Should we Americans be afraid nowadays, more afraid than, say, we had a right to be ten or thirty years ago? The answer is “yes,” but to understand why we need first to orient ourselves as to what fear actually is, briefly parse the main underlying sources of our current fears, and finally link these basics to what’s been happening lately in our country and in the world.
Fear is a basic human emotion, always latent in everyone if not actually present at any given waking moment. And the reason is that fear helps preserve us from danger; without it, and the fight-or-flight physiological complex that goes along with it, humans would not have gotten very far as a species.
But humans are not like other animals in that we alone are capable of articulate conceptual speech through our capacity for symbolic logic, and hence our ability to project our emotions—love and compassion as well as anger and fear—into fairly well developed hypothetical futures. That means that we can be afraid of an actual snarling dog that accosts us in a public park just after sunset, but also of highly mediated, abstract fears for which no discrete physical referent is present or may ever be present. We can fear for the future of liberal democracy and imagine how such fears may be realized, just as we can hope and hence plan for its improvement where it exists and its expansion where it doesn’t. We can fear for the sustainability of the global environment, and on that basis we can hope to mobilize action to preserve it. We can fear a slow, or not-so-slow, descent to great power nuclear war, or we can act to mitigate such fears. Other animals can’t do that.
So abstract forms of fear can be a good thing for humans, when they help us to plan and act to avoid harm to ourselves and others. But it poses a novel problem, too. When fears become projectile abstractions they sometimes tend to bundle or pool together, eventually coalescing around vivid events, a bit like how water vapor coalesces around floating particles to form rain. Underlying sources of angst often go unrecognized in the emotions of the moment.
So people think they are afraid of terrorism, or of pandemic disease, or of losing a job on which whole families depend. Or of a President who behaves in an authoritarian manner, is systematically mendacious, starts ruinous trade wars, and destroys the bedrock Western alliance on which great-power peace has depended for 75 years. And we are afraid of these things, or should be. But the depth of our fears typically draws on myriad other insecurities, some held in common with our neighbors and some not, that we rarely stop to consider. The gist is that already shaky people—and relatively insecure nations—tend to be shaken more by alarming events and omens of misfortune, realistic or fanciful, than those of a more stoical temperament.
We Americans, and many other too, have grown pretty shaky in recent times. Why is that? There is no settled consensus, but a short list of possible causes is easy to assemble.
First and probably most significant, we live amid a technological tsunami that is arguably unprecedented in nature and scope. Earlier innovations, even generative ones like steam power, substituted machine power for human power; but the information technology/artificial intelligence revolution substitutes knowledge-infused machines for many aspects of human thought. The result is an accelerating cascade of eruptive discontinuities in social life affecting work and the economy more broadly, family structures, and political life to an extent that not even Josef Schumpeter—famed coiner of the phrase “creative destruction”—could have imagined. The same disintermediating technology that has put most travel agents out of business, and lets us get cash and pump gasoline without having to encounter another human being, is basically the same technology that enables Donald Trump to demean and weaken American governmental institutions by tweeting directly to his base of support.
Second, our politics have grown polarized and shrill, government often can’t address let alone solve basic challenges, our military wins battles but not wars, and our political elites—of both major parties—have consistently made promises that fell short and told stories of credit and blame that we increasing cannot bring ourselves to believe. It is frightening for people to realize that their leaders have failed them, and twice: first in letting the deal go down, and second in misunderstanding how to pick it up again.
Arguably, too, the well-intentioned democratizing reforms we have enacted in recent decades over a range of institutions have made things worse, not better. Our two main political parties are weaker and less able to commute their responsibilities; for reasons that go deeper into cultural change, the sinews of social authority in nearly all forms have flattened to the point that we lack social discipline and the ability to get much of anything new or big done; and increasingly people deny that expertise and evidence is relevant to collective problem solving. It’s all just a matter of opinion now, in a society where one person’s opinion is now widely deemed to be just as potentially valid as anyone else’s. This is what the secular religious doctrine of totally undifferentiated egalitarianism, which social meliorists have been pounding for many years now into semi-educated heads, will get you.
Third, terrorism has rattled us, starting with 9/11 but continuing through lesser forms of murder and mayhem ever since—the kind perpetrated by radical Muslims via internet indoctrination (for example, Ft. Hood, Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, Orlando) and the more nativist kind perhaps more so (for example, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Dylann Roof, Stephen Paddock, and, just this past week, Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers). Terrorism does its damage not mainly through body counts but by undermining the social trust that keeps communities engaged, united, and optimistic.1 The bureaucratized paranoia we have allowed to develop as a consequence hasn’t helped in the least—“If you see something, say something” spoken a hundred million times a day across the country by our now ubiquitous automatonic ghosts. By essentially reminding people of the real prospect of mass murder several times a day, it’s been on balance counterproductive as well as very expensive.
Fourth, broken families produce more insecure children; kids who feel emotionally betrayed by those who are supposed to love and protect them often grow into insecure adults, replicating insecurity by often failing to form secure loving bonds. Deep-seated insecurity is a host on which fear feeds, and so is the loneliness that is often the result of a love-deprived life. Unfortunately, American family life has been hurting now for some time, especially among lower socio-economic cohorts under growing economic pressure.
