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Playing the politics of fear
By Cathy Young | November 13, 2006
AS SOMEONE who has voted Republican more often than Democratic,
I knew I wanted the Republicans to take a beating at the polls when
I saw an ad best summed up as "Vote Republican or die in a nuclear
conflagration." After showing quotes from Al Qaeda terrorists about
seeking nuclear weapons to the accompaniment of a ticking timer,
the ad proclaimed, "These are the stakes. Vote November 7th."
Scare tactics are nothing new in politics. That ad, put out by the
Republican National Committee, echoes one of the most ignoble political
attacks in US history, run against a conservative Republican in 1964:
The ad that showed a girl picking petals off a daisy in a countdown
to a nuclear explosion, with the implication that the hawkish Barry
Goldwater would unleash nuclear war. In more recent campaigns, politicians
right and left have appealed to fear of crime and fear of Social
Security reform that would supposedly rob old people blind.
In the 2006 elections, the Republicans' tactics have been especially
blatant. Besides the nuclear terrorism ad, there was the one from
the conservative group Citizens United: A dramatized conversation
between two shadowy terrorists is interrupted and the screen goes
blank as a voice over intones, "This terrorist wiretap has been disconnected
by a Democratic-controlled Congress. If the Democrats win, the NSA
won't be able to listen as terrorists plot to attack. This year,
vote like your life depends on it. Because it does."
Some conservatives dismiss complaints about fear tactics. "Reminding
Americans of the ever-present dangers of jihad is resorting to 'utter
fear?' " scoffs blogger Michelle Malkin . But even aside from the
loaded question of whether the threat has been exaggerated at times,
flogging it for politics is disgraceful. Particularly so since the
Democrats -- and the Republican critics of the administration's surveillance
program -- don't want to stop wiretaps, only to ensure that they
are authorized by the special courts legally required to oversee
It would be tempting to say that America's vote was a rejection
of fear-based politics. But maybe these days, the real question in
politics is whom you fear most.
Malkin has lambasted an Agence France-Presse photo caption saying
that the campaign "sometimes seems to boil down to one question:
Who's scarier, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, [or] Bush?" Yet
that summary may be close to the truth. Where the right appeals to
fear of terrorism, the left has appealed -- often in exaggerated
and misleading fashion -- to fear of a police state.
On Oct. 19, decrying the new law on the detention of terror suspects,
MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann asserted, rhetorically addressing
Bush, that not even "the actions of a ceaseless line of terrorists,
real or imagined, could measure up to what you have wrought." He
speculated, with no evidence, that the bill's provisions authorizing
the detention without trial of foreign unlawful enemy combatants
might also be used to seize US citizens who could be held captive
without the ability to prove their citizenship.
The Democrats have largely shunned such hysteria in the pre election
campaign, which is a big point in their favor. But the left-wing
media are a different story, and a significant portion of the Democratic
base seems ready to believe that under Bush's evil reign, we are
all one step away from being tortured or "disappeared."
Not all fear is irrational. The dangers of terrorism and fundamentalist
Islamic radicalism are quite real. Concerns that our civil liberties
may be sacrificed in the quest for safety are well-founded as well;
so is the concern about a drawn-out war in Iraq that may endanger
rather than boost our security. We do, despite FDR's dictum, have
more to fear than fear itself. But the fear-mongering can only make
Right now, at least, the next two years of divided government don't
look very scary. The Bush administration has been given a much-needed
reality check that should temper its arrogance; the Democratic Congress
is unlikely to lurch far to the left, given its large moderate contingent
and the presence of conservative Democrats such as Senator Joseph
Lieberman (now formally an independent) and James Webb, the senator-elect
from Virginia. We will still face a dangerous world -- but with that,
perhaps, a less depressing political climate at home.
Correction: Last week's column misstated the name
of the nominee for president of Gallaudet University whose appointment
was blocked by protesters in 1988. Her name is Elisabeth Zinser.