Barry Glassner. The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Basic Books 1999.
From the introduction, p. xxvi:
Mary Douglas, The eminent anthropologist who devoted much of her career to studying how people interpret risk, pointed out that every society has an almost infinite quantity of potential dangers from which to choose. Dangers get selected for special emphasis, Douglas showed, either because they offend the basic moral principles of the society or because they enable criticism of disliked groups and institutions.
The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.
Could it be that the craziness of American politics for the past two decades reflects residual awareness of and anxiety about DEEP TROUBLE AHEAD that is being deflected onto other things: crime, minorities, death panels, immigrants, welfare moms and so forth.
Even concerns about real dangers, when blown out of proportion, do demonstrable harm. Take the fear of cancer. Many Americans over-estimate the prevalence of the disease, underestimate the odds of surviving it, and put themselves at greater risk as result. Women in their forties believe that have a 1 in 10 chance of dying from breast cancer, a Dartmouth study found. Their real lifetime odds are more like 1 in 250. Women’s heightened perception of risk, rather than motivating them to get checkups or seek treatment, can have the opposite effect. A study of daughters of women with breast cancer found an inverse correlation between fear and prevention: the greater a daughter’s fear of the disease the less frequent her breast self-examination.
One of the paradoxes of a culture of fear is that serious problems remain widely ignored even though they give rise to precisely the dangers that the populace most abhors. Poverty, for example, correlates strongly witih child abuse, crime, and drug abuse. Income inequality is also associated with adverse outcomes for society as a whole. The larger the gap between rich and poor in a society, the higher its overall death rates from heart disease, cancer, and murder.
And the longer we wait to deal with environmental and energy issues, the more intractable and desperate they’ll become.