Fear & politics

Carmen Lawrence

The opposition of fear and democracy is one of 'the great commonplaces of modern political thought.' Indeed, one of the strongest motives for adopting democracy is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination.

Mature democracies systematically try to limit the scope and concentration of political power - and the capacity to wield fear as a political weapon - through institutions and laws which ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties.

Despite these safeguards, fear continues to be used to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters; this is not so much fear of the government itself, as it is in despotic regimes, but fear of the other - of other citizens, of outsiders and the marginalised. At its most potent it is a calculated exploitation our fear of our own annihilation and our fear of strangers.

The political use of fear is evident when leaders seek to define what we should fear and when they use fear to threaten those who challenge their power and status. In the first case, they select what is worthy of attention, mobilise public opinion and propose methods to deal with the threat. The selected object usually does pose some level of threat, but the threat is exaggerated when compared with other potentially fearful circumstances. And while it doesn't automatically follow that everybody shares the fear, it comes to dominate public debate and monopolises resources. Politicians' success as protectors then consolidates their legitimacy and enhances their power.

Both ideology and political opportunity determine what is selected for attention. While much was made of the asylum seekers in boats who were said to be potential terrorists and a threat to our national security, almost nothing was said about the much more numerous group of asylum seekers who arrived by air and remained in the community - not to mention the even greater number of those who overstayed their visas. Refugees and strangers have always made easy targets for fear and loathing in Australia, acting as magnets for our insecurity.

"Perhaps now more than ever in recent history, such 'political fear' is being employed."

The second major use of fear arises directly from social, economic and political inequalities. Its purpose is intimidation, using sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, to ensure that some people maintain or augment their power at the expense of others. These need not be gross violations of human rights; people will often conform as a result of petty tyranny and small coercions, often in ways that stifle criticism and circumscribe policy options. Non-government and advocacy groups in Australia, for example, were threatened with the loss of funding or tax-deductible status for donations to them unless they toed the government lines. The Muslim community has been told to shape up or 'clear out' and to ensure the teaching of 'Australian values' in their schools or risk losing their funding.

Perhaps now more than ever in recent history, such 'political fear' is being employed in the pursuit of specific political goals and to legitimise the moral and political beliefs of those in power or those seeking to achieve it, for managing dissent and silencing those who seek a greater share of power and resources. The 'War on Terror' is a classic example.

There are, of course, many things about which it is reasonable to be fearful - but it is also possible for our leaders to feed and amplify these fears for political advantage. They are often aided and abetted by the media in generating 'moral panics'. At the same time, it suits our political leaders to minimise the really frightening prospects which would require substantial changes in our life-styles if they were given proper weight - global warming to name just one.

Fear and the exploitation of fear have widespread and distorting repercussions - resulting in detrimental psychological and physical effects, distorting policy choices, changing the balance of power and overturning long-cherished values. Fear is a potent (and dangerous) political tool.

In the past, it was more likely for politicians to promise to create a better world. While the means of achieving this desired goal might vary, as did the definition of what constituted a 'better world', their power and authority derived, as least in part, from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. As the director of the documentary 'The Power of Nightmares', Adam Curis, observed in 2004, with the loss of faith in these visions:

politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but they have now discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares.


Carmen Lawrence is the Member of the House of Representatives for the seat of Fremantle on behalf of the Australian Labor Party. Her new book, Fear and Politics, is published by Scribe (RRP $22.00).