University of Chicago Philosopher Explores Role of Fear in 2016 Election

Renowned University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum has long argued that emotions play a greater role in politics than many of her mostly male peers might be willing to admit.

Her many books include titles such as “Anger and Forgiveness,” “Political Emotions” and “From Disgust to Humanity.”

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In her new book “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis,” Nussbaum explores the role of fear in the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

Nussbaum joins us in discussion.

Below, an excerpt from “The Monarchy of Fear.”


There’s a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future. What is today’s fear about? Many Americans feel themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of their loved ones. They fear that the American Dream—that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done—has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all too attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women. “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.

The problems that globalization and automation create for working-class Americans are real, deep, and seemingly intractable. Rather than face those difficulties and uncertainties, people who sense their living standard declining can instead grasp after villains, and a fantasy takes shape: if “we” can somehow keep “them” out (build a wall) or keep them in “their place” (in subservient positions), “we” can regain our pride and, for men, their masculinity. Fear leads, then, to aggressive “othering” strategies rather than to useful analysis.

At the same time, fear also runs rampant among people on the “left,” who seek greater social and economic equality and the vigorous protection of hard-won rights for women and minorities. Many people who were dismayed by the election are reacting as if the end of the world is at hand. A majority of my students, many acquaintances, many colleagues, feel and say, often with anguish, that our democracy is on the verge of collapse, that the new administration is unprecedented in its willingness to cater to racism, misogyny, and homophobia. They fear, especially, for the possible collapse of democratic freedoms—of speech, travel, association, press. My younger students, especially, think that the America they know and love is about to disappear. Rather than analyze matters soberly and listen to the other side, trying to sort things through, they often demonize an entire half of the American electorate, portraying them as monsters, enemies of everything good. As in the book of Revelation, these are the last days, when a righteous remnant must contend against Satanic forces.

We all need, first, to take a deep breath and recall our history. When I was a little girl, African Americans were being lynched in the South. Communists were losing their jobs. Women were just barely beginning to enter prestigious universities and the work force, and sexual harassment was a ubiquitous offense that had no laws to deter it. Jews could not win partnerships in major law firms. Gays and lesbians, criminals under law, were almost always in the closet. People with disabilities had no rights to public space and public education. Transgender was a category that had, as yet, no name. America was far from beautiful.

These facts tell us two things my students need to know. First, the America for which they are nostalgic never existed, not fully; it was a work in progress, a set of dynamic aspirations put in motion by tough work, cooperation, hope, and solidarity over a long period of time. A just and inclusive America never was and is not yet a fully achieved reality. Second, this present moment may look like backsliding from our march toward human equality, but it is not the apocalypse, and it is actually a time when hope and work can accomplish a great deal of good. On both left and right, panic doesn’t just exaggerate our dangers, it also makes our moment much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, more likely to lead to genuine disasters. It’s like a bad marriage, in which fear, suspicion, and blame displace careful thought about what the real problems are and how to resolve them. Instead, those emotions, taking over, become their own problem and prevent constructive work, hope, listening, and cooperation.

When people are afraid of one another and of an unknown future, fear easily gives rise to scapegoating, to fantasies of payback, and to poisonous envy of the fortunate (whether those victorious in the election or those dominant socially and economically). We all remember FDR’s statement that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We recently heard departing President Obama say, “Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear.” Roosevelt was wrong if we take his words literally: although we had reason to fear fear, we certainly had many other things to fear in his time, such as Nazism, hunger, and social conflict. Fear of those evils was rational, and to that extent we should not fear our fear, though we should always examine it. But Obama’s more precise and modest statement is surely right: giving way to fear, which means drifting with its currents, refusing skeptical examination, is surely dangerous. We need to think hard about fear and where fear is leading us. After taking a deep breath we all need to understand ourselves as well as we can, using that moment of detachment to figure out where fear and related emotions come from and where they are leading us.

But you might not be convinced, so far, that fear is really a deep problem for democratic self-government. Let me, then, imagine a little dialogue between me and a defender of fear, whom I’ll call DF.

DF:    But surely, we don’t want to extinguish fear. Without fear we’d all be dead. Fear is useful, propelling us into lifesaving action.

MN:   Of course, you are right there. But fear has a strong tendency to get ahead of us, propelling us into selfish, heedless, and antisocial actions. I’ll try to show you that this tendency comes from the evolutionary history and psychological structure of that emotion. More than other emotions, fear needs careful scrutiny and containment if it is not to turn poisonous.

