Are Our Fears Driving Politics?—Or Is Politics Driving Our Fears?

2018-07-12 – What are your greatest fears? What causes you worry? What stresses you out?

That was the question posed in this week’s weight-loss webinar sponsored by my health plan. The topic was stress and our health coach asked the virtual crowd to weigh in with their opinions. I said “money,” figuring that would cover a lot of ground. Others said they were worried about their health or their jobs or their family or their relationships. They were all very personal, and very predictable.

But then I thought the inevitable: politics stresses me out. But I wanted to see if anyone else would post this in the webinar chat box. No one did. Maybe other had the same thought as me, but I’ll never know.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, I was researching something completely unrelated and found the Chapman University Survey of American Fears. According to this survey, America’s top 10 fears of 2017 were, in order:

  1. Corrupt government officials
  2. American Healthcare Act/Trumpcare
  3. Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes
  4. Pollution of drinking water
  5. Not having enough money for the future
  6. High medical bills
  7. The US will be involved in another World War
  8. Global warming and climate change
  9. North Korea using weapons
  10. Air pollution

A pretty different list from my weight-loss webinar. Sure, there’s some overlap, but my fellow dieters were focused on their family while the Chapman survey responders were focused on government and politics: the very thing that I (and possibly others) held back during the webinar.

It occurred to me that the Chapman list might be affected by things trending in the news, so I looked back to earlier Chapman surveys. They’ve been doing this for four years. So here’s the top 10 fears for 2014:

  1. Corruption of government officials
  2. Cyber-terrorism
  3. Corporate tracking of personal information
  4. Terrorist attacks
  5. Government tracking of personal information
  6. Bio-warfare
  7. Identity theft
  8. Economic collapse
  9. Running out of money in the future
  10. Credit card fraud

Pretty different from the 2017, except for the worry about government corruption and the worry about money. Again, the Chapman list looks like topics trending in the news.

Yet, when my dieting coach asked people to say what stressed them out most, none of this came out—except for worries about money. We’re worried about family and our relationships. We’re worried about our health. We’re worried about our livelihoods. I’m guessing that, if you asked dieters in 2017 or 2014 or any year you pick, you would have gotten the same nonpolitical answers. These are the eternal worries that have been stressing people out for, probably, millennia. You find these worries in the oldest texts known to the world.

So what’s going on with the Chapman surveys?

Surveys always create their own realities. How you ask the question often predetermines the kinds of results you get. Chapman already pre-programed 10 “domains of fear,” and only half of them are arguably personal. The rest are public fears. Surveys also tend to be seen as public policy tools. So people responding to the Chapman survey were primed to talk about public rather than private fears.

My dieters were primed to talk about personal and not public fears and stresses.

So where do the public fears come from? Comparing the 2014 and 2017 lists might give you an idea. When I think about the things that stress me out and might keep me from sticking to a weight-loss regimen, government corruption doesn’t even make it to the list—even in the age of Trump! But here it is at the top of the list—twice! (In fact, government corruption has been the top of the list all four years Chapman did the survey.)

Where did this come from? Could it be that it came from the politicians themselves? Republicans running down Democrats and Democrats running down Republicans? I’m not even talking about whether it’s fake or real. It’s a daily drumbeat. It’s what the politicians say. It’s what the new media say—biased or not. It’s the top story so it’s the top fear.

How would American’s fears be different if the politicians and the media started paying attention to what people are saying in their weight-loss classes (rather than when they’re asked to get political by survey takers)?

The solution to worries and fears come in two areas. First, are activities to calm ourselves: things like exercise and meditation. Second, are systematically attacking the situations that are creating the stress. Yelling is not one of the recommended solutions.

How could these approaches be applied in the political world?

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