We live in a society where fear is pervasive. Sometimes it's very real, especially when it comes to climate change, joblessness, racism, violence against women and more. But in the context of this election, fear was often manufactured, transmitted zealously by the corporate media, pushed relentlessly by Fox and other right-wing outlets. Messages of fear dominated many of the campaign ads that led to Democrats getting crushed in many elections.
In this environment of fear, compounded by massive amounts of unregulated political spending, and tons of money from the Koch brothers and other heavy spenders, the Democrats seemed lost, despite having lots of money of their own. Given their current confused approach to politics, their general inarticulateness, and their need to run away from the President and Obamacare, most Democrats didn’t stand a chance against the onslaught.
The fear message wasn’t the only problem for the Dems. As Paul Rosenberg points out on Salon, the Democrats' lack of agenda or message resulted in an unexcited base, so the electorate turned out to be older than in 2010 as millennials stayed home in droves. The Republicans had even less of an agenda, but focused on their potent one-two punch of the fear card and the pummeling of Obama, whose popularity is in the dumpster. Of course, Obama's low approval rating is partly the result of six years of fearmongering about him and Obamacare.
The only way to beat a bully—or many bullies with hundreds of millions of dollars—is with incredible courage and truth-telling. But most Democrats ran scared in this election. Nothing demonstrated that more than Obama's backing off on immigration reform, something he promised during the summer; a moment when his courage could have stood out and mobilized people. He likely changed his mind because of fear from all the fearful Democrats who worried it would make them lose. But they lost anyway and they were wrong. Courage was what was needed.
In America today a lot of people are fundamentally convinced that things are out of control and there is no sane solution. And many may fear that if they try to think sanely they will just despair. How do you stay oriented toward reality and not despair, not lose heart? Well, one way is to grasp for straws and go for crazy ideas. Which is a lot of what happened in 2014.
Ebola and ISIL
It's striking that hysteria over Ebola was one of the top falsehoods repeated in the election, as documented by the Pulitizer Prize-winning PolitiFact (which is connected to the St. Petersburg Times). As PolitiFact reports, there were five separate big lies spread about Ebola in the campaign. Two of them were pushed by Republican officials, and the others by right-wing websites. Most were rated “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact's humorous metaphor for an obvious lie.
Here's a debunking of the biggest Ebola lies trotted out during the election:
- No, illegal immigrants haven’t carried Ebola across the border.
- No, the Ebola outbreak isn’t a Bill Gates/George Soros conspiracy.
- No, Obama didn’t sign an order mandating detention of Americans.
- No, we weren’t promised an Ebola-free America.
- No, the United States hasn’t been secretly anticipating a widespread outbreak.
According to PolitiFact:
"In July, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., wrote to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claiming that people are crossing the southern U.S. border carrying Ebola, citing 'reports.' But none of the reports were credible, and the experts we talked to said Gingrey was wrong.
"Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., claimed recently that the isolated cases of Ebola in the United States directly contradict the assurances of President Barack Obama and his administration. 'We were told there would never be a case of Ebola in the United States,' McCain said."
But as PolitiFact asserts, Americans were never told that.
In terms of the biggest whoppers told during the campaign, one that got very broad coverage was the ludicrous claim iby U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.,n an interview on Fox News, that members of the Islamic State (called ISIS or ISIL) have been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. "ISIS is coming across the southern border," Hunter said, adding a moment later: "I know that at least 10 ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the Mexican border in Texas." Hunter claimed that he relied on right-wing websites that offered no sources…a neat way to insert fear into the public psyche.
9/11 Still Dominates
The attacks of 9/11 still form the basis of our current paranoid environment. The incredible buildup of a massive security apparatus, along with the militarization of local police departments, is helping to spread fear. Tom Engelhardt, who has done amazing work to catalog and sound the alarm on the security state, explains, “In the post-9/11 era, in a phony 'wartime' atmosphere, fed by trillions of taxpayer dollars, and under the banner of American 'safety,' it has grown to unparalleled size and power. And in 2014, the expansion is ongoing."
"Meanwhile, the 17 members of the U.S. Intelligence Community — yes, there are 17 major intelligence outfits in the national security state — have been growing, some at prodigious rates. A number of them have undergone their own versions of corporatization, outsourcing many of their operations to private contractors in staggering numbers, so that we now have 'capitalist intelligence' as well. With the fears from 9/11 injected into society and the wind of terrorism at their backs, the Intelligence Community has had a remarkably free hand to develop surveillance systems that are now essentially 'watching' everyone — including, it seems, other branches of the government."
