Beware of the Fear Tactic

The tried and true political tactic that often breeds repression

Adlai Stevenson 1952 speech facts

“The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anticommunism.” Adlai Stevenson

Adlai Stevenson Campaign poster

You can strike out anticommunism and replace it with anti-immigration, anti-socialism, anti-capitalism, anti-globalization, anti-whatever. It doesn’t matter which.

Any faction -left, center or right- can use the fear tactic to garner rejection of the opposite faction, which translates into support for yours. The tactic’s use is as prevalent today as it was in Machiavelli’s, the Crusaders’ or Hitler’s time.

But is it as effective as it was then? Of course it is, given that fear is a basic human emotion driving behavior. Anyone with an ideology, any ideology, can use it. Many human dynamics – parenting, education, law enforcement, just to name a few- involve a good measure of it. 

It’s just that, at the level of national politics, the tactic is often no more than a proven vote-getting, power-grabbing strategy based on false fears.

And, in the worst possible case, it can be part of a calculated recipe meant to breed and to render repression acceptable to us, the general public. 

Why? Because we usually don’t recognize the fear tactic when it’s deployed against an ideology we reject. On the contrary, we consider it necessary. We even applaud and promote it.

Although it could happen anywhere, the less settled and protected freedom is in a society, the more likely it is for the fear tactic to lead to political repression. There is less to chip away at.

Ask (almost) anyone who, like me, comes from the beautiful South American nation of Venezuela.

All speeches in this series are compiled in the book Lend Me Your Ears, Great Speeches in History, by William Safire

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