The perimeter fence along Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House is seen in Washington, D.C., Sept. 22, 2014.
Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

The Politics of Fear comes with fine print

After a couple of Republican congressional candidates literally included ISIS propaganda excerpts in their anti-Democratic attack ads, the message of this year’s elections came into sharper focus. The GOP has effectively given up on running against “Obamacare” and unemployment – choosing instead to tell Americans there’s a monster under their beds and only Republicans can save them.
 
Last night in North Carolina, for example, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) debated her far-right challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), who focused the bulk of his attention on Islamic State terrorists and the Ebola virus.
 
Does Tillis have any background in national security? No. Has he presented new ideas on keeping the public safe? No. Does he have any expertise in infectious diseases? Of course not. Are there any instances in which Hagan has made a misstep on these issues? Not even one.
 
But Tillis gets the sense North Carolinians are feeling anxiety, and the Republican hopes he can exploit that angst for personal gain.
 
As Jeremy Peters reported, there’s a lot of this going around.
With four weeks to go, the election has taken a dark turn as conservatives use warnings about Islamic State militants, the Ebola virus and terrorist acts to send a message: The world is a scary place, and the Democrats can’t protect you.
 
Take a new Republican ad aimed at Representative Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona that warns of terrorists streaming across the Mexican border. “Evil forces around the world want to harm Americans every day,” it says. “Their entry into our country? Through Arizona’s backyard.”
 
Another one, against Senator Mark Udall in Colorado, plays a clip in which he says the Islamic State does not pose an imminent threat. “Really?” the announcer asks. “Can we take that chance?” An ad in another Arizona House race features the footage of the journalist James Foley right before his beheading.
There’s no denying the political potency of fear. Those who feel terrified are more easily manipulated, more likely to ignore reason, and more likely to show poor judgment. Those who otherwise have nothing worthwhile to offer the public often turn to demagoguery because it can be an effective substitute for substance.
 
But there’s one important flaw in the Politics of Fear, or at least the Republicans’ reliance on it.
 
The GOP pitch relates to government in a fairly obvious and direct way: your government, the argument goes, whatever its intentions, simply isn’t capable, competent, or prepared enough to keep you safe. Your family should therefore feel a sense of panic … and vote Republican.
 
Cooler heads might notice the flaw in the logic. An American in a constant state of fear about terrorism, diseases, the state of the Secret Service, migrant children, and creeping Sharia, might think twice about supporting the party that believes in slashing budgets, gutting the public sector, and generally avoiding governing whenever possible.
 
In other words, the Republican tack is burdened by an awkward contradiction: what Americans need is a strong, vibrant public sector prepared for every emergency, which is why Americans should vote for a party that wants to weaken and dismantle the public sector as quickly as possible.
 
Think of it this way: If Republicans could magically take control every federal office today, what exactly would they do differently than the Obama administration in, say, addressing Ebola? Privatize the CDC, cut taxes, and offer vouchers for protective gear? What would they do differently about ISIS? Continue the airstrikes President Obama launched back in early August – the ones Republicans don’t even feel like holding an authorization vote on?
 
The entire strategy is void of meaning and purpose if Republicans are pushing fear for the sake of fear – there’s still no agenda, no vision, no plans, and no ideas to serve as a foundation.
 
“If you’re afraid – of pretty much anything – vote GOP,” the message goes. “Just don’t expect us to actually do anything if we win.”
 

Ebola, ISIS and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

The Politics of Fear comes with fine print