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Comment on ‘Our Politics May Be All in Our Head’ (Nick Kristoff, 02/14/2010)

February 14, 2010

In Response to:

Our Politics May Be All in Our Head

New York Times | February 14, 2010

Nick Kristof makes some good points about the connection between a predeliction towards fearfulness and conservative political views, but he really doesn’t go far enough.A few somewhat connected thoughts:

1.            We’re taught early on – in high-school, if not earlier – to be careful about confusing correlation with causality.  This column treads dangerously close to conflating the two, or is at the least incomplete to the extent that it doesn’t make the distinction explicit. The direction of the causal arrow is far from obvious in the case of conservatives. For example: it may be that being raised in a conservative environment – or one in which we’re inculcated with religious beliefs that feature a punitive god –affects our susceptibility to fear, or to frightening images & experiences. We don’t necessarily even have to be imprinted at a young age for this effect to occur; enhanced startle reflex and other physiological indicators associated with fear are the very definition of PTSD. So the immediate connection between biomechanical response and genetics/determinism is way over the top. It may be that we were just taught that the world is dangerous, and that ends up being our initial filter.

2.            While we’re on the topic, it’s worth noting the strong connection between fear and rage. Nick uses the word “muscular” to describe conservative’s responses to threatening situations (whether the threat be to the established order or something more personal). He doesn’t go far enough in explaining that just as people who are in perennial physical or existential pain are at great risk of becoming substance abusers, so too do people who live in a perennial state of anxiety (conscious or unconscious) have a strong tendency to turn to rage. Again, PTSD provides a useful example; end-stage PTSD is often characterized by violent acts of both externalized rage (“going postal”) and self-loathing (turning the gun on oneself as the final act).

3.            As the entire rogue’s gallery of 20th century dictators – from Stalin through Saddam – clearly understood, fear is a much more powerful motivator than hope, ambition and even greed. This is true even among those of us who DON’T have a hyperactive startle reflex and all that comes with it. This simple fact goes a long way towards providing answers to those who are scratching their heads at Obama’s ineffectiveness since he came to office…the right has successfully created a climate of fear, and that has effectively galvanized the right (because for them the trip from scared to angry is roughly as difficult, viscerally satisfying and as intoxicating as the one to the fridge to grab another brewski) and paralyzed the left (who tend to be much less familiar with both journeys).

4.            As much as I agree with his construct, I think Nick has missed – or perhaps just left out – one important element of the discussion, which is the Republican Party’s cynical use of fear as a means of accreting political power. Because I think it’s indisputable that many of their leaders (certainly Boehner, McConnell, Palin, Limbaugh, Beck, Roger Ailes…the list could go on) have long since achieved enough personal power and material wealth that it would be simply impossible for them to feel as viscerally threatened as Nick suggests.  For these people fear has become (and may well have always been…they sure do smell like that kind of sociopath) simply a powerful tool to pursue their personal ambitions. Dick Armey, lifelong scumbag and more recently a huge Tea Party booster, is defiantly proud of his belief that politics is a perfectly legitimate arena for the pursuit of wealth and power (this is a sick twist on free market theory…supposedly fear of the all-wise electorate will cause politicians to self-regulate. If you believe that, I have a public office I’d like to sell you. No – literally; if you give me enough money, I’ll get you elected to political office. See how neatly that works? J)

Sadly – and I’ll agree with Nick on this one – there is no easy antidote to the Right’s use of fear to manipulate the electorate. Until the vast majority of Americans grow up and realize people living in this country today are both more fortunate and better-protected from almost all conceivable harms than almost any humans who’ve ever lived on the face of the planet, we’ll be stuck fighting fire with fire.

Which is sad.

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