In the face of political scandals and nasty partisan immaturity, Americans are no longer so astonished when they hear of something devious in the political world. We shake our heads at the news that a politician has had an affair or taken a bribe, but we don’t lose sleep over it. Congressmen went to the Caribbean on a corporate tab? Quelle surprise. So when Politico.com published a controversial fundraising guide by the Republican National Committee last week that instructed fundraisers to play on donors’ fear, I wasn’t all that taken aback. Politics, we all know, can be a dirty game. But while it’s well-known that fear is often manipulated politically, I was startled by how blunt the RNC was (if only amongst insiders) about its use of fear in fundraising.

As reported by Politico, the guide instructed fundraisers to focus on “fear” and call to “reactionary” inclinations when soliciting smaller donors. It included caricatures of President Barack Obama as the Joker from Batman and of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) as Cruella DeVille. And it craftily stated that when all else fails, fundraisers ought to remind donors that the GOP is trying to “save the country from Socialism!” In doing so, the RNC evidently hoped to use fear to inculcate a sense of urgency in potential donors.

Historically, this may be what conservative groups do best. In the last century, social conservative movements have encouraged fear of immigrants, communists, gays, terrorism and socialism, amongst innumerable other groups and isms, within the contemporary national psyche. Luckily, for the educated mind, said manipulation is easy to spot. Often when they use the definite article, for instance — “the gays,” “the Mexicans” — they are trying to make us versus them distinctions and create an artificial social menace against whom they can campaign. In this way, entirely too many social conservatives have managed to get elected while avoiding any truly relevant discussion of policy.

Keep in mind that the Republicans don’t seem at all afraid of the Christian fundamentalist minority that has pervaded our politics in recent decades. But that’s another column entirely.

I don’t want to suggest that Democrats don’t occasionally use scare tactics. Some would say the left has manipulated global warming to instill fear in Americans. But then again, there hasn’t yet been a sedition act imposed against Hummer drivers. And though the War on Terror may be all about oil, our troops aren’t fighting Exxon Mobil in Afghanistan.

After September 11th, it was easy for Republicans in power to use fear to their advantage. The nation was, understandably, living in fear of terrorism. But rather than speaking softly and carrying a big stick to calm Americans, as a different sort of Republican might’ve advised, the Bush administration capitalized on public fear to garner votes. By now, that story of President George W. Bush’s manipulation of terror is a tired narrative. Yet it’s crucial to recognize that he was able to do it because he evoked the social conservative precept of mistrusting those who are different.

A slight uneasiness around the unfamiliar may be inherent in all of us. But we must be aware of the extent of such biases when listening to politicians who will exploit our subtlest inclinations to gain popularity.

Manipulation has no place in real, scholarly political dialogue. At the University, regardless of political ideology, all of us have the intellectual imperative not to give credence to those politicians who would have us vote with our amygdalae and not our frontal lobes. Conservatives should demand more levelheaded discourse and campaigning from their leaders. And liberals should continue to do the same, though they already have a head start. Because there are so many points of disagreement, almost every American would agree on a Beltway that wasn’t so obsessed with manipulating our anxieties.

I’m already anxious as it is. And, I’ll admit, I have a whole host of fears. But even if I were trapped in a dark basement filled with spiders and Karl Rove was threatening to force-feed me eggnog, I wouldn’t be as afraid as I am at the thought of another era of fear-driven politics.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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