Just say 'no' to politicians who stoke and exploit our fears
It's time for the American public to take measures to improve the poisoned political climate, writes guest columnist Barry Glassner. Make the fear-mongering electioneers pay for their misdeeds in the only way that counts. Don't give them your vote.
Special to The Times
BE afraid. Be very afraid.
That's your state of mind if you believe some of the things the presidential contenders have been claiming. The horror stories warn us daily of the grim fate in store for us if President Obama is re-elected (the end of freedom in America) or if the GOP reclaims the White House (a bomb-them-all foreign policy, or a back-to-the-Middle-Ages crackdown on reproductive rights — take your pick).
Those of us so naive as to voice objections to the harmful scare tactics are told to get over it. Self-styled realists tell us the candidates and their henchmen play the fear card primarily for one reason — it works.
They are undoubtedly right. And that is why it's time for the American public to take the only countermeasure that stands a chance of improving the poisoned political climate. You want to see an end to the nonsense? Make the fear-mongering electioneers pay for their misdeeds in the only way that counts.
Don't give them your vote.
The presidential candidates' stump speeches and media appearances have been enough to make you duck and cover. If we are to believe Newt Gingrich, the country is in grave danger of attack if we don't elect a different president (one named Newt, presumably). The incumbent in the White House, Gingrich claims, is "the most dangerous president in modern American history," a man who is "incapable of defending the United States" and who "wants to unilaterally weaken" the country. If the danger is as grave as Gingrich claims, one wonders why we are waiting for an election to make the change.
As a college president, I cannot help but notice how Rick Santorum criticized President Obama for promoting the idea that all American youth should have a chance to attend college. If you think Obama is driven by belief in the benefits of higher education, think again. The real reason, Santorum charged, is that Obama wants our young people subjected to the "indoctrination mills" that await them on the nation's campuses — mills that destroy their religious faith and traditional values.
(One problem: Studies find that young people who don't go to college experience more dramatic declines in their religiosity than those who do, and that more students report a rise in their spirituality during their colleges years than report declines.)
Don't think for a minute that Democrats are above this form of politicking. Prime cases in point: charges by Democrats, including former Bill Clinton adviser Simon Rosenberg, that GOP attempts at entitlement reforms will actually kill people, and claims that Republicans are bent on dragging women's health and rights back to the 13th century.
As a sociologist who has spent many years researching the manipulation of fear to sell products, ideas, legislation and candidates, I understand why marketers and strategists find it hard to resist the tactic. Stoking people's anxieties is a surefire way of motivating desired behaviors.
Just as we allow fear to lure us into buying products we don't need to treat problems we don't have, we let it lead us to support policies and politicians who misdirect our attention from real problems and threats. It's useful to think of this dynamic in terms suggested by the cognitive scientists. The parts of the brain most capable of complex problem-solving and creative thinking are, essentially, deactivated by the "fight or flight" instincts that take over when people are afraid and angry. This is one key way in which rampant fear-mongering hamstrings our ability to solve national problems.
Another is the way in which it has soured people on the very enterprise of politics and government. A Gallup poll conducted in late 2011 found that a majority of Americans have little or no confidence in the people seeking and holding public office, and a whopping 82 percent disapprove of how Congress is doing its job. Given the way they malign each other, it's no wonder politicians, and the political system itself, are held in such low esteem. A government that enjoys little public trust is a government that is extremely limited in its ability to serve the public effectively.
What can a civic-minded citizen do?
Start by asking yourself if the scare stories you're being told by candidates and their representatives are based in fact, or based only on a calculated desire to scare you away from that other candidate. Think about the sources of the scare stories bombarding you. Who is trying to benefit? What are they trying to get you to do? I have found that the very act of asking those questions is the equivalent of taking a deep breath — it begins to quell anxieties and trigger the clear thinking the manipulators don't want you to engage.
The media have a key part to play. Kudos to media resources like factcheck.org that provide good nonpartisan information for separating fact from fiction. But news organizations can do more. Reporters ought to make as much of candidates' fear-inducing and false claims (while debunking them, of course) as they do of the other campaign-trail happenings. Rather than just report outlandish stump-speech claims by candidates, tell us more about their accuracy and the motives behind them — and call the candidates out for assertions that can be proved untrue.
My own sector, higher education, has an important contribution to make. Colleges and universities must continue — and get better at — teaching students to think critically about the political rhetoric they consume.
Let's start rewarding politicians who have the courage to say that something isn't actually as ominous as voters have been led to believe, and who refuse to stoke fears about threats that don't amount to as much as we've been told. Just say "no" to candidates and strategists who try to exploit our fears — even if they are people you might otherwise support. After all, do we really want our country being run by folks who would say virtually anything, and impugn virtually anyone, to win office?
Ultimately, if you're serious about stopping the fear-mongers, remind yourself of what they want, and act in such a way as to deny it:
Save your vote for someone who deserves it.Barry Glassner is president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, and author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things."