The politics of blame vs. the politics of fear

The politics of blame strategy for Democrats looks even better when compared to the politics of fear.

My previous post endorsing the politics of blame—whereby Democrats would win not by talking up “practical solutions” but by calling out those responsible for current problems—ended with a whimper where I said I wasn’t sure and would think about it.  I still regret that I originally tied my opinions to my academic status, an attempt to pull rank that wasn’t appropriate.  But on substance, two posts at the Democratic Strategist have provoked further thought.  And they’ve cemented my belief that I was right the first time.

One post, by Robert Creamer, builds on the politics of blame approach.  The Democrats, on his view, must stay on offense, mobilize seniors and Hispanics (sic: around here we say Latinos) by reminding them of real, demonstrable parts of the Republican program that take direct aim at them, point out that Republican rule wrecked the economy, and above all frame the election “as a struggle between everyday Americans and corporate special interests”—in which struggle Democrats can tell the hopeful story of “battles won.”  Overall, it’s a message that seems very persuasive and has the advantage of being completely true.

An earlier post, by James Vega, advocates mobilizing the Democratic base by selling fear of what Republicans might do if elected.  What should we be afraid of?  Endless subpoenas of Clinton Obama aides; “a vastly increased range of attacks against liberal and progressive organizations modeled on the attacks on ACORN,” and a radical policy agenda including

• Requiring all elementary and middle school teachers to report suspected illegal aliens to the INS

• Opening congressional investigations into the research of climate and environmental scientists whose work has been challenged by conservatives with the goal of damaging their academic reputations and “defunding” their research.

• Radically downgrading the role and stature of Thomas Jefferson in American history curriculums nationwide and revising textbooks to deny that the founding fathers supported the separation of church and state.

• Revising the Civil Rights act to allow private businesses to discriminate against blacks and other minorities (Of course, only for the most completely noble and altruistic reasons of libertarian ethical philosophy).

• Encouraging the “open carry” of guns in public places across the nation, and especially at political events.

• Opening impeachment proceedings against Obama on grounds of his ineligibility for office or his conduct as president.

With due respect to Vega, whose work I’ve liked a lot in the past, I think this message is completely wrong.

I realize that Vega’s aim is different from Creamer’s. Vega is talking about how to mobilize base voters, and extreme, partisan accusations work better with them than with the median voter.  Still, even as partisan appeals go, this one falls short.

First, it’s insider-ish.  If Republicans won, vindictive investigations of the Obama administration and progressive activists would certainly occur, but why should the average voter, or even the average non-activist Democrat, care deeply about that? This is a strange kind of partisanship, calculated to stoke the fears of the party in government and of organized movement progressives, not the party in the electorate.

Second, it’s patently alarmist. I have no doubt that many Republican radicals would propose some of the things Vega lists, but am 100 percent sure that none of them would pass the House, get sixty votes in the Senate, and be signed by the President.  The chance that these proposals will end up affecting people’s lives approaches zero.  (Birtherist impeachment proceedings would not require the President’s signature—but it’s lunacy to think they would succeed.) If Republicans did try to pass such things, they’re so deeply unpopular—attacks on Thomas Jefferson? “Open carry” at political events?—that they would guarantee a landslide defeat for Republicans at the next election; for that very reason, the leadership would be likely to bottle them up.  I don’t think even having teachers report illegal eight-year-olds would be at all popular outside very few states.  As for the libertarian challenge to the Civil Rights Act, we’ve already seen that Rand Paul’s proposals met with the frostiest of responses from none other than Mitch McConnell; even white Southerners who hate Affirmative Action and welfare have no desire to end formal prohibitions on workplace discrimination.  That prediction comes close to being an outright slander as applied to the intentions of congressional Republicans as a whole, and some of the others come close.

Finally, it’s the opposite of populist. Vega’s list make Democrats look exactly as our enemies portray us: a collection of special interests who care about speculative threats to narrow communities (climate scientists, illegal immigrants, atheists like me) while ignoring the near-certainty that a Republican Congress would  transform national policy on economic issues: health care, taxation, stimulus spending, financial reform, corporate regulation, job creation.  I’m not saying that Democrats shouldn’t care about the issues Vega names.  I’m saying that if they’re all we care about or talk about, we’ll look narrow.

The politics of blame, as my original post noted, is a way of mobilizing Democrats and our sympathizers against corporate wrongdoers who deserved to be named, while telling a sound, accurate story about the threats to our future prosperity and safety.  Vega’s politics of fear would, I’m convinced, do the exact opposite on both counts.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

11 thoughts on “The politics of blame vs. the politics of fear”

  1. "If Republicans did try to pass such things, they’re so deeply unpopular—attacks on Thomas Jefferson? “Open carry” at political events?—that they would guarantee a landslide defeat for Republicans at the next election;"

    Agreed on Jefferson, but, you know, you're the guys who thought the 'Assault weapon' ban was going to secure your control of Congress, that concealed carry reform was a political loser for Republicans because of the inevitable bloodbath… I'm not sure your judgment is all that reliable when it comes to the politics of guns, you tend to project your visceral dislike of them onto a general public who don't share it.

