TOPICS > Politics > Vote 2016

What past elections can teach us about fear politics

January 26, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
Fear of terrorism has been a recurring theme of the current presidential race -- from grave callbacks to November’s Paris attacks to promises of bans on Muslim immigrants -- but the tactic is nothing new in American politics. Judy Woodruff talks to Stephen Walt of Harvard University and Beverly Gage of Yale University for some historical perspective on fear in electoral politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are excited to share some news about our election coverage. This year, we are teaming up with NPR News to cover the Democratic and Republican Conventions together. Throughout the year, our teams will also report on the big issues affecting politics in America.

We bring you our first joint topic tonight: the mood and emotions of the electorate. It’s a theme for NPR’S “Morning Edition,” some local NPR stations this week, and here at the “NewsHour.” We are looking at the politics of fear.

As we just saw, the issue of fear and terrorism came up in the forum last night, and some of the candidates have employed fear of terrorism as a way to appeal to voters.

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Republican Donald Trump has called for a ban on Muslims coming into the U.S., saying, “Our country cannot be the victim of tremendous attacks by people who believe only in jihad.”

Senator Ted Cruz has warned, “Our enemies are not tired of killing us. And they’re getting stronger,” while Senator Marco Rubio cautioned, “What happened in Paris could happen here. These are radical terrorists who want to kill us.”

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has warned of retaliation from Trump’s comments — quote — “He is becoming ISIS’ best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam.”

For our discussion on this, we’re joined now by Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University, and Beverly Gage. She’s a professor of 20th century American history at Yale University.

And we welcome you both.

Beverly Gage, to you first.

How long have candidates used fear in one form or another in American politics? And how successful has it been?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: Well, I would like to say it’s a brand-new thing, and we can just tamp it down, but there’s always been a certain element of fear politics.

Really, if you look back to the founding fathers, they were accusing each other of all sorts of things. The Federalists were accusing their opponents of all sorts of conspiracies. So, I think we have a very long history.

I do think, oftentimes, as we’re seeing today, that history is tied up in both foreign affairs and then issues at home, issues like race and crime and immigration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Walt, what about the use of fear as a tactic through history? How successful do you think it’s been?

STEPHEN WALT, Harvard University: Well, I think it’s been used successfully by a number of candidates in the past and been used by candidates from both parties.

You will recall, in the late ’40s and early 1950s, the Truman administration was accused of losing China, being soft on communism. The claim was made by Joseph McCarthy that communists were infiltrating key American institutions.

And then, in 1960, John F. Kennedy turned the tables and accused the Eisenhower administration of also being weak, of allowing a missile gap to develop, even though none existed.

So, this tactic of trying to play on people’s fears and insecurities is a pretty common one, as Beverly said.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Beverly, used pretty equally by both political parties, or has one party or another used it more? What do you see?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I certainly think, in the 20th century, you can go cherry-picking and find both parties using it.

So, probably the most famous example of fear politics in a campaign actually was a Democrat defaming a Republican, so, Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, Johnson’s famous ad that showed a little girl picking off the petals of a daisy, accusing Barry Goldwater being about to foment nuclear war.

So, I think you can see it happening on both sides. But I think the more interesting question is sort of, what position are candidates usually in when they’re using this kind of politics? And while there are exceptions, it’s often candidates who are in the opposition party, and it’s often candidates who are trying to appeal to people who feel like they have something to lose.

And if a candidate comes in and says, that’s right, the terrible thing that you fear may happen is in fact going to happen, that, unfortunately, can be a pretty effective tactic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stephen Walt, telescope that to this year. How do you see it playing out in this campaign? I just used some quotes from some of the candidates a minute ago, but what do you see?

STEPHEN WALT: Well, what I think is interesting about this campaign is the degree to which it’s fear of the other, fear of the alien, fear of those who aren’t really fully American or aren’t potentially — or maybe disloyal in some fashion, so pointing to Mexican Americans, pointing to Muslim Americans.

And this theme has actually been throughout Obama’s presidency, when you think about it, the various bizarre accusations that he wasn’t really American or he was secretly Muslim himself, this notion that somehow these people can’t be trusted and real Americans face dangers that may be enormous.

And, again, we have seen this in the past. This was clearly part of the McCarthy period. But I think it’s the thing that is most telling about 2016. And you even see it in a slightly different form with the Sanders campaign suggesting that most of the problems in America are due to the greedy 1 percenters of Wall Street, and if we could just get them under control, we would be fine.

So, I think that is what defines the use of fear in this particular campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Beverly Gage, how do we distinguish between what’s a responsible, healthy debate over real threats to this country, vs. crossing a line into something that’s just playing on people’s fears and insecurities?

BEVERLY GAGE: Right. Well, that is the big question.

So, often, we are dealing with real issues. So, terrorism is a real issue, and, in fact, immigration itself is also a real issue. We are now at peak levels of immigration, levels of immigration we haven’t seen really since the turn of the last century. So, there is something driving this kind of politics.

And I think the question is exactly what you have posed. How do you kind of deal responsibly with it? It would be nice to say, well, you just present the facts, but, often, that actually is not what really works. I think Obama tried to do that in terms of terrorism at his State of the Union, when he said, you know, we’re not in the middle of World War III. We are not at risk as a nation.

But I’m not sure that actually played very well. I think, often, what can make the real difference is actually shifting the debate a little bit, acknowledging that the problem is real, and the question is not how to freak out about it, but, in fact, how to begin to deal with it constructively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Walt, have you seen examples of candidates handling it well this year? And who’s responsible for getting it all straightened out and making sure people know what’s — what is responsible, what’s healthy, and what’s crossing a line?

STEPHEN WALT: Well, certainly, there’s a role for the candidates to challenge each other.

And I think one of the things candidates can do is first force their rivals to be specific. Don’t just point to some menace whose dimensions are being exaggerated, but force people to be concrete and specific about the policies that they would follow, what they would do differently, how they would make the problem manageable.

Don’t treat it, again, as this infinitely large menace, but rather as a practical problem to be solved. There’s also, obviously, a role here for the media in challenging the various claims from the candidates, asking them for specifics, asking them for facts, and not accepting magical solutions.

It shouldn’t be acceptable for a candidate to be able to say, look, we’re facing a huge danger here, but I have an easy way to solve this particular huge danger.

Then, finally, I think candidates can play a certain jujitsu on their rivals by basically saying, those who are fear-mongering don’t have enough confidence in America’s basic strengths, don’t have confidence in America’s institutions.

And I think Ronald Reagan was the modern genius at this. He used fear-mongering in the 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter, but he also managed to do it with a sense of great optimism, that America was fundamentally good, fundamentally strong, and these challenges were something it could overcome.

If any of the candidates can manage that sweet spot, they’re likely to do pretty well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Beverly Gage, that means that there’s promise out there that candidates will handle it well this year and beyond?

BEVERLY GAGE: There is promise out there. I think there are also some dark examples from American history.

So, another moment in which terrorism, immigration was really on the table was in the teens and the ’20s. And what we actually got coming out of that political moment was, in fact, pretty extreme immigration restriction, as well as the rise of the new Ku Klux Klan during that period.

So, I think there’s a lot at stake, and I think we’re still early in the campaign, and we will see how it goes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot at stake. And you’re right, we are really early in the campaign.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see.

Beverly Gage, Stephen Walt, we thank you both.

BEVERLY GAGE: Thank you, Judy.

STEPHEN WALT: Nice talking with you.