Politics of Fear


Richard W. Crockett


Another terrorist attack on the United States “would be a big advantage” to Senator John McCain, according to McCain campaign advisor Charlie Black. McCain quickly disassociated himself from the comment.  The candidate should never say such a thing, in the world of politics, only campaign advisors, who can be fired if necessary can say such a thing. That way, the candidate can get the utility of the remark, and the distance from it needed to maintain his respectability.  The remark can be seen in a number of different lights.  First it can be seen as a prediction of a factual outcome. The assumption is that such an event would heighten the public awareness of national security as an issue and that such heightening would accrue to McCain’s benefit, because American voters would then capitulate to McCain as “experienced” in military affairs.  This conclusion also assumes that the American voter would not notice that the Republican administration’s efforts in Iraq at making America more secure from Osama Bin Laden would have been breached, and further, that the failure to locate, arrest, or eliminate Osama Bin Laden would not be noticed.  It also assumes that the American people are truly shallow in their powers of observation about the entire picture of national security and that they would vote their emotions and fears rather than their thoughtful reflection of the issue.  It also is predicated on a calculation, which assumes the inability of the Obama campaign to convince the American voter that such a breach in our defenses would be a failure of existing Republican policy.  Still it is possible that Black could be right.  Since the politics of fear depends upon the electorate taking refuge from that fear by attaching itself to familiar moorings, rather than remaining adrift in a sea of fear. They would count upon those moorings to be in the Republican Party, and the voter’s decision would be not to rock the Republican boat.


The reaction of the Obama campaign to the remark betrays some concern of its own-- that Black could be right-- and the response is to try to cast the remark as the wish being understood as the father of the thought. The campaign characterized the comment as “a complete disgrace, and is exactly the kind of politics that needs to change." John Kerry has called it "the worst of the Rove-Bush fear playbook," They have correctly identified the Republican strategy as conducting their campaign as the politics of fear.  It is an effort at trying to scare the voter in to remaining with the Devil that you know, rather than to take a chance on someone that you don’t know.  But the Democrats can play this game too.  Their strategy may be to “scare” the voter into the recognition that a vote for McCain is a vote for four more years of Bush policies, including the failing economy, the failure of a health care delivery system, a burgeoning deficit and debt, the threat to our ability to finance social security, the price of energy and over dependence upon big oil companies importing foreign oil, destructive trade policy, foreign policy incompetence with alienation of favorable world opinion, and the failure to capture Bin Laden.  These circumstances add up to the need for change.


The challenge for democracy is classic. It is the need for the voter to recognize the urgency of voting, the need to reject the hyper-individualist argument that their vote doesn’t count, and become a team player and vote anyway, and that the voter live up to the optimistic view upon which democracy is based, that citizens are rational actors capable of rising above Friedrich Nietzsche’s horrible claim, that in democracy, “cattle become masters.”