Freeman, June 2011
President Woodrow Wilson pulled America into World War I based on bogus idealism and real fear-mongering. Evocations of fighting for universal freedom were quickly followed by bans on sauerkraut, beer, and teaching German in government schools. H. L. Mencken observed in 1918: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence, clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” In Mencken’s time he was often considered cynical. Subsequent developments have proven Mencken to be a prophet.
The Democratic Party relied heavily on the fear card in the 1920 presidential race. On the eve of the November vote that year Democratic presidential candidate James Cox declared: “Every traitor in America will vote tomorrow for Warren G. Harding!” Cox’s warning sought to stir memories of the “red raids” conducted in 1919 and 1920 by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, during which thousands of anarchists, communists, and suspect foreigners were summarily jailed and in many cases deported. The American people rejected Cox and embraced Warren Harding’s promise of a “return to normalcy.”
President Franklin Roosevelt put “freedom from fear” atop the American political agenda in his 1941 State of the Union address. But FDR’s political legacy—especially Social Security—has institutionalized fear-mongering in presidential and congressional races. Democrats perennially portray Republicans as planning to yank life support from struggling seniors.
For almost 50 years American politicians have used television ads to spur dread, most famously in the 1964 “Daisy” ad for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign. The ad showed a young girl, in the words of Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times, “picking the petals off a daisy before the screen was overwhelmed by a nuclear explosion and then a mushroom cloud and Mr. Johnson declared, ‘These are the stakes.’” The ad did not specifically claim that Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, would annihilate the human race, but the subtle hint wafted through. Though this ad only aired once, it instantly became a legend.
Whipping up fear was the flipside of President Bill Clinton’s “feeling your pain” political style. Clinton fanned people’s fear of guns, militias, and life without medical insurance. At the same time, the Clinton administration stretched the power of government on all fronts—from concocting new prerogatives to confiscate private property to championing FBI agents’ right to shoot innocent Americans to bankrolling the militarization of local police forces. Clinton was the Nanny State champion incarnate, teaching Americans to look to government for relief from every peril of daily life—from unpasteurized cider to leaky basements. As long as the President seemed to care about average Americans, his abuses were largely forgotten. (The 1996 Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, also promised to provide voters with “freedom from fear” via untying “the hands of the police.”)
Fear and Bush
The 2004 race was the most fear-mongering presidential campaign in modern American history. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush referred to terror or terrorism 16 times. Bush reelection campaign television ads showed firemen carrying a flag-draped corpse from the rubble at Ground Zero in New York and a pack of wolves coming to attack home viewers as an announcer warned that “weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.” (One commentator suggested that the ad’s message was that voters would be eaten by wolves if John Kerry won.) Just before Election Day a senior GOP strategist told the New York Daily News that “anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush.” People who saw terrorism as the biggest issue in the 2004 election voted for Bush by a 6 to 1 margin. Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy, observed that the Bush campaign was “using the fear factor almost exclusively. This is a highly researched decision with all the tools of public opinion management. It’s nothing but a reflection that it works.”
Bogus terror alerts might have made the difference in the 2004 election. Robb Willer of the Sociology and Small Groups Laboratory at Cornell University examined the relationship between 26 government-issued terror warnings reported in the Washington Post and Bush’s approval ratings. “Each terror warning from the previous week corresponded to a 2.75 point increase in the percentage of Americans expressing approval for President Bush,” Willer concluded. Bush beat Kerry by 2.4 percentage points in the popular vote. Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge later admitted that many of the 2004 alerts were unjustified. The Cornell study also found a “halo effect”: Americans’ approval of Bush’s handling of the economy also rose immediately after the announcement of new terror warnings, Willer reported. Apparently the more terrorists were allegedly poised to attack America, the better job Bush was doing.
Voters in 2004 could choose whether they would be killed by terrorists if they voted for Kerry or whether they would be left destitute and tossed out in the street if they voted for Bush. Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz commented to the Washington Post: “It’s not surprising that both campaigns are looking for the leverage point: scaring the hell out of the American public about what would happen if the other guy wins.” But the more an election is about fear, the more the winner will presume to be entitled to all the power he claims to need to combat the threat.
In his 2005 State of the Union address Bush declared: “We will pass along to our children all the freedoms we enjoy. And chief among them is freedom from fear.” The Founding Fathers would have derided the notion of politicians giving citizens “freedom from fear.” And they would have denounced the notion that this new-fangled freedom is superior to the freedoms the U.S. government had pledged to respect for more than 200 years.
After promising freedom from fear, a politician can always invoke polls showing widespread fears to justify seizing new power. The natural result of making freedom from fear the highest freedom is that any policy that reduces fear can be portrayed as pro-freedom. Bush claimed that to keep Americans safe he had to suspend habeas corpus and detain any suspected terrorist in perpetuity based solely on his unproven assertions. Bush authorized the CIA to use waterboarding and other methods of torture on detainees. He ordered the National Security Agency to launch a massive illegal wiretapping program that eavesdropped on thousands of Americans’ phone calls and emails without warrants. Yet Bush remained a great champion of freedom—at least in the eyes of his supporters.
The political mass production of insecurity is a dominant trait of our age. The easiest way for rulers to destroy the leashes the Constitution imposed on them is to make voters think they must choose: “We can obey the Constitution or we can prevent you from all being killed. What is it going to be?”
Rising fear can also undermine the freedom of speech that is a bulwark against government abuse. To the extent people desperately cling to faith in the leader to save them from all perils, they develop an intolerance to anyone who points out government follies or falsehoods. The Bush 2004 reelection campaign did all it could to fan such intolerance. Stumping around the nation for Bush, former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik told audiences in the final months of the campaign: “Political criticism is our enemy’s best friend.” As criticism is suppressed government becomes more incorrigible. Eventually the mistakes that could have been corrected cheaply early on become catastrophic national failures.
Fear and Obama
President Obama has picked up the fear-mongering relay baton with his attempts to frighten Americans about health care, global warming, economic collapse, and government shutdowns. Obama has also invoked the fear card to sanctify bombing bad guys anywhere and everywhere.
Government fear-mongering creates a downward politico-psychological spiral. The more fearful people become, the more gullible they will be. British philosopher John Stuart Mill warned in 1842: “Persons of timid character are the more predisposed to believe any statement, the more it is calculated to alarm them.” It is almost irrelevant whether 10 or 20 or 30 percent of the citizenry can see through government’s fraudulent warnings. In a democracy, as long as enough people can be frightened, all people can be ruled.
In the same way that some battered wives cling to their abusive husbands, the more debacles the government causes, the more some voters cling to rulers. The craving for a protector drops an iron curtain around the mind, preventing a person from accepting evidence that would shred his political security blanket. In the days after the 9/11 attacks polls showed a doubling in the number of people who trusted government to “do the right thing.” The media fanned this blind faith—as if trust in government was the high road to public safety. The Bush administration exploited the trust to unleash itself at home and abroad, and the nation is still paying the costs of its post-9/11 infatuation with government.
Bogus fears can produce real servitude. The Founding Fathers expected the American people to bravely stand up for their rights if their rulers trampled the law. Citizens cannot cower on cue without forfeiting any possibility of keeping government on a leash. If America is to have a rebirth of liberty, it must begin with a rebirth of courage.