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Fight-or-Flight: the American electorate and the politics of fear

“Victory in Iraq is finally in sight … he wants to forfeit.

Terrorist states are seeking nuclear weapons without delay … he wants to meet them without preconditions.

Al Qaeda terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America … he’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights?”

– Sarah Palin, 2008 Republican National Convention Speech

As the 2008 election is illustrating, voting is often about what we turn away from and what we turn to, as humans. No one is suggesting that we not enforce murder law or larceny law; why, then, does a crowd cheer when a vice presidential nominee suggests that we not enforce law in the context of terrorism?

While we are still in many ways voting in the shadow of 9/11, it seems that the messages that have infiltrated our conversations are: What are you most afraid of? Not being prepared for another terrorist attack? (fear Obama!), or another 8 years of George Bush? (fear McCain!).

Interesting that these are the messages that have risen from the smoke, with only 3 weeks to go. Interesting, but not entirely inexplicable. Fear is a tactic that has been around for many presidential elections, from Lyndon Johnson’s advertisement with a mushroom cloud reflected in a little girl’s eyes, to Bush’s ad where a hungry pack of wolves lurk ominously. And it is no wonder:

As humans, we respond to fear with the amygdala, a part of the brain that both predates the neocortex (site of consciousness and rationality) and responds immediately, before consulting the thinking part. This makes sense, of course, in an evolutionary environment when those animals that stopped to think before reacting to fear, became dinner.

In a new study, scientists found that subjects link the color red to fear, a split-second reaction suggesting that our fight-or-flight response is not only manipulable but that it can be encapsulated in a single moment of literally “seeing red.” (University of Rochester. “Research On The Color Red Shows Definite Impact On Achievement.”)

Ashton Kutcher traveled to Iowa this month to tell his story. “I was punk’d,” he claims. He is campaigning for Obama but 8 years ago he was an admitted Bush supporter.

Iowa, which went Gore in 2000 but Bush in 2004, is the quintessential swing state. Following the economic meltdown that culminated these past few weeks, fear of terrorists seems to have been eclipsed by fear of the economy, and Iowa now stands at 52.8% Obama in polls.

Fear differs from worry in that it is visceral, pre-thought. This makes fear the perfect political tool. Not only do we react to fear, but we do so instantly and prior to other processes.

But there is hope for mitigating the effects of fear and infusing them with a sense of thoughtfulness. Other research teams, this time at NYU, focused on brain-monitoring of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, believed to control changing one’s emotion. In this case, researchers found that when asked to think of something calming, say a blue ocean, subjects demonstrate an ability to curb their fear paralysis and to assert a control over fear and emotion.

As study sponsor Elizabeth Phelps explained, the study “suggests our detailed knowledge of the neural mechanisms of eliminating fears through extinction may also apply to the use of uniquely human, cognitive strategies to control emotion.” (New York University. “Brains Rely On Old And New Mechanisms To Diminish Fear.”)

As the only animal with political elections, we are also the only animal with the ability to control our fight-or-flight response; these two are not and should not be disconnected. Too much is at stake for any presidential candidate to take office simply because they scared us the most.

Our children deserve better than to live in fear, as our parents did for decades in the Cold War. What is at stake is not only our political choice but our ability, as policymakers in a democratic society, to transcend the paralysis of fear and implement new and effective counterterrorism strategy without caving to the terror itself.