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A Democratic Deterrent against the Politics of Fear

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Rudy Giuliani has unveiled his presidential campaign strategy: He will pursue the Republican Party’s goal of encouraging Americans to be fearful, thereby weakening the country.

Giuliani didn’t reveal his strategy in such forthright terms. Nonetheless, he practically paraphrased Gordon Gekko’s famous saying, “Greed is good,” from the 1987 movie “Wall Street.” In Giuliani’s worldview, fear is good if it keeps a Democrat from becoming president. A Democratic president, the front-running Republican said last week, would “wave the white flag” in Iraq, put us back on defense, and cause greater loss of life.

The Democrats are prepared for this line of attack. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) quickly retorted that Giuliani had taken the politics of fear to a new low. However, Democrats can say a lot more to the American people about why this Republican line of attack is a verbal assault upon us all.

When fear is used as a political tool, the generated fear isn’t directed solely at terrorists or political opponents. It spreads indiscriminately into the nation’s social fabric. Before terrorism, Republicans used both fear of communism and of crime as their tickets to power. Handguns, security systems, guards, gated communities, surveillance cameras, and domestic spying all proliferated. The support of fearful citizens enabled Pentagon budgets to increase, facilitated our production of weapons of mass destruction, and blasted a gaping hole in our privacy.

To put an end to the politics of fear, we need to understand the nature of irrational fear. Why are we so fearful of being killed by terrorists when dying in a car crash is a thousand times more likely? We haven’t been able to shake off all of the fears that we carry from childhood. These include fear of the dark, monsters, ghosts, bugs, animals, as well as fear of going to sleep, loss of a parent, and abandonment. As adults, we put aside the obviously silly fears, but an emotional residue stays beneath the surface. It consists of a chronic, often repressed anxiety about our vulnerability and the threat of allegedly hostile, menacing individuals or forces.

Why isn’t a national campaign underway to educate people about the roots of irrational fear? We can learn how to distinguish valid fears from irrational fears. We need to understand that catering to our irrational fears make us more fearful. Irrational fear causes us to be compulsive and desperate about security and protection. Irrational fears can become contagious and produce nation-wide emotional reactions that lead to political and military blunders. When fear subsides, we see the world more objectively. We also strengthen and broaden our feeling of freedom.

As adults, we project our inner fears into the environment, and we “see” what we believe are legitimate reasons for having guns or a national security state. In other words, because of our inner fears we’ll see the outer world (domestic and international) as more menacing and hostile than it is or has to be. In foreign affairs, this undermines our belief in the power of diplomacy, which is our integrity, virtue, and deal-making wizardry wrapped in our verbal dexterity. Doubting our diplomatic power undermines the personal and civic virtue upon which our democracy depends. We are less able, for instance, to push back the creeping authoritarianism emanating from corporations, institutions, and government.

Giuliani’s strategy has worked in the past for the Republican Party because irrational fear attaches itself to irrational leaders. A passive, thirty-or-so percent of the population will vote compulsively for authoritarians and mindlessly march to their drum. On their flank are many millions of others who, though still passive, can be positively influenced. They can be persuaded to step out from behind their fear to become more rational and to connect with the spirit of citizenship.

How can this be done? Democrats can raise this issue of irrational fear and show more interest in solutions to the problem. Sympathy and understanding can be expressed for citizens who, well before 9/11, were trying to cope with future shock and predatory economics in this Age of Anxiety. In part, fear is widely felt because the people are getting so little back in the way of recognition and respect (except for empty words) from the political and economic establishment, which is spending far too much on the military. When leaders doubt our value, we more easily slip into the fear of self-doubt.

Only the bravest leaders, not political connivers, can inspire us to move back from the brink. Words can be found to inspire us to create more national unity through trust, civility, tolerance, and respect. It’s time to test the idea that our greatest security and freedom, and perhaps also our greatest happiness, are established through our fearlessness.

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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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