Parallels Between Buddhism’s Five Fears and Politics
According to Buddhist beliefs, there are five great fears in the human mind: death, illness, dementia, loss of livelihood, and public speaking. There is no need to have more than these to influence our daily lives as we go on with our ordinary businesses. Even if we don’t recognize the fear of death, it is, in fact, around the corner at all times, and so are the others. Although they are personal and individual signs of perceived weaknesses, we can find them in systems and societies. The death of the status quo or the possible illness of a well-working machine can also come to mind. If we deep-dive into these concepts, we can easily find ourselves in a pool of political communication trying to bring us towards a fear of losing something that is at least stable. The work of Buddha can, in many cases, be reflected in today’s society, and his theory on fear is a significant talking point on how political messaging pulls us into an arena of fear.
Death is essentially what we are all afraid of. Something indescribable, something metaphysical, something we want to hide, or other ways romanticize. But is that only true for the death of a person, an animal, or any other living entity? No. We are generally afraid of the sudden end of anything. A bullish market, political power, an idea that connects us, anything. Moreover, death means that something ends, opening the door for something new, which is often scary. All in all, an unexpected end to the status quo is what we are all dreading.
Few events are as emotionally potent as death. Having someone important pass away shakes your body, and even the thought of it scares you from acting irrationally. This is what politicians often take advantage of in speeches or political programs. One can see this aspect in two ways: literally and symbolically.
In literal terms, politicians use the memory of death as a tool to make people remember all the struggles that happened in a political regime before them. Primarily, this is utilized when there are rising conflicts on the horizon, such as wars or pandemics. In the last couple of years, it has become a heavily used weapon. Starting with the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have ordered an emergency state, leading to lower checks and balances in lawmaking. Even though it is, in fact, needed in the event of a crisis to make legal power more efficient, in countries like Brazil, Turkey, and Hungary, an over-push resulted in the abuse of power. The (then) president of the South American giant, Bolsonaro, faced controversy for downplaying the number of infected citizens and deaths while opposing lockdowns and masks. Critics say that this was his political tactic, showing the citizens that the country was totally safe and there was no reason to doubt the current leadership. Turkey and Hungary were criticized for the same actions, consolidating power. At the beginning of the pandemic, Prime Minister Orbán’s government acquired the right to rule by decree, which brought about immense concerns about executive power. Similarly, in Turkey, President Erdogan has pushed for greater control over the judiciary.
While in the previous examples, death and the possibility of mortality have referred to concrete cases and actions, symbolic references are also standard in political communication. It is pretty frequent on the conservative side to refer to the dangers of changing the status quo, which, to some extent, resembles death in their eyes. Let’s just take Margaret Thatcher as an example. The previous prime minister of the UK has often emphasized the idea of slowly moving forward, not risking any unexpected change in what we know for sure. She broadcasted the concept of steady-state growth and opposed the hurrying sounds coming from the socialist party. Thatcher often emphasized the dangers of the unexpected and laid down a system that she thought would be safe to improve. Moreover, on the other side of the Anglo-Saxon world at that time, Ronald Reagan famously indicated his will to return to conservative principles in order to save the private liberty of American citizens. In his 1980s campaign, his program included tax cuts, increasing defense spending, and pushing back socialist ideas in order to maintain American principles. The back-reach for conservative politics swept through the Western World, leading to higher caution for the changing dynamics. In a way, right-wing politicians believed that the uprising of leftist ideas could bring death to the stability of the status quo.
Illness is viewed as a weakness of our body. When our system is not prepared for outside shocks or inner malfunctions, then we lose our strength and get tied to bed. In all cultures, but in Buddhism more significantly, sickness is a symbol of impermanence. According to the teachings, nothing lasts forever, and everything humane, artificial, and natural is subject to change. Moreover, some Buddhists believe that sickness might be the result of past actions in correspondence with the law of karma. This is where the concept connects with politics. It is a common communication tool to recollect the memories of the hard times and blame the origins for current problems. For instance, all politicians in the entire post-soviet bloc hold the times before the change of regimes accountable for today’s malfunctions. In the Czech Republic, previous president Miloš Zeman often mentions his view, stating that the malfunctions of today’s democracy are the aftermath of Soviet political oppression. His idea is basically that it is difficult for politicians who grew up in the communist era to play by the rules of democracy, which often leads to abuse of power.
Furthermore, illness in politics comes forward in the speeches of populist leaders, who tend to emphasize the dangers of the current ‘sick’ society. Public figures like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro, and Marine Le Pen criticize the non-normality of our society and blame the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and leftist leaders for all the defects of our systems. They are somehow able to cover up all issues with short and quick blame on particular groups of people. However, it is only natural. In order for a populist to thrive, they need to blame some sort of illness of the system. With that, they can swiftly find the enemy in the public conversation, which is key to their political success.
Lastly, on this topic, we have to mention regimes that committed genocides. According to their views, a group of people are the illness of the system. For instance, for the Nazi Germany, the Jews, the Soviet Union, the Holodomor, and the list is sadly long. These minorities are often blamed for the malfunctions of the system. The 20th century, with its numerous genocides and hate campaigns, is a perfect example of the case. However, even today, in all societies, a group of minorities is always held accountable for any faults in the system. In Europe, it is often the Roma population, in the US, the Afro-American minority, and sadly, so on and so forth.
