Fight-or-flight has been a primal instinct since our days on the African savannah. 70,000 years ago, it was always life-or-death survival. Today, not so much. For us, it’s not a case of denying real existential threats but understanding there aren’t bogeymen hiding under the bed.
With the explosion of brain power during the Cognitive Revolution, other aspects of the psyche—reason, problem solving, hope—evolved each serving to neutralize the fear factor. Still, both fear and reason co-exist in the brain. Which dominates depends on one’s willingness to conquer his/her fear by opting for reason.
Fight-or-flight is a false binary choice. There is another, albeit non-rational, response: Hope. While reason can help diminish fear, hope can contribute to steadying one in the face of threats. Hope fuels courage, moving forward in the face of daunting odds.
Put in a political context, studies offer clear evidence that perception of danger in one’s social-political environment correlates strongly to his/her location on the liberal-conservative spectrum.
In an essay on Vox exploring the psychology of liberalism, Ezra Klein writes about the presidential Democratic candidates’ underlying messaging particularly how they correlate to those expressed by Barack Obama and Pete Buttigieg. Klein cites several studies. One, “Predilection: Liberals, Conservatives and the Biology of Political Differences,” compares people who score high on openness with those who score high on conscientiousness, those more likely to be organized, faithful, and loyal.
Klein notes that those open to and hopeful about new things, people, and places and are excited about change and differences tend to be liberal while those that “feel a spike of fear” when confronted with such tend to be conservative.
Klein posits that in 2016 anger dominated with the operating motivator in both the Clinton and Trump campaigns being fight. But he wonders that, despite the anger on both sides of the Trump Divide, if fight can be the winning message for Democrats or whether they should return to Obama’s message of hope.
“A lot of liberals, temperamentally and psychologically, don’t want a fight,” Klein writes. “They don’t want politics to be an endless war; they believe that mutual understanding is possible, that the country will respond to someone willing to believe and call forth the best of it. That’s not just their view of politics; it’s their view of life. It’s the view that Obama spoke to in the speech that made him a star.”
The Mueller Report, which provides evidence about a paranoid POTUS actively engaged in obstructing justice, has understandably added fuel to fire. That, in turn, might be the greatest test for candidates: Inflame or work to douse the fire?
In this world, hope is a liberal virtue. It’s forward looking. It implies things can get better when approached rationally. Fear, on the other hand, is a retrenched aspect of Trumpian conservatism.
To date, there are nearly 20 Democratic candidates with more to come. Each believes he/she is a serious contender, but the chaff-from-the-wheat separation will inexorably winnow the field to a hearty few.
Trump-fatigue has taken hold. America is weary. Nerves are raw. Will seething anger over his destructive assault on constitutional and cultural norms and his incessant in-your-face, no-holds-barred attacks on decency dominate in 2020? Or will hope and optimism win out?
That’s the needle Democratic candidates must thread: Address the former yet offer a vision for the latter.
Passion can be a virtue, but not if it becomes irrationally intense. A measured, steady approach to addressing grievances is more likely to evince positive outcomes. One hopes Democrats don’t get sideways and lose sight of the prize. The continuation and perhaps the very existence of our republic depends on it.