Politics & Policy

The Politics of Fear

And the mother of all bait-and-switches.

This week, former Vice President Al Gore was forced to withdraw a slide from his PowerPoint presentation.

Admittedly, on the surface that sounds only marginally more exciting than the news that Dan Quayle had wheat toast instead of rye with breakfast this week. But hold on a minute.

The slide in question was part of Gore’s peripatetic minstrel show of environmental doom, made famous in his Oscar-winning horror-documentary An Inconvenient Truth. After a montage of images of people suffering from famines, floods, fires, and other biblical plagues across the globe, the slide purported to show data demonstrating that global warming “is creating weather-related disasters that are completely unprecedented.”

The problem: The source of the data — the Belgium-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters — explicitly warned against using the data the way Gore did, because there’s no way to attribute all of these disasters to climate change. Caught fudging the facts, again, the former vice president had no choice but to drop the graph.

#ad#It’s a small thing, in and of itself, but it illustrates something much bigger.

Democrats take understandable pride in FDR’s famous declaration, made during the Great Depression, that “all we have to fear is fear itself.” More recently Democrats, led by none other than Al Gore, have been fixated on the evils of the “politics of fear” — politics, allegedly, only Republicans are guilty of practicing.

Ever since the Iraq War turned decidedly unpopular, Gore has been demonizing George W. Bush and the GOP as fearmongers. “He betrayed this country!” Gore fumed of President Bush, in a famous splenetic diatribe at a 2004 Democratic Party event in Tennessee. “He played on our fears!” Gore went on to rail against the “politics of fear” going all the way back to Nixon. In 2008, when Gore endorsed Barack Obama it was in part because the Illinois senator represented a break with the “politics of fear.”

What’s hilarious about this is that Gore is, without question, the most successful fearmonger in America, if not the whole world. He is constantly spinning climate change in the most horrifying terms possible. He asserts global warming as the author of nearly every calamity, inflating threats in order to bully people into agreeing with him. There’s no time to argue, do what I say or we’re all doomed, is the central message of Al Gore’s environmental shtick. And it works for him. It’s made him both hugely wealthy and popular in the circles he cares about and it has advanced his agenda farther than fair-minded persuasion would.

Of course, in the process he’s fueled paranoia among an entire generation of young people who think we’re seconds from an environmental Armageddon.

Gore also seems to have taught Barack Obama a thing or two. President Obama, whose whole campaign was about hope over fear, has been scaring the dickens out of people lately. He has certainly terrified the stock market. He’s warned of “catastrophe” and economic “disaster” from which we may never recover.

What’s particularly odious about Obama’s scare tactics is that he’s using them for the mother of all bait-and-switches. He justifiably scares people about the magnitude of the financial crisis, but uses that fear not to sell them on a solution to the crisis but to trick them into signing up for a new Great Society. It’s like convincing someone he’s got cancer and then telling him that’s why he needs to buy a new car.

But beyond the hypocrisy and the undemocratic nature of using panic to cram through policies you couldn’t get through debate and persuasion, what I find fascinating is the psychological projection. Liberals have been using fear to demonize their opponents for generations. FDR did it all the time. Harry Truman claimed his 1948 opponent, Thomas Dewey, was the front man for a fascist cabal. LBJ tried to link Barry Goldwater with the Klan and the (fictionally right-wing) forces who assassinated Kennedy. Bill Clinton was a master of conjuring fears about angry white men and other hobgoblins. Al Gore campaigned in 2000 by decrying every idea he didn’t like as a “risky scheme.” Liberal activists groups stir up panics over food, children, power lines, polar bears, and a thousand other things every day.

I’ve long been convinced that one of the chief sources of rage in politics is when the enemy steals your shtick. Republicans loathed Bill Clinton in part because he ran on issues like crime and fixing welfare. One major ingredient of Bush hatred was that he campaigned on issues like education and gushed about compassion. I’m not saying that Republicans don’t practice the politics of fear. But I do sometimes wonder if Democrats get so upset about it because they think they’re the only ones allowed to do that.

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