Fifth, there is the late Penn professor George Gerbner’s “mean world syndrome.” Gerbner demonstrated that people who watch a lot of commercial television and Hollywood shock flicks come to believe that violence, perversion, and plain evil are as plentiful in real life as they are in mass-entertainment fiction. That makes many Americans artificially afraid, and has contributed to a protracted moral panic in our culture about safety—which in turn has been multiplied many times over by the toxicity of social media wormholes. But even before social media became such a problem, “helicopter” parents insisted that their children be absolutely safe, going so far as to chaperone trick-or-treating. All that does, of course, is scare the bejesus out of the kids—with the predictable results we now see on campuses that feature safe spaces and trigger warnings for so-called snowflakes.
Then, sixth, there has been, arguably, too much immigration too fast into the United States to assimilate in a culture whose swoon of collective self-confidence has made local elites feel guilty about demanding that assimilation. Native-born folk who fear the evisceration of the benign stabilities of shared reciprocal expectations in day-to-day social life are not all racists, bigots, or “deplorables” any more than choosing not to give money to a beggar is morally equivalent to hitting him over the head with a crowbar. Almost invariably, the actual origin of anti-immigration anxiety is pro-“us,” not anti-“them.” But fear is fear, no matter the details.
Finally, since fear is ubiquitous, every civilization has devised ways to manage it. That has typically been accomplished in the context of religious culture. Dangers are easier to cope with for most people when they are seen as something other than completely random and meaningless, when they are integrated into shared narratives that make a certain kind of emotional sense. When traditional religious templates erode, as they have in most Western societies in recent times, the frameworks that control the psycho-social impact of fear erode with them. They have been replaced, in a manner of speaking, with the pseudo-religion of the therapeutic, whose obsession with absolute security has only served to make nearly everyone more anxious, not less.
That’s a short list—it could be made longer—but the essence is clear: We Americans are living in unstuck times. We don’t trust each other as much as we used to when we had a common Cold War adversary and common goals to build things together, whether a genuinely color-blind society or landing a probe on Mars. We increasingly lack moral templates that give our fears any sort of sharable meaning, so we’ve become uncharacteristically pessimistic about the future—“progress” has all but become a dirty word, or a bad joke—which is a problem rolled over itself. Our reservoir of latent fear is grown large, and that’s a problem.
It’s a problem because fearful societies—and American society obviously isn’t the only example—develop markets for fear abatement. The most effective way for political entrepreneurs to tap into such markets is to focus on what or, better, who to blame for what makes people afraid. The simpler the depiction of fear’s source the better for the would-be political hustler. No matter how varied and interactively complex the real sources of fear and insecurity may be, rattled people are easily manipulated by demagogues offering parsimonious, emotion-driven conflations—say, about “carnage” caused by immigrants.
Indeed, we have become so beset with ambient fear in recent decades that Donald Trump’s rise to the White House would be inexplicable without it. Too many people, abetted by the media, focus on the man: That’s a mistake. The proper focus needs to be on what has happened to our culture that has allowed a man like that to become President—and what it may lead to next. Alas, in modern historical cases where demagogues have oozed their way to power by harvesting fear, they have often solved small problems—making the trains run on time, muffling the cacophony of democratic debate, maybe next building a “big, beautiful wall”—only at the cost of themselves soon becoming a much greater problem.
Are we there yet? American democracy is not in imminent jeopardy but American liberal democracy—predicated on the rule of law, individual rights, and tolerance for dissent—does seem up for grabs in a way it has never been in my lifetime. The willful trashing of U.S. postwar grand strategy takes us anew into a world based not on a U.S.-led Western rules-based order, but on a ragged concert of great powers with zones of influence in which power-based relationships alone define relations between big and small nations. We’ve been there before and we’re still here to tell of it—but earlier epochs of balance-of-power realism did not proceed in a world with nuclear weapons.
So, should we be afraid? Yes. But understand that what we think we fear may not exhaust its real sources. We should realize that Donald Trump is a symptom of deeper dysfunctions as well as a multiplier of dysfunction in the false guise of an insurgent, supposedly anti-elitist savior.
More important, we should acknowledge that our fear is necessary, for without it we become passive victims of our own bewilderment. We can still work our way out of the mess we’re in, with fear as our fuel. But to do that we must understand and tame our fear, not let it drive us crazy—even despite events like Saturday’s murder of eleven Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue. For many people, naturally enough, the difference can sometimes be a thin line.
A substantially truncated version of this essay appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 22, 2018.
1. There is clearly a connection between ambient fear in a given society and its effects on social trust. Usually, to use Robert Putnam’s basic vocabulary, the more fear the more narrow bonding trust there is—the misnamed “tribal” phenomenon—and the less bridging trust. I have discussed the possible sources of social trust depletion in the United States in “In Way Too Little We Trust,” TAI Online, December 13, 2017. For those who prefer their analysis in French, see “Pourquoi n’avons-nous pas confiance en grand-chose?” Commentaire, N° 164, Hiver 2018-19.