We Need to Pay More Attention to Politics When We Talk about the Politics of Fear

I’ve been arguing forever that to understand the politics of fear, you have to put the emphasis on the politics, not the fear, that history and ideology matter more than individual psychology or neuroscience. Against those who would reduce the politics of fear to what happens in our amygdalas, I’ve insisted that in between the things people fear and the things that the state does lies a vast chasm of elite interests, institutional imperatives, influential ideologies, organizational mobilization, and more.

So the next time someone says that an unmediated fear on the part of the population, even a fear of a despised other, leads automatically and seamlessly to coercive measures of state, remind them of this moment:

The Senate rejected…an amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to prevent individuals on the terror watch list from purchasing firearms on a 45 to 54 vote.


  1. rdpike December 4, 2015 at 11:25 am | #

    We have nothing to fear but the money of the NRA? But seriously, you make a great point, the powers of darkness thrive on ginning up the hysteria. Good politicians can tamp it down and enact rational solutions.

    • Snarki, child of Loki December 6, 2015 at 10:40 am | #

      It’s not the “money of the NRA” that does this (far, far less than Big Pharma donations), but the mobilization of the white-hot hate of ten million exploding wingnut rage-junkies.

  2. John T. Maher December 4, 2015 at 11:30 am | #

    Well said. However, the Terror Watch List is famously a non democratic political punishment list used to marginalize people it deems as dissidents and almost all of the list contains the names for people who are not ‘terrorists’ or likely to become same. Lot of tree huggers on that list. One might find oneself on that list based upon mere disagreement with the mainstream. So while the left may have a collective imperative to restrict gun ownership, doing so in a manner that is complicit with stigmatizing and punishing is merely reinforcing the neoliberal state. How about a more open Terror Watch list with real review (I know there is limited review in name only) and an across the board ban on ownership subject to petition. Political nonstarter, right?

    Read the Nietzsche-Austrian School, origins article on your site last night. Amazing historicity. We all know Hayek and von Mises but the crucible in which they were formed had a peculiar ferment.

    • Bill Michtom December 5, 2015 at 5:00 am | #

      “marginalize people it deems as dissidents” “Lot of tree huggers on that list.”

      A very graphic demonstration has been happening in France in the wake of the Paris attacks.

  3. Hattie December 4, 2015 at 12:17 pm | #

    Unless you need to hunt for your food, you don’t need a gun.

    • John T. Maher December 5, 2015 at 1:56 pm | #

      Do not hunt animals. From my vantage greater terrorist assaults are perpetuated against critters every day and go unrecorded as such. This terror is even institutionalized as policy in parks and for wild animals is often to kill those with no fear of humans. But we get a bit far afield here.

  4. tatere December 4, 2015 at 2:21 pm | #

    But isn’t this vote also an expression of the same fear? In totem form, anyway. In this terrible world of scary people, only my gun keeps me safe, and any restrictions of any kind are a slippery slope to taking my gun.

    Not that I think you’re wrong about the politics being important too. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the point.

    • Bill Michtom December 5, 2015 at 5:02 am | #

      “only my gun keeps me safe”

      The statistics overwhelmingly put the lie to this belief, tatere .

  5. msobel December 4, 2015 at 5:25 pm | #
  6. Frank Wilhoit December 4, 2015 at 8:35 pm | #

    The larger point is that politics is the problem. It is not *what*kind* of politics you have, but *how*much* politics you have — specifically, how many areas of life (law, medicine, education) are contaminated by politics that ought to be free of it.

    Faction is a disease. It has been fatal in every known case — often after extremely prolonged agony.

  7. jonnybutter December 4, 2015 at 10:10 pm | #

    Frank, I think the implication of what Corey is saying is pretty much the opposite of what you’re saying. Just sayin’.

    However, the Terror Watch List is famously a non democratic political punishment list used to marginalize people it deems as dissidents and almost all of the list contains the names for people who are not ‘terrorists’ or likely to become same.

    This is immaterial to the argument, no? What matters is that the gov *says* they are terrorists but (in the form of congress) won’t restrict their access to guns. Completely ridiculous. As a secondary matter, I’d say that the list is not *only* a political list – looks to me like there are quite a few legit terrorist orgs on there. Immaterial though.

  8. Phil P December 5, 2015 at 10:21 am | #

    I think there are two fears at play, and the real lesson is that we need to look at what fears are in play. In this case, political power rests with the other side which is motivated by a fear of losign their identities (real or perceived) which are tied to guns, at least as a marker. So when dueling fears are at play, look for the more mobilized one.

  9. Roqeuntin December 6, 2015 at 7:00 pm | #

    I’ll take a psychoanalytic approach. Guns are a phallic symbol, in the classically Freudian sense. Gun control amounts to castration/emasculation. This is why it is unimportant if small arms would actually stop a modern military force for more than a few hours or that guns in the house statistically make a family less safer. It’s about making people feel powerful, having phallus. It is absolutely not a coincidence that the GOP (and the political right in general), is both the party of guns and the party of reducing the control/power of all except the most wealthy and well-connected Americans. The gun is a supplement, a compensation for that loss. They let people have guns precisely because they know they’ll never do anything with them, precisely because owning a gun is completely meaningless in a political sense in 2015. And even on the off chance that it isn’t someday, they can always roll in and confiscate them when the time is right. It’s all about the illusion of control and power, if hundreds of people have to die each year for it…that’s just the price of admission.

    I completely agree that fear is a conditioned response like any other. We are taught how, when, and what to fear, just like we are taught to do with all our other desires. While it very obviously has a biological component, this is at best half the picture.

  10. Dave December 9, 2021 at 2:18 pm | #

    Coming to this a bit late, but I really enjoyed your book “Fear.” I was intrigued by your preference on political approaches over psychological approaches because I’ve always found that the approach of Tocqueville (mass anxiety) and Arendt (social conformity) lined up with much of my experience in the American South. To my knowledge though in your book you never provide a firm definition of “the political.” What are the limits to that concept, or where does the political end and the social/psychological begin?

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