05 June 2015

Why Fear Sells in the Republican Primary

With the exception of Rand Paul, the 10 to 17 Republican candidates running for the White House all say they would not have invaded Iraq but do say they're eager to attack Iran. Lindsey Graham is probably the most extreme example of what is fairly normal within the GOP: warning about a world set to explode into chaos, militants who hate our way of life.

This is perplexing. Deaths from warfare have been steadily and significantly dropping throughout the last 70 years.

The violent crime rate has fallen in 8 of the last 10 years. And yet, in 10 of the last 10 years, the majority of Americans thought that violent crime rates were going up. A great many people do perceive the world as getting worse, not better.

I think there are a variety of reasons why negativity is such a positive for politicians - particularly for Republican politicians.

For one thing, the belief in progress is still a fairly novel thing. Until about 1500 to 1700, most people believed that the Garden of Eden was a paradise from which we'd fallen. Life had not gotten better since Adam and Eve but had, instead, only gotten worse. If there was any hope for freedom from grief it was not to be found in this life. The Renaissance wounded this concept and the Enlightenment dealt it a death blow. Well, for some people. There are still many people who have a visceral conviction that things will get worse in the future or even believe that things are getting worse now. Some, not all, of these people are religious and still believe in the fall from grace. And, of course, religious conservatives are more likely to vote Republican.

And of course pessimists are right at some level. I have found that my own view of myself lags reality by at least a decade. I'm surprised by recent pictures of me that show me as much older than I remember. My father died about a year and a half ago and I have no illusions about what the end of life will be like. I'll become less able and, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, "unrecognizable to myself," and I'll eventually die. It's hard to take comfort in the fact that life could be better for the average 30 year old in 30 years if I'm dying or dead then. When you reach a certain age, it becomes harder to be optimistic about the future. And of course, the elderly are more likely to vote Republican. A message of optimism directed at them seems to ring false.

There is one other factor that might explain why the message of military might and threats of violence so resonate with certain voters. It has to do with the source of wealth.

When land is the basis of wealth, it is worth fighting. If you win, you keep your land or even get more. If you lose, you wander without home or income.

When knowledge work is the basis of wealth, you do better to collaborate than fight. In Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, he makes the point that in 1849, during the California gold rush, it would actually pay off to attack California. If you conquer it, the mines are yours. You get the wealth. By contrast, if you were to conquer Silicon Valley today, killing people as you invaded, you would end up with nothing. Silicon Valley's assets are in people's minds and it is tough to seize those with tanks and planes.

Rural areas tend to be more Republican. For these people, their wealth is often rooted in farmland or oil wells or businesses that support them. In urban areas, we have knowledge work as the basis of wealth. People who base their wealth on land are more threatened by the thought of war. It actually makes sense to seize a farm or oil well. People in cubicles are more likely to be baffled by the threat. It doesn't really even register as plausible.

So when candidates talk about the threat of radical Islam, it resonates with religious farmers and oil men who see war as a credible way to gain wealth and persecute true believers. By contrast, neither of those buttons work for most urban knowledge workers. And if you talk about how things are getting worse to people in their 80s, people for whom life really is getting worse, it resonates in ways it simply can't with young people still in the prime of their life. Unsurprisingly, Republicans preach fear to their base of rural, religious, older citizens. Fortunately for the world - unfortunately for Republicans - this base is shrinking.

1 comment:

Lifehiker said...

Right and right. Even in rural areas the internet is shrinking the conservative base. Sometimes it bugs me that the aging right wingers hang on due to advanced science and technology but give the credit to God's protection; even God must be a little miffed about that when the longevity-enhanced person is a war-mongering "Christian" bigot. So, ONWARD, Knowledge Workers! They have nothing to fear but fear itself. (Did someone else already say that?)