Memo To Candidates: You Will Be Made To Scare

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A while back, conservative commentator Erick Erickson coined a great line (it’s actually the title of his forthcoming book) that illustrates why conservatives can’t duck the culture wars. He says: “You will be made to care.” In the case of Republican candidates hoping to win the nomination this year, I’ve come up with a slightly revised version of his maxim: “You will be made to scare.”

That’s right. The key to winning the nomination this time around seems to be to find a way to scare the hell out of people.

In fairness, there are plenty of things to be afraid of right now. The problem, though, is that stoking fear has consequences. As Ron Fournier writes, “Amer­ic­ans are jus­ti­fied to be afraid. Amer­ic­an lead­ers should work to calm the pub­lic. They should re­dir­ect anxi­et­ies to­ward sup­port of well-reasoned re­sponses that make the na­tion as safe as pos­sible without ca­reen­ing to­ward an­oth­er war over false pre­tenses.”

It has been said that “logic leads to conclusions, but emotion leads to action,” and it’s hard to argue this is untrue. When politicians want to arouse voters to actually show up to vote, they must work to tap into the psychology behind what motivates us.

And the truth is that fear is a prime motivator.

By no means is this unique to Republicans. Democrats play the “Mediscare” card for the same reasons. But this explains a lot about why even a candidate [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore] has been forced to transition from a message of optimism to one of pessimism this cycle.

It’s hard to blame the politicians for exploiting what works (don’t hate the player!). They are merely responding to incentives. In other words, they are behaving rationally, even if we’re not.

This is how we are hardwired.

As Rick Shenkman, author of Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, explains, “we did not evolve to prosper in today’s political world. We adapted to survive and reproduce as hunter-gatherers.” Shenkman recently discussed this problem on my podcast, and he makes a compelling argument that our “gut” instincts—while usually right about all sorts of things—usually fail us when it comes to making political decisions.

One of the most interesting examples of our irrational behavior that Shenkman cites is the fact that a series of shark attacks in 1916 cost Woodrow Wilson significant votes in a couple of beach towns in New Jersey (never mind the fact that Wilson had nothing to do with this, other than being an incumbent).

If you find this kind of thing intriguing, listen to our podcast discussion here or download the podcast on iTunes.

And if you don’t listen to this podcast, something bad could happen. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Matt K. Lewis