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OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: The fear factor

by Brenda Looper | October 20, 2021 at 3:20 a.m.
Brenda Looper

If it's October, that must mean it's time for me to talk about fear again. Not goblins and ghouls or other Halloween-y things, but about those things so many of us share on social media and elsewhere.

And I really hate talking about politics.

However, it seems politics is the biggest source of fear nowadays. Both major parties are masters at it, but one appears to base its entire being on it now. Where once it was the party of small government and fiscal responsibility, it's now given over to fear: fear of "the other" (which encompasses migrants, minorities, independent women, other faiths, etc.), of losing, of consequences and so many other things.

I sincerely doubt the late U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt would be proud of what his party has become, with conspiracy theories, rejection of expertise and outright meanness taking hold. For that matter, the late Sen. Dale Bumpers probably wouldn't be all that proud of his party either, and its pandering to its progressive wing to the point of endangering larger policy priorities that a clear majority of Americans support (infrastructure, universal background checks, etc.).

Socialism is probably the biggest scare tactic, and is the talking point that annoys me the most, because it betrays a misunderstanding of political and economic systems.

Like most nations, our system is a hybrid. It isn't pure, laissez-faire, capitalism, in which the marketplace operates without controls, or pure socialism, where all legal production and distribution decisions are made by the government, according to Investopedia. We use a mixed-market system, which leaves part up to the free market, and part to the government.

Why, you ask? Well, there's the fact that it's less expensive and more efficient to leave things like road-building to government, using pooled money from taxes (that's why you pay them). If we left it up to individuals or private businesses, most of us in the South would probably still be driving on gravel roads if we could even afford a car. And we place regulations on businesses to rein in unfair and dangerous practices and make it more fair for competitors to do business; to protect workers, consumers and the environment; and to try to keep prices somewhat reasonable.

But sure, keep hammering away on regulations and pooling money for the greater good being bad.

And then there's the latest talking point of the FBI being sicced on parents who speak out at school board meetings. Attorney General Merrick Garland's memo directs the bureau to meet with U.S. attorneys and state, tribal and local law enforcement authorities to come up with strategies to deal with the "disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools."

The memo makes clear that threats are the focus, and that the FBI's involvement is mostly helping local law enforcement develop strategies to deal with them and opening communication lines for threat reporting if needed.

You can learn a lot by reading the actual source material without a hyperpartisan dolt's re-interpretation.

Talking points based in fear are used because they work. Dolores Albarracin, professor of psychology, business, and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, found in a meta-analysis that "messages with fear are nearly twice as effective as messages without fear," according to an October 2020 article by Kirk Waldroff on the American Psychological Association website.

Of course politicians are going to capitalize on something they believe you should fear, like gay or trans people or a legal theory not taught in K-12 but that makes a good boogeyman. "A large part of politics is getting people to think about things as part of a group," Christopher Federico, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, told Waldroff.

If they can convince people as a group to fear another party's candidate or that that candidate's people are planning to rig the election (or did rig it), they can get them to do just about anything.

Like, maybe ... try to overthrow the fairly elected government. Not that that would ever happen here.

Waldroff's article notes that the best way to avoid being manipulated through fear is to understand the emotion. "Fear induces withdrawal, stepping back, being cautious," says Federico. "Fear and anxiety get us to stop and re-assess. But often when we re-assess because of fear, we tend to seek out information that reinforces the idea that a threat exists--which is not necessarily the most accurate or objective information."

When it comes to politics, you have to remember that there's a strategy involved in making sure you are fearful of the person who doesn't share your views on an issue. Why address the real issues and admit that we agree more often than we disagree when you can make others fear a monolithic terror creeping across the land?

Fear is easy. Being responsible and honest ... it's a bit harder, but it's worth it.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at

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