As someone who has voted Republican more often than Democratic, I knew I wanted the Republicans to take a beating at the polls when I saw an ad best summed up as "Vote Republican or die in a nuclear conflagration." After showing quotes from Al Qaeda terrorists about seeking nuclear weapons to the accompaniment of a ticking timer, the ad proclaimed, "These are the stakes. Vote November 7th."
Scare tactics are nothing new in politics. That ad, put out by the Republican National Committee, echoes one of the most ignoble political attacks in US history, run against a conservative Republican in 1964: The ad that showed a girl picking petals off a daisy in a countdown to a nuclear explosion, with the implication that the hawkish Barry Goldwater would unleash nuclear war. In more recent campaigns, politicians right and left have appealed to fear of crime and fear of Social Security reform that would supposedly rob old people blind.
In the 2006 elections, the Republicans' tactics have been especially blatant. Besides the nuclear terrorism ad, there was the one from the conservative group Citizens United: A dramatized conversation between two shadowy terrorists is interrupted and the screen goes blank as a voice over intones, "This terrorist wiretap has been disconnected by a Democratic-controlled Congress. If the Democrats win, the NSA won't be able to listen as terrorists plot to attack. This year, vote like your life depends on it. Because it does."
Some conservatives dismiss complaints about fear tactics. "Reminding Americans of the ever-present dangers of jihad is resorting to 'utter fear?' " scoffs blogger Michelle Malkin . But even aside from the loaded question of whether the threat has been exaggerated at times, flogging it for politics is disgraceful. Particularly so since the Democrats—and the Republican critics of the administration's surveillance program—don't want to stop wiretaps, only to ensure that they are authorized by the special courts legally required to oversee such spying.
It would be tempting to say that America's vote was a rejection of fear-based politics. But maybe these days, the real question in politics is whom you fear most.
Malkin has lambasted an Agence France-Presse photo caption saying that the campaign "sometimes seems to boil down to one question: Who's scarier, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, [or] Bush?" Yet that summary may be close to the truth. Where the right appeals to fear of terrorism, the left has appealed—often in exaggerated and misleading fashion—to fear of a police state.
On Oct. 19, decrying the new law on the detention of terror suspects, MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann asserted, rhetorically addressing Bush, that not even "the actions of a ceaseless line of terrorists, real or imagined, could measure up to what you have wrought." He speculated, with no evidence, that the bill's provisions authorizing the detention without trial of foreign unlawful enemy combatants might also be used to seize US citizens who could be held captive without the ability to prove their citizenship.
The Democrats have largely shunned such hysteria in the pre election campaign, which is a big point in their favor. But the left-wing media are a different story, and a significant portion of the Democratic base seems ready to believe that under Bush's evil reign, we are all one step away from being tortured or "disappeared."
Not all fear is irrational. The dangers of terrorism and fundamentalist Islamic radicalism are quite real. Concerns that our civil liberties may be sacrificed in the quest for safety are well-founded as well; so is the concern about a drawn-out war in Iraq that may endanger rather than boost our security. We do, despite FDR's dictum, have more to fear than fear itself. But the fear-mongering can only make things worse.
Right now, at least, the next two years of divided government don't look very scary. The Bush administration has been given a much-needed reality check that should temper its arrogance; the Democratic Congress is unlikely to lurch far to the left, given its large moderate contingent and the presence of conservative Democrats such as Senator Joseph Lieberman (now formally an independent) and James Webb, the senator-elect from Virginia. We will still face a dangerous world—but with that, perhaps, a less depressing political climate at home.
This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe.