Selling Fear

For a left brained person like myself it is hard to understand how a couple weeks before the election, polls can show George W. Bush a few points ahead of Senator John Kerry. Kerry should be the obvious choice. In normal times he would be the obvious choice. But in this election the usual factors that would defeat an incumbent may not work.

When a president’s approval rating hovers in the mid forties (where Bush is at currently) his reelection is usually in deep trouble. When this happens independents will usually break for the challenger, not the incumbent. Any impartial observer of this election would have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for four more years of George W. Bush. His record is a disaster, both domestically and internationally. He has created the largest annual budget deficits in our history in just four years, after taking over a surplus. On the jobs front he will certainly be the first president since Herbert Hoover to actually lose jobs during his term. Middle class jobs are disappearing and those that replace them tend to pay less. Health insurance costs are going through the roof resulting in more people without health insurance. Gas prices are at all time highs. Internationally we failed to find and kill the person who carried out the 9/11 atrocities, invaded a country that was no threat to us and managed to earn the disgust of much of the international community. When handing out political favors Bush’s rich friends always get top preferences. So how could it be that Bush could possibly win this election?

It could be the liberal media isn’t liberal at all, which is pretty obvious to me. It could also be that Kerry is an incompetent campaigner. The presidential debates dispelled that notion. Not only did Kerry win all three debates but also Kerry comes across as presidential and very sober. Unlike Bush, Kerry actually has realistic plans for dealing with our current problems. Perhaps the “liberal” label pinned on Kerry still causes independents to recoil in horror. I don’t quite understand it because I don’t see anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously talking about getting rid of liberal programs like Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. But it’s pretty clear that if there were a median scale with 1 being very liberal and 10 being very conservative, Kerry might rate a 3 but Bush would be a definite 10. In other words Bush is much further from the mainstream than Kerry could ever hope to be. At least Kerry actually advocates fiscal responsibility. The Bush solution is to open the treasury vault wide to all of his cronies. There is no limit to the amount of tax money he is willing to give away to special interests that will lend him support.

So why is Bush even competitive? The only thing that comes to my mind is that much of America is still gripped by fear. Why shouldn’t it be? Since 9/11 it’s been an “all fear, all the time” administration. To ensure that we are always fearful the Department of Homeland Security makes sure we always know the current fear level. Simply go to the DHS home page to see how fearful the government wants you to be today. Oddly it has never gone below “elevated” so we should always be on our guard.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Upon examining my own motives my fear of terrorism was one of the reasons I began an active search for a federal job close to home. Working in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. and having worked in the city on 9/11 I experienced some of the horror of that day personally. I was ultimately successful and now work three miles from the house at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. So if fear can motivate a left brained person like me it likely can motivate a whole lot of others too.

In retrospect we understand that the 2002 elections were won on fear that our nation was going to be rife with incidents of Islamic terrorism. We were told that only the Republicans had the maturity and judgment to deal adequately with such a grave national emergency. Never mind that the Democrats had backed the same antiterrorism legislation as the Republicans. Republicans in general and Bush in particular were utterly shameless in their pandering to our fears. And we succumbed. As a nation we wanted to suck our thumb and pretend our Big Daddy would make everything right.

In poll after poll while Bush gets poor marks on domestic issues he gets high marks on national security. So as long as Bush can persuade voters that terrorism is still a major national problem he can keep riding the coattails of our 9/11 fear. To some of us trusting Bush to do right on national security seems ludicrous. A president who preemptively invades another country that had no connection to our national security or 9/11 logically is not demonstrating good judgment. But apparently what is at work here is not a left-brain analysis but a right-brain reaction. Lots of people are right brain dominant and are ruled more by their feelings than by dispassionate logic. If I had to guess I’d bet there are a whole lot more left brained Democrats than Republicans.

I think my reaction to find a job outside of Washington D.C. was an entirely logical response to 9/11. I had witnessed the smoldering wreckage of the Pentagon on 9/11 firsthand. So my fear that I might be a future victim if I worked in the city was entirely plausible. On the other hand to think that we are protecting our national security by invading countries that pose no threat to us is illogical. Yet it was an emotional response that many could relate to. It said to the world “Don’t mess with the United States or we’re going to squash your country like a bug.” The reality of course was something completely different. We can win a conventional war against any other nation except possibly China. But as we seem to be demonstrating in Iraq we are unlikely to succeed in the securing the peace phase following the war. But terrorism generally operates outside nation states and breeds the most in countries that most closely resemble anarchies. Logically to win the war on terrorism we should be securing nuclear and chemical stockpiles and changing the conditions that breed terrorists. But that doesn’t have a whole lot of PR value. It doesn’t satisfy our need to see some concrete results. When we have bunker busting bombs blowing apart alleged terrorist bunkers we feel better. “See? We’ve destroyed an apartment complex in Falluja today harboring terrorists! We’re winning the war on terrorism!”

If the Bush-Cheney team can keep us in fear and if it succeeds in populating the meme that its strategy is actually making our nation safer it might win the election. So this election may come down to whether Democrats can succeed in engaging the left brains of voters. If we can do this we should be able to win this election. If we don’t not only will we lose but also we actually put our national security in a lot more jeopardy. When times are tough and scary we need to think clearly and with reason, not succumb to “feel good” emotional balms for our fears. Let’s hope we can disengage the reptilian portions of our brain just long enough to throw Bush out of office on November 2nd.

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