The Fear Factor Dominates Campaign Rhetoric

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist


President Franklin Roosevelt famously said “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself”. Unfortunately, fear has emerged as the predominant motivating factor in this cycle’s presidential campaign.   Whether the issue is terrorism, illegal immigration, foreign competition, gun violence, climate change or the economy, all of the candidates–for both parties’ Presidential nominations–are touting themselves as the only option for heading off national disaster.

Donald Trump is riding on fear of Muslims, Mexicans and China. Ted Cruz is stoking fear of Washington. Bernie Sanders is campaigning on fear of Wall Street and billionaires. Hilary Clinton is pushing fear of the Republican candidates—and of guns. Substantive proposals are being submerged in a sea of venom and dread. As South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley put it in her response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”

Ironically, in 2008 when the world’s economy was on the verge of collapse and the U.S. remained mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election‘s outcome was propelled by the promise of” hope and change.” Now, on many fronts, things have gotten better economically, but the fallout hasn’t been pretty and the middle class is still feeling the squeeze.

The “hope and change” mantra has been displaced by the rhetoric of fear and anger. Part of this dynamic can be attributed to the unrealistic expectations that accompanied President Obama’s election in 2008.   Part of this dynamic is a perception among voters, in the wake of recent terrorist attacks and random violence, that their safety is being threatened in a volatile world.

According to the website RealClearPolitics, “A recent Esquire/NBC News poll finds 49 percent of Americans say they have gotten angrier about current events and the news over the past year. Among them, 54 percent are white. Republicans are angrier than Democrats, 61 percent to 42 percent, the survey found. More than half of the respondents believe the American dream isn’t attainable, and over half say their financial conditions haven’t improved the way they imagined.”

All of this is playing out in an environment of unbridled cable news and radio talk show bloviation, social media frenzy and the hyper-partisanship that has gripped the political arena.

The core of Donald Trump’s support is lower-income, conservative, white men without a college education—the people who feel most displaced by a high tech, global economy and who are most uncomfortable with the growing political and economic clout of Asians, Latinos and women.

In the 2008 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama got into hot water when he got caught on tape at a fundraiser where he opined:

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. So it’s not surprising then that (people there) get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Obama could have been describing a swath of Trump’s supporters in the 2016 campaign.

Fear as a behavioral motivator is nothing new. In their vintage routine, Carl Reiner asked the 2000-year-old man (Mel Brooks) what the primary means of transportation was. “Mostly fear,” Brooks replied.“…Fear, yes, an animal would growl—you would go two miles in a minute. Fear would be the main propulsion.”  So far, fear has been propelling the 2016 campaign. None of this means that what works in the primaries and in caucus states will work in November. Fear and anger may be trumped (no pun intended) by risk aversion.   President Obama came in as the relative outsider who was going to shake things up in Washington.   Are the majority of voters going to be willing to take a chance on another untested newbie? Or will they- reject what is perceived as failed experience?

Politically, California had its fling with ”hope and change” when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected Governor in the 2003 recall election. By the end of his 7 plus-years tenure, the State was still in a fiscal mess, the economy was in bad shape and voters were pretty sour on his governorship.   In the 2010 governor’s race, veteran pol—and once and future Democratic Governor–Jerry Brown trounced the GOP candidate—outsider Meg Whitman.

Hillary Clinton, and at least four of the GOP Presidential candidates, are surely hoping for a repeat of that scenario.

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