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.