In a more recent article, Engelhardt writes that we have lived with the background noise of 9/11 for the last 13 years:
"Inside the American Terrordome, the chorus of hysteria-purveyors, Republican and Democrat alike, nattered on, as had been true for weeks, about the 'direct,' not to say apocalyptic, threat the Islamic State and its caliph posed to the American way of life. These included Senator Lindsey Graham ('This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home'); Majority Leader John Boehner, who insisted that we should consider putting American boots on Iraqi and perhaps even Syrian ground soon, since 'they intend to kill us'; as well as Democrats like Florida’s Senator Bill Nelson, who commented that 'it ought to be pretty clear when they… say they’re going to fly the black flag of ISIS over the White House that ISIS is a clear and present danger.' And a chorus of officials, named and anonymous, warning that the terror danger to the country was 'imminent,' while the usual set of pundits chirped away about the potential destruction of our way of life."
The media continued to report it all with a kind of eyeball-gluing glee. The result: 71% of Americans believed ISIS had nothing short of sleeper cells in the U.S. (shades of Homeland!) and at least the same percentage, if not more (depending on which poll you read), were ready to back a full-scale bombing campaign, promptly launched by the Obama administration, against the group.
DÃ©jÃ vu again.
Does this election remind you of any recent ones where fear dominated? How about 2004? In an article in Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics (published by Chelsea Green and created by the editors of AlterNet), psychologist and trauma specialist Vivian Dent wrote:
"Fear won out over anger. 2004 marked not just the most important election in a generation, but also the most emotional. In this hothouse of feelings, the Republicans adroitly manipulated the politics of fear. Democrats, meanwhile, fumbled the politics of anger and failed to inspire the politics of courage and hope.
"Like so much in this election, the fear that drove the Republican vote […] flourished after the 9/11 attacks. Aghast at the violence, death, and destruction, Americans looked to the White House to help us […] The Bush team responded with a series of choices that systematically reinforced the country’s fear and dependency while undermining its hope and trust.
"Instead, he quickly framed the U.S. response as a 'war on terror,' with himself in sole command. Then, with the full cooperation of the media, his administration repeated that frame so assiduously that many Americans quickly became unable to think of it in any other way."
There is a direct line from the collective fright and trauma of 9/11 through the Taliban, to the current fears of ISIL, which conservatives have worked hard to associate with immigrants coming across the border. Throw Ebloa into the mix and you have a powrful fear concoction.
"Fear narrows people’s thinking, moves them away from logic and toward emotional and physical reactions. Its effects start in the brain. When they’re too scared, people literally can’t think straight until they get some reassurance. Complex policies and nuanced arguments turn into noise that just confuses and upsets them more."
As psychiatrist Daniel Siegel explained to columnist Arianna Huffington:
"It's not about left wing versus right wing; it's about left brain versus right brain.
"Deep in the brain lies the amygdala, an almond-sized region that generates fear. When this fear state is activated, the amygdala springs into action. Before you are even consciously aware that you are afraid, your lizard brain responds by clicking into survival mode. Fight, flight, or freeze.
"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. 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. We want to get the feeling that everything is going to be all right."
So what can we do? Really, we have to be much more organized and courageous. A fear-dominated society makes people crazy. When people feel crazy, they do crazy things. They do not think rationally. Manipulating fear works, but so does inspiring hope and courage. But there is no meta message of courage coming from Democrats.
The overall response to Ebola could have been much more courageous. Leaders should have said, “People are suffering terribly in Africa. The Americans going to help people in Africa are very brave. They are heroes. We will give them all the care and support that they need. We want them to help stop the spread of Ebola. Let's cheer their efforts. Let's support them.” But Democratic leaders like Andrew Cuomo’s original position on quarantines along with others like Chris Christie, was the opposite of courage. It spread fear.
Sadly, Obama may not be the person to step forward with the necessary courage and the right messages. So much of his good will has been squandered these past six years. He also suffers from the fact that historically black men are symbols of fear. And despite the inspirational oratory in his first campaign and early on in his administration, his instinct has not been to gather people together and mobilize. His White House is a very tightly run operation, and to many he feels like a loner as President—in contrast, say, to the gregarious Joe Biden, who could be the Democrats' version of George Bush.
No one suggests it's easy to fight pervasive fear, especially with characters on the loose like Texas senator Ted Cruz, who is probably the most dangerous of the fear peddlers because he seems to understand how to use fear to rally troops and attract lavish media attention.
But it has been done before. People finally had enough of Joe McCarthy and his witch hunts in the 1950s, though it took a while. The most courageous icon in our recent history is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who despite the fact that there was much to fear, was able to effectively communicate to Americans that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
We can’t expect a hero to swoop in and sweep away the enormous fears that plague us; leftovers from 9/11, from the huge military and national security buildup and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and ISIL and Syria. Who knows where we'll go to war next? Courage has to rise up and spread—and it needs to be moral courage—protecting our families from climate change, embracing immigrants to be part of our society, saying no to humongous military expenditures and endless war, and developing much stronger community bonds among progressives who believe in a vision of the future which is far, far different from the message of fear. Fear won big on November 4th. Remember that the only antidote to fear is the courage to confront it and fight for the values we hold dear.
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