Why Do Tragedies Lead to Trusting Politicians?

In times of crisis, people tend to place increased trust in government officials. This pattern has proven itself over time, and was perhaps most notable after 9/11 when Gallup’s polling showed 60% of Americans always, or most of the time, trusted the government—an all time high. (It has since declined to 19%.) The recent ebola scare has also validated this theory, with Americans becoming more likely to believe the assessments and recommendations of CDC officials.

The trend of trusting the government in times of crisis exposes a vulnerability, perhaps best characterized by Barack Obama’s then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in 2008. In a frank interview, discussing the proposal to “stimulate” the economy in the wake of the recession, Emanuel observed, “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”

Conservatives erupted in horror at this statement, attributing it to the Chicago-style politics of the left. But this opportunism is found across the political spectrum—Republicans used it with great success to advance the USA PATRIOT Act and other controversial policy proposals in the wake of 9/11. The “important things” that would in times of peace be avoided are almost always implemented at the expense of our liberty—restrictions on travel, speech, privacy, and other once-cherished American virtues.

Why do politicians enjoy more support in the wake of tragedy? The answer is quite simple: a crisis creates fear. Desiring safety, we want the threat neutralized and peace restored. But large crises are unlike smaller threats such as a scary spider, an emptied bank account, or an armed intruder. These directly observable threats induce fear, but also enable us to formulate a rational response; we can see, and therefore deal with, the problem.

In contrast, the average crisis is not directly observable to the average person. Because we cannot assess the threat, the likelihood of irrational fear increases. We can’t see who is infected with ebola, or where terrorist cells might exist within our borders, or understand the intricacies of the economy. In this state of ignorance, most people rely upon others—primarily politicians and the media—to inform them about the nature and extent of the threat, using “risk communication” to tell them how afraid they should be.

Like the fable of the boy who cried wolf, we find ourselves in a situation where the people providing information stand to benefit from its manipulation. Thus did H.L. Mencken cynically say, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” If policies find success in the wake of a crisis, then crises become politically desirable.

Fear provides fertile soil for policies that promise safety to a citizenry paralyzed by ignorance and uncertainty. This introduces a perverse incentive into our system of government, in which people are persuaded to abandon their desire for freedom in exchange for being kept safe. Benjamin Franklin’s once-famous warning has been disregarded in recent decades: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Americans tend to jump from hobgoblin to hobgoblin with little context or common sense; each new threat presents a fear-inducing spectacle that the government is asked to resolve, no matter the cost. Y2K, anthrax, West Nile virus, SARS, bird flu, swine flu—each of these supposed crises took their toll, but not to any degree that justified the policies and panicked response they each produced. They did, however, offer an opportunity to increase government power and spending at the expense of our freedom; repeatedly scared, Americans now prioritize safety far over liberty.

We live in a dangerous world, and threats abound: nemesis nations, debilitating diseases, or even the common crook can disrupt or destroy a previously stable and enjoyable life. Rational people will try to mitigate threats to the extent possible, but they will do so based on information and context, instead of ignorantly trusting those who have a vested interest in keeping them incapacitated by fear. The villagers eventually decided to stop listening to the boy crying wolf. It’s time we learned the same lesson.

Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute in Utah. His latest book, Feardom: How Politicians Exploit Your Emotions and What You Can Do to Stop Them will be released December 8.