“Keep calm and carry on.” — British government poster, 1939
According to Hollywood, most disasters feature government or institutional figures who try to downplay the scale of catastrophe, at least publicly, in order to prevent mass panic. Rightly or wrongly, those fictional leaders want to shield the public from the facts because they believe disseminating the truth would only provoke hysteria.
Right now, though, life is hardly imitating art. As the midterm elections approach, some leading political figures — most of them Republicans — are actively spreading half-truths, distortions and just plain lies in order to increase voter anxiety. They believe exploiting public fears will boost their chances.
It is a sinister and shameful use of the political soapbox, a detrimental exercise that misleads people about the risks they face from threats as different as Islamic jihadists and an exotic virus. It also damages the reputations of institutions that are indispensable in a crisis.
Shouldn’t our political leaders be the responsible ones who distribute facts, dampen panic and model rational decision-making? Isn’t it part of their job to coach the rest of us to keep cool? Apparently not, if exaggerating threats is the better campaign strategy.
The use of fear as a political weapon isn’t new, of course. It is as old as the earliest political gatherings and has been used by feudal lords, despots and democratically-elected premiers and presidents. There’s a reason for that: fear is among the most powerful of human emotions, more likely to motivate people to react than sorrow, joy or even anger.
For some Republican candidates, Ebola arrived in the United States just in time. While the murderous jihadists of Islamic State had helped to push President Obama’s approval ratings to new lows, they were still a far-away threat. But the tragic death of Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who died in a Dallas hospital, lent itself to hyperbole and fear-mongering.
Several Republicans have found a way to work the Ebola virus into criticisms of their Democratic opponents, usually linking an alleged weakness on border security to an enhanced threat from infected persons. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has suggested that the Obama administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are hiding the truth about the transmission of Ebola.
But the prize may go to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), who suggested in an interview with the rightwing media organization NewsMax that ISIS fighters might use Ebola as a biological weapon.
While the GOP has taken the lead on the fear bandwagon, a few Democrats have also jumped aboard — scared to be left behind. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are among the Dems who have joined the call for travel bans from some West African countries, although health officials have repeatedly said such restrictions would be counterproductive.
Perhaps our elected leaders would be more responsible if the nation were facing an existential threat, as it did in World War II. Perhaps they’d put aside partisanship if Ebola were really poised to create a worldwide pandemic, spiraling through affluent countries as well as poor ones.
History shows us examples of bi-partisan cooperation to fight not only Nazi Germany but also the Communist threat that lingered for a half century after that. Unfortunately, that same history shows us many examples of politicians only too willing to inflame passions, incite fear and create panic for personal gain. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s crazed Commie-hunt went on for years, destroying not just livelihoods but also lives.
In my lifetime, politicians used the fear of racial integration to incite white voters and scare them to the polls — and worse. For decades, the worst stereotypes about black students were used to agitate white parents, the most pernicious lies about black homeowners used to panic white neighborhoods. While those segregationist pols didn’t invent racism, they primed it and pandered to it. And we are still trying to recover from the havoc they wrought.
Yes, you can win elections by inspiring fear and panic (unfortunately). But you will have created another breach in the social fabric — another ruinous tear that will make it more difficult to govern from the post you’ve won.