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Will Americans Embrace the Politics of Fear or Trust?
These are the two primary strategies we all use to motivate ourselves and others every day. We use them in our internal self-talk, we use them with our children, and politicians use them constantly
Increasingly, the Democratic and Republican parties are offering us all a very real choice: trust or fear.
Think back to the 2022 election we endured just two months ago. Remember the ads you saw on TV? Odds are each one fell into one of two very simple categories: “be afraid of the other guy” or “trust that I’ll make your life better.”
Most of the “fear” ads came from Republicans; most of the “trust” ads came from Democrats.
Pain or pleasure. Fear or trust.
These are the two primary strategies we all use to motivate ourselves and others every day. We use them in our internal self-talk, we use them with our children, and politicians use them every time they run for election or re-election.
To compare them with elemental forces of nature, fear- and pain-based motivation strategies are like the electromagnetic force. Powerful. Instantaneous. Violent. You can’t look away. When lighting is striking all around you, your one and only thought is to get away from it to avoid being struck.
The weakness of pain-based strategies is that they exhaust people and thus eventually lose their power. If somebody shouts, “Be afraid!” too often over too long a period of time, people stop paying attention. It’s like the story of the little boy who cried wolf.
Republicans, for example, have been hysterically warning us about communism and socialism for so long and with such over-the-top rhetoric that few people (outside of true believers) pay attention anymore. Ditto for their warnings about the evils of unions or racially integrated public schools.
Pleasure-based motivation strategies, on the other hand, are more like gravity. They’re gentle but continuous and often irresistible. They draw you in and hold you, providing ongoing motivation sometimes for years or even a lifetime.
Just as gravity is the weakest of the natural forces over the short term, it is also the most steady and constant over time. It’s keeping you and me attached to planet Earth.
The weakness of pleasure-based motivation strategies is that they’re so mild that pain or the fear of pain can blow them up. Sure, we want nice things, but what if the consequences are terrible?
Ed Muskie, the former Democratic Senator from Maine, once a serious contender for president, laid it out in a 1970 speech:
“There are only two kinds of politics.
“They are not radical and reactionary, or conservative and liberal. Or even Democrat and Republican. There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust.”
Americans want to trust our politicians. And when they keep their promises and accomplish good things for the average person we embrace and re-elect them. Living in a country that works gives us pleasure.
As President Kennedy said when accepting his party’s nomination for president in 1960:
“I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.”
America was hopeful in 1960: we had recently won a world war against fascism and it seemed that limitless possibilities lay before us. A decade later, though, things had turned dark.
When Ed Muskie gave that speech in 1970, the nation had just gone through seven years of hell. JFK, RFK, and MLK were all assassinated. Our cities had been in flames, year after year. Students were shot and murdered at Kent State.
Women were demanding the rights to abortion, birth control, and equal pay and men were pushing back with violence. Nixon had blown up LBJ’s peace talks in 1968 to get himself elected, so young men were continuing to die on television every day in Vietnam.
Nixon played to the racial tensions in the country that burst out of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board school desegregation order, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964/1965, and ongoing police violence against Black people causing riots in cities from coast to coast.
Nixon’s main issue was “law and order” to protect the “silent [white] majority,” a euphemism for “get those Black people under control.”
As Muskie noted:
“One says: ‘You are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you.’
“The other says: ‘The world is a baffling and hazardous place, but it can be shaped [for the better] to the will of men.’”
Of course, the two messages aren’t always mutually exclusive. The most effective political messages contain a promise of both pleasure and pain, but emphasize hope and pleasure.
As President Kennedy told the world when addressing the United Nations on September 20, 1963:
“Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world — or to make it the last.”
Except for the Reagan presidency (his official campaign slogan in 1980 was “Let’s Make America Great Again”), which offered the false hope that neoliberalism (tax cuts for the rich, “free trade,” deregulation, privatization) would solve America’s problems, every Republican presidency since Nixon’s 1968 campaign has been largely based in fear and pain.
Nixon explicitly told white Americans they needed to fear Black people getting equal rights.
Reagan got into the act, warning us about “welfare queens” and “young bucks who use food stamps.”
Bush Senior pushed Willie Horton in our faces.
Bush Junior warned us about Muslims and created special, illegal prisons for them.
And Trump abandoned all the dog-whistle rhetoric and went straight for pure racist and hate-based appeals starting with his opening speech about “Mexican rapists and murderers.”
Alternatively, every Democratic presidency since FDR has been about hope and the pleasure of a functioning egalitarian society.
Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s slogan “The Buck Stops Here,” JFK’s “A Time for Greatness,” LBJ’s Great Society, Carter’s solar bank and bond programs to stop climate change, Clinton’s New Covenant and “Building a Bridge to the 21st Century,” Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In.”
In 2020 when Joe Biden was asked by ABC’s Robin Roberts what his campaign slogan was, he replied:
“Make America moral again. Make America return to the essence of who we are, the dignity of the country, the dignity of people, treating our people with dignity. End this God-awful deliberate division that is being taken in order to separate people to aggrandize his own power.”
And Biden has largely kept to that. The first two years of his presidency have been characterized by a return of decency and compassion, along with respect for the rule of law. He’s a genuinely decent human being.
And he has taken an aggressive stand on behalf of democracies around the world, including Ukraine. This is noble and honorable work.
The fact that Senator Bernie Sanders and President Joe Biden agree on most issues these days tells us an awful lot about the forward-looking state of the Democratic Party and the hopes Americans have for it.
Meanwhile, Republicans are freaking out because a recent study showed 600,000+ children get asthma every year from having gas stoves in their homes. Republicans don’t think we should do anything about that and are outraged that anyone would even discuss it.
Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, using heavily armed police for the cameras, are arresting Black people for voting (as Joy Reid so brilliantly pointed out yesterday), taking over liberal arts colleges in Florida, and shutting down discussions of race or gender in the classroom.
The campaign for 2024 has begun, and the arguments are becoming clear.
Republicans want you to know that gays are coming for your children, Blacks want to “fraudulently” vote, unionized teachers are promoting dangerous perversions, immigrants are trying to steal your job, Social Security and Medicare must be cut (along with rich people’s taxes) because they’re doomed, and women delight in killing babies and therefore must suffer under the heavy hand of the law.
Rightwing media work every day to terrify American voters. Progressive media — which I’m proud to be part of — work every day to expand human knowledge and rights.
In a fascinating side-note, psychologists have found that people whose internal self-talk is mostly about avoiding pain or fear tend to be more anxious and depressed than people whose self-talk is generally more focused on gratitude and hoped-for/worked-for positive outcomes. NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) both work to alter this internal dialogue for the better.
Democrats are working to expand the right to vote so everybody in America can participate in our republic, bring our jobs home from overseas, give everybody access to affordable healthcare and college or trade school, reduce gun violence, raise the minimum wage, and respect women’s right to choose birth control and abortion.
America has endured 42 years of Reaganomics and over 50 years of Nixon’s racist Southern Strategy. We lived through Trump’s threats, bombast, and treason.
And we’ve seen the results of FDR’s Social Security, JFK’s NASA and Civil Rights legislation, LBJ’s Medicare and Medicaid, and Obama’s expansion of healthcare with the ACA.
The choice before us is clear. Tag, we’re it!