Why Are Americans So Afraid?

Facts take a backseat to deeply ingrained fears.

Photo Credit: Thomas Bethge/Shutterstock

At a rally in North Carolina in December 2016, a 12-year-old girl said to candidate Donald Trump, “I’m scared. What are you going to do to protect this country?”

“You know what, darlin’?” Trump replied. “You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”

Throughout his campaign, Trump played off the rising fear of the American public. His us-vs.-them rhetoric eroded people’s trust in facts, numbers, nuance, government and the news media and augmented the already fragile line of truth. Trump knew Americans were afraid and that they would vote accordingly.

But there is a remarkable dissonance between what seems to be and what is. According to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “Violence has been in decline over long stretches of time and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

In most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The great American crime decline of the 1990s proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present. Among 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in homicide in the past 15 years.

“You often hear people saying, on both sides of the political divide, that the world is a mess,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a public grant-making foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy and conflict resolution. “The world is not a mess. It’s just messy.” The collapse of the existing order in the Middle East, Cirincione said, is one manifestation of the world’s messiness. “But the world itself is doing pretty darn good. We do not have major powers in conflict. We have small wars. We do not have major wars.”

Yet a Gallup poll found that concern about crime and violence is at its highest level in 15 years. According to the Chapman University Survey on American Fears, some 70 percent of our citizenry is afraid of threats of terrorism, economic collapse, cyber warfare and government corruption.

So how is it that we are living in what is arguably the safest time in history, yet we as a country exist in a culture of fear?

Christopher Fettweis, author of The Pathologies of Power: Fear, Honor, Glory, and Hubris in U.S. Foreign Policy, says it is because “our fear is not based on an intellectual conclusion, it’s a belief.” America’s fear has become a framework of belief, surpassing far beyond the plasticity of opinions. And as history has proved time and time again, beliefs are near impossible to change.

The reality is “facts” don’t mean much in the way of beliefs. Telling a person, who has the sincerest gut belief, the statistic that more Americans are killed each year by furniture than by terrorism becomes somehow unconvincing, or rather disagreeable. Political psychologists call this tendency to conform assessments of information to some goal or end extrinsic to accuracy “motivated reasoning.” In other words, people believe what they want to believe. This cognitive process infiltrates everything from us convincing ourselves a gluten-free cupcake is healthy to our groundless denial of climate change and gun violence.

So why is this process so crucial in understanding the culture of fear in America? It perpetuates it. Because humans will dismiss rational thinking for the sake of reconfirming their identity, their fears will eclipse facts. A conservative turns on the news to see a terrorist attack in London. Then he goes on Twitter to see fellow conservatives’ rant about building a wall and protecting our borders. His fear is legitimized within their cushy network of familiarity. If the conservative encountered the fact that “zero refugees from countries included in the president’s travel ban have killed anyone in terrorist attacks on American soil,” he would ignore it, because it does not fit with his worldview. The individual does not conform to adjust his perspective, but emerges unconvinced and indignantly dogged. According to psychologist Tom Gilovich, this is because the fundamental questions we ask ourselves in response to particular information conforms to what we want to believe. “For desired conclusions,” he writes, “it is as if we ask ourselves ‘Can I believe this?,’ but for disagreeable conclusions we ask, ‘Must I believe this?’”

People do not confront new information looking for truth, but rather looking for their truth and this means facts take a backseat to deeply ingrained fears.

These fears are sustained through media coverage. Nearly every time we switch on the news, a building is in flames, a new virus has swept a new nation, or a man with a gun has wreaked havoc on an elementary school. It seems a string is holding the world together. The overwhelming coverage of terrorist attacks, shootings and other violent episodes are so entwined in our daily lives that their imminence is inflated. “Your day-to-day experience is that terrible things are happening and they could happen to you tomorrow,” says Cirincione. For those who have not made it beyond the U.S. border, their perceptions of the outside world are shaped solely by this media diet. And what makes news coverage overseas? People having bad things happen, doing bad things to each other; violence and degradation.

