Fear of Insecurity Harms American Politics

“Be afraid, be very afraid.” This quote from the 1986 classic horror film The Fly sums up the primary lesson that the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle has taught us thus far. Indeed, Donald Trump’s fear-peddling has led some to question whether his brand of conservatism is closer to a reactionary, even fascist, ideology than anything else. That fear is a politically resonant emotion is nothing new; recall, for example, FDR’s famous line from his first inaugural address in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But just how fear is politically resonant is something to pay attention to.

Fear says a lot about what a community values, who gets to determine what is valuable, and who gets to benefit from the goods that communities produce. Political fear is defined in the negative space these values create. In the dominant spaces of American political life today, it is not hard to know whom we are supposed to fear: all Muslim people, terrorists, persons of color, immigrants and asylum-seekers, and the like. It’s less clear what these fears say about those of us who make up the privileged class (myself included) as well as those excluded from these dominant spaces.

I say the “dominant spaces of American political life” because public political drama, like everything else in American politics, primarily reflects the experiences, preferences, and values of privileged communities. Thanks to #BlackLivesMatter activists and others like them, the 2016 presidential campaign has been forced to consider the fears of at least one marginalized community in the United States, African-Americans: fear of “extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.” The intervention of these activists has, for example, caused Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders to adjust his rhetoric to reflect these fears. Nevertheless, on the whole, dominant campaign rhetoric is preoccupied with the fears of privileged (White) Americans. What are these fears about?

The political theorist Corey Robin, in his book Fear: The History of a Political Idea (2004) charts the evolution of fear as a political idea in the West that has existed since the 17th century. Fear responds to political anxieties distinctive in any historical moment. Examples include the fear of death instigated by the English civil wars in the 17th century, the fear of Louis XIV’s sovereign despotism in 17th and 18th century France, the fear of lonely individualism in 19th century American democracy, and the fear of a total loss of self under 20th century totalitarian regimes. Robin argues that in our current cultural and political moment, two fears reinforce one another: the fear of external dangers and the fear engendered by power disparities. The fear of external dangers includes the fear of terrorism, moral decay, and the like. The fear engendered by power disparities include the fear of the powerful by the less powerful and the fear that the less powerful may disrupt or overturn the present social order. Elites exploit these fears, Robin continues, reinforcing their own power and privilege.

I propose to characterize the dominant political fear, as we’ve heard it articulated in this election season, as the fear of insecurity. The fear of insecurity often presents as a fear of some other, but ultimately is about an anticipated loss of privilege. In the case of the varied political responses to #BlackLivesMatter, many Americans fear that they will have to relinquish (often unearned) material, social, and political advantages in order to answer the claims of justice from marginalized communities at home and abroad. Some politicians play on this fear by proposing (often quixotic) protections, such as border walls, restrictive immigration policies, anti-asylum schemes, and the like.

The fear of insecurity is immensely complicated. On the one hand, it relates to a historically situated chauvinism that defines whiteness itself. For example, listen to Jermaine McDonald’s interview with Kelly Brown Douglas on the origins of “stand-your-ground” culture and how it justifies the exaggerated fear of the underprivileged by the privileged class. On the other hand, the fear of insecurity becomes much more complex in a globalized, neoliberal economy where the hegemony of the Global North creates morally relevant distances (including physical distances, complex production processes, inscrutable trade arrangements, and the like) that make it difficult for privileged consumers to understand just how costly their consumption is and why they should attend to global economic discrepancies.

The American fear of insecurity exemplifies the moral limitations of dominant groups that Reinhold Niebuhr famously examines in his 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society. In that work and others, Niebuhr often misconstrued or completely ignored the claims of justice raised by marginalized communities.1 But one question Niebuhr raises in Moral Man and Immoral Society remains an important one: what is it about groups, especially privileged groups, that make them incapable of critical self-reflection and, therefore, resistant to change? In light of the fear of insecurity discussed here, I think it’s time to revisit Niebuhr’s question. In my next few contributions to Symposium Ethics, I will explore some ideas in this direction.

  1. For examples, see chapter one “CONTEXT: Niebuhr’s Ethics and Harlem Activists” in Traci West, Disruptive Christian Ethics (2006) and chapter two, “‘The Terrible Beauty of the Cross’ and the Tragedy of the Lynching Tree: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr” in James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).
John E. Senior

About John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

John E. Senior

John E. Senior

John E. Senior is Director of the Art of Ministry Assistant Teaching Professor of Ethics and Society for the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University and an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). His book, A Theology of Political Vocation: Christian Life and Public Office, was published in 2015.

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