With the presidential election now less than a year off, the machinery of American politics has been cranking out clichés on an industrial scale—and from now through November it will continue to pick up the pace. Soon America will be hip-deep in allegations that so-and-so is "the most extreme" candidate in living memory; that someone else has reached "a new low"; that this will be "the most important election" in our lifetime; etc.
At the moment, the cliché that has gotten stuck like a bad song in the political hive mind is this one: "The GOP Is the Party of Fear."
So said The New Republic shortly before Christmas. The other day, the Washington Post seconded the motion: "Most of the Republican presidential contenders and their allies are now waging campaigns focused on fear," wrote the paper's Matea Gold, in a news story (?) with the thoroughly impartial headline, "With Dark Warnings, GOP Candidates Play to Voters' Fears."
Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation agrees: "(Donald) Trump has seemingly mastered the demagogic art of fearmongering," she writes. "But he is certainly not alone in cynically sowing fear and hysteria among voters.
Not to be outdone, the New York Daily News recently informed its readers that the GOP is "composed of pandering liars because stoking irrational fear is selling bigtime among gun-obsessed Americans." The ever-moderate Salon blasted "Rand Paul's despicable anti-refugee bill" for "stoking fear and resentment of the vulnerable for political gain." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was "appealing to people's anxieties and insecurities and outright fears" said a White House spokesman. Closer to home, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring ripped "the gun lobby" for "stoking fears and pushing misinformation."
You get the drift.
The only cliché that gets trotted out more than the stoking-fears cliché might be the "cowardly" cliché. In political terminology, a coward is someone who doesn't vote the way a liberal thinks he should. Hence former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' insistence<> that senators who voted against expanded background checks three years ago "caved in to their fear of the corporate gun lobby." That was certainly how CNN's Piers Morgan saw it at the time when he tweeted, "The U.S. senate just voted against expanding background checks for gun sales. What a pathetic, gutless bunch of cowards."
By contrast, George H.W. Bush won a Profile in Courage award for breaking his promise not to raise taxes. Liberals always praise tax hikes as courageous. America needs "the courage to raise taxes," wrote Walter Mondale four years ago, in a piece reminding everyone about the last politician with enough nobility of spirit to call for tax hikes: himself. Raising taxes supposedly is courageous because it is unpopular. By that yardstick Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who went to jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses, certainly exhibited courage: She stuck to her principles despite withering condemnation from liberals, conservatives, moderates, and libertarians across the country. Don't expect her to win any awards for her stoutheartedness, though.
Last year the JFK Library gave a Profile in Courage award to former Republican congressman Bob Ingliss for, as the Boston Globe put it, "putting his career on the line to call attention to the threat from climate change."
Hold the phone a sec. The threat of climate change is real, but why is warning about it courageous? Anyone who has even dipped a toe into the popular literature on climate change knows its overall thrust boils down to one simple message: "WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!"
Climate-change activists and the establishment media, which usually amount to the same thing, are forever warning about the dire consequences that will ensue if mankind does not repent of its sinful ways: Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Rising sea levels wiping out coastal areas and island nations. War. Famine. Disease. Polyester bell-bottoms. Dogs and cats sleeping together.
If that's not "sowing fear and hysteria," then nothing is.
You might have noticed that President Obama and others of his persuasion recently have had a thing or two to say about guns. "The epidemic of gun violence in our country is a crisis," the president wrote in a New York Times op-ed recently—never mind the fact that gun homicide rates have fallen by half since 1993. So why aren't his gun-control efforts considered "dark warnings" that "play to voters' fears"?
Was it "fearmongering" when Nancy Pelosi said "civilization as we know it would be in jeopardy if Republicans win the Senate"? Or when Hillary Clinton wrote that "the rights of women (and) the future of the planet" will be at risk if a Republican gets to appoint more Supreme Court justices? Or when Bernie Sanders said Republicans want to "abolish Social Security"? Or when Democratic National Committee chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the GOP wants to "take health care away from women"? Or when a campaign ad depicted vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan pushing an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff? Or…
To borrow a phrase President Obama often employs, "there are those who say" statements like those might qualify as "sowing fear and hysteria among voters." But then, anyone who dared suggest such a thing during the most important election in history probably would be hitting a new low.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.