British Columbia

Fear in politics: 5 examples through history

The Conservatives are not unique when they use the politics of fear. All parties do it, and it goes beyond politics, says a UBC professor. In fact, the use of fear as a tool has ancient roots.

From ancient Greece to ISIS, fear is a tool frequently used by politicians and others to motivate

Zunera Ishaq Ishaq wearing her niqab. The Conservatives have said wearing a niqab at citizenship ceremonies allows one to 'hide their identity.' Is this an example of playing the politics of fear? (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Throughout this election, the claim has been made repeatedly that the Conservative party is fear-mongering to win votes.

But Chris Erikson, a University of British Columbia professor in the school of political science says there's nothing new in its approach.

In fact, he says it's a well-tested strategy used by leaders throughout history.

"There's a reason it's been around so long: because it works," he told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn. "It mobilizes people to do stuff. There's no question."

But, he says there's a weakness to playing the politics of fear.

"It's effective if you don't think about it too much. As soon as you start to identify the pattern, you begin to see how really obvious it is," he said.

"It's like attending a magic show. The first time you watch it, the magician makes his attendant disappear and you go, 'Wow, that's amazing!' But when you figure out how he does it and you go back and you watch the show differently.… There's a distance there. It's a little less emotional, a little less gut response."

Erikson, who teaches a course called The Politics of Fear, says he wants to teach people to recognize the strategies used by politicians and give people the "critical distance" to evaluate fear-based claims and see them as emotional appeals.

Beyond the Conservatives, beyond politics

Erikson does believe this election is different from what we've seen in the past because fear appeals are being used so bluntly.

"And because of that, it's easier to spot the pattern, which gives me lots of hope that people will be able to see around it," he said.

UBC professor Chris Erikson teaches a course called The Politics of Fear. (CBC)

But he adds that these appeals aren't used by just one party — nor are they confined to politics, even.

"We see this all the time in the marketplace. The message is: 'Buy my stuff or die lonely and alone,'" he said.

Despite the fact that it usually only works as a short-term motivator and has consequences, politicians and leaders in particular have relied on fear as a motivator, Erikson says.

Here are five examples of the use of fear and the consequences.

Five examples

Peloponnesian War

This war between ancient Athens and Sparta sees a unique reversal of the fear appeal dynamic by Athens. Instead of Athens telling its people that they needed to be afraid of Sparta, they told Sparta that they needed to be afraid of them. This provoked a war that ended with Athens conquered by Sparta.


The Nazi Party had Germans terrified that enemies were at the gates, and only a massive war could keep Germany safe. When this war launched, it would ultimately cost over 50 million lives, and left Germany in ruins.

Stalin and Mao

These communist dictators largely controlled their nations through fear: fear of the government and fear of the bourgeoisie. This meant their rules were largely unquestioned, which led to many costly mistakes, such as the Great Leap Forward in China and Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, both of which were disastrous for those countries.

September 11

After the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, Erikson says, instead of mobilizing people with hopeful messages, the message from the U.S. government was one of fear.

The fear that the American people felt, he says, motivated them to believe faulty intelligence and support the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in thousands of deaths and the further destabilizing of the Middle East.

The war on ISIS

Fear is a constant emotion raised by politicians during this conflict, in Canada and other nations. But is this fear leading us to make bad decisions in our approach to ISIS?

"Instead of resolving the problem, we're perpetuating it," Erikson said.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Fear in politics goes back to ancient times


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