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Fear Was on the 2022 Ballot, with More in Store for '24

“Fear” has long been a valuable currency in the political realm.  Political theorists ranging from Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes to George Orwell and Richard Hofstadter have marveled at both the pervasiveness and the utility of popular fear.  In our time, historians, political scientists, and psychologists including Frank Furedi, David L. Altheide, Corey Robin, Lars Svendsen, and Barry Glassner have explored the prevalence of fear in marketing campaigns, news reporting, and political outreach.

Across these diverse disciplines, there is a clear consensus that stoking public fear is a common method for political candidates to “rally the base,” win over the undecideds, and strengthen partisan identities.  Parties and candidates have leveraged a long list of real and imagined dangers in recent decades: crime, terrorism, pollution, climate change, nuclear war, weapons of mass destruction, and virus pandemics, among many others.  Yet, while some appeals to fear are surely justified, other such claims may be cynical gambits for power which ultimately fuel tribalism, polarization, and inordinate attention to minor dangers.

The parties, candidates, and PACs spent nearly ten billion dollars on advertising in the 2022 midterms, and a content analysis of several hundred campaign advertisements available on the Ad Impact database and on social media channels reveals that “danger” was among the most prominent themes, especially in swing district attack ads.  Thinking ahead to the 2024 presidential election, there is every reason to think that appeals to fear will be just as prominent, if not more so.

In 2022, these threats fell into three main categories:

1) Threatened rights (“They want to take away your rights.”)

Following the Dobbs abortion decision, Democrats depicted the GOP as extremists who are “taking away our rights,” seeking a national abortion ban, prosecuting doctors, criminalizing women who miscarry, and otherwise endangering lives.  As one ad in the Oregon governor’s race proclaimed, “We know overturning Roe versus Wade was the first step to ban abortion in every single state.”

Gun rights served a similar purpose on the GOP side (though in fewer districts), as when the Gun Rights America PAC told Texas voters that “Beto O’Rourke and his Bloomberg-backed cronies will stop at nothing until your gun rights are crushed.”  Others more prosaically emphasized the threat to the right of personal protection.  “I’m a trained gun owner,” says an abuse survivor in a North Carolina congressional race ad, “because I need the ability to protect my family.”

Some Democrats took on the threat to voting rights, as when Stacey Abrams accused the Georgia governor of signing “one of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the nation, making it easier for white supremacists to challenge black voters.”  More pervasive were Republican charges of voter fraud and calls for election integrity, as pro-Trump candidates promised to “stop election fraud,” “protect the integrity of your vote,” “stand up for election integrity,” and seek justice for the “stolen election.”

2) Dangerous groups (“They want to harm you.”)

The 2022 campaigns relied heavily on the terms “radical” and “extreme” to describe group threats.  Republicans pointed to street criminals, drug cartels, and illegal immigrants, as in one PAC’s unambiguous message: “Anarchy, chaos, humanitarian disaster, . . . drug dealers and sex traffickers roaming freely. . . . [Democrats] have demolished the southern border.”  The GOP also highlighted Democrats’ alleged predilection for defunding police, freeing criminals, and coddling “Antifa terrorists” who are “rioting, looting, and burning our cities.”

The GOP especially stressed the dangers of the “radical left” in countless ads which accused Democrats of pushing a “woke agenda,” “indoctrinating our children,” teaching “radical gender identity,” and “using race to divide us.”  As one ad for Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) declared, “The Radical Left hate America and riot in our streets,” and “their radical woke agenda and divisive politics are tearing our country apart.”

Democrats countered with the specter of such home-grown threats as “extreme MAGA Republicans,” the gun lobby, “election deniers,” and “conspiracy theorists.”  The January 6 Capitol attack served as the go-to visual for these appeals, as when a Democratic PAC declared, “They tried to overthrow our government, now they want to control it. . . . so they can overthrow our rights.”

3) Corrupt institutions (“They control institutions that are destroying the country.”)

Each party also claims that the other wields corrupt power through the institutions it dominates.  Republicans focused on Democrats’ influence over such cultural institutions as the media, Hollywood, public education, “Big Tech,” and deep-pocketed foundations.  They portrayed an education system ruled by power-hungry teachers unions and awash in “critical race theory” and “radical transgender ideology.”  As one Nevada ad asked voters, “Should critical race theory radicals rewrite history in our schools?”

The GOP also went after “Big Tech” for its financial power and its ideological censorship.  An Ohio candidate protested “tech giants censoring the Hunter Biden laptop story” while “the liberal media elites and big tech all say we should move on.”  The term “Soros-backed” was a common shorthand for corrupt funding of environmental advocacy, “soft-on-crime” district attorneys, and “Antifa violence,” as when a New Mexico gubernatorial candidate asked, “Do you really believe someone who worked with climate change activists funded by George Soros is a true conservative?”

For Democrats, powerful corporations were the chief target.  Many touted their record of taking on Big Oil, Big Pharma, the insurance companies, and the gun lobby, including the senator who promised he was “taking on Big Pharma” and had “stopped the oil companies from drilling” in the Chesapeake Bay.  Another candidate claimed her opponent “voted to protect drug companies,” while still another questioned “Big Pharma [raking] in record profits” while so many struggle to pay for medicine.  Democrats also charged pro-business conservatives with filling their pockets while siding with the energy giants

Did any of these appeals work?  While there is little evidence that political ads can tilt an election, political messaging offers many clues to the zeitgeist.  The Dobbs decision (perhaps amid broader fears of a rogue Supreme Court) seems to have blunted the widely predicted GOP “red wave.”  Moreover, with polls suggesting that voters from across the political spectrum do worry about crime, the border, threats to their rights, and the more extreme elements of each party, we can expect these messages to be even more profound in 2024.