The political manipulation of fear


The question of what drives people to vote for policies that are detrimental to them personally and disastrous for all humankind has long fascinated me.

Everywhere people are living through the fallout of the surprisingly bad political choices they made, and nowhere is it more stark than in the UK and the US.

With our own general elections coming next year, how we cast out vote should not be something we do unthinkingly.

A very good explanation of what motivates us to go against our best interests can be found in the book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl, director of Vanderbilt University’s Centre for Medicine, Health and Society.

The author clearly catalogues, gives chapter and verse and calculates the cost in life years of his fellow white Midwesteners in America’s heartland having allowed themselves to be swayed by President Trump’s “make America great again” rhetoric to support health, trade, tax, drug, gun and other socially conservative policies that lead to their own worsened wellbeing. For example, as a result of the winning Republican election pledge in Missouri to relax gun laws, the highest death rate in gun-related violence is amongst Trump-voting white working-class Missouri men, not stereotypical carjackers and gang members, as had been touted. In rural areas white males are the most numerable perpetrators of gun suicides, partner killings and accidental and mass shootings, totalling the loss of “10,500 years of productive white life.”

Metzl also calculated that in the Republican state of Tennessee the cost of Trump voters’ rejection of the embryonic Affordable Care Act dynamically shortened the lives of low-income families by two to three weeks because of reduced access to all levels of health care. Similarly with the cut in education spending in Kansas, correlated high-school dropout rates and lower life expectancy correspond to the loss of over 7,000 white life years in just the first four years of the cuts.

Clearly, how you vote can seriously damage your health. But the question is, would Trump supporters be even willing to hear these facts?

In Britain, the projected and undeniable economic negatives – higher interest rates, lower GDP and economic recession – that will result from leaving the European Union with no deal seem not to matter one jot.

Evidence that the British political, social and economic infrastructure is creaking, almost as badly as ours, seems irrelevant; like lemmings, people seem determined to jump over the cliff, following their leader blindly.

Where does that impulse come from?

Brexit was all about not taking orders from foreigners in Brussels and managing, in particular, Britain’s own immigration issues. The recent scandalous victimisation of the 1940s-50s Caribbean Windrush generation is the best example of the mindlessness at work.

The isolationist policies of the US and UK are derived from the exploitation of difference for political gain – them and us – and the fear it engenders. The British and US conservatives point steady fingers at new immigrants, and their rhetoric breeds insecurity and fear. The active dehumanisation of the “other,” as the system of slavery perfected, as Hitler successfully implemented and Israel, India and various African and other nations have done and continue to do, is the systemic response to the created threat.

In that menacing gap jumps the saviour politician, dictator, and even army, with contradictory promises that can never be delivered because there is never a final solution.

To counter this, Jonathan Metzl suggests that opposition politicians leave logic behind and engage at the same emotional level as the political manipulators, but the rhetoric must be based on fact, not lies.

The 2019 economics Nobel Prize Laureate Esther Duflo might agree, since for her the answer lies in unpacking the problems, one by one. Asking honest questions that interrogate why people “feel” the way they do leads to understanding their motivation and emotional response and then the development of a meaningful policy.

This may seem too simple, but consider that this is a communal approach to changing hearts and minds for positive effect, and even if it is the same sort of strategy used to manipulate voters into false expectations, it could make them vote instead in their own interest.

I admired Sat Maharaj the controversial civil-rights leader who advanced TT’s Hindu people step by step. During my childhood I witnessed first hand the illiteracy, abject poverty and isolation of rural Indians from the rest of TT. As black people had to find ways to establish their cultural forms, so did the Indians, from simple reeds of bamboo and goatskins. Their main advantage was the plot of land they had been duped into purchasing to end indentured service.

If we read our literature we would understand why Sat could appear racist, but too often race is used to cloud issues. Our colonial masters had already manipulated us into the emotional politics of difference that still dogs today’s politics. It is time to unpack the emotions.


"The political manipulation of fear"

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