Politics of fear? Yes, we can!

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Apologies in advance for giving fear more air time with this post, but we at Horizon felt that trends in global politics during 2016 warrant closer analysis.

The politics of fear is not unfamiliar. Just ask the opponents of the Gillard government’s carbon tax. But it’s rare to see it play out in so many countries in the same year.

In 2016 fear has been at the centre of political strategies that have reshaped the world. From London to Brussels, Beijing to Manilla, Canberra to Washington – in this Year of The Monkey fear has been a potent weapon in public affairs.

Rodrigo Duterte successfully convinced “large numbers of his people that drug use constitutes such an emergency that the very existence of the nation is threatened, and that only his rule can save the Philippines. It’s the oldest autocratic trick in the book.”[i] Duterte’s campaign, aided by advertisements like THIS, successfully lured 38% of the popular vote in a five-candidate race.

Whilst the rhetoric used in the Brexit referendum was less frightening, the outcome, at least for proponents of free trading blocks, was not. By pulling on fears of cuts to the UK’s National Health System, the Vote Leave campaign successfully exploited deep national pride in the country’s universal health system despite there being no evidence continued EU membership would impact the NHS in any way.

After the reality of the Brexit vote sunk in, ‘leavers’ began to realise the NHS would be no better off under a leave scenario. Many now support remaining in the EU, despite that no longer being an option.

In the US Donald Trump veers violently towards the rhetoric of fear to drum up his base. Whether his campaign advertisements will succeed in luring additional voters remains to be seen. What they have done is help to shape the Clinton communications campaign which has also gone the fear path – albeit a ‘fear Trump’ path, ably abetted by analysis of her opponent’s shortcomings.

In Australia we are not immune. The Mediscare tactics of the ALP’s recent federal campaign nearly tipped the balance of power back to Labor and who could forget the two years of fear campaigning waged by the Abbott-led Liberal party in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election.

So, why is the exploitation of fear such a proven method of political communications? And can hope trump fear in 2016?

Justin Trudeaux clearly believes his presidency owes much to hope, elected on a platform similar to that of Barack Obama in 2008 who famously made hope the centrepiece of his presidential candidacy. In 2016 the ALP tried its own version with its ‘100 positive policies’ agenda designed to position the alternative government throughout the protracted 8-week campaign.

It’s a curious thing that analysis of hope versus fear in public discourse is affected by the very thing that makes fear such a proven commodity – the media.

If we apply Cultivation Theory to this conversation we can conclude that, as long as the mass media gravitates to human, environmental and economic calamity, the preponderance of messages espousing fear will continue to be de rigour in public discourse. The result of this is a public living in a heightened sense of ‘fear-readiness’, where the fear buttons are more easily exploited.

Short-circuiting this paradigm to have people think more logically gets harder the more afraid (or willing to be afraid) the public is. When a confluence of issues – i.e. economics, illegal immigrants, health, security, et al – come together you’ve got the right cocktail for exploiting fear.

Time will tell if the US will allow fear to trump hope this November.

[i] http://time.com/4462352/rodrigo-duterte-drug-war-drugs-philippines-killing/