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Grappling With the Politics of Fear

Progressives have underestimated the American people's need for safety. So what kind of antiwar message will connect with an anxious public?
 
 
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There's an ongoing debate among media experts, peace advocates and funders about what media messages and symbols could galvanize popular opinion against the seemingly imminent Bush Administration invasion of Iraq.

A number of ads from peace advocates have recently appeared in the New York Times and in other newspapers, with more in the pipeline. Each of the ads makes a somewhat different argument for why Americans should be resisting the will of the Bush administration to take over Iraq and try Saddam for war crimes.

Yet, it is increasingly apparent that the climate of fear promoted by the Bush Administration in the wake of a series of national traumas is having wide effect. It seems clear that the politics of fear and safety has been underestimated by progressives and pundits. This political message likely had more impact on the Democratic losses and Republican gains in the recent elections than the widespread sense that the Democrats had no message.

According to George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley University cognitive scientist and author of "Moral Politics," the anxiety-provoking anti-terrorism actions and messages of fear of the Bush administration fall into the category of the "strict father" mode of communication.

Lakoff concludes that the country is dramatically split between two ways of understanding the world. Some see this division as political – conservative vs. liberal. But Lakoff argues that it is ultimately a moral division, one derived from how people envision the right kind of family. Hence it is also a personal division.

Lakoff believes that the "strict father" mode is at the bedrock of conservative ideology. This morality "assigns highest priority to such things as moral strength ... respect for and obedience to authority [and] the setting and following of strict guidelines of behavioral norms." Nurturant parent morality, by contrast, "requires empathy for others and the helping of those who need help. To help others, one must take care of oneself and nurture social ties." This morality provides the basis for progressive/liberal ideology.

Clearly, in this post-Clinton period, where a fundamental assumption is that the world is a dangerous place, and people must be protected, the strict-father worldview is in ascendance. And the conservatives know it, and they know how to use it.

As Lakoff underscores, "Over the past thirty years conservatives have poured billions of dollars into their think tanks. They have articulated the system of moral and family values that unifies conservatives; they have created appropriate language for their vision; they have disseminated it throughout the media; and they have developed a coherent political program to fit their values." Lakoff argues that this infrastructure of ideas and values is the essential reason "for the success that conservatives have been enjoying, despite the fact that they appear to be the minority."

Messages In a Bottle

The successful appeal of strict-father morality in the face of national trauma has fundamental implications for thinking about what messages will appeal to a broad cross-section of Americans.

It is a wake-up call when one grasps the significance of the conservative success in controlling the central narratives in U.S. politics since Bush was elected in 2000. If fear is uppermost in people's minds, progressive advertisements with very specific anti-war messages about foreign oil dependence or about war's effect on the economy or social spending may fall on deaf ears.

Herb Chao Gunther, head of the Public Media Center in San Francisco, thinks people have been "slapped silly by the dizzying effects of larger-than-life issues, especially 9/11."

As he puts it, "They don't feel confident in making complex decisions. They have a tendency to look for the 'tough cop on the beat' to take care of them ... It is difficult getting mindshare when fear, panic and withdrawal are on people's minds."

Certainly a good case can be made that many Americans – including voters on Election Day – feel overwhelmed, shell-shocked and mystified by a recent past featuring a stolen Presidential election, unprecedented corporate scandals, a crumbling Catholic church, the devastating attacks of 9/11, the sniper attacks in Washington D.C., and the ongoing war on terror, with raids, arrests and constant leaks from the FBI about alleged security vulnerabilities dominating the media.

In the face of this tumultuous two years, several advocacy ads have tested potential messages. Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, led by former ice cream mogul Ben Cohen, proclaimed in a recent full-page NY Times ad, "They' re Selling War, We're Not Buying."

The ad plays on the theme of the Bushies shamelessly marketing war even though "war will wreck our economy" (and breed terrorism and discredit America in the world's eyes). This ad received a positive response from some readers who in response to a coupon, sent in more than enough money to pay for the ad.

Another message appeals to environmental sustainability by advocating an end to our dependence on foreign oil. A third, still on the drawing board, raises the alarm over shrinking social services as resources are invested in taking over Iraq.

Another ad in the works, signed by dozens of religious leaders, is from Religious Leaders for Sensible Priorities (chaired by former Congressman Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches). Under the headline, "Jesus Changed Your Heart. Let Him Change Your Mind," the ad "beseeches President Bush to turn back from the brink of war in Iraq."

Underlying most of the ads is an appeal to cooperative values of multilateralism: working with our allies and the UN. This message has had a lot of traction given that a majority of the population, while pro-war, hasn't wanted us to move forward without the support of the UN.

Uncle Osama

The most controversial of the current crop of ads communicates the fear of future terrorism that might result from an invasion of Iraq. It features Osama bin Laden dressed as Uncle Sam with the caption, "I Want You (To Invade Iraq)."

The obvious implication is that the invasion will play into al-Qaeda's hands, making it easy for bin Laden to recruit terrorists and provide payback. This ad, produced by Fenton Communications for TomPaine.com, has appeared in the NY Times, Rolling Stone and a number of local papers, as donors have stepped forward to get it reprinted in other venues.

This "blowback" message also carries the notion that we have to win without war by working with the UN and emphasizes that occupation is costly. The Osama ad has attracted a great deal of buzz, been passed around the Internet and provided lots of fodder for mega-mouth pundits like MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Fox's O'Reilly.

But whom do these ads reach? One possibility is that none of them are breaking through to anyone but the most sophisticated liberals and progressives, some of whom will join the organizations that are publishing the ads. Yet the larger pool of undecideds or supporters of the war perhaps remain unswayed.

