Published: Granite Bay Gazette Vol. 18, Issue 8. Friday, May 20, 2016. Can be read here.
The anti-politician and anti-establishment wave of candidates who have vied for the contended 2016 presidency are a newer lifeform in American politics, but the government mistrust which fueled their popularity has possibly been ingrained into American political culture since the creation of the country itself.
Public mistrust of the government stretches its roots as far back as 1788, when Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison published 85 articles convincing the dubious public to place their trust in a more powerful form of democracy. More recently, a 2015 study published by the Pew Research Center found that just 19 percent of Americans say they trust the U.S. government.
In an annual study examining fears in America conducted by Chapman University, 1541 Americans nationwide were asked about their level of fear relating to 88 pre-chosen possible fears. The top-ranking fear in the most recent 2015 study, one that 58 percent of surveyed Americans said they had, was fear of corruption of government officials.
“I was surprised with what popped up … as the biggest single fear, which was government corruption,” said Chapman sociology professor Lemuel E. Day, who was a principal investigator for the survey. “I think a big part of that was the beginning of the primary season, (with) all candidates running on how the country is going to hell in a handbasket. That makes people afraid, but I was surprised the results were that high.”
In regards to government corruption, some students, like Granite Bay High School senior Will Duckhorn, who identifies as a moderate Republican, say they can understand why so many Americans see it as a threat.
“Politicians have been known to do some shady activities, but that’s not what I would consider corruption,” Duckhorn said. “I think Americans are afraid of corruption because they see things like FIFA and the Panama Papers and believe that something similar is happening in the U.S. While I can’t be entirely sure if the government is hiding something from the public, I don’t believe it could be anything comparable to what’s going on in countries like Russia.”
A second part of the same Chapman study examined the responses to the fears of the participants. The most popular response, which 22.6 percent of those surveyed say they participate in “because of their fears,” was voting for a certain candidate.
Senior Jack Kennedy, who supports Vermont state senator Bernie Sanders, said that he does not personally fear government corruption or corrupt individuals infiltrating government. Kennedy said people vote for certain candidates based on their fears “because it makes them feel more comfortable with themselves” but that, ultimately, individuals should vote for who they believe in.
However, senior Eddie Gleason, a Republican who supports Donald Trump for the presidency, said that he believes America needs to “strike fear into the country” to keep former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of the presidency at all costs. Doing so by utilizing fear, Gleason said once a Republican returns to the presidency “we won’t be giving out free money.”
If individuals participating in government recognize the power of fear, to what extent to candidates employ national fears?
“Fear has been probably the most important tactic used throughout the race,” Duckhorn said. “Trump’s campaign has done so well because he knows how to use fear to his advantage. He talks about Mexicans and how they are stealing our jobs, and voters are (thinking) ‘I don’t want to lose my job, better vote for this guy.’ He does an incredible job playing off of the fears of Americans, and, because of it, he’s going to be the Republican nominee.”
The power fear holds in influencing decisions is undeniable, but exactly how fear shapes perceptions is more complex than most individuals, even those who have high political efficacy, may consciously acknowledge.
GBHS Advanced Placement Psychology teacher and marriage and family therapist Natalie Elkin said that fear is a primitive and primal emotion linked with survival. If we perceive a threat to our survival, she said, our emotions hugely influence our ability to correctly process and interpret information.
“A corrupt government is a threat to us because we are still functioning from this idea that we need to hold on to our freedom, … whether (from perceived threats like) immigrants,” Elkin said. “One candidate in particular has been good at identifying these different threats.
“If a politician, then, is speaking to us and explaining their side or they’re talking about their opponent, and they connect (or)… insinuate there might be a threat if you vote for this (person), then our brains immediately light up and … we then process that information with this possible threat. And it gets stored in our memory that way, so then that shapes everything about how we vote. We have such horrible cognitive biases, … that when it comes right down to it, we don’t vote from a logical, rational place. We vote from pure emotion.”
The Chapman study highlighted the responses individuals take in response to fears, but responding to fears by voting and voting out of fears are two separate circumstances. To what extent do Americans vote out of fear?
McKenzie Hunter, a senior who is registered as a Democrat but is considering re-registering as an independent in protest of the two party system, says voting out of fear occurs often.
“People certainly vote out of fear,” Hunter said. “People generally just fear the uncertainty of the country. Everyone living today was born with America as a superpower in the world and no matter the nationalism we all feel towards our country, there is a realistic fear we aren’t competing anymore. More importantly, people fear for their own futures. There’s concern over jobs and education and foreign policy, just general safety in the time of potential nuclear war. Politicians win support by easing these fears and promising a secure future for people and their families.”
Like Hunter, Elkin also pointed out the fear of the unknown and how it can “reduce or minimize our perspective” causing those that perceive the uncertain as a threat, and thus influencing how we act and vote.
When examining American fears, or the idea that voters are influenced by threats, Day referred to the long term consequences of such behavior to the preservation of the nation and the principles the country was founded upon.
“The ideas that we’re picking candidates out of fear (rather) than … policies or what could help the country, I think, (is) a long term danger to democracy that we need to be aware of,” Day said. “The whole point of democracy is an exchange of ideas about how the country could best move forward and, instead, politicians are running on fear, they’re pushing it, they’re making people afraid and people are responding accordingly. I think that’s a real danger for our nation.”
In a regards to a more generalized viewpoint of how fears play out across the country, the Chapman study also focused on the effects of perceived fears on individual’s behaviors in different circumstances.
“We were interested in finding out if fear of crime has real effects on people’s likelihood of withdrawing from their neighborhoods,” Chapman Sociology Professor Christopher Bader said, who worked alongside Day and a third colleague as a principal investigator. “We expected that to happen and found strong evidence that people do indeed, become less likely to volunteer, meet with their neighbors (and) join neighborhood … groups as they become more afraid of crime. So fears can have very real, very negative effects on us.”
Day also commented on the influence of fears on human connections, saying he was surprised “at how little trust there is between people,” which, he also said, was disappointing.
Chapman will release their newest annual study on American fears in a few months. Bader said he expects the fear of government corruption to remain high, but also expects fear of Muslims to be high as well, “due to the increased negative discussion of Muslims.”
The increased negative discussion of Muslims by certain political candidates might be used as a scapegoat tactic, which, Elkin pointed out, works well to whip people into a frenzy.
The impact of fears, which resonates with all fears, including those that influence how and what we vote for, are, at their core, concerned with self-preservation.
“I think, when we identify a group of people by a designation, that inherently causes us to shrink up and feel more tribal. Instead, politicians (could) talk in terms of ‘Americans’ or talk in terms of being a ‘global citizen’ and that (would) automatically change things, because that means (we would see others) as allies – you might be a different skin color, religion, whatever, but you are a part of me and so therefore we’re going to be much more cooperative, more communicative, (more likely to) give each other the benefit of the doubt (and) trust that we do have more or less the same goals in mind.
“Looking for those similarities means really having to overcome and realize (certain) fears aren’t doing (us) any good. Instead, the moment you talk about differences, people’s backs go up against the wall (and) their guns come out. It does us no good, it’s just very destructive and I’d like to think that as a society or culture our civilization has ascended enough that we can be more tolerant and accepting and focus on commonalities and cooperative interactions, but clearly we’re not there yet.”