DF:    I’ll need to be convinced. But I also want to know right now why you say that fear is particularly dangerous to democratic self-government. Surely democracies are often well advised to consult fear in thinking of how to structure laws and institutions. Isn’t our defense establishment a sensible response to the legitimate fear of foreign domination? And what about our Constitution? Weren’t the Framers guided by fear when they wrote the Bill of Rights? After all, they wrote down all the things that the British had violated or taken from them: their fear that similar things would happen in the new nation gave good, not bad, guidance to democracy.

MN:   It would be stupid to deny that fear often gives good guidance. Fear, after all, is part of our evolutionary equipment for survival. But your examples involve fear filtered by careful and extended public deliberation. You’ve omitted hasty and ill-justified military campaigns. You’ve omitted cases where rights were unequally bestowed, or privileges hastily curtailed, as a result of popular fear. We have a habit of scapegoating unpopular people in times of national stress, and abridging their rights in ways that later seem completely misguided. Eugene Debs was thrown in jail for peaceful speeches opposing US involvement in World War I. Loyal and peaceful Japanese Americans were interned in camps. These are cases where fear not only did not lead in the direction of constitutional rights, but actually abridged rights that were established, and the same climate of fear prevented even our courts from seeing this at the time. Fear has a way of running ahead of careful thought. It’s that stampede to hasty action, prompted by insecurity, that I view with great skepticism. Fear of that sort undermines fraternity, poisons cooperation, and makes us do things we’re deeply ashamed of later.

DF:    Once again, I await your arguments! You’ve persuaded me that there’s a problem, but I don’t yet see how large it is, or what its solution might be. But here’s another thing you must try to clarify for me. You use the title “the monarchy of fear.” And you keep saying that fear poses a special problem for democratic self-government. What I don’t get is the particular connection you seem to be tracing between fear and a threat to democracy. To the extent that fear is a problem in society, doesn’t it threaten all forms of government equally?

MN:   Actually, no. In an absolute monarchy, the monarch, of course, can’t be excessively fearful, although he or she had better not be excessively rash either. But monarchs feed on fear from below. Fear of the monarch’s punishment ensures compliance. And fear of outside threats ensures voluntary servitude: fearful people want protection and care. They turn to a strong absolute ruler in search of care. In a democracy, by contrast, we must look one another in the eye as equals, and this means that a horizontal trust must connect citizens. Trust is not just reliance. Slaves can rely on a master’s brutal behavior, but of course they do not trust the master. Trust means being willing to be exposed, to allow your own future to lie in the hands of your fellow citizens. Absolute monarchs don’t need or want trust.

Think about a marriage. In an old-style marriage, in which the male head of household was like a monarch, there was no need for trust. Spouse and children just had to obey. But the marriages to which people typically aspire these days are more balanced, requiring genuine vulnerability, reciprocity, and trust on both sides. And trust is undermined by fear. To the extent that I see you as a threat to my life and my goals, I will protect myself against you, and I will be inclined to strategize, even dissemble, rather than trusting.

So too in politics. That refusal of trust is happening all over the country now. My students don’t trust anyone who voted for Trump, and they view such people as like a hostile force, “deplorables” at best, fascists at worst. Many Trump supporters return the compliment, seeing students and universities as subversive enemies of “real people.”

And here’s another side to the connection. When people feel fearful and powerless, they grasp after control. They can’t stand to wait to see how things play out, they need to make other people do what they want them to do. So, when they are not seeking a benign monarch to protect them, they are all too likely to behave monarchically themselves. Later I’ll trace this tendency to the way that babies try to make slaves of their caregivers: realizing their own powerlessness, what can they do but scream? In this way too, fear erodes the sort of equal give and take, the reciprocity, that is needed if democracies are to survive. And it leads to retributive anger, which divides when what is most needed is a constructive and cooperative approach to an uncertain future.

DF:    You mentioned anger. This makes me ask another question: why this emphasis on fear? Aren’t there many emotions that threaten democracy? What about anger, in fact? Shouldn’t we worry about that emotion even more than about fear, given its aggressive tendencies? Isn’t it a sense of being treated unfairly that makes many Americans strike out at others? People also often think of envy as a major threat to democracy, fomenting class conflict. Finally, there’s been a lot written about the role of disgust in racism and other forms of stigma and discrimination.

