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The problem with fear in politics

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote her latest book, “The Monarchy of Fear,” to better understand the 2016 election. She tells Jeffrey Brown that when fear gets into the mix, we fail to work out actual problems.

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  • John Yang:

    Now Jeffrey Brown has the latest entry on the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    Philosopher Martha Nussbaum teaches at the University of Chicago in both the law school and Department of Philosophy, author of numerous books examining aspects of political and everyday life. The latest is "The Monarchy of Fear." And it was written, she tells us in a prologue, to better understand the election of 2016.

    One insight, the political is always emotional.

    And that's something you have written about for a long time, right? Explain your terms.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What does emotion mean? What does fear mean?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Well, OK, so emotions, I think, are not just jolts of electricity, but they involve thoughts about what's happening to us, what's good and bad.

    And fear connects us to the bad. It's the thought that there's terrible bad stuff out there, and we're not entirely in control of warding it off. And so fear is then something that philosophers have talked about ever since the Greeks. And it's always been thought to be a terrible problem for democracy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you're connecting it, though, to now.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, the subtitle, "A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis," so that's the next term I want you to define, political crisis. What do you see?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Well, what I see is that people are being stampeded by their emotions, and they're not stopping to figure things out and to work on the real problems.

    And what happens when fear gets into the works is, it's like sort of a grain of sand that gets into the whole mechanism, and makes us spin off and turn get targets that are not real. So we get frightened. And then we think, oh, the problem is really the immigrants. Or it's on the left too. So the problem is really those elites, instead of thinking, well, what are the actual problems, and what can we do to fix them?

    And so I wrote the book because I feel that way too, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

    But where does — where does emotion and fear come into what makes sense or what's rational?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Because I think specifically about this election, which is where you started.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there's been a lot of analysis, or some people are saying those who supported Donald Trump felt anxiety over their economic status, or there was a recent study that said a more general future fear over losing status in the country.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Right.

    Yes, and I think that second one is particularly true. It's not that there — that no fears are rational. I think that it's rational to fear your own death or to fear harm to your family. And — but we have to ask ourselves, before we get stampeded and run off in some direction, we have to ask, what do we really have reason to fear?

    Roosevelt once said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But I think that was actually not very precise, because, in that era, we had tremendous things that it was reasonable to fear, Nazism, economic unrest, and so on.

    So, better, I think, was President Obama when he said, democracy may buckle if we give way to fear. So it's the giving way, the not pausing to examine it and sort it out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, so, you describe yourself as a liberal social Democrat, right?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're very open in the book about talking about your own position of privilege growing up and being a professor.

    So, when you're looking again — to make this more as concrete as possible — Donald Trump can be seen as a rational response for people.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Well, the trouble is that he is a master of manipulating fear, and taking people who are right to be upset about their economic situation or their status, but then spinning them off and to say, oh, the problem is immigrants or the infestation at our borders.

    And so, in the book, I actually contrast him with George W. Bush, who, after 9/11, he saw that there was a real danger that people would get stampeded by fear and go out and attack Muslims. And he carefully said, look, what we are dealing with here are criminals, and we don't want to demonize the entirety of a religion or a people.

    And he even created an archive of all his statements about Islam and Muslims to show that he had been trying to calm people down and get them to fear the right things, namely criminals.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You said at the beginning that this goes back and the work you have done to the Greeks, right?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is it — is it always there? Does it ebb and flow? Are we — what point are you making about our particular moment?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Well, I think it ebbs and flows.

    But it was known to the Greeks very well that fear was an emotion that was particularly susceptible to demagogic manipulation. And they were very worried about that. Thucydides, the historian, talks about how the Athenians voted to put to death a whole bunch of rebellious colonists because a demagogue had whipped them up into a state of fear.

    And then someone else went through the analysis, and then they decided, well, actually, that was stupid, and they set out another boat to catch the first boat. And it was only because the first boat was becalmed at sea that they didn't kill a whole bunch of people.

    So it's always been a problem. And I think it probably was at its height recently during the Great Depression. And then there was a kind of ebb back. But now it's the great changes we see around us, automation, globalization. And these are really difficult problems.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    So you got to sort them out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So you're talking about the fears that Trump voters would have.

    What fears do you see among people on your side?

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Well, I see my students have this terrible sense that it's like the last days of civilization, and that we must be terrified, that this is unprecedented.

    And they don't even want to talk to students who might have voted for Trump. They think that they must be monsters.

    And I think this is really bad. It's half the — probably half of the undergraduates in my university must — if they represent the electorate. And it's terrible to say, I'm just not going to talk to anyone who voted for Trump.

    So I think there's this fear that democracy is exploding or imploding. And instead of talking and sitting down and trying to figure out how we can get together and solve this problem, they just turn away, and they're stampeded by fear

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the new book is "The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis."

    Martha Nussbaum, thank you very much.

  • Martha Nussbaum:

    Thank you very much.

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