Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Politics of Hope and Fear

I came across an a-political show on the radio today that happened to be talking about the tea-party movement. I always find political conversations among a-political people to be more direct and engaging. More often than not, the acutely political shows tend to get caught up in the minutia of it all, and the real arguments get lost. But when people who don't typically engage in politics start to discuss things of a political nature, I think it more easily opens up a genuine discussion about principles. So I always perk up a little bit when it happens.

One of the hosts said that he basically thought that the tea-party was deplorable because they operate on fear. He said that they are just trying to scare the elderly with talks of death panels and lies about the government taking control of certain parts of the medical sector. Now, if you know me, you know I'm not a huge fan of the tea-party movement as a whole. I think some of their general intentions are admirable, but it really is a hodge-podge of beliefs. Sure, most of them are against increased taxes and corporate bailouts, but a good number of them are racists and protectionists as well. It's a little hard to sympathize with political groups that are that inclusive. In any case, I felt that it was kind of hypocritical for someone of a liberal mindset to accuse their opponents of using fear. But as I thought about it some more, it made me realize that no one really acknowledges the fact that they use fear just as much as conservatives or libertarians do.

Conservatives, especially during the last presidency, were branded with the title of "fear-mongers." And I wouldn't explicitly argue against that point. It's certainly true that we were all made overly aware of the threat of terrorism. And because of that, we were ready to take actions that might have seemed silly in any other context (The Iraq and Afghan Wars, The Patriot Act, etc.). And liberals at the time were certainly right to crow about some of these items.

Today we have the government taking some unheard of legislative stances for the supposed good of the people. And yet again, a faction of the country is crowing about encroachment from the federal government and violations of liberty. But somehow it's the people who are protesting the usurpation of power and liberty that are fear-mongering this time around. Why is the reaction to such resistance viewed so differently now? I think it all goes back to terminology and effective rhetoric.

The mantra for liberals in the Obama era is "Hope" and "Change." But what seems to be lost on the proponents of such slogans is that these words are largely relative; at least in interpretation. People may see the action government has taken in tightening medical regulations and increasing taxes to subsidize private citizens as "hope." They believe that people won't be able to get the medical care they need without the government taking such action, even if those actions further violate individual liberty and sovereignty. But, in this way, a strong argument COULD be made (although it isn't) that liberals are using fear to persuade people in this debate about health care. "If we don't do X...people will die." How is this NOT using peoples' fear to persuade their political position? Is there really a difference between telling people that "people will die if we don't steal" and "people will die if we don't go to war?" And yet, we seem to believe only one of these propositions is driven by fear.

On the other hand, how is it that people protesting government action now are fear-mongering and the people who were protesting government largess and power before WEREN'T? Is culling fear of government having too much power via larger control of medicine any less legitimate, politically, than culling fear of government having too much power via larger control in regards to surveillance? Weren't the people who were concerned about government taking too much control then just as utilitarian in their use of "fear" as a motive in political discourse?

Take note that I'm making no positive political claims here as to which side is correct on any of the above issues (I could fill up quite a bit of time doing that if I wanted to). My over-all point is that "fear" and "hope" are two sides of the same coin. Hope is exclusive to fearful situations in some sense. You hope because there is something to be feared, which you believe you can overcome. Bush supporters could have just as easily claimed a stake in the hope-game; the pushing of government action that would ensure that no more innocent Americans would die from terrorism. In the same way, Obama's opponents could easily label him a fear-monger; scaring the country into acquiescing to the will of government by convincing them that people will die if they don't.

So why is the conversation about "hope" and "fear" so one-sided? The only thing I can really say with certainty is that liberals are certainly much more creative in their rhetoric...and even their refutations of conservative ideals are much more complex than the typical conservative rebuttal to liberal ideals. They seem to be much more adept in planting the seeds that grow into solid political mantras. And as someone who talks politics a LOT, I can tell you that over-used mantras and cliches are like intellectual dead weight. But I can also tell you that it's very effective and persuasive...particularly around those who are not as reasoned or politically adept as they are.

What does all this mean? Well, like almost every point I feel that's worth making, it all breaks down to encouraging people to check their premises at the door. I used to be one of those people that believed in "hope" (although we never called it that at the time). And I used to think that all those people who were berating me and my political brethren were essentially "fear-mongers" (although we didn't use this term either). But they turned out to be right. Fear is sometimes legitimate. Hope is sometimes legitimate. One is really not so different than the other. So before you go lambasting people with cute little labels, it might be worth just listening to them for a moment. You might just learn something about yourself and change your mind. I did.

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