Political slogans and buzzwords are seldom honest. They typically serve to obfuscate the reality of a situation, if not completely misrepresent it. Yet despite their poor approximation to the truth, such words are often revealing of some aspect of the political environment in which they come to life.
The last year has seen the rise of the Hope vs. Fear political dichotomy. Hope and change were, of course, staples of Barack Obama’s 2008 US Presidential campaign, but the alternative in that case was supposedly something like incompetence or Republican mediocrity. The Hope vs. Fear dichotomy isn’t really anything new, though its utter dominance of political debate in the west seems quite novel, indeed.
Things got kicked off in 2016 as Britain’s referendum on EU membership neared. Those who favoured the option to leave the EU were generally characterised as succumbing to certain fears, specifically those surrounding the issue of immigration, whereas those who expressed support for Britain to remain in the EU were hopeful optimists, dauntless and unperturbed by the beleaguered European Union. When Team Leave won the vote, headlines to the effect of “Fear Wins The Day” flowed forth. The Remain campaign’s repeated warnings about the fearful economic consequences of a Brexit, the issue which formed the crux of their argument, were apparently characteristic of Hope.
Next up on the global political agenda was the US election. At this point Trump was on the verge of clinching the Republican nomination, so the cries of “will Fear win the day again?!” were already in full swing. The only question then unanswered was who would carry the torch for Hope, Bernie or Hillary? The torch was handed to the latter, partly with the expectation that the flame would grow stronger if it had an added Hope fuel source, that is, the hope that America would elect its first female president. Alas, it was not to be. Fear and the Russians proved victorious and Hope appeared a vanquished force in the world of politics.
The Dutch election made the Hope and Fear headlines, though largely because Geert Wilders, who represented the Party of Fear, appeared to have had one of those British barrister wigs permanently fastened to his head. Despite the air of authority this conferred upon Mr. Wilders, he failed to win the vote, allowing Hope its first big win of the year.
It was then on to the French election, where Marine Le Pen of the Front National was expected to challenge for the Élysée. Le Pen had been born into Team Fear, her father being the founder of the Front National and the one responsible for much of the bad reputation which plagues the party today. Team Hope, on the other hand, was represented by a menagerie of politicians from across the political spectrum. Ultimately it was Mr. Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte, who was tapped to carry the mantle of Hope. And that about brings us up to speed.
Macron’s story is sensational for many reasons. Just a few short years ago he worked as an investment banker, which, if not placing him on the side of Fear, safely placed him on the side of Evil. The president under whom Macron would serve as Minister of Economics declared war on Macron’s industry in 2012, stating that “My true enemy has no name, no face, no party… My enemy is the world of finance.” This proclamation sounds a touch naive in retrospect, but how could President Hollande have anticipated that hundreds of French citizens would be slaughtered by terrorists in the next few years, and that he would have to run the country under a state of emergency for almost the entirety of his final two years in office. And you really can’t blame him, for hatred of the abstraction known as Wall Street was at a fever-pitch during his 2012 election campaign. Some people would refer to his playing into frenzied anger as populism, but they would be wrong since populism is…something else entirely. What exactly it is, no one is sure, but it certainly can never occur on the left.
With his nascent political ambitions beginning to take shape, Macron decided to leave the malevolent world of finance in 2012 and attach himself to its enemy, the newly elected Hollande. As French unemployment continued to rise and Mr. Hollande’s reputation continued to plummet, Macron became concerned about his own political future, and in 2016, deciding to detach himself from an unpopular institution for the second time in four years, quit his role within Hollande’s government. Sensing the polarized political landscape within France, Macron saw an opportunity to run for president as a centrist, claiming he was “neither left nor right.” Initially the French political world was sceptical, but as time went on and the campaigns of other candidates suffered various difficulties, his fledgling political party En Marche! became a serious contender. In the lead-up to France’s first-round vote, Macron and Le Pen were the favourites, ultimately finishing in the top two spots. The stage was set for Hope vs. Fear, à la français. In five years, Macron had gone from evil industry titan to member of a government with a 4% approval rating to France’s Hope candidate.
