By Laura Tatiana Roncancio / Palabras al Margen

This piece first appeared in Spanish on

Every recent major election result seems worse for the world than the previous one. The last 18 months in particular have been devastating.

In the Argentine presidential election of late 2015, the country shifted to the right as Mauricio Macri, opposition leader and mayor of Buenos Aires, defeated Daniel Scioli, Front for Victory candidate and governor of Buenos Aires Province, with 51.4 percent of the votes compared to 48.6 percent.

On May 12, 2016, the Brazilian Senate approved the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (55 senators in favor, 22 against).

In June of that year, United Kingdom citizens voted to leave the European Union, with 51.9 percent choosing to abandon the EU and 48.1 percent wanting to remain.

Then, in an Oct. 2 vote in Colombia, the peace deal was defeated, with 50.23 percent of the people opposing it and 49.76 percent favoring peace.

2016 ended with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.

In 2017, we have witnessed Turkey ratify Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s oppressive regime, with 51.4 percent of voters supporting an expansion of his presidential powers and 48.6 percent against it.

Except perhaps for the case of Brazil, where demonstrations against the current government have been widespread, the electoral actions resulted in the most extreme option — the most conservative, the most oppressive, the most sectarian—winning with ample popular support. Faced with this disheartening and despairing scenario, humanists and social scientists should prioritize analyzing the massive support for these options.

The slogans, mottos and promises of the winning campaigns have so much in common that each case seems to be an adaptation of the same script: simple formulas, easy to remember. Although lacking in much substance, they were effective because they touch upon topics the voters are sensitive to. The formulas identify something or someone as unwanted, which serves as a binding force: for example, exploiting in the U.K. and U.S. the fear of immigrants, or in Colombia the fear of becoming another Venezuela.

Candidates make generic promises to which people can cling but don’t offer a clear plan for action (promises of job creation were decisive in the triumphs of Macri and Trump). Religious values are used to divert attention from relevant political or economic issues. Social polarization is exacerbated through the logic of “us” (working people, “good” Christians/Muslims) against “them” (traditional elites, invading/immigrant Christians/Muslims, castrochavistas — communists — atheists, homosexuals) using traditionally conservative values.

These formulas are aimed at unleashing emotional reactions based on rage, rather than reflections on programs and proposals. But in reality their foundation is fear: of the other, the change, the end of our cemented worldview.

The margins of difference in electoral results show growing polarization. While some consolation can be found in knowing that the gap is small between those who support the winning campaigns and proposals and those who question them, polarization works in favor of those who are using strategies based on generating hatred and fear.

The similarities in slogans, debate issues and strategies to win public favor are not accidental. They are using tried and tested approaches that get results. Those who sponsor such campaigns may not know in detail why their strategy is so powerful, but they are aware of its effectiveness in distracting people’s attention from more demanding issues (both cognitively and emotionally).

The stress reaction that is triggered by the feeling of fear is an evolutionary mechanism for survival in dangerous situations. Stress can be useful for reacting with agility to unforeseen situations. The problem is that when stress reactions are prolonged (the feeling of threat remains, intensifying the feeling of fear), they preclude reflection and prevent change.

Fear, of course, is a socially mediated emotion. We can trace in history the transformation of people’s fears and phobias. Likewise, social organization can be nourished by fears. Fostering an ongoing sense of threat among people results in a fear-clouded state, which can be effective for political projects whose goal is to maintain the status quo.

We are living in difficult times. It is normal for us to feel frightened. From the neurobiological point of view, the stress reaction is a tool that can serve to find new ways of action, which we need. However, the way in which recent political campaigns associate fear with anger and the defense of conservative values is not helping us. Instead of finding new paths of action, people are clinging to their old behaviors and values as safe havens from a perceived threatening reality.

New strategies and fundamental changes in thinking, feeling and acting are only possible through the destabilization and extinction of obsolete patterns. This is not happening, because continuous stress reaction leads to paralysis and the repetition of known routes of action.

The difficulty now is doing something about this phenomenon that can be more or less explained either biologically or sociologically. In the current scenario, we must, in a sustained and serious way, learn how to counteract this paralyzing fear, because it will not fade spontaneously.

Otherwise, we will continue as we are, between despair and hopelessness, while the time we have to find new paths that allow our world to be sustainable is exhausted.

Laura Tatiana Roncancio is from Bogota, Colombia. She has a degree in history and is working on a Ph.D. in psychology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

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