Since 1692, when three girls suffering from seizures in Salem, Massachusetts sparked a witch hunt, Americans have fallen victim to political panics. Unsubstantiated “facts” and absolutist language have combined to produce some of the country’s lowest historic moments –- from slavery to the treatment of Muslims following 9/11. Kojo joins author Mark Stein to explore the roots of political panic, why it continues to occur, and how you can stay calm amid a politically-fueled firestorm.


  • Mark Stein Author, "American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why" and "How the States Got Their Shapes"

Read A Featured Excerpt

From American Panic by Mark Stein. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of PALGRAVE MACMILLAN in the United States, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

American Panic


  • 12:32:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom the Salem witch hunt in the 1600s to the communist scare of the 1950s Americans have fallen victim to political panic since our earliest days, often with deadly consequences. We've seen it in the treatment of many Muslims following 9/11 and in the bombings of abortion clinics. In Washington our penchant for panic can be felt in the heated rhetoric that's led to deadlock on Capitol Hill. But what is it that elevates worry to these extremes? How does alarm lead to panic that can vilify entire populations?

  • 12:33:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey're sensitive questions with sensible answers that cross personal, political and religious lines. So what are the roots of political panic and how can you stay calm amid a politically fueled firestorm? Joining us in studio is Mark Stein. He is the author of the book "American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why." He's also the author of "How the States Got Their Shapes." Mark Stein, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:33:42

    MR. MARK STEINWell, thank you for having me.

  • 12:33:43

    NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or shoot us an email to What world and political events have alarmed you, maybe even panicked you, 800-433-8850? Mark, I think this is a subject many of us have given some thought to, especially in this overheated politically divisive time that we live in. But it's a tricky topic because you're getting at the heart of how and why people respond to polarizing issues. Why did you decide to tackle this topic for a book and how did you go about it?

  • 12:34:17

    STEINWell, like so many people, I was very taken by all the rage that I would hear being expressed on any number of issues. But I had a sense that this is not new, this kind of rage, and wondered to what extent are there recurring elements, rhetorical elements, sometimes graphic elements, say political cartoons, that go between one panic and another. And overtime how much are we seeing the same underlying elements recur? And if they do recur, do they tell us anything about why some people get panicked and others don't? Though they may be alarmed, they don't get panicked.

  • 12:34:59

    NNAMDIWhat's the difference between political concern, political alarm and political panic? When does one cross the line into the other?

  • 12:35:07

    STEINRight. And, you know, I don't know that there's a bright shining line so a lot of my book talks about portals to panic or panic-inducing statements. But the point at which one can, I think, say quite clearly that is panicked is when one says or does that which one fears. During the Cold War, for instance, out of fear that communists might, if they take over in this country, create this kind of Stalin-istic government with these kind of kangaroo courts that were going on in the Soviet Union. Out of that fear the House and American Activities Committee or in the Senate -- Senator Joe McCarthy's committee in effect established kangaroo courts. They did that which they feared.

  • 12:35:54

    STEINAnd just real quickly to jump all the way to the other side of the timeline, during the Salem witch hunts in...

  • 12:36:00

    NNAMDIWe're going to get to that.

  • 12:36:00

    STEINYeah, in 1692 when there was fear that witchcraft was afoot in Salem, Mass., one person in the town, one townswoman created something called a witch's cake. It's a particular kind of cake, which was believed that if it is fed to a dog, that the possessed person would spit out the name of the witch that possessed that person. So in other words, that person engaged in witchcraft, in effect, or sorcery to fight sorcery...

  • 12:36:30

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you know someone who's taken a hard stance on an issue despite hard evidence to the contrary, 800-433-8850? You can also go to our website, ask a question, make a comment or read an excerpt of Mark's book. It's called "American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why." You can read an excerpt at our website What are the common hallmarks that come with most forms of political panic?

  • 12:36:59

    STEINThe common elements.

  • 12:37:01

    NNAMDIYeah, common elements.

  • 12:37:01

    STEINYeah, one of them, in a sense no surprise, is the use of absolutes that all people in a certain group think or act alike. And I imagine listeners can easily, you know, find examples of that. But sometimes absolutes are actually sort of tricky. For instance, very, very frequently in American political panics -- and this is across the political spectrum, this isn't the province of the left or the right -- you will hear references to the founding fathers. The founding fathers viewed this or viewed that. This was their vision.

  • 12:37:35

    STEINThat is, in effect, an absolute. And the absolute that's entailed in that, embedded in that is that the founding fathers thought and viewed things alike. To my knowledge the only thing they agreed upon was that the colony should no longer be part of Great Britain. After that I don't think they agreed on anything.

  • 12:37:52

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned the founding fathers. Is there, if you will, a language of panic? Are there certain words like the founding fathers that signify that someone is in a panicked-like state?

