If it’s October, that must mean it’s time for me to talk about fear again. Not goblins and ghouls or other Halloween-y things, but about those things so many of us share on social media and elsewhere.
And I really hate talking about politics. Why do you think I prefer to think of it along the lines of sociological study?
However, it seems politics is the biggest source of fear nowadays. Both major parties are masters at it, but one appears to base its entire being on it now. Where once it was the party of small government (unless it involves a uterus) and fiscal responsibility, it’s now given over to fear: fear of “the other” (which encompasses migrants, minorities, independent women, other faiths, etc.), of losing, of consequences and so many other things.
I sincerely doubt the late U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt would be proud of what his party has become, with conspiracy theories, rejection of expertise and outright meanness taking hold. For that matter, the late Sen. Dale Bumpers probably wouldn’t be all that proud of his party either, and its pandering to its progressive wing to the point of endangering larger policy priorities that a clear majority of Americans support (infrastructure, universal background checks, keeping abortion safe and legal with reasonable restrictions, etc.).
Both parties have allowed small but vocal extremist segments to dictate policy, leaving moderates and independents (the bulk of the electorate) to wonder who’s working for them. What seems more important to some in elected office is revenge and ensuring that the other guys don’t succeed. This is why I hate politics, and it’s why I’m an independent.
Cartoonist Matt Wuerker of Politico released a cartoon last week that summed up a lot of this, depicting the “GOP House of Frights” and assorted decorations labeled, among others, “Immigrants,” Killer vaccines and masks,” “RIP The American Way,” “Critical Race Theory,” and of course, the old bugbear, “Socialism.” One of the two kids looking on says, “They’ve been doing this for years, but this is getting ridiculous.”
Well, yeah. I’m just shocked “Sharia law” didn’t show up.
Socialism is probably the biggest scare tactic, and is the talking point that annoys me the most, because it betrays a misunderstanding of political and economic systems.
Like most nations, our system is a hybrid. It isn’t pure, laissez-faire, capitalism, in which the marketplace operates without controls, or pure socialism, where all legal production and distribution decisions are made by the government, according to Investopedia. We use a mixed-market system, which leaves part up to the free market, and part to the government.
Why, you ask? Well, there’s the fact that it’s less expensive and more efficient to leave things like road-building to government, using pooled money from taxes (that’s why you pay them). If we left it up to individuals or private businesses, most of us in the South would probably still be driving on gravel roads if we could even afford a car.
And we place regulations on businesses to rein in unfair and dangerous practices and make it more fair for competitors to do business; to protect workers, consumers and the environment; and to try to keep prices somewhat reasonable. Those regulations may be ones that ensure that technology that works in one country work in another, or that you can buy replacement parts for your vehicle from someone other than the manufacturer, or they may be ones that protect workers from being forced to work in unsafe conditions (you can thank labor unions for some of them, like the 40-hour work week). Some are pointless and unnecessary, yes, but a regulatory free-for-all is dangerous for all.
But sure, keep hammering away on regulations and pooling money for the greater good being bad. Oh, and be sure to mention the whole “Nazis are socialists” thing; I need some entertainment. Nazis were on the right, socialists on the left. Just because “socialist” was in the name doesn’t mean that’s what they were, any more than the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) is democratic; Nazis hated socialists and communists and anyone else who didn’t agree with them.
And then there’s the latest talking point of the FBI being sicced on parents who speak out at school board meetings. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo directs the bureau to meet with U.S. attorneys and state, tribal and local law enforcement authorities to come up with strategies to deal with the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools.”
The memo makes clear that threats are the focus:
“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views. Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”“PARTNERSHIP AMONG FEDERAL, STATE, LOCAL, TRIBAL, AND TERRITORIAL LAW ENFORCEMENT TO ADDRESS THREATS AGAINST SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS, BOARD MEMBERS, TEACHERS, AND STAFF,” Office of the Attorney General memo, Oct. 4, 2021.
