Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Perfect Panic

America has come a long way from this
classic approach to fear management.

Virginia is said to be a blend of blue for Democratic and red for Republican. Paint it purple. The closeness of the result of Virginia's senatorial race on Tuesday underlined that characterization. Such symbolic graphics tell an easy story.

Yet, for 2014’s election results, so far the analysts haven't started talking about the color I saw that was all over the map of the country on Tuesday. Yellow. It stands for fear. But rather than being neatly gathered inside the respective states, it’s splattered across the map, Jackson Pollock-style.

ISIS beheadings and Ebola landing in Texas were the principal fear factors this season. When the books are written about this year’s elections, I suspect we'll find the collective fear of terror stunts and a virus helped Republicans far more than it helped Democrats. Fear was probably a crucial factor in some contests that were close coming down to the wire. 

Of course, this is hardly the first time for fear to be a significant factor in an election year. What was a modern variation on an old tactic in 2014 was the over-the-top manner in which terrorism in the Middle East and disease in Western Africa were pumped up by political flacks and the media, just before mid-term elections. It created a two-headed monster, the stuff of nightmares. 

Not only did fear make cowards of many voters, it twisted some candidates into odd shapes. In Virginia’s neighbor to the west, Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes lost to Sen. Mitch McConnell. Lost badly. When her handlers told her to play a silly game of refusing to say if she voted for Pres. Barack Obama in 2012, apparently she was too afraid to fire them. It made her look not-ready-for-prime-time. And, Grimes wasn't the only Democrat to go through awkward contortions to artificially distance herself from Obama.

The last time the Democrats ran away from a sitting Democratic president it was 14 years ago. That decision didn't work so well for Al Gore, either. It's a losing strategy. It makes the candidate disavowing the leader of their own party look like a hypocrite who is willing to say anything to get elected. Turnout suffers. 

Here in Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner also took some bad advice. His fear of losing to Ed Gillespie made him come across as a different man during the campaign, especially in its late stages. Hey, I like Warner and I voted for him, but I had to try to forget about Warner’s woefully poor performance in a debate I watched, not to mention his grim attack ads. Now I hope I'll never see such a fearful Mark Warner again.

However, to be fair, Warner and Grimes were both probably looking at data that told them the October momentum was favoring their opponents. Apparently it was for Democrats in several states. Given the momentum Gillespie had in the last couple of weeks of the campaign, if it had lasted another week he may well have defeated Warner.

Remember Y2K fear? Remember crop dusters spewing anthrax fear? Remember mosquito-born West Nile virus fear? Remember the weapons of mass destruction fear that launched a war in Iraq? Remember Bird Flu fear? Remember the fear of conducting trials for terrorists in American courtrooms? Then there was the fear the federal government would default on its debts ... and so forth.

While stoking a convenient panic is hardly a new strategy in political campaigning, the timing of the ISIS beheadings and Ebola coming to our shores created a perfect panic. Talk about your October Surprises!

Remember when the Bush administration instituted a color code for how much fear was appropriate for any given day? Now I fear the professional propagandists in politics have learned so much about how to use fear to destroy opponents and win elections that from here on we’re going to be living in a yellow alert world, trembling at the mere thought of orange.

Still, at the bottom line, we all know the color that actually drives politics in 2014 is the same as it ever was -- it's green, baby! green for money.