In his first inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed his belief that in America, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Last week, Republican Senate hopeful Scott Brown, running in New Hampshire, disagreed.

“What she calls fear mongering, I call rational fear,” Brown said in response to incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-N.H.) observation that Brown’s ads concerning the Islamic State and Ebola amount to scare tactics meant to drum up headlines and votes.

This kind of political opportunism might not come as a surprise from a former senator who, after being defeated by challenger Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts in 2012, barely unpacked his bags in New Hampshire before announcing a second Senate run. Unfortunately, however, Republican fear mongering extends far beyond Brown. Even the sensationalism about the IS group and Ebola this election cycle is a mere incarnation of a culture of fear Republicans have perpetuated and exploited over the past decade.

Fear as a political motivator dates back to Machiavelli, but fear as a political and electoral tool has played a special role in the Republican Party since 2001. The Bush Administration perfected scare tactics amid panic in the wake of 9/11. Our nation’s leaders harnessed public anxiety about al-Qaida and the threat of Muslim extremism for their own political agenda. Vice President Dick Cheney conjured up images of a Judgment Day brought about by nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists to drum up support for his party in 2006, and President George W. Bush falsely claimed the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as reason to invade.

In 2008, with the rise of Sen. Barack Hussein Obama, the politics of fear evolved: Misinformation regarding Obama’s religion and birthplace sustained American Islamophobia and xenophobia, while his race crystallized white GOP anxiety about the changing demography and social climate of the country. McCain and Palin merged these narratives by encouraging the portrayal of Obama as an anti-American, pro-terrorist, non-citizen out to attack the American way of life, an image that has proven resilient.

By 2010, the Republican Party had institutionalized the politics of fear mongering. Then-RNC midterm campaign officials described “visceral” donors who could be motivated to give money through “fear.” Today, Republicans have used everything from immigration rhetoric that reinforces racial prejudices to paranoia about taxes to the downright dismissal of CDC-recommended Ebola policies to play on the ignorance and baseless anxieties of constituents in order to solicit votes and money.

But apart from being tasteless, immoral and regressive, the real danger of fear mongering is its capacity to undermine the government’s ability to deal realistically with national problems and its tendency to divert political attention from substantive, long-term issues to whatever alarm-inducing fad dominates the headlines.

It is past time for Republican midterm candidates to acknowledge that securing the U.S.’ long-term safety is dependent on controlling the epidemic in West Africa. Instead, they continue to encourage misplaced “blame” for Ebola on the president (who now apparently has the power to call down plague). The Ebola policy debate should center on how to best achieve this containment while protecting Americans involved in the effort and ensuring our hospitals are prepared to treat infected caregivers, not on how long an asymptomatic nurse should be quarantined in a parking lot outside a New Jersey hospital.

Better yet, we could talk less about Ebola all together. Let’s talk about our health care infrastructure, about public health funding, about the Medicaid expansion that has not yet occurred in 23 states. Instead of declaring that Obama’s IS group strategy will get us all killed back here at home, let’s talk about the thousands of people actually being killed outside their homes just south of our border by drug cartels supported by failed American drug and weapons policies.

Instead of conflating hysteria about the IS group, Ebola and illegal immigration in the American psyche, let’s get our facts straight and debate a path to citizenship with an administration that has a record 2 million deportations. Let’s discuss long-term environmental policy and energy efficiency instead of filing lawsuits perpetuating the myth of Obama as a socialist dictator, when in fact he is on his way to fewer executive orders than either Clinton or Bush 43.

Let’s reject political sensationalism and fear and assess the obstacles facing us — and there are obstacles — more objectively and accurately, and debate policy alternatives accordingly. After all, what followed FDR’s famous declaration about our national fear is less quoted but equally important: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror … paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Today, America is paralyzed by fear, and it is the responsibility of its leaders not to contribute to this paralysis, but to build national confidence through level-headed analysis and action, thus advancing us once again.

Mariel Jorgensen is a junior in the College. She is the director of membership for the Georgetown University College Democrats.

3 Comments

  1. Lynn Amarante MD says:

    I fear you and all the other college students who think like you do. I am a physician and graduated from Georgetown College and Medical School. The liberal brain really scares me.

    • Liberal brains like the author enabled women the right to vote and become accepted in medical schools, so, you’re welcome.

  2. Author is obviously highly educated and does drive the point home – Campaigns should not use fear and sensationalism.
    She should have her own TV, radio, or talk show!

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