  • 12:38:06

    STEINI don't know that there's a specific language in the sense of particular words. But along with words that are functioning as absolutes, there's a language that uses things such as what I call blanks to be filled in. So for instance, the homosexual agenda, the feminist agenda, that is a blank to be filled in because one cannot help but interpret that phrase without one's own fears and needs participating in one's understanding of it...

  • 12:38:42

    NNAMDIEvery time I hear the phrase I think of conspiracy...

  • 12:38:44

    STEINSure, sure.

  • 12:38:45

    NNAMDI...that can cause somebody to panic.

  • 12:38:47


  • 12:38:47

    NNAMDIYou think that someone is indulging in a conspiracy against you. Before I go to the phones, the Salem witch trials, which you mentioned, are of course one of the earliest examples of political panic in this country. But you say that one of the most enduring panics is over African Americans. You actually trace the origin of the fear of black people. Where does it come from?

  • 12:39:08

    STEINWell, it predates the arrival of Europeans to this country. But where I start picking it up is with the slave trade. And with -- but the point people would point to -- I don't know if this is really what caused their panic but what they would point to were three lines in Genesis having to do with Noah's sons and the son Ham who saw his father's nakedness. And the Bible says that he would be a slave. People then started saying, well then, these Africans must be the descendants of Ham.

  • 12:39:51

    NNAMDIMy mother told that to me as a child. She said, you know what people say about us is that we're the descendants of Ham. And I'm like, who's Ham? I thought Ham was something we ate during holidays?

  • 12:40:02

    STEINYeah, it's extraordinary.

  • 12:40:02

    NNAMDII didn't know at the time.

  • 12:40:03

    STEINAbsolutely extraordinarily. And that, although I find that all the way back in the 1600s, you will find it again right in the 1950s and '60s still be used by segregationists in the South, making references to the Bible and to God's intention that racial groups should be living in certain parts of the world and not in others.

  • 12:40:25

    STEINAnd then sort of overlooking the fact that black people live in this part of the world because they were enslaved and brought here, which, sort of by their own argument, would go against the word of God. But you'd have to buy the word-of-God argument to make that case.

  • 12:40:40

    NNAMDIYeah, actually it turned out to be one of the theological rationales for slavery, for those people who supported it.

  • 12:40:43

    STEINYes, very much.

  • 12:40:45

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is John, in Fairfax, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, I'm sorry, John. That's my fault. You're now on the air, John. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:56

    JOHNHow are you doing, Kojo? So my question here is how do you differentiate between the general sense of the pessimistic prejudice of the human condition and the truest sense of panic?

  • 12:41:10

    NNAMDIIf someone just has, in your view, what is a pessimistic approach towards the human condition generally?

  • 12:41:19

    JOHNWell, no. It's more that a -- as a result of the human condition and the fear of the unknown that we create these kinds of prejudices. And in my view that is a very pessimistic or negative kind of view of reality. And it seems that that is often confused with panic towards, you know, a specific ideology or any kind of cultural difference that we see.

  • 12:41:53

    NNAMDISeems to me that there's a qualitative difference between pessimism and panic, though.

  • 12:41:58

    STEINYeah, I think so. That's actually a good question, John. I think to the extent that one's pessimism is fed by unverified claims or by thoughts that entail absolutes and any number of these other sort of recurring elements, but in effect elements that are not -- that are more psychological than logical, if you can make that distinction, I would say to that extent pessimism then yields into the realm of panic.

  • 12:42:36

    STEINThere are things about which I'm pessimistic -- Arab/Israeli peace in the next 15 years, personally pessimistic. Am I -- I don't think I'm panicked because that's not followed within that -- therefore will be the end of this or that. So I think there's -- I think it's a quantitative and qualitative thing that kind of distinguishes pessimism from panic.

  • 12:43:04

    NNAMDIBut it is possible to take that kind of pessimism over whether or not there's going to be a solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict over the next 15 years -- is it possible to take that kind of pessimism into the realm of panic, if you will?

  • 12:43:18

    STEINYes. For instance, if one were to say, there will not be a resolution of that in the next 10 or 15 years…

  • 12:43:26

    NNAMDITherefore, one side should eliminate the other.

  • 12:43:28

    STEINCertainly that. Or if the reason there won't be is because the Jews control the world and therefore this or if one says Arab oil is driving this and therefore that, now we're starting to move toward realms of panic with absolutes and unverified claims.

  • 12:43:43

    NNAMDIGeorge, thank you, I mean, thank you very much for your call, John. We move on now to George, in Arlington, Va. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:54

    GEORGESpeaking of pessimism, I wanted to bring that up about the -- before you get to panic -- about the default condition of the human nature. Is there a difference between gullibility or naivety and panic? Look at all the people that freaked out at George Orwell's "War of the Worlds." You know, they just, you know, people will believe -- if someone came in tomorrow and said they were from outer space, half the people would believe that. I just wanted to know what your comment on the human hunger to believe versus the panic?

