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Commentary: Fear in Politics

By Chris Tucker, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

On the political scene today, there's plenty of fear and loathing over...fear. Many believe that the Bush administration is desperately exaggerating the threat of terrorism, hoping to scare voters into sticking with the GOP. On the blogs, jeers about Bush "crying wolf" are almost as common as bad spelling.

At the same time, some believe that Al Gore and others are whipping up fear about global warming in an effort to scare government and business into radical changes. Still others believe that scare tactics killed the recent immigration bill. On and on it goes.

Now we may not like the use of fear in politics, but the strategy has a long pedigree. Democrats spent much of the 70s and 80s warning senior citizens that Republicans would wreck Social Security. In 1988, Republicans played on fears of rampant crime with the infamous "Willie Horton" ads against Michael Dukakis. Scariest of all, perhaps, was Lyndon Johnson's famous "Daisy" ad, graphically warning that the election of Barry Goldwater would bring atomic war with the Soviets.

Idealists may hope to banish all fear from politics, but to me, that seems like utopian yearning for something that cannot be, given the reality of human nature. The best we can do is acknowledge the power of fear and turn it to our advantage. Here are four ways of doing so:

First, we need to distinguish reasonable fear from panicky, unthinking fear. There are many times in our lives when some measure of fear is exactly the right response. As Odysseus says to Achilles in the disappointing movie Troy, "You're not afraid of anything. That's your problem. Fear can be useful."

Well, that's for sure. If certain members of the Bush Administration had felt some tremors of fear before leading us into Iraq, they might have made sure our troops had the numbers and the plans to ensure success.

Second, we must remember that fear without facts is a dangerous formula. Recently, some medical researchers announced that a popular diabetes drug could pose an increased risk of heart attack. The FDA discounted the findings, saying the benefits of the drug outweigh the risks. Meanwhile, millions of worried people were left wondering which set of facts to believe.

Third, we need to be sure that our response to fear is proportionate not too much, but not too little, either. If I know there's a poisonous snake in my back yard, I'm going to be scared. Now it would be a dumb response to move to another house or chop down all trees and shrubs in order to get rid of the reptile, but it would be equally dumb to do nothing at all except cross my fingers and hope nobody gets bitten.

Fourth, we need to stop being ashamed of fear and admit that it plays a part in our lives every day. Of all the emotions anger, sadness, love, and the rest - fear gets the worst press. It's almost impossible for people, especially men, to utter the words, "I'm scared." But fear is part of our biological makeup. It's there for a reason.

Quite often, someone who is angered by the use of fear will quote Franklin Roosevelt: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Now FDR was a great president, but surely there is much else to fear besides fear. Does anyone doubt that Roosevelt himself had moments of fear after Pearl Harbor, when the Pacific Fleet was all but wiped out? FDR might have stared into the void and heard his pulse pounding, but then he turned to the task at hand and put that fear to good use.

I think that's the best way to look at fear: We can't get rid of it, so we need to respect its power. We should see it as a tool that must be used with caution, or a strong medicine that has its own side effects. We want the right dose not the overdose.

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.