Fear Can Affect Thinking, But Not This Time

In his Washington Post op-ed this morning, “Obama Underappreciation Syndrome,” Charles Krauthammer mocks President Obama’s latest explanation for his, and his party’s, low popularity. “[W]e’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared,” explains the president.

This is rich loam for derision. “Opening a whole new branch of cognitive science – liberal psychology – Obama has discovered a new principle: The fearful brain is hard-wired to act befuddled, i.e., vote Republican.”

Krauthammer rightly takes the campaigning president to task. But he scopes his critique a bit broadly. It’s pretty close to uncontroversial that the logic centers of the brain shut down when certain stimuli produce a fright response. That’s good. Leaping at the sight of a snake was an important part of surviving in the thousands of years before ambulances and anti-venom.

But not all stresses produce this response, and President Obama is misapplying the fright response to the current climate of unemployment, expanded government control of society, and galloping spending and debt. The fear response doesn’t explain Democrats’ unpopularity.

But it does explain other parts of our policy discourse. There is at least a good argument—one we featured in our book Terrorizing Ourselves—that fear preempts careful, rational cogitation about some risks. The existence of another human animated to kill you in ways you can’t predict can interfere with the mental responses we need to secure both ourselves and the blessings of liberty. There may be chronic fear-based habits; the brain grows to meet the demands of its host.

But none of this relates to the economic and political stresses of today or the related woes of the Democratic Party. Rather, it is economic and political conditions that voters are responding to, in a manner that is by no means illogical or pathological.