  • 12:44:35

    STEINRight. I think a kind of overarching explanation is that what people need is useful information. And so the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, where people -- I think it was in the 1930s or '40s…

  • 12:44:54


  • 12:44:54

    STEIN…who tuned in late and didn't realize that this was a dramatization of H. G. Wells' novel and actually thought there were Martians landing, they were hearing it on the radio and there was good reason to think the radio was a good source of true information. But it created a rumor, but it also dissipated pretty quickly because, in fact, it was unverified and deemed false. We can be gullible to the extent that, if you will, that we take a piece of information and consider it as true.

  • 12:45:31

    STEINBut, you know, depending on the source of it, depending on whether or not verification comes down, then that's where you start to split off those who are panicked from those who are momentarily gullible, if you will, or susceptible to something that they might hear on the sidewalk or read in Twitter tweet or that kind of thing, where it tends to be a little bit of femoral, that fear.

  • 12:45:56

    NNAMDIGeorge, thank you for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we continue our conversation with Mark Stein. He is the author of, "American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why." He's also author of, "How the States Got Their Shapes." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think social media helps fuel political panic? Do you tend to evaluate information based on data and hard evidence or just go with your gut feelings? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:48:04

    NNAMDIOur guest is Mark Stein. We are discussing his book, "American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why." and inviting your phone calls at 800-433-8850. Mark, you point to the controversy over gay Boy Scout leaders as one of the current examples of modern panic. Over the years the Boy Scouts has made the connection between gay scout leaders and pedophilia to justify the ban. Of course that claim has never been supported by data. How has modern research served to temper the panic over the supposed dangers of gay scout leaders?

  • 12:48:39

    STEINI'm not sure that -- well, I…

  • 12:48:42

    NNAMDIYou're not sure the panic is over?

  • 12:48:43

    STEINYeah, well, I'm not sure that the data has gotten to the public on that issue. But -- and it's hard to prove a negative. In other words, where would the panic be, were it not for what data is out there? But interestingly, often data, statistics are used to fuel panic. There were studies that began in the mid-19th century and right up until the 1960s, very similar in this country, where data was used to correlate various social evils and lifestyle problems by ethnic group and race and again and again and again would say that African Americans correlated more highly.

  • 12:49:26

    STEINAnd the -- what's so particular about panic about that is two things. First of all, that in Statistics 101 everyone is taught that correlation does not imply causation. It's an incredible fact that 99 percent of all murders drank milk as children, but that didn't cause them to commit murder. But here's the thing, correlation does not imply causation, but it does cause assumption. We don't think of it as correlation. We may think of it as life experiences, but based on things we've read, things we hear, our life experiences, we make assumptions.

  • 12:50:02

    STEINSome of those are absolutely fundamental to all our behavior. If we didn't make assumptions we'd walk down the street the same way cross the creek on wet rocks, but that's a very benign assumption. In many other cases, we'll make assumptions based on any number of correlations in our head that are not nearly so benign. And statistics are used again and again by alarmists to create assumptions using this misnomer, that correlation implies causation.

  • 12:50:32

    NNAMDIHere is Leslie, in Bethesda, Md. Leslie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:38

    LESLIEHi. I wanted to know if you're familiar with Dr. Frances Cress Welsing's theory of white supremacy and that being the root of all this fear and panic towards people of color, color thereby genetically annihilating or genetically causing the disappearance of people of non-color. (unintelligible).

  • 12:51:01

    NNAMDIWell, I am familiar with Frances Cress Welsing's theory, but I think if you talk about white supremacy in general that Mark Stein would be able to respond more specifically to the question. Do you think there's a relationship between notions of white supremacy and fear or panic when it comes to African Americans?

  • 12:51:21

    STEINOh, yes. And, you know, it just jumps off the page, particularly in the 19th century. Today, white supremacists are considered wing nuts in our society. But in the 19th century, that was mainstream -- that was among the mainstream views in science. You would see the phrase, race suicide, in respect to intermarriage and things like that. And no one -- none of these writers -- by the way, and they were not wing nuts.

  • 12:51:54

    STEINSome of these were scholars who were writing these books that argued, through the use of statistics, such as I just said, this one 19th century -- two 19th century studies, that the data will show you that whites are the supreme race by correlations, which they claimed implied causation.

  • 12:52:14

    NNAMDIIndeed. There's a recent book out, the name of which now escapes me, in which the author is arguing that you can find genetic reasons for why some cultures in the world advance and some cultures don't. So those arguments, it would appear, never go away. People like Frances Cress Welsing would argue that those arguments are based in notions of white supremacy. Is political panic more intense or frequent during times of war or national or economic hardship?