To the individual, this news coverage is a consistent reminder of our own mortality. According to a study done by the American Psychological Association, when confronted with thoughts of our own mortality people appear to behave more conservatively by shunning and even punishing outsiders and those who threaten the status of their cherished worldviews. This helps explain how America’s current culture of fear has become synonymous with the fear of terrorism. Despite the fact that the chances of being a victim of terrorism are roughly the same as that of being hit by lightning, a majority of Americans now worry that they or their families will be victims of terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Terrorist attacks carry the powerful quality of uncertainty. Since 1973, psychologists have argued that political conservatism as an ideological belief system is significantly related to concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty. According to a study done by NYU, we respond to uncertainty as we would respond to a threat—with fear. As death reminders become more prevalent, society becomes more antagonistic toward those with different beliefs and values; people become more fearful of the other. The common rhetoric turns to that of us-vs.-them. We feel we have to build a literal wall to separate ourselves from the big, bad existential other. In this world of inflamed rhetoric, Muslims become terrorists, factual probability becomes irrelevant and doing nothing becomes weakness.

This mentality has cost the U.S. roughly hundreds of billions of dollars annually on counter-terrorism efforts, yet terrorism is rising. In 2015, terrorist attacks occurred in almost 100 countries, up from 59 in 2013, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. In America, the numbers are different: 24 people have died in America from terrorist attacks since 9/11, less than two per year. These 24 lives are important, but so are the nearly 45,000 annual deaths associated with lack of health insurance; the 37,000 annual deaths from road crashes each year; the over 59,000 who die annually due to the opioid epidemic; and the 99,000 who died from preventable healthcare-associated infections. And the list goes on.

Given these statistics, how the government chooses to allocate our resources comes as a shock. To combat the most likely cause of death, heart disease, the government contributes only $2 billion. And just $300 million is devoted to research on the third most likely cause of death, strokes. The U.S. Congress funded cancer research through the NCI with just over $5 billion in 2017. Yet as Americans we allow this to continue largely because we’re too lazy to crosscheck the facts and confront the issue logically. As long as terrorism pervades the media, the government will continue to put money where the fear is, whether logical or not at all.

Telling people not to fear terror in this hyperactive age is like trying to convince a person standing in the rain that it is a sunny day. Their experience, their worldview, their very sense of self says otherwise. This is not to say that Americans do not have the right to be afraid. Fear is an instinctive response, but our heightened response should be redirected to realistic fears, the things that might actually kill us.

Jon Stewart Should Run for President

It’s time for a left-leaning celebrity to run—and win.

Guy Saperstein, Kelsey Abkin, Jon Stewart

Two years ago, the suggestion that Jon Stewart should run for president would be met with satirical criticism. He does not have experience holding office, he is an entertainer, not a politician, and he’s funny—too funny to be president. But times have changed dramatically. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, millions of Americans watched as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio turned red and Donald Trump, a businessman who knows more about luxury hotels than foreign policy, was voted to the highest office in the land by the will of millions of Americans.

No one saw it coming. Democrats were blindsided by the upset and the media were left scrambling. But Jon Stewart, in an interview with CNN explained, “The door is open to an a**hole like Donald Trump because the Democrats haven’t done enough to show people that a government…that can be effective for people, can be efficient for people,” he said. “And if you can’t do that, then you’ve lost the right to make that change and someone’s going to come in and demagogue you.”

Stewart had a grasp on the current state of politics and an understanding of the drive behind Clinton’s loss. More importantly, he has the charisma to make people listen.

Anything is possible, but Jon Stewart is necessary. At a time when a majority of Americans feel cheated by the demographic revolution that is underway around the world, and vote according to a deep fear of becoming minorities in their own country, Jon Stewart is the strongest weapon the Democratic Party could employ to combat Trump-era voters.

A large part of Donald Trump’s appeal is that he is entertaining. His press conferences are turbulent and his tweets make us laugh and cry and nearly forget he holds the highest office in the country. America likes entertainment and craves drama. We’re a reality TV obsessed, celebrity-crazed nation. Celebrity news sells. Jon Stewart would sell the same way that Trump has. He would be controversial in his bluntness, but wiser in his actions. People would be excited for him to open his mouth, but not embarrassed when he does. He is as entertaining as Donald Trump, yet he is the Donald Trump antidote.

