While evoking the apocalypse can let politicians rouse people to action, it’s a risky strategy in political language because it can create false moral clarity, argues political scientist Alison McQueen.
“Apocalyptic rhetoric fills a need in troubled times.”
McQueen says that apocalyptic language can comfort people during crises, making wars or economically troubled times, for instance, easier to understand, though that comfort comes with costs. McQueen’s research suggests that when people see themselves as engaged in a classic “good vs. evil” struggle, they are more likely to justify the use of terrible means, including war, torture, genocide, and nuclear annihilation, to achieve desired ends.
In her new book, Political Realism in Apocalyptic Times (Cambridge University Press, 2017), McQueen focuses on the works of political realists who lived during times of heightened tensions: Renaissance political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli; Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English political philosopher; and Hans Morgenthau, a 20th-century international relations theorist.
As realists who perceived politics through power and interest rather than ideology, each criticized apocalyptic rhetoric. But each also embraced it to some extent. The study of political realists reminds us, McQueen believes, that true political change is hard work.
In the following interview, McQueen talks about her new book and about the United States’ history of apocalyptic rhetoric in politics, ranging from the Puritans, who invoked the apocalypse in fleeing England, to former Vice President Al Gore, who used biblical allusions in describing the effects of climate change.
Source: Kate Chelsey for Stanford University