Beware the Politics of Fear

This article appeared on National Review (Online) on September 6, 2018.
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The poets may say that love is the great motivator, but politicians know it is fear that turns out the vote.

With the post–Labor Day start of the campaign season upon us, we can look forward to two months of hearing about all the horrors awaiting us if the other guy is elected. Most of this is just standard negative campaigning. Though “my opponent’s economic plan will turn this country into a barren wasteland” may be hyperbolic, it’s largely unobjectionable — and if you are running against someone like Alexandria Ocasio‐​Cortez, it could even be true.

But sometimes negative campaigning can cross a line into something more insidious, something that plays on atavistic emotions and tears at our social fabric. That type of fearmongering needs to be guarded against.

After all, the fact is that we really don’t need to be afraid.

Take terrorism, for example. Your chances of being killed by a terrorist are somewhat smaller than your chances of accidentally drowning in the bathtub. The chance of an American perishing in a foreigner‐​perpetrated terrorist attack on U.S. soil is one in 3.6 million per year.

Or consider the issue of crime. No speech by President Trump would be complete without denouncing his opponents as “soft on crime.” Polls show that Americans increasingly buy into this message. According to Gallup, roughly 70 percent of Americans think that crime has increased over the last year, with a consistent majority of Americans reporting the same belief since 2000.

But there isn’t really a war zone outside our front doors. In fact, the violent‐​crime rate has dropped by roughly 75 percent since the early 1990s. Despite a slight uptick in the last year, violent crime is at its lowest point since the 1970s. Politicians’ apocalyptic rhetoric on crime simply doesn’t match the reality.

What about the scourge of MS-13? President Trump never ceases to warn us that this murderous Salvadoran gang is lying in wait. In reality, however, the gang is both far smaller and commits far fewer murders than homegrown street gangs such as the Bloods or the Crips. Even the immigration hawks at the Center for Immigration (CIS) estimate that MS-13 murders amount to less than 1.5 percent of the Department of Justice’s National Gang Center average yearly estimate for total gang‐​related homicides. That means that MS-13 averages just one‐​fifth of 1 percent of all homicides in America.

The Democrats’ version of marauding gangs is marauding guns. But as with crime in general, gun crime is down, despite an increase in firearms owned. Our children may spend their school days practicing active‐​shooter drills, but school shootings remain infrequent, accounting for just 0.15 percent of murders last year. More students are killed riding their bikes than by school shooters.

Yes, every death is a unique, horrific tragedy, and no one should diminish even one of them. But neither we should be terrifying both our children and ourselves in anticipation of terrors that are overwhelmingly unlikely to occur.

One harm in the way politicians cherry‐​pick their facts to maximize voter fear is that it confuses the question of how best to deal with these very real tragedies. Given all the fearmongering, the public could easily come away with the misperception that deporting immigrants and keeping children away from schools would be a reliable recipe for reducing the U.S. murder rate. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

Another danger of fear‐​based politics is not just that it leads to bad policies but that it can change the very nature and character of the country. As we become more and more fearful of “the other,” we become both less tolerant and more willing to accept restrictions on our basic liberties.

Candidates who play on our fears are thus a far bigger threat to our nation’s short‐ and long‐​term health than any of the dangers they exaggerate in order to do so.