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How apocalyptic language in politics messes with our morals

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.


What was the impetus for this book?


I arrived in the United States at the height of the “War on Terror.” The political rhetoric was apocalyptic: Biblical tropes of scourge and salvation were everywhere. In his second inaugural address of 2005, President George W. Bush had called the terrorist attacks of September 11 a “day of fire”—yet, he assured Americans, redemption was on the horizon. “The untamed fire of freedom” would reach even “the darkest corners of the world.”

I became curious what the great canonical thinkers had made of apocalyptic politics, and chose three who wrote when many people expected the imminent demise of the known world: Niccolò Machiavelli, the great Renaissance theorist; Thomas Hobbes, an extraordinary philosopher of the 17th century; and the influential postwar political scientist Hans Morgenthau. Did these thinkers take the apocalyptic mindset seriously? Did they share it? Did they worry about it?


Why Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Morgenthau? Although they are all political realists, they lived in vastly different times.


All of these thinkers wrote during times in which powerful political actors were announcing the end of the world.

In Machiavelli’s Florence, the formidable friar Girolamo Savonarola was warning of scourge and tribulation: “God’s dagger will strike,” Savonarola prophesied, “and soon.” During England’s bloody civil war, many Royalists and Parliamentarians saw themselves as waging the battles of the end times. And at the dawn of the nuclear age, a great many of Morgenthau’s contemporaries feared the new “push-button apocalypse.”

Realists see politics as a realm governed by power and interest, rather than by ideologies. Ideologies are at most window dressing for power. So, you might expect that canonical realists like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Morgenthau would just dismiss apocalyptic rhetoric. But they don’t. They engage with it. They criticize it. They use it for their own ends. Sometimes, they are even seduced by it.


Even though we live in more secular times than Machiavelli and Hobbes in particular, you suggest that today’s apocalyptic rhetoric still employs biblical themes. Why do religious images persist, even if the source of the so-called apocalypse is human, like nuclear war or climate change?


The images of the biblical apocalypse—the four horsemen, plagues of locusts, rivers of blood, gigantic earthquakes—are deeply evocative. As a 10th-century biblical illuminator said, the Book of Revelation is full of “picture-making words.”

These images have stayed with us because their power can always be inflected with the particular terrors of the day. The plagues of locusts, which for early Christians would have recalled God’s punishment of Egypt in the book of Exodus, have now become the allegory for the effects of climate change.


In a 2016 piece on the Foreign Affairs website—a piece that the editors considered one of the best articles of the year—you wrote that Donald Trump isn’t the first American politician to invoke apocalyptic images to get elected and that apocalyptic rhetoric has been part of mainstream US political history. Who have the other American political doomsayers been, and how did they use the end of the world to achieve their goals?


The United States has a rich tradition of apocalypticism. Many of the Puritans who came to America thought they were escaping the wars of the last days in England and establishing the New Jerusalem foretold in the Book of Revelation.

Two centuries later, as the Civil War loomed, Abraham Lincoln cast the battle against slavery in apocalyptic terms. God, Lincoln said, could no longer put up with slavery: “And now the cup of iniquity is full, and the vials of wrath will be poured out.”

In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt drew from the same stock of apocalyptic tropes to rally his supporters. The night before the Republican National Convention, Roosevelt excited his crowd by announcing, “We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”

More recently, George W. Bush’s framing of 9/11 and the War on Terror had apocalyptic elements. But the willingness to invoke doomsday is bipartisan. Former Vice President Al Gore often conjures visions of the end times in his climate change activism. Gore has repeatedly said that contemporary climate catastrophes—floods, droughts, and storms of biblical proportions—are “like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.”


Were you suggesting in Foreign Affairs that today’s political rhetoric has similar roots to the rhetoric during the times in which Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Morgenthau lived?


Apocalyptic rhetoric fills a need in troubled times. In Machiavelli’s day, Florentines wanted to understand why their city was so vulnerable and unstable. In Hobbes’s time, English subjects wanted to understand the bloody and brutal civil war that was tearing their country apart. Morgenthau, like many Americans, wanted to understand the novel existential threat of nuclear weapons.

We have a need to understand events like wars, natural disasters, economic collapse, and looming nuclear conflagration. The causes of these things are complex. Apocalyptic rhetoric makes them easier to understand. And if that rhetoric incorporates an element of redemption, it can be quite comforting.

It tells us: “These terrible things that are happening to you are not random or meaningless. They’re the necessary prelude to a new and better world in which goodness will be rewarded and evil vanquished.” That is a powerful and seductive narrative in any era.


What can the study of apocalyptic rhetoric through Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Morgenthau tell us today about evaluating political arguments that suggest the end of the world is at hand?


My book shows both the promise and the dangers of apocalyptic rhetoric. At its best, this rhetoric can rouse people to action. Hans Morgenthau tried to use it to get Americans to confront the danger of thermonuclear war. And right now, the world faces a huge existential threat—climate change. As any climate change activist will tell you, they need ways to motivate people to respond to this threat.

So, it’s tempting to use apocalyptic language to stir people to act. Many of the most prominent climate change activists have done just that. But my book also shows why this is a risky strategy.

What these realists teach us is that apocalyptic rhetoric creates a false sense of moral clarity. A doomsday mindset casts political conflicts as battles between “good” and “evil,” “us” and “them,” and “salvation” and “destruction.”

Once we see ourselves as engaged in an ultimate battle against evil, we are often more willing to use terrible means—war, torture, genocide, nuclear annihilation—to achieve our ends. Historically, this kind of cosmic worldview fueled the medieval pogroms and the European wars of religion. Today, it is the worldview of groups like ISIS.

The realist alternative is to take a tragic view of the world—to recognize that settled solutions to our deepest disagreements are rare and fragile. A tragic worldview recognizes the twin dangers of hubristic certainty and passive resignation. The realists teach us that we must return again and again to the difficult work of politics—and that we must do so, even when our success can never be guaranteed.

Source: Kate Chelsey for Stanford University

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