MN:   You are entirely right there, and the chapters of this book will indeed address these different emotions and their interconnections. But having worked for many years on each emotion more or less in isolation from others, I’ve come to realize that my previous strategy obscured some very important causal relations among the emotions. In particular I’ve come to realize, and I’ll try to convince you, that fear is primary, both genetically and causally, and that it is because of infection by fear that the three other emotions you named turn toxic and threaten democracy. Yes, sure, people strike back out of a sense of unfairness. But what is that exactly? Where does it come from? Why do people feel this way, and under what conditions does blame become politically toxic? These are the sorts of questions that we need to ask about each emotion, and I believe that they all lead back to fear and life-insecurity.

DF:    But why all this fuss about emotions? Surely the big problem in American society are structural, and we need structural solutions, which can be implemented through law whether people feel good about them or not. We don’t have to wait for people to become better, or more self-aware, in order to fix the things that need fixing, and focusing on emotions can even distract us from the structural work that needs to be done.

MN:   I totally agree that structures and laws are crucial. I have views about those issues, which will emerge. But laws can’t be enacted, or sustained, without the hearts and minds of people. In a monarchy, that is not the case, and all the monarch needs is enough fear to produce obedience. In a democracy we need much more: love of the good, hope for the future, a determination to combat the corrosive forces of hatred, disgust, and rage—all fed, I claim, by fear.

DF is not satisfied, and should not be, since only assertions have been offered so far, not argument or analysis. Still, DF should by now have a general sense of where my argument is heading. The problems of our time—economic, social, security-related—are complicated, resisting easy solutions. We hardly know where work is going or what it is likely to look like over the next few decades. The rising costs of health care also pose incredibly difficult challenges for any party or leader. Higher education, increasingly crucial for stable employment, is getting more and more out of reach for many of our citizens. The confusing politics of the Middle East and the Far East need to be understood by all Americans but resist easy analysis. Thinking is hard, fear and blame are easy.

DF might, though, have a more fundamental question: Why should we turn to a philosopher at all, at this time of crisis? What is philosophy all about, and how can it help us?

Philosophy means many things in many different historical traditions, but for me philosophy is not about authoritative pronouncements. It is not about one person claiming to be deeper than others or making allegedly wise assertions. It is about leading the “examined life,” with humility about how little we really understand, with a commitment to arguments that are rigorous, reciprocal, and sincere, and with a willingness to listen to others as equal participants and to respond to what they offer. Philosophy in this Socratic conception does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute.

Socrates questioned lots of people in the Athenian democracy. He found that all had the capacity for understanding and self-understanding. (Plato dramatizes this by showing Socrates questioning an illiterate and oppressed slave boy, and, suitably prompted, the boy comes up with a sophisticated geometrical proof.) Philosophical questioning assumes that basic capacity, but it also shows that most of us neglect its cultivation: people (including, as Socrates found, military leaders, cultural authorities, and politicians) don’t really sort out what they think, and they rush to action on the basis of half-baked, frequently inconsistent, ideas. In that way, philosophy invites dialogue and respects the listener. Unlike the overconfident citizens that Socrates questioned (Euthyphro, Critias, Meletus), the philosophical speaker is humble and exposed: his or her position is transparent and thus vulnerable to criticism. (His or her, since Socrates said he’d like to question women, if only in the afterlife, and Plato actually taught women in his school!)

Socrates was right to say that his method was closely linked to the goals of democratic self-government, in which each person’s thought matters, and to insist that it made a very valuable contribution to life in a democracy, improving the quality of public deliberation. He said he was like a gadfly on the back of the democracy, which he compared to a “noble but sluggish horse”: the sting of philosophical questioning was supposed to wake democracy up so that it could conduct its business better.

This is not a book of public policy, or of economic analysis, crucial though both of these disciplines are to solving our problems. It is more general, and more introspective. It aims at a better understanding of some of the forces that move us, and to that extent it offers general directions for action. But understanding is its primary goal. Understanding is always practical, since without it action is bound to be unfocused and ad hoc.

Philosophers talk about many topics that have relevance to democracy. My own work, like a lot of philosophical work in the past few decades, has discussed political institutions and laws, making general arguments about what justice is and what basic rights or entitlements all citizens have. I’ll allude to some of those ideas about human empowerment and “human capabilities” in my chapters on preventing envy and constructing hope, suggesting that they may give us help as we move forward, but this won’t be the primary focus of this book.

