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Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Long and Proud Tradition of the Politics of Fear

(LEFT: Screen-grab of a GOP ad run against Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in the 2002 midterm elections; Cleland, of Georgia, lost his seat that year to Saxby Chambliss, whose victory gave the GOP control of the Senate).

From coast to coast, GOP candidates are capitalizing on public fear, more than anything else, in this cycle. Whether it is ISIS or Ebola or ISIS armed with Ebola-fueled weaponry, the subject matter of GOP candidates' pitches centers on one core message: there is much to fear in the world and we, the Republicans, are best equipped to protect you from these threats. The reasoning behind this strategy is clear and rational. The GOP is in a strong position to recapture control of the Senate this fall; it is no mistake that they are relying on fear to catapult them to victory. On the one hand, it's true that positive campaigns typically win in presidential elections and the evidence supports this hypothesis. For instance, President Obama famously campaigned on "hope and change" in 2008 and was elected overwhelmingly. On the other hand, as has been thoroughly demonstrated, in presidential elections but also more consistently in midterm congressional campaigns, fear-exploiting campaigns are strikingly effective. For the Republican Party, fear has been central to their victories, or at least to increasing their margins of victory, in many past elections but the Democratic Party is, by no means, innocent in this realm either. Perhaps unsurprisingly, campaign history further shows that threats are only exaggerated for fear when it is convenient for a party.

In terms of this election, it is convenient for Republicans to exploit fear as they are running against a sitting Democratic president who is currently unpopular, particularly in public appraisal of his handling of foreign policy. Their behavior is predictable and could be dangerously effective. Terror Post 9/11 and the Media author David Altheide told the Scientific American in 2010 that his analysis found that "if public support for a program is necessary, then one of the things you can count on is fear." In a 2012 RealClearScience article, author Ross Pomeroy similarly argued that fear is particularly effective in part because "when afraid, we quickly grew more attentive." In presidential races, fear has proven to be effective. Lyndon B. Johnson probably would have been reelected in 1964 regardless of whether he ran the Daisy ad but the advertisement was widely judged as being effective in aiding LBJ's campaign. George H.W. Bush was favored to win in 1988 thanks to Ronald Reagan's popularity and a growing economy but analyses found the Willie Horton ad to be effective in helping his cause. Most notably, in 2004, George W. Bush's utilization of fear of terrorism, in the first presidential race since 9/11, helped catapult him to a narrow reelection win. However, in midterm campaigns, fear can be even more effective. Therefore, it is clear the 2014 GOP strategy makes sense.

Fear is likely more effective in midterm campaigns for one key reason: the electorate in these elections is considerably older, on average, than the electorate in presidential elections. Statistical evidence shows that elderly citizens are more prone to fear than younger citizens -- and this is particularly true in terms of fear of crime, a broad ranging category that include anything from local bank robberies to the criminal acts of terrorist groups like ISIS. This is not to say that increased fear on the part of senior citizens is unwarranted. Nevertheless, the fact is that it exists and politicians have successfully exploited this fear in midterm campaigns. It should be noted the party that is running against the tide of fear could possibly win if it has demonstrable successes to counter the other party's claims. For example, in 1962, John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis effectively squashed Republican efforts to exploit fear of Communism and to portray him as "soft." Similarly, in this cycle, Vanderbilt public policy professor John Geer asserts that GOP attempts to exploit fear of ISIS may not be effective because "Obama did make the decision to take Osama bin Laden out and has made strong moves with ISIS." Usually though, fear can work to a party's advantage in the midterms. In 1966, the Republican strategy of focusing on fear of crime - undeniably racially tinged - worked to their advantage as they had a successful election. In 1970, Richard Nixon played on the politics of racial fears successfully enough that his party gained Senate seats that year. In 1994, the fear of crime, despite Bill Clinton signing into law a major crime bill, was one of the various reasons for the GOP's massive gains in their retaking of both houses of Congress. In 2002, sperheaded by George W. Bush's campaign efforts, the Republican Party capitalized on fear of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, in the aftermath of 9/11 when Bush enjoyed sky-high approval ratings, to ride a wave that culminated in the GOP retaking the Senate.

