Politics has a knack for creating monsters and spinning scary stories. On the far right, people enjoy telling stories of the liberal Dr. Frankenstein plotting to create a big, monstrous government. Meanwhile, those on the left have spun tales of The Nightmare on Wall Street — where men in designer suits driving Maseratis pay fewer taxes than you and I do.
While American politics has served up treats — Barack Obama’s historic election, Ronald Regan’s communication style and the Kennedys’ rhetoric — let’s not forget its tricks and the bad taste it’s left in our mouth.
The oldest trick in the book is fear. In the 16th century, Machiavelli famously argued that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved.
While few modern day politicians win votes by instilling fear, many use scare tactics to paint their opponents in a negative light.
Candidates define their opponents in the goriest way possible to solidify support. Fear is also used to squash an opponent’s support base. The best way to keep people from going out to vote (aside from forcing everyone to drag state-issued IDs to the polls) is to spook people out of voting for a candidate they had planned on supporting.
Whether or not you find the politics of fear appealing, there is certainly a lot to be afraid of. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best — “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Scare tactics lead to horrific policies. Look no further than Arizona’s immigration law. Arizona State Bill 1070 requires legal immigrants to carry their papers with them at all times and gives law enforcement officials the right to detain anyone whose status is suspect.
This law — which creates a borderline police state and infringes on individuals’ liberties — is undoubtedly one of the scariest measures ever passed in the United States.
But it was created out of a different fear — the fear of illegal immigrants.
In order to get SB 1070 passed, legislators waxed less than eloquently about a higher crime rate amongst illegal immigrants (these claims, of course, were half-baked).
A misguided fear of immigrants got out of hand and created a wave of support for a truly frightening bill.
The same story can be told through the Patriot Act, which was passed in the wake of 9/11 with the goal of providing law enforcement officials with more power to stop terrorists. What the Patriot Act succeeded in doing was depriving American citizens of privacy. It gave us an eerie feeling — like we were being watched — because we were.
The same can be said of Japanese internment during World War II. A fear of espionage sent more than 100,000 Japanese — the majority of whom were American citizens — to war relocation centers.
The politics of fear has created scary laws that stain American history. The question now is, what type of policy will the fear we see in this campaign give way to?
Republicans and Tea Partiers warn of big government when we should really be afraid of privatizating more government services and entitlement programs. Transferring government work to the private sphere will create less accountability and more instability.
On the other hand, The Nightmare on Wall Street starring Mitt Romney — a flick produced by the Democratic Party — might lead to some bad policies as well. Romney has been repeatedly criticized for the below average tax rates that he pays. While high earners ought to pay more in taxes, even if their wealth was earned through investments, Democrats cannot get carried away. Huge increases in capital gains taxes will cripple investments and slow down an economy trying to escape recession.
Tricks only treat us to petrifying laws. So don’t fall for the fear tactics — they can only lead to scary policies.
Adam Silver is a College junior and masters of public administration candidate from Scottsdale, Ariz. “The Silver Lining” appears every Wednesday. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him @adamtsilver.
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