The presidency of George W. Bush did not usher in a new Republican era, contrary to some predictions. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.)
Quick show of hands: who remembers the Summer of the Shark? The reference is to those muggy months in 2001 when the news was so slow and the media was so craven that the third-most-covered news story was a supposed epidemic of shark attacks that weren’t even an epidemic (there were 76 shark attacks in 2001 and 85 in 2000). The (media) feeding frenzy ended, naturally, on September 11. And so did something else: the general sense that George Bush was a do-nothing president that drove his approval ratings into the low fifties. As if overnight, they rose to 90 percent.
Then, cunningly, cravenly, the neoconservatives in and around the White House exploited the terrorist attacks to work their political will. The Project for the New American Century 2000 report “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,’ after all, had almost longingly observed that “absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor,” the kind of hyper-militarization of which they dreamed would be hard to achieve. They bank-shot the paralyzing fear into a made-up casus belli in Iraq—and then rode the electorate’s security fears all the way to Bush’s re-election. (Then, the day after that re-election, Bush called it a mandate to privatize Social Security.) Karl Rove’s predictions of a conservative Republican century seemed as reasonable as today’s arguments for Democratic demographically inevitability. Fear worked—in a way that could not possibly have been predicted by electoral prognosticators. Fear has a special way of confounding political predictions.
The Summer of the Shark illustrates something else: American culture is largely an ecology of fears, political culture included. And though it may flatter our liberal amour propre, conservatives don’t have a monopoly on exploiting fear for political advantage. Fear can be progressive—when Democratic politicians speak constructively to ordinary people’s fear of being manipulated and exploited by their bosses, of losing their way in a winner-take-all economy, of the consequences of a state without a safety net. It’s almost a very rough rule of thumb: when Democrats are able to successfully frame the meaning of an election season around middle-class fears, Democrats win the election; when Republicans are able to successfully frame the meaning of an election season around cultural fears, Republicans win the election.
Alas, many of Democrats’ political problems come when they forget that rule of thumb. And given that, it has to be said: when conservatives do fear—when they work to make elections referenda on cultural fears—they really do leave it all out on the floor.
Recent research supports it: “Using a large sample of related individuals, including twins, siblings, and parents and children,” according to a summary from the Associated Press, researchers led by Rose McDermott of Brown “first assessed individuals for their propensity for fear using standardized clinically administered interviews.” They then “surveyed the sample for their attitudes toward out-groups—immigrants in this case—as well as toward segregation. Participants were also ranked on a liberal-conservative partisanship scale depending on how they self-reported their political attitudes.” They found “a strong correlation between social fear and anti-immigration, pro-segregation attitudes. While those individuals with higher levels of social fear exhibited the strongest negative out-group attitudes, even the lowest amount of social phobia was related to substantially less positive out-group attitudes.”
The AP then quoted the scholars’ useful conclusion: “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative.” 9/11 showed that was so. Fear of “the Other” became endemic, epidemic, among people who at other times and in other circumstances have shown evidence of a healthy pluralism, tolerance for complexity and salutary fellow feeling. Andrew Sullivan, for example, the sometimes-conservative pundit, has never been my favorite political writer (his specialty seems to be serially getting things wrong, then narcissistically claiming moral credit for the courage to change his mind, long after it really matters), but he doesn’t seem all that bad a guy. After 9/11, however, he lost it, calling you, me, and everyone else skeptical of the rush to war in Afghanistan, “[t]he decadent Left,” who “[m]ay well mount what amounts to a fifth column.” Now (too late!) he diagnoses what drove his own hysteria: “crippling fear.”
But at that, at times, haven’t all of us been sort of conservative like that? Unexpected things happen, unmoor us, and we lose ourselves. We lash out, indulge bad instincts, think with bad faith, grow cranky, irritable, stupid—act like stereotypical right-wingers. Maybe even, temporarily, indulge right-wing political behavior.
Thus the political corollary: make people more scared, and you may make them more conservative. When that happens on a big enough scale, conservatives are electorally advantaged. Which is why, historically, conservatives have been such avid entrepreneurs of political fear. Scare people about something, anything, and you might get them voting “right”; you get power; and once you get power, you needn’t actually address the fear (stoking it further, not addressing it, is the more useful political play). You instead may use the newfound, fortuitous grant of power for something entirely unrelated—say, trying to privatize Social Security.
Once-in-several-generation tragedies like 9/11 being unreliable foundations for political strategy, the process is typically more sedulous. And that which will scare us most being unpredictable, the process demands an experimental temper—throwing things against the wall, seeing what sticks. The pioneers of the New Right in the 1970s were quite explicit about it. “The New Right is looking for issues that people care about,” Richard Viguerie said. “Social issues, at least for the present, fit the bill.” And so, in the 1970s when families were collapsing left and right, they zeroed in on issues that spoke to those fears: federal bureaucrats undermining family authority in the classroom. Gay rights ordinances. The Equal Rights Amendment. Abortion. “I organize discontent,” as Viguerie said.
In 2004, I watched the process happen. Early in the year, as I’ve written, “I attended of hundreds of ‘Parties for the President’ organized nationwide for grassroots volunteers who wanted to help re-elect George W. Bush, at a modest middle-class home in Portland, Oregon. At one point, a nice old lady politely pressed into my hand a grubby little self-published pamphlet she had come upon, purporting to prove that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had faked the heroics that had won him three purple hearts in Vietnam. I added it to my mental store of the night’s absurdities that I expected to hear rattling across the wingnutosphere the entire fall: ‘I still believe there are weapons of mass destruction’; ‘There is an agenda—to get rid of God in this country’; ‘John Kerry attended a party in which there was bad language!’” All were equally absurd. One of them, however—the notion that Kerry was a military shirker in Vietnam, symbolically implying that a President Kerry would shirk his executive obligations to protect the nation now—for some reason took off. It was all over CNN that fall, not just Fox; so it was that a crazy right-wing fear-meme insinuated into the mass lizard brain by Election Day.
“Death panels” did pretty well in 2010—no one could have predicted that. The “war on religion,” “Sharia law,” “Obama wasn’t born in America”: Three strikes and the Republicans were out in 2012. You win some, you lose some. But here, at base, is the biggest problem with the confident predictions that demography will drive Democratic inevitability in the coming decades: No one can predict fears before they come; that’s why they call them fears. Fear of rioting “Negroes” from 1966 on: no one saw that coming to upset the Democratic inevitability of 1964. Extremist Iranian students seizing innocent American hostages in 1979: no one saw that coming to help upset the Democratic inevitability of the late 1970s. (Political scientist Everett Carll Ladd in 1978: The “GOP is in a weaker position than any major party of the U.S. since the Civil War.”)
As long as human beings are wired like this—and barring robot brain transplants, human beings will always be wired like this—predictions about permanent conservative retreat cannot be reliable. People are more tolerant of homosexuality? So what. The things people are afraid of change; that’s life. Fear still remains. They surely will figure out something else. What will it be? We cannot know. That is why they call it fear.
Read Rick Perlstein on Anthony Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for his coverage of the Supreme Court who died today.