Watching the Republican presidential candidates’ mind-numbing televised forums all winter long, this question echoed through my mind: How do we get past conjured fear?
I heard it first from a woman at a town hall meeting a while back. She wanted to know how we could stop the awful fearmongering that drives so much of our politics today. I've been trying to come up with an answer ever since.
We better find one, or we might soon wake up to the realization that we have lost our grip on democracy. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, if we give up our freedom in exchange for security, we'll lose both.
Every GOP ad campaign since President George H.W. Bush hired Karl Rove appears designed to scare us into voting Republican. All this talk of what terrorists, “illegals,” gays, Kenyan socialists and agents of big government are plotting is time wasted—time that would be better spent solving real problems.
Electoral fearmongering is a dilemma on many levels. It substitutes raw emotion for careful thought and reduces politics to its lowest common denominator: primitive fright.
Only the dulling influence of repeated terror can explain why so many Americans consistently vote against their own economic interests.
Unfortunately, it’s amazingly effective. Only the dulling influence of repeated terror can explain why so many Americans consistently vote against their own economic interests.
Candidates resort to scare tactics because it's easy. Why bother explaining the nuances of progressive tax rates or educational reforms—which produce citizens who can think for themselves—when you can win just by frightening the bejesus out of the public?
So what can we do about it?
It starts with getting mad. Use that outrage to motivate constructive action. I'm not talking about reactive, blind rage. The critical distinction here is that with ethical anger, we take a step back and pause for a thoughtful analysis of causes and consequences. Then we move decisively toward planned action in concert with other similarly motivated people.
Suppressed anger doesn’t go away. It turns inward and transforms into depression.
Anger has gotten a bad rap. Since it can be noisy and upsetting, some conclude it must be avoided at all costs. But it's a valuable reaction we should learn to cultivate. If we are being manipulated toward becoming fearful, a shot of healthy ire is an effective antidote.
Suppressed anger doesn’t go away. It turns inward and transforms into depression. Mixed with fear, it also opens the door to being manipulated and taken advantage of. Without analysis, that frustration can be misdirected at enemies who actually pose no real threat.
I see a lot of depressed Americans these days, Americans who ought to get mad about the injustices they are experiencing. But they've been told it’s wrong to get mad—especially when the injustices are being meted out by our upper classes, for whom oppression of others is assumed to be a privilege.
That is what seems to be happening with both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements. Their anger over taxes and big government on the one hand, and over social oppression and big business on the other, often appears unfocused. Lacking a thoughtful consideration of the root causes of their frustration and fear, they strike out at a broad range of targets, sometimes contradicting themselves in the process and producing chaos, not reform.
When out of control, anger can be frightening. But it can also be a powerful tool for change. And if the voting public could focus its anger and channel it effectively, scare tactics would stop working and eventually cease.
So the question, “How to we end the politics of fear?” actually becomes, “How do we foster politics of focused anger?”
For starters, we drop the phony incredulity when someone points out the truth: Not only do we really have socioeconomic disparities in this supposedly egalitarian society, but the extremely wealthy have been busily waging class warfare on the rest of us with great success for at least 30 years.
In fact, that class war has gone so well that we are now more stratified than other developed nations, with the gap between our richest and poorest far wider. Worse, we are on the verge of seeing the eradication of our middle class. That’s where the protests of Occupy, the Tea Party and organized labor find common ground.
Realizing this situation we are in ought to make us mad and mobilize us to action. And if that action includes electoral activism, we will put conjured fear out of business.