ideological echo chambers. Fear thrives in that environment.

The worst place to be social media is the middle. Unfortunately, the loudest pundits seem to get the most attention. Donald Trump figure that out in the 2016 primary. If you want views, write or say something ridiculous. Many in the political entertainment business make a lot of money writing books and hosting shows this way. That may be good for the bottom line, but it has not been good where information is instant and easily believed.

The first step in solving our problem is figuring out that we have a problem. There are two types of fear. The first is a healthy fear. It is the fear we all have when we know not to touch a hot stove or jump off a bridge. It’s the fear that we should be careful, cautious, and calculated. But there’s another type of fear, the fear of stress, worry, the unknown. That type of fear is often spoken in the Bible. Over and over, God commands His children do not fear or do not worry. When God repeats himself, pay attention. Repetition implies importance. As Jon Bloom states, “this bold, happy confidence in God is not only an expression of trusting love in him; it also makes us feel lovingly expansive and encouraging toward others because we’re filled with hope in God.”

What if we took these commands seriously? What if just Christians in America stopped fearing every straw man that is brought up? Instead of being paralyzed by the unknowns, we engaged, invested, educated ourselves. Knowledge is power against fear. What if we started supporting candidates on either side of the debate that appeal to our better angels instead of our darkest impulses? What would America look like then?

This morning, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that, “I keep coming back to this topic because the chief struggle of the day is sociological and psychological, not ideological or economic. The substrate layer of American society — the network of relationships and connection and trust that everything else relies upon — is failing. And the results are as bloody as any war.”

We will always have forces that divide. There are others that always will try to restore. Fear is easy, but it’s not ultimate. When the mask is removed from fear, we see the wizard behind an empty curtain. In politics, it would be nice if more started pulling the curtain back. Our nation would be better off if or when that happens.

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