It is notable that only when it is convenient for a party to exploit fear do they actually do it, even if the threat is not as significant as the party claims, and sometimes, when there is a real threat emerging and it does not benefit a party to discuss that threat, the party will not do so. In the 1998 midterm elections, for instance, some Republican members of Congress criticized Bill Clinton for focusing too much on al-Qaeda and bin Laden, even though those threats were very real and dangerous (as we all unfortunately saw), as he was ordering missile strikes against them. The GOP would have much rather focused on the Lewinsky scandal and indeed, GOP politicians claimed Clinton was using the missile strikes to distract the country from Lewinskygate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy campaigned on the idea that there was a "missile gap," playing on fears of the Soviet Union, but JFK's assertions were incorrect. Kennedy was able to use the missile gap to distract voters from other issues that might imperil him like his personal history.

All of this is not to suggest that there are not real threats, problems, and issues that should grab our attention and press us to take decisive action to resolve those matters. Certainly, it is in the public interest for the CDC to have a strong response on Ebola; it is important and necessary for us to take action against ISIS to prevent them from killing Americans here at home. It is critical for us to go after al-Qaeda terrorists who actively plot against our country. It was worthwhile to undertake some policies like stricter gun laws and increased funding for police across the country, in 1968 and in 1994, to counter crime. The underlying point here instead is these threats are sometimes wildly exaggerated by political candidates, predictably so, to exploit fear to win campaigns and this kind of campaigning is understandable, even if despicable at times, given that fear is an effective tool. If the Republicans regain control of the Senate this November, analyses of their victory ought to take into account what role their exploitation of public fears played in helping make this possible. It may very well work. (PS: Hopefully, it doesn't!)

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Who's the Worst Democratic President?

A few weeks ago, a few of my friends and I were discussing the rankings of various Democratic presidents. A point of contention arose regarding whether Andrew Jackson could be considered a great president. Jackson, familiar to many Americans as the face of the $20 bill, is widely viewed, by an array of presidential historians, as belonging to the exclusive pantheon of great presidents. Jackson facilitated a strengthening of executive power, firmly defended the Union against efforts at nullification, and portrayed himself as a populist. These elements of his legacy largely influence his high rankings in the lists of great presidents. However, Jackson's legacy is marred by the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, his politically motivated push to destroy the National Bank, and truly bizarre episodes like the Peggy Eaton affair. Let's not mince words: some of the most consequential Jackson decision were enormously destructive for many, many people. His treatment of Natives tops the list. How would any of that make him a "great" president? Some of my progressive friends and I firmly believe that when a president's policies indisputably lead to real, large-scale destruction of many real people's lives - with no discernible positive effect for society - those factors ought to lower the respective president's ranking. Nevertheless, with respect to President Jackson, presidential historians, by and large, seem to disagree and instead value other factors more strongly in their rankings.

This conversation does make way for an interesting political discussion though: who is actually the worst Democratic president? I'm (obviously) a proud Democrat but, certainly before the 20th century, we had some pretty awful Democratic -- and Republican -- presidents. The aforementioned historians have settled on one particular candidate for that unfortunate distinction: James Buchanan. There is no doubt that Buchanan belongs at or near the bottom of the list. The failure to tackle the slavery issue as the Civil War loomed was inexcusable. Buchanan is arguably faulted more so for what he did not do then what he did do (which is not much); being the immediate predecessor to Abraham Lincoln does not help him either. In my humble opinion, there are two Democratic presidents who deserve to rank even lower than Buchanan though historians do not usually see it this way. Those two are Grover Cleveland and Andrew Johnson. Cleveland, despite ranking relatively around the middle in most lists, deserves to have an even lower ranking than he does in most surveys. He stubbornly stuck by the horrid idea of retaining the gold standard, normalized an anti-labor strain in federal policy for the next several decades through his militaristic response to the Pullman Strike, and divided the Democratic Party in such a way that his presidency culminated in the 1896 realigning election that catapulted the Republicans to dominant status in national politics. For these reasons, Cleveland was a consequentially bad president, in my view. With regards to Andrew Johnson, he was also both significant in his impact and unfortunately, his influence was not for good. The consequence of Lincoln's assassination meant that Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction and his strong leadership style would not come to fruition in the aftermath of the Civil War. Therefore, the task of uniting the country would be left to Johnson and his handling of it was disastrous. His overt racism, active opposition to the constitutional amendments that banned slavery and ensured equal protection, and his facilitation of the very first post-Civil War Southern efforts to discriminate against blacks set the tone for a string of subpar presidencies and, ultimately, for a century of unfulfilled promises for the disenfranchised. Andrew Jackson may belong lower than he does and James Buchanan certainly belongs near the bottom but Cleveland and Johnson, in my humble opinion, probably belong even nearer to the bottom than they do now for being so consequentially horrible.