If you are a person who likes being frightened by the prospect of a zombie apocalypse, then Halloween is the holiday for you. Have fun being scared. But, if you truly are convinced that a zombie apocalypse could be a real thing, then we all have a problem.
A sane society depends on most people sharing a common understanding of reality, but American politics is driven by fears, many of which are unfounded. True or not, the things we fear are very likely to be the things that motivate us to vote for particular candidates.
For instance, if you fear global warming and people carrying guns in grocery stores, I can probably guess who you voted for in the 2016 presidential election, just as I could likely make an accurate prediction of your ballot behavior if you are someone who fears that federal agents will take your guns and immigrants will take your job.
Voting is an emotional act that feels as if it is a rational choice. If it scares you to think that the federal government is concocting so-called false flag events, like the Sandy Hook school shooting, or that every Muslim is capable of being turned into a terrorist, then it seems rational to vote for certain candidates over others, even though both of those viewpoints are preposterous falsehoods promoted by charlatans to elicit an emotional reaction that is susceptible to manipulation.
Of course, there are fears that are justifiable. It is not irrational to worry about another economic meltdown caused by high rollers on Wall Street. It is not irrational to have angst about random mass shootings. It is not irrational to have some concern about a lunatic North Korean dictator lobbing a nuclear bomb at an American city. It is not irrational to fear for the safety of your teenager in a society where bullying, addictive drugs, gang shootings and pervasive pornography are common. It is harder to predict, though, how those particular fears will drive your political choices.
For many people, the fear of losing access to healthcare is a very real thing. But the way this frightening prospect steers voting depends on the particulars. A poor person who relies on Medicaid may make a different decision at the ballot box than a middle-class voter who lives in a state where health insurance options are becoming scarce and unaffordable.
I have my own set of fears. Climate change is high on the list, although, because the worst effects of this genuine phenomenon are decades away, this is more a fear for my children and grandchildren than for myself. I do fear that Kim Jong Un will target a West Coast city with his missiles and that I might live in one of them, though I tell myself this hazard is still remote. I fear that our ignorant, brash president and his chaotic administration will bungle foreign policy so badly that the United States will be perceived around the world as an unstable, unreliable partner and America’s strength and global influence will wither.
Beyond those worries, though, the fear at the top of my list right now is that our democracy is being dangerously and permanently subverted by fake news. This is not the fake news that President Trump complains about — the generally accurate and verifiable stories in the mainstream media that are critical of him. No, the fake news I fear is coming from a variety of sources — Russian hackers, internet trolls, talk radio charlatans, right wing political operatives — and is being amplified by social media, Fox News and presidential tweets. This manipulated view of reality has been sold to millions of Americans and it has made finding common ground nearly impossible. Even Republican politicians who know fact from fiction find themselves in thrall to this malign force because their constituents have bought into the mendacity.