  • 12:52:40

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Raymond, who says, "Is there any correlation between panic and the polarization of Congress, i.e. creating an increasingly alarming panic feedback loop?" Whatever that means.

  • 12:52:52

    STEINWell, one of the things that I wasn't expecting when I began researching this book was that while I did expect to see panic in times of let's say national difficulties, so economic or war, things like that. But what I didn't expect to see was how many panics have resulted from national success of one type or another, whereby we fear losing that success?

  • 12:53:16

    STEINThere was tremendous panic after the revolution. A great national success that, oh, what if a lot of Catholics start coming to this country? And then on the assumption that all Catholics think and act alike, we could come under -- the pope would be running the country. Five of the first 13 states prohibited anyone but a Protestant from holding elective office. After the Louisiana Purchase, again, tremendous fear of both Catholics, and in that case, Mormons, that they might take over this new land as we start migrating into it.

  • 12:53:48

    STEINAnd in regard to the gridlock on Congress today, I'm a little more hesitant about this because things, as they break, are a little hard to get a perspective on, but it could well be that one of the factors that is underlying some of this -- and they're -- not the main factor. There are a lot of factors -- is we have just in this recent era had another great national success, if you will, with the fall of the Soviet Union. There is no other super power. And yet, somehow, in the wake of that, a great deal of panic has filtered into American politics at a time that one might think we'd be pretty chill.

  • 12:54:26

    NNAMDIYou keep increasing the defense budget, is that…

  • 12:54:28


  • 12:54:29

    NNAMDIIs that the result of our ongoing panic?

  • 12:54:32

    STEINYou know, it's too soon to know, but, yeah, one wonders.

  • 12:54:36

    NNAMDIMany of us may not know it, but in the 19th century there was a huge political panic in the West over the Chinese.

  • 12:54:43


  • 12:54:43

    NNAMDICan you tell us about that?

  • 12:54:44

    STEINYeah, when the gold was discovered in California and we have the gold rush, it wasn't just Americans rushing out there, but people from many countries and in particular people from China. Initially men came, not as coolie labor the first wave, but as miners and would set up mining camps. And there'd be periodically these ethnic cleansing or pogroms, you might say, from one American camp, if they thought the Chinese were onto some gold, they could go over and there were these attacks.

  • 12:55:18

    STEINAlso Chinese, in the way that we export our industry today, to places like China, big corporations like the railroads would import Chinese labor to undercut the price of American labor, the coolie labor. So there was tremendous panic, a tremendous panic about Chinese. It was so bad that in California, which is where most of this was initially centered, it was against the law, not only for a black man to testify against a white man in a court of law, which existed in a lot of states, but also for a Chinese to testify against a white man.

  • 12:55:53

    STEINAnd the result of that was that on several occasions whites would just blow some Chinese guy away in front of his friends and could not be charged because no one could testify who witnessed it.

  • 12:56:04

    NNAMDIHere is Becky, in Dover, Del. Becky, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:10

    BECKYHi. I would just like to kind of flip it a little bit and ask why people do not panic about things that have qualitative and quantitative evidence, such as the environmental issues and the impact that that could have. And that's not something that's causing panic and it should cause panic versus things that are causing panic that are only based on thoughts and feelings and not evidence, such as, you know, the implementation of Common Core.

  • 12:56:37

    STEINYes. Becky, that's a good question. And I think, at the risk of sounding a little technical here, that things like global warming or other environmental dangers, where there is in fact a pretty good verifiable fact that these things are happening, that would not be panic. I hope you're not asking for panic, because, in fact, there's good reason.

  • 12:56:59

    STEINI guess really then, just to rephrase what I think you're asking, is why is there not as much alarm and as much passion as one senses there is in regard to some of these areas where there isn't verifiable facts? And I'm not sure I can really answer that because there's no way to really sort of measure the intensity of (unintelligible).

  • 12:57:23

    NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, but you wrote in the Huffington Post about the use of the word Nazi, which seems to be a trigger word for inciting panic around a person or an issue.

  • 12:57:32

    STEINYeah, yeah, that's, of course, a very hot, hot button issue. And I…

  • 12:57:36

    NNAMDIAnd it's used both on the left and the right.

  • 12:57:38

    STEINYes, yes. And often -- almost always, actually, when you asked earlier, "Are there certain words," I would say virtually anytime you hear the word Nazi you're getting into the -- a panic-inducing phrase.

  • 12:57:50

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Mark Stein is author of "American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why." He's also the author of, "How the States Got Their Shapes." Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:58:00

    STEINThank you for having me.

  • 12:58:01

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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