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America’s Fear Factor

by Wendy Kaminer


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 1.

By the time this column appears, the 2004 presidential election will be history (so long as we don’t have another prolonged post-election period of uncertainty). I’m not sufficiently foolhardy to attempt to predict the winner, but I am confident that the results will be decided by the public’s fears. “Vote your hopes, not your fears,” is a politician’s cliché, but I doubt many people expect George Bush (or any other incumbent) to be reelected or unelected in a sudden outburst of hope. These days, of course, fear is palpable and not unreasoned.

In general, fear seems to favor incumbency. People are already frightened enough of another terrorist attack, perhaps an even more catastrophic one. How much more frightened would they be if they agreed with the president’s detractors that his administration was not protecting them, that his policies were maximizing, not minimizing, the terrorist threat? For many people, I suspect, the fear that follows not believing in the competence, toughness, or essential rightness of the president would be intolerable.

How does a challenger convince voters that the sense of security they derive from believing in an incumbent is false? First, he tries to establish himself as a reliable protector, so that voters susceptible to doubting the incumbent can acknowledge their doubts, in the belief that they have a replacement. (That’s why John Kerry spent the early months of the campaign polishing his medals.) Then he has to persuade them to acknowledge what they have been either willfully or instinctively avoiding: bad, scary news about the bloody debacle in Iraq, the increased power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the nuclear powers of North Korea or Iran, and the failure to make significant improvements in security at home (among other threats). He has to scare voters, with precision. Scare them too much, and they’ll turn off the news and revert to watching The Bachelor and taking solace in the status quo. Scare them too little, and they’ll turn off the news and revert to watching The Bachelor and taking solace in the status quo.

The incumbent walks a similar but wider, more forgiving tightrope: Scare people enough so that they cling without question to your promise to protect them and equate change with an increase in the threat level. Don’t scare them so much that they’ll no longer feel secure with you in charge. Scare them; but, at the same time, convince them of your progress in defusing scary things.

Wars can be quite helpful to incumbents, especially if they don’t last too long or involve too many American casualties. (No one can reliably predict how long is too long or how many is too many.) It’s not just the reflexive nationalism that accompanies war and demonizes dissent, especially criticism of the wartime leader. It’s the heartbreak 
of admitting that the tragedies of war lack nobility or purpose. Consider this remark by the brother of a young American killed in Iraq shortly before he was due to return home, a Marine corporal who had the sad distinction of being the first African American from his state to perish in the war. “It’s hard, you know. It’s really hard,” his brother told a reporter on National Public Radio. “But we were glad that it was . . . for something, not something stupid like, you know, a drug deal gone bad, or, you know, some guys just wanting to act idiotic. I mean this is something that’s going to go down in history.”

To people who believe the Iraq war resulted at least in part from “some guys just wanting to act idiotic,” that it is not so different from a drug deal gone bad (some would say, simplistically, it was an oil deal gone bad), the grief of people who’ve lost family members in the war may be particularly poignant. How do you suggest to grieving relatives that their children, brothers, sisters, or parents have been killed for no good reason, in an arguably unnecessary and badly managed war, without seeming dismissive of their grief and the solace they find in believing their deaths were “for something, not something stupid”?

Years ago, as a young and angry Vietnam vet, John Kerry eloquently denounced the Vietnam War as a mistake. But by the time he asked his famous rhetorical question, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?,” the war had spawned national protests and was widely considered unwinnable. Voters are probably not yet ready to hear the same question posed about the Iraq war. And George Bush has a powerful counterquestion: “How dare you tell the parents of a dead marine that their son was killed for a mistake?”

Which question will resonate more today? What frightens voters more— the prospect of more terror or the belief that the Iraq war and other counter-terrorism policies of the Bush administration are mistakes? Personally, I’m afraid to find out. 


Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic. Her latest book is Free for ALL: Defending Liberty in America Today (Beacon Press, 2002).

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