Election 2004  
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Fear Factor

The Bush campaign has been very successful in appealing to the fear and anxiety of the electorate. Fear is a powerful motivator, but can be trumped by hope, courage, toughness and confidence.
 
 
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It's widely acknowledged that the "music" of the campaign is more important than the "lyrics." The Bush campaign has been playing the fear card from day one. Willie Horton, meet Osama bin Hussein. The music is what makes us comfortable and happy; it's what lulls us to sleep or gets us revved up. The lyrics? They make us think.

A recent column by Arianna Huffington nailed the single most important aspect of the music: The defining dynamic of this campaign is fear.

Quite astutely, Huffington's column " Appealing to Our Lizard Brains" quotes the research of Harvard neuroscience professor Daniel Siegel on how fear affects the brain. Among other things, fear makes it very hard to think logically and clearly – meaning that non-verbal cues become especially important.

"... when we are afraid, we are biologically programmed to pay less attention to left-brain signals – indeed, our logical mind actually shuts itself down. Fear paralyzes our reasoning and literally makes it impossible to think straight. Instead, we search for emotional, nonverbal cues from others that will make us feel safe and secure.

When our right brain is at Threat Level Red, we don't want to hear about a four-point plan to win the peace, or a list of damning statistics, or even a compelling, well-reasoned argument that the policies of Bush and Cheney are actually making us less safe. We want to get the feeling that everything is going to be all right.

In this state, our brains care more about tone of voice than what the voice is saying. This is why Bush can verbally stumble and sputter and make little or no sense and still leave voters feeling that he is the candidate best able to protect them. Our brains are primed to receive the kinds of communication he has to offer and discard the kinds John Kerry has to offer, even if Kerry makes more 'logical sense.' Which, of course, he does.

The strutting, winking, pointing and near-shouting that marked Bush's town hall debate performance all sent the same subconscious message to our fear-fogged brains: 'I'm your daddy, I've got your back. So just go to sleep and stop thinking. About anything.

'At the deepest level,' Dr. Siegel told me, 'we react to fear as adults in much the same way we did as infants. It's primal. Human babies have the most dependent infancy of any species. Our survival depends on the caregiver. We instinctively look to authority figures to comfort us and keep us safe.'"

And so, Huffington concludes, the test facing undecided voters isn't "which candidate you would rather have a beer with." It's "which candidate would you rather give your blankie and a bottle and keep the bogeyman away."

That's, of course, exactly what Cheney/Rove/Bush having been doing. What can Kerry do to combat it?

Hope, courage, toughness and confidence trump fear. Statistics don't. (Anger trumps fear too, but that's a special case that doesn't apply here.) The great international leaders – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Churchill, Ghandi, FDR, Ho Chi Minh, JFK and others (yes, even Reagan in a way) – all exuded hope, confidence and steadfastness in times of change, turmoil and adversity.

Kerry makes a good tough guy, and he exudes confidence and courage. But on a key point he has fallen behind. A small but significant example: It's forgotten now, but he made a very bad response to Bush's announced intention to redeploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops now stationed in Europe. Essentially Kerry said, don't do it. In other words, he identified with the status quo-that is, the past.

This is a big problem. Unions, progressives, liberals, whatever, have become firmly allied with the past. The message is all about the bad people "taking good things away" (Social Security, pensions, worker rights ... you fill in the blank). Therefore, we must "take our country back." There is fear mongering underneath these appeals too as in the fear of losing social security and so on. But that fear mongering is too "small" and weak to be effective.

How so? Because, it is out of sync with the universal perception that the world today is different. Way different. Anxiety is high. And why not? There is plenty to worry about: another 9/11; troops dying in Iraq (not to mention Iraqi civilian casualties, too); the gut-level feeling that failure in Iraq is a real possibility. And that's on top of the cumulative effect of pre 9/11 concerns over job loss, outsourcing, plant closings, falling real incomes, the perception that our education system is in the ditch, healthcare issues, etc. And of course, both campaigns are spending millions to drive that anxiety up as much as possible.

Union organizers know a lot about this. Employers routinely base their anti-union campaigns on fear. It's not that they create the fear. It's already there. Fear that the plant will close or lose work (code word: become "uncompetitive"). Fear that the union will be too weak to make things better in the face of the employer's threat to punish the workers if they vote the union in. Fear that the union will be corrupt. And so on.

But here's the key thing. In a union election, the employer pours all the gasoline they possibly can on the fear. But that's not all they do: They lay claim to the hope too. They paint a rosy picture of the future. In the same way, the Bush campaign has laid claim to hope, presenting themselves as understanding not just the danger of new threats but opportunity as well. In a union election, the employer's message generally has two parts: If you vote for change (the union) you'll be punished (the fear factor). Whether or not it's true, stick with us. We're about the future; they're about the past. We get it; they don't. It's the hope, stupid.

This is the problem in the Kerry campaign at the moment. In lots of subtle ways, Kerry is sending the message that things can be they way they used to be. For example, rightly or wrongly, Kerry seems to be all about arguing that the NATO alliances that won the cold war can also win the war against terror. Well, pathetic as the "Coalition of the Willing" may be, it does give the appearance at least of representing a new response to a new problem. Thus, Bush represents the new, Kerry the old. (Another telling example – in the third debate, he let Bush have the argument that "new technology" will make our healthcare system cheaper and more efficient. A small mistake on its own – but the point here is about shifting to a different mindset.)

Employers use the same tactics with elections: We needed unions in the old economy. But that was then. They don't work in the new economy. We, the employers know what's best for you in these scary times. Stick with us. In case you haven't paid attention to declining union membership lately – this is a very effective argument. Especially since it is coming from the "party in power."

But it can be beat. Tone and style are critical, but the message also has to be in sync to have an impact. Here is how Kerry might do it: We are a strong country. We have faced many challenges and changes in the past and been better for it. I get it. Bush doesn't. He's stuck. I am not. His ideas are part of a tired, old paradigm based on what Cheney and Wolfowitz thought back in the 1980's pasted on top of 9/11. That won't cut it. Want proof? Look at Iraq. I have a plan, not for the past, but for the here and now and for the future.

Yes, babies want their bottles. But wise and strong parents are very good at taking advantage of the fact that babies are also programmed to grow up.

Frank Joyce is a labor activist and communication consultant based in Detroit, Michigan.