There is a big difference between ads and messages that appeal to and energize the anti-war base, trying to build outrage among the already committed, and those messages designed to appeal to larger audiences. One message (e.g., the Osama ad) may work for the progressive audience but may not work for the larger group that turns to the strict father for a sense of safety.

Bush's War Machine

No one would argue against the importance of engaging the anti-war base, raising money and stimulating more involvement from concerned citizens. But we shouldn't have the illusion that the messages in these ads are likely to be effective with large numbers of people. And, with majorities in favor of invading Iraq under various circumstances, the ongoing challenge is to change people's minds about the war and move the undecideds into the anti-war camp.

Of course, one huge challenge to affecting public opinion on the war issue is a staggering lack of resources on the pro-peace side. The Bush war machine, with the general cooperation of the corporate media, buttresses the pro-war debate every waking hour with its continuing emphasis on the permanent war on terror. Seemingly effortlessly, the administration shifted the pro-war frame from Osama to Saddam, bringing us to the brink of war, and, at least for now, risking no political damage.

The Bush communication capacity would be worth billions of dollars in the commercial marketplace. Peace advocates, by contrast, have spent less than $200,000 for paid ads, and anti-war advocates, even those in Congress, get very little free media coverage. On top of that, there has been no research on what anti-war messages might resonate with the public and very little coordination to reinforce messages.

But insufficient resources are only part of the problem, because liberals and progressives do have resources. Lakoff argues that not only are liberal think tanks outfunded by conservatives, they are also "organized in a self-defeating manner."

As he explains, "Most groups work issue by issue and have to constantly pursue funding." He also claims that the funding priorities of liberal foundations are self-defeating in a similar way. Their funding tends "to be program-oriented (issue by issue) and ... short term with no guarantee of refunding. Moreover," he adds, the foundations, "tend not to give money for career development or infrastructure ... and tend not to support their intellectuals ... doing just the opposite of what they should be doing if they are to counter conservatives' success. "

Fear Factor

So if resources are lacking, people are shell-shocked and fearful, and the strict-father appeal is having powerful success, what should progressives be thinking in terms of communication?

The fear factor is often overlooked by progressives, who frequently make appeals to logic on the assumption that if people know all the facts they will act accordingly. But at this moment in history, facts and analysis must be accompanied by a vision that addresses safety needs and that goes beyond common sense and trying to scare people not to act. Too many people read arguments against action, such as those against the war, as arguments for passivity. Aggressive action in the face of terrorism (real or imagined) plays well.

Clearly intellectual arguments may not be at their most potent at this juncture. Many perceive us to be living in a dangerous time. Even though there has been no domestic terrorism in the 13 months since 9/11, terrorism still dominates the corporate news virtually every day.

James Carroll, writing in the Boston Globe on Nov. 19, notes that "many pleasant conversations often give way to worry. That we are a people prepared to go to war against an unpredictable adversary in an inflamed region adds to our unease. Meanwhile Al Qaeda has taken on dimensions of a mythic enemy," particularly with the authenticated resurfacing of Osama bin Laden.

Carrol adds, "Under cover of escalating citizen anxiety, the administration is masterfully reshaping domestic and foreign policy both – according to pre-set ideological dispositions."

Chao Gunther adds, "People are being pummeled into alienation. With a national injury people are hurt and the politics of fear is being practiced. This is what happened in Europe in the 1930s. This is the kind of an environment where the guys in the brown shirts start showing up. The Democrats haven't been able to strike a moral opposition. No one is heroic, no one is saying 'Open your eyes.'"

Chao Gunther suggests: "We need to meet people where they are at and make a patriotic appeal – urging people to start asking questions, to look around them and see what is happening, be skeptical, to exercise their patriotic duty to ask questions. We need to be telling them it is not a time to be hiding, to be sleeping."

Balancing Safety with Justice

In the absence of the heroic, minimally there seems a clear need for a consistent message, one that balances people's desire for safety with the hopes for a fair and just society, values that are clearly in the background at this point for many people.

At some point, fear turns into anger. Right now, though, that anger seems entirely directed against Saddam or bin Laden, not against the Administration's lies and manipulations. The trick is in turning the tide. As senior SEIU union organizer Jane McAlevey notes, "Every time we organize a new union chapter, fear is a big factor – people's jobs are being threatened. But fear can be overcome, we do it all the time and win."

Transcending fear and redirecting anger requires a host of ingredients that need developing – both for Democrats and for progressive advocates. Messages focusing on the theme that we are not alone, that many millions share our values, are important. Investment in independent infrastructure to communicate support in the absence of progressive values in the corporate press is necessary. Public events, where speakers can echo consistent messages, as well as house meetings, videos, viral marketing and online chats are all more "do it yourself" methods, but potentially potent means of communicating.

But just as important is the need for moral certainty and moral forcefulness from our side; we don't need clever or ironic messages at this time.

Adds Chao Gunther: "We are a powerful country because of our beliefs, our values; not our weapons or ability to bomb people back to the stone age. We need to speak with courage and conviction. Not enough of us are saying that Bush is wrong, and speaking with forcefulness about why."

At the same time we need to think bigger – much, much bigger – and for the long term, since it may be years before a combination of Democrats and progressives will succeed in dislodging the conservatives.

As Lakoff emphasizes, "The conservatives want to impose their world view on the country – permanently. This isn't just about taxes, or social programs, or prescription drugs, or the Iraq war. It is an attempt to take over the American mind and to impose strict father values on every aspect of our lives – in thousands of ways, great and small." He adds, "If progressives do not even see the scope of the danger, then we are in trouble."

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.