When You Meet the Bogeyman, Offer Him Your Finest Whiskey

Why are so many people willing, if not eager, to oppose policy changes that would improve their lives? Why do teabaggers protest President Obama when they did not protest George W. Bush, even after President Obama lowered their taxes?

Are these people misinformed? Misled? Racist? The more generous among us theorize such people are simply afraid, and their fear causes them to behave irrationally. I believe there is something to this argument. Cynical politicians have long played on our fears to advance their own agendas, some even going so far as to feature images from 9/11 in their campaign ads. But why should these negative politicians have a monopoly on fear?

It is time to talk about our fears. As individuals, and as a nation.

We are afraid. We must acknowledge that. And we must discuss it, so we can get past it and stop making fear-based decisions.

When facing our fears, we must evaluate whether they are rational. And if they are rational, we must analyze what has caused the fearful situation, and whether there is some action we can take to make our lives more safe. Liberals and moderates must seize on the fear issue the same way some conservatives have. Only we must use people’s fears not to manipulate them into adopting our views, but rather to help them identify the failed policies that have caused our present instability. And we must act quickly. The longer we wait to address peoples’ fears, the more susceptible they are to irrational propaganda which obscures public debate (ie. “Obama is a socialist and nothing he does can convince me otherwise!”)

To offer a key example, people are tremendously insecure about their jobs. The recent recession is the worst in our lifetime. But even before this recession, many of the available jobs were part-time, temporary and/or “independent contractor” positions that did not offer benefits. So, then and now, our job fears are well-founded. To address this situation, we need a national dialogue about whether a change in the quality of jobs available to the American worker has made our lives less secure. Those of us who prioritize the creation of stable full-time jobs with benefits should highlight this issue. And I do realize many conservative “economists” will kick and scream about a market economy and how the government should not be dictating to the private sector what kinds of jobs to offer. Are we really so afraid of these people? How many chances do they get to drive us off a cliff and still criticize anyone who tries to hit the brakes? If the Republicans are the party of “No,” it is because they are the party of no good paying jobs, no benefits and no job security.

A second key issue is national security. We were attacked on 9/11, so our security concerns are rational. But how can the Republicans hold themselves out as champions of national security? They were in complete control during and after 9/11; instead of capturing Osama Bin Laden, they sent brave American soldiers, without sufficient body armor, into a country that had not attacked us. I realize most of us already know these facts. But we also know that if President Bush had been a liberal, the Republicans would be complaining daily about these missteps. The point is we must understand the basis of our vulnerability. Liberals and centrists must seize on these instances of incompetence, not to demean the Republicans (or Democrats who supported the same policies), but to prevent them from further weakening our country. We must offer intelligent and creative alternatives to secure our nation, starting with a recognition that violence leads not to peace, but to more violence.

Relatedly, our fear appears as a sort of national angst. We are considered a deeply religious country, yet each day we violate the basic guideline to treat others as we wish to be treated. We bomb and torture people, and spy on our neighbors. Yet Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King achieved seemingly impossible goals by treating their opponents with compassion and respect. We have an inescapable sense Gandhi and King succeeded by doing things the right way, while we continue along a failed path of violence and militarization.

There are numerous other areas, including the drug war and the environment, in which our existing policies are morally bankrupt and practical failures. And so we are understandably afraid for ourselves, our children, our neighbors and our planet. It is time for all of us, as a nation, to talk about these fears, to identify the causes of our national weaknesses, and to explore alternative policies designed to make us more safe and secure. All segments of society must have a voice in this debate, to avoid scapegoating one group or laying blame where it does not belong. And, to be clear, it is not my intention to blame conservatives and Republicans wholesale for the country’s problems, or to absolve Democrats of their own culpability. I honor the instances when conservatives and Republicans have taken principled positions in support of commonsense policy changes. But at the moment, the “Party of No” is sadly lacking such persons, at least in leadership positions.

We must honor our fear and acknowledge it’s hidden gift: it tells us where change is needed. And the best part about a national discussion concerning fear? It will remind us of our common humanity, and our shared destiny as one country indivisible.