Fear & politics

Carmen Lawrence

The opposition of fear and democracy is one of 'the great commonplaces of modern political thought.' Indeed, one of the strongest motives for adopting democracy is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination.

Mature democracies systematically try to limit the scope and concentration of political power - and the capacity to wield fear as a political weapon - through institutions and laws which ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties.

Despite these safeguards, fear continues to be used to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters; this is not so much fear of the government itself, as it is in despotic regimes, but fear of the other - of other citizens, of outsiders and the marginalised. At its most potent it is a calculated exploitation our fear of our own annihilation and our fear of strangers.

The political use of fear is evident when leaders seek to define what we should fear and when they use fear to threaten those who challenge their power and status. In the first case, they select what is worthy of attention, mobilise public opinion and propose methods to deal with the threat. The selected object usually does pose some level of threat, but the threat is exaggerated when compared with other potentially fearful circumstances. And while it doesn't automatically follow that everybody shares the fear, it comes to dominate public debate and monopolises resources. Politicians' success as protectors then consolidates their legitimacy and enhances their power.

Both ideology and political opportunity determine what is selected for attention. While much was made of the asylum seekers in boats who were said to be potential terrorists and a threat to our national security, almost nothing was said about the much more numerous group of asylum seekers who arrived by air and remained in the community - not to mention the even greater number of those who overstayed their visas. Refugees and strangers have always made easy targets for fear and loathing in Australia, acting as magnets for our insecurity.

"Perhaps now more than ever in recent history, such 'political fear' is being employed."

The second major use of