Leading into the second round, support for Macron was tepid. The other candidates from round one, representatives of the French right and left, were understandably conflicted about Macron’s “neither left nor right” stance. Some endorsed Macron, loathe to take any action that might benefit Le Pen; others simply remained silent. Then, a few days before the vote, Barack Obama attempted to bolster Macron’s chances by declaring his support of the candidate, saying he “appeals to people’s hopes and not their fears.” Obama, apparently unaware that two-thirds of the votes in the first round had been cast for candidates who ran on platforms that may be described as France-First, also revealed just how tone deaf he and others of his ilk are when he repeatedly emphasized how important France is to Europe and the world. Such appeals could only find a reception with those already planning to vote for Macron. Le Pen herself would not have been surprised, saying in her concession speech that while the first round of the election threw out the old political parties, the second round demonstrated the new divide, that between globalists and patriots. London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, was one of many who refused to buy into such a characterisation, instead choosing to echo Obama’s sentiments, saying that “the French people have chosen hope over fear and unity over division.”
Why does the left continue to insist on this curious divide? Hope and Fear do not exist in a vacuum, with the former naturally preferable to the latter. Each term assumes an object, and the goodness of either Hope or Fear depends upon the goodness or badness of the thing hoped for or feared. Implicit in the political dichotomy, at least for the purposes of which it is currently being used, is that the things hoped for are good and valuable and should be tirelessly pursued in the face of challenges, whereas the things feared either don’t exist or exist in a way which does not justify the degree of fear experienced by electors. Given a binary political choice, it is quite expedient to have such a summary of the choices at hand, for by using it you are able to discredit one side as paranoid and ill-motivated and simultaneously elevate the other side as innocent and well-intentioned, refusing to yield to any impulses of cynicism or pessimism.
The other aspect of the divide is the extent to which two sides in a political question find their primary motivation in either hope, a fundamentally positive affirmation of goals, or in fear, affirming nothing but their opposition to this or that danger. In practice the two sides of most political questions are motivated by degrees of both of these, affirming some things and opposing others. That this Hope vs. Fear dichotomy should have taken off in the last year is especially surprising since the most significant events have seen the motivations of the sides flip. The side branded Fear has largely been voted for on a basis of hope (specifically the reaffirmation of national identity), whereas the side that blesses itself as Hope is primarily motivated by fear (namely of their opponents and the ideas they represent).
This was most evident in France’s election of Macron, despite his claim that the vote was “an affirmation of the values of enlightenment.” To be self-congratulatory to this degree is risible, but to also completely misread the situation makes it all the more farcical. The only thing affirmed in the vote for Macron was maintenance of the status-quo, one that currently boasts a single-digit approval rating, mind you. Mr. Macron will need to assemble a parliamentary majority if he hopes to effect any of the changes on which he campaigned; this will be a considerable challenge given that his new political party currently occupies zero seats in parliament. Voters knew this, of course. But the alternative, with their hopes to dramatically change the direction of their country, was scary. Some of their fears, as with the fears of those who voted against Trump, Brexit, and Wild Geeters, were well-founded, and those should not be dismissed wholesale. But that these were largely votes against instead of votes for, that they were primarily motivated by voters’ fears instead of their hopes, is a much more convincing case than the opposite.
So, is the repeated use of this dichotomy the flush of fever or the glow of health for the politics of those employing it? From what I can tell, it is being emphasized precisely because the left can see that it’s hopes and goals, previously unquestioned, are now vulnerable. In the recent past there was no need to call attention to the fears of those on the right, needing only to quell them, to address them in a soft, avuncular tone. For those on the right necessarily expressed their reservations meekly, with the fear of the epithets racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. ensuring they did not make too much noise. But those epithets are no longer able to do the work they once did. They are like antibiotics whose efficacy has worn off through overuse. Now antibacterial-resistant politicians like Trump and Le Pen are cropping up everywhere, and more, they’re garnering broad support. So the left’s strategy has necessarily shifted. Instead of claiming that opposition to their goals is fundamentally immoral, they’ve been forced to admit it has some basis in reality. “Sure you have fears,” they say, “we all do. But you must be courageous and fight those fears, for ours is a noble cause!” This strategy works by essentially the same means as the old one, for just as no one wanted to be an ignorant bigot, no one wants to be a coward who allows his fears to get the best of him. Whether such shaming can prove as effective as the old kind is to be seen, but the need for a new kind at all should be cause for hope on the right…and fear on the left.