Skip Pollard: The politics of fear |

Skip Pollard: The politics of fear

As a child, I couldn’t go to sleep if the door to my bedroom closet was open. I was afraid a monster would come out and get me during the night. Of course, there were no monsters living in my closet. But to a small, vulnerable child, there’s danger in the darkness.

We’re hard-wired as human beings to be afraid of the dark. Darkness was the time when our primitive ancestors were most at risk of being eaten by predators they couldn’t see coming. Survival required vigilance. Those who survived to spawn our species were those who were most vigilant (i.e., most fearful) in the dark of night. Fear was a successful survival mechanism.

And so, with natural selection at play, fear of the dark became imbedded in our DNA, a profound motivator of human behavior.

But “darkness” isn’t just a lack of light. Darkness is also a lack of understanding, perceived/imagined risks — threats to one’s well-being. Darkness is that which elicits fear.

Having spent 35 years in the advertising business, I became well-schooled in the mechanism of fear. I became expert at the practice of leveraging real or perceived risks, threats. It was what we did — tapping into dark places in consumers’ psyches to influence behavior.

The process begins with an exercise in risk assessment — determining which perceived risk(s) can best be leveraged to affect consumer behavior, which can elicit the greatest fear and, thus, have the greatest effect. The determination and ranking of risk factors (real or imagined) is based on relative attributes, syndicated research and proprietary focus groups.

It isn’t a guessing game. It’s carefully calculated marketing strategy development. It’s not unlike how politicians develop strategies.

Next, we analyzed the chosen marketing message to determine how best to sell it through. While simple, more believable messages take little support to convince consumers of their merit, requiring low levels of message frequency to resonate, more complex or harder-to-believe messages require higher frequencies to convince people.

Take, for example, the former president’s claims about a “stolen” election. Despite a total lack of evidence to support the claim, he and his allies have managed to convince a majority of Republicans through repetitive, concise messaging, that what they’re saying is true. Given enough consistent frequency, any well-crafted message — no matter how flimsy its premise — can be successfully sold.

Another current example is the ongoing culture war being waged by Republicans who have been leveraging a fear of socialism, a potential “loss of freedom,” to battle Democrat’s agenda. Regardless of facts, the GOP has hammered away at this message to drive down support for the president’s party and, hopefully, win back the House and Senate in 2022. Republicans understand it’s easier to leverage fear for desired effect than it is to argue the esoterica of budgetary implications inherent in the president’s ambitious social/economic plans. Given President Joe Biden’s recent poll numbers, the Republican strategy appears to be working.

These are the politics of fear, with tactics taken straight out of the Madison Avenue playbook: Identify a perceived risk, craft a concise and cohesive message that taps into consumers’ fears, repeat the message over and over, and close the sale. The Republicans are much better at this game than the Democrats, who can’t seem to craft a concise and cohesive message to save their lives.

But those who cry out in fear over an impending, imagined loss of freedom — those who’ve bought into a fear-mongering message about the threat of socialism — have, ironically, already sacrificed their freedom by allowing self-serving political puppet masters to pull their strings. They have ceded their freedom to the politics of fear.

Freedom realized — unshackled exercise of free will — requires independent thought. Fear clouds clear vision and provides a foothold to those who would manipulate the psychologically vulnerable. Giving in to the politics of fear is, ultimately, a surrender of free will.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Skip Pollard is a member of The Union Editorial Board. He lives in Grass Valley.

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