Fear: The greatest Republican weapon

Republican Senator Sylvia Allen is ramping up her campaign for re-election by scaring parents about sex education. Other Republicans (in addition to Allen) rage about the terrors of socialism. Trump uses rhetoric to hype up several categories of visceral but remote threats, including MS-13 gang members and Islamic State jihadis. His favorite go-to, of course, is immigration. Why? Because it works.

To fight back, we need to understand how using fear as a political weapon works. Two professors recently presented some useful information in the LA Times:

Extremely rare but vivid threats often loom large in the human mind. Most people wildly overestimate the number of shark attacks or plane crashes for example. Even when reassured of our statistical safety, many of us still tense up on an airplane runway or while swimming in the ocean. …

Social scientists have amassed evidence that when people experience threat — either from Mother Nature (think disasters) or human-made conflict (think invasions) — they begin to “tighten.” In physical terms, they tense their muscles, ready for action. In political terms, they begin to crave order and security, often rallying around autocratic leaders who promise to restore safety — which is precisely the psychology leaders like Trump want to produce. …

The problem is that even threats that aren’t real but are wildly exaggerated and biased produce the same psychological tightening and hunger for autocratic leaders. In a new study building on ongoing immigration research, we’ve found that misperceptions among Trump’s base about the number of immigrants living in the country illegally are an important driver of their support for him. The hyped-up threat generates political tail winds for him when he proudly flaunts extreme rhetoric about immigrant “rapists” and fires off xenophobic tweets.
For a base that feels unduly threatened, Trump’s bombast satiates a psychologically predictable zeal for social order.

… we surveyed more than a thousand U.S.-born citizens to see if there was a relationship between their estimates of the number of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, their feelings of threat and desire for tight rules, and their voting intentions.

We found that people tend to overestimate the percentage of people in living in the U.S. who immigrated illegally, and these estimations vary across party lines. Republicans estimated that a whopping 18% of the U.S. population is made up of people who are here illegally, while the Democrats estimated that statistic to be less than 13% on average. (The actual figure, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, is closer to 3%.)

These misperceptions have important psychological consequences. People who overestimated the number of people illegally living in the U.S. were more likely to perceive immigrants as a threat ….

The science behind how Trump turns our unfounded fears into a potent political weapon

The key conclusion from the authors’ analysis is that countering the threat is most effective if facts that get to the root of the misperception are used. Thus, in the immigration context, don’t argue about how immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens, boost the economy, and incite innovation — all of which are true. Instead, start by pointing to the simple fact that immigrants who are here illegally make up only 3% of the population. Let that sink in before taking on the more complex arguments.

Republican Allen is pushing the fear of “California-style” sex education classes. Fact: In California, parents may opt-out of sex education for their children, just as they can in Arizona. There’s no there there, Sylvia! You’re just scaring people who care about their children so they will vote for you in spite of your refusal to fund public education for the benefit of those very same children.

As far as Democrats being socialists, Republicans have been slinging that at us ever since FDR, who won the 1932 Election by a landslide in spite of it. Thank goodness for socialist programs like Social Security and Medicare and federal support for health insurance for children. Let’s have some more!

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