Jim Fossel: Beware of apocalyptic rhetoric

If you haven’t noticed, it seems that a lot of things are not working in this country. According to politicians of various stripes, a myriad of institutions in America are broken lately: democracy, capitalism, society, families, religion and more. It’s not just a left or right approach either; politicians on both sides claim things are broken. This message has been conveyed across the entire ideological spectrum recently. Indeed, individuals and groups who should be on opposite ideological poles have begun to agree on this basic premise in recent times. We see conservatives and liberals who believe that many key institutions that support the very foundation of our society are failing.

Their immediate solution is to blame the other side: when liberals say democracy is failing, for example, they mean that conservatives are acting in concert to restrict voting rights. On the other hand, when conservatives say democracy is failing, they mean that liberals are enacting laws to somehow skew elections in their favor. We’ve seen this play out in real time recently, when the Democrats’ so-called “election reform” plan crumbled after they couldn’t muster enough votes to push it through the Senate. After the legislation failed, party officials admitted to The New York Times that Democrats should now simply spend more time and money registering people to vote in Republican-controlled states. In other words, the bills were really about making it easier for Democrats to win the election, not about saving democracy from an imminent threat. Conversely, the state-level restrictions enacted in Republican states are really aimed at making it easier for their party to win, not at preserving election security. While this might seem obvious in retrospect, it doesn’t match the doomsday rhetoric spewed out by both sides.

This phenomenon applies not only to electoral laws, but also to a whole range of other issues. When politicians say that some of the foundations of our country are crumbling — whether it’s, say, conservatives saying our families are at risk or liberals saying capitalism is crumbling — they’re usually trying to do several things. First and foremost they try to scare you into voting for them. Fear is a great motivator for voters, and it’s much easier to scare people off than to sway them through logic and reasoning that your argument is correct. Indeed, nowadays, we hardly see them in politics anymore. If a politician can convince you both that something you care about is in danger and that the other party is putting it in danger, he has practically rigged your vote. Wise, albeit unscrupulous, politicians have used this tactic to gain power for centuries, long before competitive, fair and democratic elections were held in our country.

This approach also conveniently distracts the media and voters from asking candidates the hard questions about what they actually want to do to solve the problems. After all, if the other side threatens the stability of our very way of life, who cares if the candidate has real proposals to actually make things better? They end up being heroic just by showing up to work and thwarting the other side. That’s why it’s so easy for politicians to become rising stars on either side simply by repeating partisan talking points. A lack of accomplishment becomes not a hindrance to their career, but a virtue, and yet another chance for them to blame someone else.

The problem with this strategy is multiple. By undermining trust in our institutions – including the opposing party and our government – ​​politicians further divide society, making it impossible to do anything. This paralyzes the whole government, allowing candidates to start the cycle of blame all over again. The question is, how can we, as citizens, break the cycle?

We can do this by rejecting politicians’ doomsday rhetoric rather than simply embracing it, and instead asking candidates hard questions about what their plans really are. If something is broken, we need to ask them not only what their solutions are to fix it, but also how they plan to bring people together to make it happen. If we start doing that, maybe we can elect people who actually want to solve the real problems facing this country, instead of inventing new ones to terrify us all.

Jim Fossel, a conservative Gardiner activist, worked for Senator Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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