The FBI’s involvement is mostly helping local law enforcement develop strategies to deal with them and opening communication lines for threat reporting if needed:
“I am directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with each United States Attorney, to convene meetings with federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial leaders in each federal judicial district within 30 days of the issuance of this memorandum. These meetings will facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response.”“PARTNERSHIP AMONG FEDERAL, STATE, LOCAL, TRIBAL, AND TERRITORIAL LAW ENFORCEMENT TO ADDRESS
THREATS AGAINST SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS, BOARD MEMBERS, TEACHERS, AND STAFF,” Office of the Attorney General memo, Oct. 4, 2021.
You can learn a lot by reading the actual source material without a hyperpartisan dolt’s re-interpretation.
Nowhere in the memo does it say that the FBI will investigate and persecute parents who simply voice their disagreement with a policy (though if they make threats, local law enforcement will investigate; if it rises to the level of a federal crime, only then would the FBI investigate). Much of the misinformation can be attributed to a conflation with the Garland memo of a letter sent to President Biden days before the memo by the National School Boards Association that referred to some incidents as “domestic terrorism” (death threats and threats of violence are happening, but this is hyperbole).
Talking points based in fear are used because they work. Dolores Albarracin, professor of psychology, business, and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, found in a meta-analysis that “messages with fear are nearly twice as effective as messages without fear,” according to an October 2020 article by Kirk Waldroff on the American Psychological Association website.
Steve Almond wrote on WBUR, in reference to Donald Trump’s inaugural speech, “Trump was doing little more than channeling the fear-mongering narrative that has become the animating force of the Republican Party. For decades, the loudest voices on the right have been honing what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed — back in 1964 — ‘the paranoid style in American politics’.” Almond states, “At this point, the Republican Party’s national policy goals — deregulation and tax cuts for its corporate donors, basically — have given way to a kind of primal clamor in which the only real goal is to convince voters that they are under siege.”
I’ve mentioned Hofstadter myself several times, and that essay in Harper’s Magazine, which was based on a lecture he gave at Oxford in November 1963:
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. …
“[T]he idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good.”“The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” by Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964.
Of course politicians are going to capitalize on something they believe you should fear, like gay or trans people or a legal theory not taught in K-12 but that makes a good boogeyman that you can make bigger and scarier by labeling whatever offends you as critical race theory. (Seriously, teaching about race riots, the Trail of Tears, Little Rock in 1957, etc., is not critical race theory; it’s history, and should be taught along with everything else.) “A large part of politics is getting people to think about things as part of a group,” Christopher Federico, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, told Waldroff.
If they can convince people as a group to fear another party’s candidate or that that candidate’s people are planning to rig the election (or did rig it), they can get them to do just about anything.
Like, maybe … oh, I dunno … try to overthrow the fairly elected government. Not that that would ever happen here. (Good Lord do we need a sarcasm font.)
Waldroff’s article notes that the best way to avoid being manipulated through fear is to understand the emotion. “Fear induces withdrawal, stepping back, being cautious,” says Federico. “Fear and anxiety get us to stop and re-assess. But often when we re-assess because of fear, we tend to seek out information that reinforces the idea that a threat exists—which is not necessarily the most accurate or objective information.”
Colin Powell, who just passed away, had some good advice on fear and other matters, as noted by CNBC in a piece remembering the 13 rules Powell said he lived by in his book “It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership.” His 12th rule, “Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers,” spelled it out: “Every leader needs to learn and understand their fears to make good decisions. If you don’t, your fears will control you in challenging times, Powell wrote. ‘Fear is a normal human emotion. It is not in itself a killer,’ he explained. ‘We can learn to be aware when fear grips us, and can train to operate through and in spite of our fear.’
“As for naysayers, Powell wrote, they’re more often wrong than right. Of course, sometimes they’re correct — so they’re worth listening to, but only in small doses. Use them as ‘one line’ in your decision-making calculus, he advised. ‘Listen to everyone you need to, and then go with your fearless instinct,’ he wrote.”
When it comes to politics, you have to remember that there’s a strategy involved in making sure you are fearful of the person who doesn’t share your views on an issue. Why address the real issues and admit that we agree more often than we disagree when you can make others fear a monolithic terror creeping across the land?
Fear is easy. Being responsible and honest … it’s a bit harder, but it’s worth it … if nothing else, to your peace of mind.