The Perils of Scaremongering: A Post-60’s Epidemic of Panic

In the United States, the 1960’s lasted until about 1975, when substantial numbers of Americans turned to the right and got ready for Reagan. Before the Great Communicator took the oath of office, Phyllis Schlafly’s grassroots organization—STOP ERA—stopped the Equal Rights Amendment. In Congress, the Hyde Amendment ended federal funding of abortion. And the landslide for Proposition 13 in California marked the beginning of a nationwide revolt against taxes. Ronald Reagan gave form, force and voice to conservative currents. He did not put them in motion.

According to Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, it was not “morning in America” between 1975 and 1986, the high tide of the conservative reaction. The national zeitgeist was pessimistic, even apocalyptic, incorporating the rhetoric of sin into mainstream cultural and political discourse. Although there was often a “staggering disconnect between the portrayal of menaces and what could plausibly be seen as their objective substance,” scaremongering became a settled practice. The imprint of this “decade of nightmares” on domestic and foreign policy can still be felt in the 21st century.

As they moved from “the era of Woodstock to that of the witch-hunts,” Mr. Jenkins argues, Americans retained elements of a 60’s worldview even as they rejected the decade’s hedonism, radicalism and relativism. They blamed bad behavior on willful, irredeemably evil individuals, not social forces or dysfunctional institutions. But, like many 60’s activists, they distrusted science, reason and authority; considered corruption a national epidemic; embraced religious fringe movements; and gave credence to conspiracy theories.

Some dangers, Mr. Jenkins claims, were real, not imagined. At first, he writes, “conservatives were not so much peddling fears as taking seriously fears that were already widespread.” Stagflation was only the most visible sign of an economy in free-fall. Illegal drugs, especially marijuana, had become socially acceptable. Sexual expression—and experimentation—had migrated from bedrooms and brothels to books, big screens, college quads and kitchen tables. From 9 to 5, it turns out, many women weren’t tending their kids or lemon-Pledging the furniture. Crime, some of it random and savage, was increasing, while 60’s liberals dismissed apprehension about it as a surrogate for racism and undermined rehabilitation by attacking prisons.

But the reaction “went too far.” Anita Bryant branded gays as child molesters, and helped convince several state legislatures not to grant homosexuals equal rights. Although the number of kids kidnapped by strangers was relatively small, missing children appeared on milk cartons. And the media frenzy sparked by Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and the Son of Sam suggested that serial murder was a common occurrence. In the wake of these “nightmares,” deterring and eliminating evildoers trumped all other methods of addressing domestic dangers.

Mr. Jenkins catalogs and characterizes the nightmares. He does not provide a conceptual framework to gauge their impact, explain how they were used or abused, or when and why Americans began to “conjure up monsters at home.” Some scares, like shark assaults, appear and disappear, like summer reruns, leaving little in their wake. Some scares arise spontaneously—but some are stoked and others are smothered. As proponents of individual responsibility, “law and order” and trickle-down economics, conservatives had a stake in demonizing “social deviants.” Less useful to them were conspiracies about the police or governments within the government, whether controlled by corporate fat cats or bureaucrats bypassing Boland Amendments or FISA courts. Does this explain why conspiracies about those in power failed to reach critical mass during the last 25 years, despite the S&L scandal, Ollie North, Mark Fuhrman, Halliburton and the warrantless wiretaps of the National Security Agency?

In assessing threats from abroad after 1975, conservatives also endorsed a narrative of good and evil that left no room for co-existence. Mr. Jenkins suggests that, vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, they were justified in doing so. At times, his account of American foreign policy seems to come straight out of the Fox News spin zone. Sixties liberals and leftists, he writes, accused anyone who took the communist menace seriously of red-baiting, romanticized third-world revolutionaries, presided over a “disastrous weakening of the United States,” and exhibited “near blindness” about terrorism.

When it comes to the “evil empire,” Mr. Jenkins himself sounds suspiciously like a scaremonger. Massive increases in military spending, he acknowledges, “would have been hard to justify except against a background of imminent hostilities with an aggressive and expansionist” adversary. But anxiety about annihilation was “quite realistic” and “the year 1980 was one of the most frightening in American history.” In the fall of 1983, “the world truly stood on the brink of nuclear war” when the Soviets misinterpreted military exercises by NATO and placed their forces on the highest alert: “Anyone who believed the United States might actually reach the year 1984 sounded like Pollyanna.” In this context, U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s conflict with Iran and for bin Laden’s guerilla war in Afghanistan made “excellent sense.” They helped a now strong and resolute America force the Soviets to negotiate on our terms. And hastened the end of the Cold War.

The nation did pay a price for its moralizing, polarizing, conspiracy-driven foreign policy, Mr. Jenkins suggests. Several Presidents used the war on drugs to justify military interventions in Central America. And the “evil empire model of terrorism” was too blunt an instrument “in a world of decentralized organization, lateral communication, and leaderless resistance,” where Hezbollah might be more important than Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, Mr. Jenkins concludes, in what seems to be an argument with himself, “evil empires really did, and do, exist”—and, “by all means, let us pursue bin Laden to his grave.”

Scaremongering and the “paranoid style,” expressed in the idioms of religion and morality, are deeply embedded in the political landscape in America. Although Philip Jenkins fails to provide convincing evidence that they were more pervasive at the end of the 20th century than in earlier eras, it’s likely that cable news networks and blogs will allow conspiracies to be fruitful and multiply. Fear attached to conspiracies can—and has—mesmerized and moved millions. More importantly, as Decade of Nightmares demonstrates—inadvertently—it’s not easy to separate an exaggerated or invented danger from the real thing.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

The Perils of Scaremongering: A Post-60’s Epidemic of Panic