Fear: The History of a Political Idea

In This Review

Fear: The History of a Political Idea

By Corey Robin
Oxford University Press, 2004
336 pp. $28.00
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This talented young political scientist examines fear as a "political tool, an instrument of elite rule or insurgent advance, created and sustained by political leaders or activists who stand to gain something from it, either because fear helps them pursue a specific political goal, or because it reflects or lends support to their moral and political beliefs-or both." He examines the role of fear in the work of thinkers from Hobbes and Montesquieu to Tocqueville and Arendt, warning us throughout against the limitations of liberalism in combating it. The last part of the book turns to "fear, American style"-how "a little bit of coercion" can "produce a great deal of fear." Both during the Cold War and after September 11, 2001, elites organized coalitions of fear with the help of collaborators.

In all, this book is a thoughtful, often brilliant, radical polemic against the insufficiencies and pitfalls of liberalism. And yet, in his very brief conclusion, it is to "the egalitarian and libertarian principles of Rawls and Dworkin and to the emancipatory strains of American liberalism more generally" that Robin appeals, despite doubts about their viability. Let us hope that in his next work he will try to construct a defense against political fear as spirited as this provocative and discouraging dissection of its multiple forms.