At a time when only 16 percent of Americans think the government does the right thing “most of the time,” celebrities may simply be a trusted alternative. In 2016, Trump joined stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, and Sonny Bono in making a successful turn to politics. He did not shy away from his lack of political experience, but instead framed it as an asset, appealing to the “outsider,” to the attractive idea of shaking up traditional politics. Perhaps his familiarity on our television screen was more comfortable than the detached politicians. Perhaps we could forgive him when he misspoke, because we saw it as entertainment. Perhaps no average politician could stand up to him.

But now, imagine in 2020 Jon Stewart next to Donald Trump, calling him out on every flub, every ill-informed word, with the magnetism of an accomplished entertainer. This value of Stewart should not be condoned, but embraced. However, he must not be clumped in the likes of Trump, Reagan or Schwarzenegger, because his prior career as an entertainer required a complex understanding of politics and a debate style wit. He was not reiterating the thoughts of others, but consistently building his own and expressing them in a way many current politicians cannot.

As if Stewart the entertainer does not carry enough appeal, perhaps Stewart the everyman will. Stewart worked for what he accomplished in the good old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” tradition. Stewart held numerous jobs before hosting his own show: he was a contingency planner for the New Jersey Department of Human Services, a contract administrator for City University of New York, a puppeteer for children with disabilities, a soccer coach at Gloucester High School in Virginia, a caterer, a busboy, a shelf stocker at Woolworth’s, a bartender, and finally a standup comedian. He is relatable. He is the bartender down the street, the friendly neighbor volunteer and your child’s soccer coach. But he is also a political titan in his own right. He built an empire off his witty comments and political expertise; he is both relatable and intimidating.

Not only is Jon Stewart attractive as a candidate, but his win is a real possibility, thanks in part to his already existing fan base. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Twitter boasted more than 6 million followers; its Facebook page got over 7 million likes, and his episodes have garnered as many as 3.5 million viewers, not including those watched with DVR playback. He has a ready-made audience; all he has to do is talk.

Millennials make up a large part of Stewart’s fan base, which is important because they are a vital demographic in the 2020 election. In the 2016 election, 50% of citizens aged 18-29 didn’t show up to the polls. It seemed the millennial support Obama garnered just didn’t translate to Clinton. According to a report by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, Bernie Sanders won more votes among those under age 30 than the two presumptive major-party presidential nominees combined. And it wasn’t close. It was clear the Democrats presented the wrong nominee.

If Jon Stewart had run in the 2016 election, it is fair to say he would have brought back the Obama-era millennial coalition and garnered the support of the Bernie Sanders supporters. There’s no reason why traditional Democrats wouldn’t support him as well. In 2020, after Trump has shown his incompetency in office, Stewart’s fight will only be easier. President Obama understood this. In 2015, Politico reported that Jon Stewart was invited to the White House twice—first in 2011 and again in 2014.

“Jon Stewart was a key influencer for millennials,” said Dag Vega, who worked for several years at the White House developing relationships with media figures. “They relied on him for an honest take on the news, and the president and senior staff know that.”

Stewart knows how to work the political system. In 2010, he successfully shamed politicians into passing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, legislature that covered medical expenses for emergency workers thought to be sickened by their exposure to toxic substances during the 9/11 recovery efforts. When in 2015, the bill had not yet been renewed, Stewart again took matters into his own hands and marched twice to Congress and publically shamed lawmakers into renewing the bill. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg described Stewart’s coverage as “one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement.” Stewart took his political knowledge further, to Iran, when he wrote, directed and produced the political drama Rosewater, which portrayed a deep understanding of Iranian politics.

Unlike Donald Trump, Stewart’s history is free of questionable business dealings or allegations of sexual assault. The only “skeleton” in his closet is his name-change from Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz to Jon Stewart, a move he made to succeed as a newbie in the entertainment industry. Many other entertainers have done the same thing, including Katy Perry, Elton John and Natalie Portman.

Trump’s presidency has made the previously unthinkable a reality and paved the way for a left-leaning celebrity to run for office — and win.