Television performed a service for American voters the other night by alerting them to a demoralizing factor in the current election campaign. Makers of political ads told of tailoring their products to what they had analyzed as this year's main voter motivation - fear. Examples appear in commercials for candidates of both parties: arousing fear about an opponent's position on the nuclear freeze, addressing fear about one's own position on social security.
Voters ought to be wary of the appeal to fear in whatever guise. Politics is politics. Campaigners have always tried to identify what will sell, whether through today's motivation research or yesterday's feel for the public. But one way to judge politicians is according to the motives they choose to play upon.
In the hierarchy of election pitches, candidates define themselves by whether they call to patriotism or jingoism, to generosity or greed, to brotherhood or hate. When they call to fear instead of courage they reinforce the very element that can thwart the action necessary to get rid of it. This root characteristic of fear has been seen all the way from the biblical prophets to philosopher Thoreau in his cabin, to politician Franklin Roosevelt on his inaugural platform , to novelist Alan Paton in his beloved, riven South Africa.
Thus this fall's candidates and their packagers bear a heavy burden if and when they deliberately set out to exploit the fear factor. Campaigner Reagan might have a politician's diversionary reasons for suggesting that unemployment may not be America's worst problem, as people say it is in polls, but ''our No. 1 problem may be fear.'' In any case the warning could be useful if it nudges citizens into examining themselves both at and away from the ballot box.
Are they voting out of fear aggravated by those deplorable negative campaigns aimed at tearing down one candidate instead of persuading voters why to go for another?
Are they reaching decisions in their own lives based on fear rather than realistic assessment of situations and vigorous response to them?
America's next years depend on the multiplicity of choices pursued by individual Americans. These spell the difference between recovery and decline, between security and danger, harmony and strife. They are too important to be frozen by fear.