By Rupert Pye
Wisdom from Hermann Goering adopted by Leftists
Hermann Goering was one of the highest-ranking Nazis in the Second World War. Following the end of the war in 1945 he was captured and stood accused at the famous Nuremberg trials by the Allies. He was sentenced to death by hanging. But Goering on 15 October 1946, dodged the hanging by committing suicide with smuggled cyanide capsules just hours before his scheduled execution.
When Goering was in jail he was interviewed. Attributed to Goering was the line “The only thing that needs to be done to enslave people is to scare them. If you manage to find a way to scare people, you can make them do what you want. You can do it in a Nazi, socialist, communist regime, in a monarchy and even in a democracy.”
That was in 1946, but long before that perceptive observers recognised, that fear is a trump card for politicians to play in the political game.
Mencken and FDR hits the spot
American H.L. Mencken, known as the “Sage of Baltimore” is regarded by many as one of the most influential American journalists, essayists, and writers of the early 20th century. He wrote “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
Between Mencken’s days and World War Two, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 in his first inaugural address entitled “Fear Itself”, said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoned, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
A good society well governed by a government serving the voting public will seek to have people contented and secure. Nobody wants to live in a society of fear.
But Mencken saw fear, or in his words “alarm”, as part of political strategy that politicians like using use. He recognised that — simply put — fear works.
Of course it does according to the psychologists. “Discussing risks or instilling anxiety is effective at changing intentions and behaviour, particularly when the behaviour provides a solution to the threat,” says Dolores Albarracin, PhD, professor of psychology, business, and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Humans are equipped with approach and avoidance emotions and we need both to lead successful lives.” For example, “having a fear of injury from an auto accident can lead more people to wear seat-belts,” she added.
Fear can be used in a number of ways by politicians. For example, as Mencken recognised fear can be used to attract votes and as he put it, by making “the populace alarmed and hence clamorous to be led to safety.”
Muldoon’s Fear Card
Fear can be used by a political party to lure voters away from another party or government. Election campaigns also use fear to drive votes away from political opponents. This strategy may involve factual or misleading statements about the opposing party which may be in government.
A prime example was the National Party’s 1975 ‘”Dancing Cossacks” television advertisement. National was trying to turn voters against the Labour government by portraying that the government’s recently introduced compulsory superannuation scheme was a Soviet-style communism measure.
It succeeded [or at least helped in —Eds] sweeping Rob Muldoon’s National Party into power in a landslide victory.
Psychologists have found that often messages with fear are nearly twice as effective as messages without fear.
“Fear induces withdrawal, stepping back, being cautious,” says Christopher Federico, PhD, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota. Federico. And that can mean withdrawing to the point of not voting.
If you’re experiencing fear while listening to a politician, “It is important to understand that many statements made by politicians and candidates are made for strategic reasons that extend beyond changing your vote to demobilizing the electorate,” says Leonie Huddy, PhD, professor of political science at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
“Fear, like hope, can be very motivating and is not inherently bad. The challenge is to identify when fear is being used deceptively. For example, intentional distortion of evidence is within the realm of disinformation and often foments fear for political purposes,” says psychologist Dolores Albarracin.
But how can a voter perceive that a political candidate is inducing fear in illegitimate ways like lying or disinformation?
“The use of disinformation to promote fear is quite striking when we look at how in recent years some political leaders have been increasingly spreading conspiracy theories,” says Karen Douglas, PhD, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent.
But how does a voter determine whether a conspiracy theory is a lie or an exaggeration made for political gain? “ Conspiracy theories cannot be dismissed because they earn the tag of “conspiracy theory”. Of course people do conspire. History is littered with conspiracies. For example Julius Caesar. As one friend with a grin said to me, “Why what about the Last Supper and the conspiracy against Jesus?”
Go tell Adolf Hitler and his rise to power in Germany, then Europe and plan to conquer the world and he would say “Was ah lachen!” i.e. “What a laugh!” Tell the Japanese in World War Two after they conspired during peace talks with the USA to make an attack on Pearl Harbour. Or tell US president Richard Nixon and his Watergate conspiracy that was exposed.
In fact, a meta-analysis conducted by Dolores Albarracin and colleagues showed that the impact of misinformation is extreme (Psychological Science, Vol. 28, No. 11, 2017). “Based on the effect sizes we estimated, misinformation heard for the first time will be persuasive 99.6% of the time,” she says.
Who is currently peddling “misinformation” about covid-19 in New Zealand? The Jacinda Government or critics of it?
In the current pandemic of coronavirus four political scientists in the Swiss Political Science Review (25 May 2021) said a crisis “like the current coronavirus pandemic evoke negative emotions in the general public.”
Little research has been done on the influence of these mental states on trust in the government. But the quartet said “that fear and anger as the two crucial negative emotions in times of crises have divergent effects on trust in the government.” One is a ‘rally-round-the-flag’ effect increasing trust in the government, the other is blaming the government for the adverse circumstances.”
The latter in other words stands accused of “playing a political game.”
Handling the pandemic has created anxiety
Two retired doctors I have spoken to — independently — said the government’s handling of the pandemic relative to lockdowns, mask wearing and vaccinations had been confusing and unsettling and unjustified. Both went further to say the lockdowns and other measures seemed designed to keep people alarmed and anxious.
As H.L. Mencken described it, will the people see the Ardern-led government as “leading the people to safety?” Or will people see government handling of the covid-19 as an “imaginary hobgoblin.”
The questions and the answers could well determine the result of election 2023.