The United States of Fear

Dramatic representation of social media commenters addressing people engaging in activity outside the home.

In graduate school, I wrote a paper titled “Fear and the American Founding.” My thesis was that both the Founders/Federalists and Anti-Federalists were in part motivated by fear. The Anti-Federalists feared expansive government power, particularly placed in the hands of a federal or national government. The Federalists, meanwhile, feared both government and the masses. It was this fear that prompted them to establish a republican government of limited powers, based in part on democratic elections but which also was not based on majoritarian sentiment.

In many respects I still stand by the thrust of the paper, perhaps though with some moderate revisions.

Fear can be a force for good, in a certain sense, so I have never cared for FDR’s bluster that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Perhaps if more Americans were afraid of the long-term deleterious consequences of the New Deal and expansion of presidential power, then we could have avoided some of the problems we still face today.

There’s a distinction to be made, however, between jealously guarding your liberties and letting fear take complete control of your actions. It seems we have traveled far afield of generations who had a strong, but rational fear of government, mass democracy, or what have you. Now our politics seems to be inspired by an ignorant fear of the unknown. What’s more, these fears are stoked by media institutions all too happy to play on those fears.

I think the video from my previous post is worth reposting here.

This fear-driven paranoia is augmented by the sense of spite I wrote about previously. We are fed bits of media that only reconfirms our fears. And so many are not getting pieces of information that contradict our fear-driven notions. That’s why millions of parents are absolutely scared to death of sending their children to school despite the overwhelming evidence that there is less of a chance their child will die of COVID than the typical flu. But that’s not what they are reading or seeing on MSNBC or the Facebook memes they rely on for talking points. And it’s also why millions of Americans are defying mask orders, because obviously they are a government plot of some kind. Their importance to health and safety are not the sorts of things they read about or see on Fox News or the Facebook memes they rely on for talking points.

As I said, spite feeds the fear. “If the other guy isn’t concerned about something, and that guy is voting for Trump, then we better be damned sure to shut it down.” And of course the same applies on the other side.

Benefit/cost calculations have been tossed aside in favor of vague feelings that something is bad. You can throw out all the COVID stats you want at someone suggesting that children are not particularly vulnerable to the virus, and you will likely just get a shrug of the shoulders and a curt dismissal of the evidence. “I just don’t feel it’s a good idea to send kids back to school,” says the person offering no evidence to justify this feeling.

There was the notorious Flight 93 article from the 2016 election intimating that the choice was to vote for Donald Trump or welcome the end of the republic. Since then, the Flight 93 parallel has been used by those both wanting to vote for and against President Trump, as though the very future of the republic hangs in the balance based on this one presidential election. Every election is the most important election of our lifetime (until the next one), and if our side loses, then we are doomed – DOOOOOOOOOOOOMED I tell you.

We can go on and on playing the somewhat boring both sides game, and so I will stop there. In the end, this mass-media induced fear is spurring the populist movements on both the left and right to reject the liberal order upon which we were founded. Yes, you might say I fear this turn of events, but my fear is based on a careful understanding of history and where populist, anti-liberal ideologies tend to bring society.

So what is a despondent classical liberal to do when faced with such a bleak landscape.

On that, I have a few ideas.

(Cross-posted at The Classical Liberal)