The concept of dementia in our topic is much more abstract than the previous two. It is a state of instability, sometimes a lack of ability to decide, basically losing some connections to life and the real world. Losing balance in norms and actions is reflected in politics. The uncertainty in a system, a state close to anarchy.
Ordinary citizens, and even more so the elderly, are afraid of a system that is so uncertain that it is hard to control and navigate. Even if a political regime is unliked, it has authority in the public, and to some extent, it is trusted with great respect. However, when the last drip of trust overflows, the country is left in a state that nothing can be predicted. And what happens then?
Well, first, economically, the country gets into a spiral of capital loss. It cannot attract income from abroad; therefore, it cannot finance its own operations. As a result, the state becomes more and more insolvent, leading to a scenario where there is no value left in the economy. Of course, this is a drastic example. In the real world, international agreements like the IMF or the World Bank would never allow this scenario to happen. However, a total loss of trust from the public has more than significant effects. Let’s just take, for instance, when a central bank loses its authority. The market will not respond to its interest rate cuts or announcements, leaving it an insolvent institute. This whole phenomenon is similar to what plays down in an old man’s mind when it is tortured with dementia. Losing control over what is right or what is not and is a clear pathway to losing ideas on what might solutions be.
In a more political and social way, losing trust will result in total chaos. Citizens will not trust any state-owned or operated institutes, such as hospitals or schools. As a result, the living standards of lower-income families will further decrease, as it is unaffordable for them to avoid state-controlled hospitals, for instance. The gap between income levels will severely increase, which historically leads to riots, wars, and all in all, anarchy.
Therefore, politicians try to avoid any possibility of losing trust. Even if they stand corrected, they will never accept the evidence of having some malfunctions inside the system. It is easier to understand it in an example. After the Covid-19 pandemic, almost all European countries experienced a high inflationary environment. However, there were some countries that were hit by a significantly more extensive level, like Hungary and Estonia. Now, in a case where some countries’ level of inflation exceeds the average of the economic organization (EU) by a large percentage, it is evident that there are local problems inside the country that cannot be attributed to outside shocks. Politicians, however, are hesitant to embrace this idea, as they would have to take responsibility for malfunctions. For instance, Viktor Orbán, in all his speeches, seemed very confident in holding European lawmakers, the war in Ukraine, and the market price of gas accountable. He never once mentioned that the excess inflation might be the fault of mistaken economic decisions. This is where the game of trust enters the ring. Do whatever to avoid losing trust because if it happens, the status quo breaks.
Loss of Livelihood
The fourth great fear in Buddhist belief is loss of livelihood. The term, in other words, means losing the standard of life we view as suitable or needed. Although, according to the old religion, this standard should be an utterly low baseline, it can be pasted into modern world scenarios. We are all dreading a shock that would put us down to our last pennies, leading us to a situation of vulnerability. This is what politicians often exploit in their agendas.
It is quite a common communication tool to mention the possibility of declining living standards if, for example, some economic regulation is not pushed through. Donald Trump, in this topic, comes in handy again, as during his presidential campaign in 2016, he vowed to renegotiate or withdraw the NAFTA agreement. Although he did not reach his initial goal in this area, he has gained a significant base of voters, as he broadcasted that the economic policy in hand only worsened the standards of American car manufacturers. In 2018, he also used similar rhetoric while imposing the Steel and Aluminum Tariffs, stating that it increases the standards of living for American steelworkers. In both cases, it is clear that while both of them are controversial, the public can easily support them as they fear the loss of their livelihood. These tools have been used several times in similar cases, such as the Brexit and the TPP debates.
Moreover, it is expected to use newscasts and other media outlets to inform the public about tragedies that happen in some other system. This is a powerful tool for populists to deter voters from changing the status quo. They often suggest that a possible change of regime would be followed by a robust economic downturn resulting in loss of general livelihood. This leaves even economically wrong administrations in place to run the country.
Curiously enough, the fifth and last great fear, according to the teachings of Buddha, is public speaking. Those who suffer from this type of anxiety state that it is at least as severe as any other anxiety episode. It is pretty clear how politics comes into the picture when public speaking is concerned. On an obvious note, politicians battle almost daily on the grounds of speeches. A slight mistake in a sentence can mean a loss of a debate and can lead straight to humiliation. Public speakers can often suffer from mockery and taunting when stating their ideas, which might easily be misinterpreted by the public.
However, the fear of public speaking on a population level is much more serious. Politicians often take advantage of the fact that members of the general public are not as skilled or confident as they are in coming forward with their ideas and complaints. Most of the time, this pressure silences the voice of talented thinkers and makes them try to meet society's expectations. This aspect is to the advantage of all public figures, as they are the only ones leading the rhetoric in this way.
All in all, the parallel between Buddhism's five great fears and the pool of politics offers a fascinating insight into the human psyche and the strategies utilized by politicians to control public opinion. These fears, death, illness, dementia, loss of livelihood, and public speaking, resonate deeply with the human mind, shaping perceptions and influencing voter’s decisions.
In the political arena, these fears become strong tools for persuasion. Politicians, both subtly and openly, exploit these fears to push through their agendas, maintain their power, or deflect attention from their shortcomings. By understanding and tapping into these fears, politicians aim to control narratives, shape public discourse, and rally support. In order for us to be able to fully control our right to vote or our right to free speech, we ought to realize the political tools we face every day. It is a dangerous game when citizens do not educate themselves on the strategies public figures use, as at that point, humans are easy to convince. It is vital to see behind the scenes and not be left out of the information flow.