The other half of my career has focused on the nature of the emotions and their role in our search for the good life. Following a long tradition stretching (in Western philosophy) from Plato on through modern thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Rawls, I have argued (drawing on psychology and psychoanalytic thought as well as philosophy) that emotions have an important role to play in a decent political society. Emotions can destabilize a community and fragment it, or they can produce better cooperation and more energetic striving toward justice. Emotions are not hardwired from birth, but are shaped in countless ways by social contexts and social norms. That is good news, since it means that we have considerable room to shape the emotions of our own political culture. It is also bad news—for the lazy and uninquisitive: it means that we need to inquire into the nature of fear, hatred, anger, disgust, hope, and love, thinking about how we might shape them so that they will support good democratic aspirations, rather than blocking or eroding them. We can’t avoid accountability by saying of our own hatred or excessive fear, “Sorry, that’s just how people are.” No, there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about racial hatred, fear of immigrants, a passion to subordinate women, or disgust at the bodies of people with disabilities. We did this, all of us, and we can, and must undo it.

In short, we need to know ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves. It is incumbent on a decent society to give attention to how, for example, group hatred can be minimized by social efforts and institutional design. Even such a straightforward policy choice as the choice to mainstream children with disabilities in “normal” classrooms has evident consequences for patterns of fear and aggression. We need to study the issue—in this case and in many others—and then, on the basis of what we understand, to choose policies that produce hope, love, and cooperation, avoiding those that feed hatred and disgust. Sometimes we can only produce better behavior, while hatred continues to simmer beneath the surface. Sometimes, however, we can actually alter how people see one another and feel about one another—as mainstreaming kids with disabilities surely does. (It helps to start young.)

Philosophy doesn’t all by itself dictate very many concrete policy choices, because these must be contextual, the fruit of a partnership between philosophy, history, political science, economics, law, and sociology. But it gives us a sense of who we are, what problems lie in our path, and where we should be heading. And as I said, its methods, involving equal participation, respect, and reciprocity, also model some important aspects of where we should be going. It is a part of the study of our political moment, not the whole, but it can help us all to lead the “examined life.”

Philosophy, as I’ve said, is a gentle discipline. It approaches people with respect for their full humanity, and is in that sense a form of love. It may frequently state unequivocally, “This is wrong. This is not the way to live.” But it does so without banishing people from the room, condemning wrong beliefs and bad actions, but treating people, always, with attention and respect. I believe that it is not too bold to link the philosophical approach to America’s problems with the methodology of nonviolent political change, as exemplified in the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. Some approaches to political change are violent, angry, and contemptuous of the opponent. King (who will be an important figure in this book) insisted on an attitude to others that he called Love, even when what he was doing was to make an extremely vigorous protest against unjust conditions. Still, he said, we must approach opponents not

with anger but with love. He always immediately stressed that it was not romantic love, and it did not even require us to like the people. The Love he demanded was a combination of respect for humanity with good will and hope: we treat people as people who will listen and think, and who ultimately may join with us in building something beautiful. Philosophy, as I shall practice it here, shares that project and that hope.

My argument begins, not surprisingly, with fear, showing how it is both chronologically and causally primary, getting its teeth into us very early and then coloring the rest of our lives to a greater or lesser degree. This analysis already shows some strategies for containing fear and rendering it less poisonous, although it also concludes that we can’t get rid of its dangers entirely.

I then consider three emotions that operate to some extent independently of fear in our private and public lives, but that become especially toxic when infused by fear: anger, disgust, and envy. I first analyze each of them and then show their bad effects in democratic political life.

I then devote a separate chapter to negative political emotions directed at women, which have been extremely prominent in our recent political discourse. I analyze the relationship between sexism (which I define as a set of views asserting that women are inferior to men) and misogyny (which I define as an enforcement strategy, a type of virulent hatred and hatred behavior aimed at keeping women “in their place”). I argue that misogyny, which usually rests on sexist convictions but need not, is typically a toxic brew of punitive anger, bodily disgust (not incompatible with sexual desire), and envy at women’s increasing competitive success.

Finally, I turn—or return, since each chapter has included constructive suggestions for containing or overcoming the damaging aspects of each emotion—to hope, love, and work. I am guardedly optimistic about our future, and a philosophical analysis of hope suggests strategies for nourishing hope, faith, and love of humanity, just when it seems especially difficult to believe that these good emotions might possibly guide us.

Throughout, although I do use some recent political examples to underscore my points, my aim is to invite reflection, introspection, and critical argument. To that end, I more often use historical examples—especially from ancient Greece and Rome, where I have a long background of scholarship. As I’ve found in teaching, we often think better, and relate to one another better, when we take a step back from the daily, where our immediate fears and wishes are likely to be at stake.

The Monarchy of Fear by Martha C. Nussbaum.  Copyright © 2018 by Martha C. Nussbaum.  Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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