    Congress wouldn't be in danger of switching control if Republican positions were as unpopular as you'd like to think.

  2. Actually, I don't viscerally dislike guns, any more than Mark does. I'm well aware that guns are genuinely and hugely popular in much of the country, as they are not on the West Side of Los Angeles (where there's nothing to hunt unless one cares to shoot the neighbor's dog). And I think all kinds of concealed-carry laws are either popular or not so unpopular that Republicans would be scared to push them. I just think that a national open-carry law covering *political events* would be a bridge too far. Even to most conservatives, that law would scream scream not "freedom" but "assassination." I think that Vega knows this too, which is why his attempt to name this as an issue is alarmism.

  3. Un, dude – folks comonly open cary at political events and inside some statehouses today – not really a big issue – its called freedom.

  4. Yeah, I've *been* to political events where there was open carry. People didn't run shrieking, nobody got shot. It was no big deal. I approve of it as a general matter, because it's effective desensitization treatment for gun phobias.

    The suggestion that Republicans might pass an open carry law is very revealing about the attitude towards guns here. You don't HAVE to pass open carry laws. Open carry is the "bear" part of keep and bear, it's legal as a constitutional matter in most states, and would be nation-wide if the 2nd amendment were fully enforced.

    Concealed carry licenses aren't licenses to carry, they're licenses to carry concealed. Most places you don't need one if you're not going to conceal the gun.

    Now, mind you, a lot of places where it's legal to carry a gun unconcealed, the police will harass you if you do. But that's different from saying you need a law to do it legally. You don't. You just get hassled by cops who don't like the RKBA.

    Why would political events be any different from a walk in the park? Because the guys from SEIU might be intimidated into not beating somebody up?

  5. effective desensitization treatment for gun phobias.

    Given the rate of firearm deaths in the US I'd hardly call nervousness about guns a phobia, which is an irrational fear.

    Yeah, yeah. I know. Culture, race, blah, blah, blah.

  6. In response to the pro-gun comments, I propose a reasonable compromise: let's recognize prevention of political assassination as a compelling state interest, strong enough in the restricted circumstances of an election rally to outweigh Second Amendment rights. Then those states that care to legislate in defense of that interest may do so; those who prefer to roll the dice may do that too.

    Not radical enough? Q.E.D.

  7. "Given the rate of firearm deaths in the US I’d hardly call nervousness about guns a phobia, which is an irrational fear. "

    Given the rate of automobile accident deaths in the US, (Close to twice that of firearms deaths, most of which were suicides anyway.) I'd hardly call nervousness about cars a phobia, which is an irrational fear.

    Well, no, I would. Just not quite AS irrational as fear of firearms.

    This sort of reasoning would justify emptying the streets when candidates go for a drive. I see no reason the political class should be shielded from the ordinary, and fairly minor, risks of everyday life. Let them live in the same world as the rest of us.

  8. Actually, Brett, I don't think fear of dying in an auto accident is irrational. It's one reason we do things like license drivers, make DWI illegal, have traffic laws, require safety equipment on cars, etc. Of course doing anything like that with respect to guns offends the sensibilities of the gun nuts, so it becomes impossible.

    The absolute comparison of gun deaths with car deaths is silly anyway. Americans spend vast amounts of time in their cars and cars are more widely owned/used than guns.

    And why is fear of firearms irrational, again? If lots of people are carrying around objects that can easily be used to kill me, from a distance, and with minimal effort on their part, is it really irrational for me to be nervous about that?

    As to suicides, is it your opinion that they don't matter? And are you aware that the US rate of homicides committed with firearms exceeds the total death rate from firearms in the vast majority of industrialized countries?

  9. Indeed, it is rational to be cautious about cars, but that doesn't imply finding a parked car scary, or being nervous as you walk down the sidewalk because the cars on the road are in sight.

    "If lots of people are carrying around objects that can easily be used to kill me, from a distance, and with minimal effort on their part, is it really irrational for me to be nervous about that?"

    Yes, it is. The effort to shoot you with a holstered gun is no more minimal than the effort to twitch the steering wheel and ride up onto the sidewalk, to run you over. (The latter actually involves fewer separate steps.) And yet, is your brow covered with sweat as you walk on the sidewalk, if there are cars on the road? No, because the odds that anybody is actually going to deflect that steering wheel, and run you over, are tiny.

    They are no more tiny than the odds that somebody peacefully walking down the street with a holstered gun is going to whip it out and plug you. Most firearms deaths are suicides, nothing for anybody to be rationally frightened of, and most of the balance occur in disputes between criminals. A further fraction are interactions between criminals and ordinary folks in clearly non-peaceful circumstances. Actually random shootings in public places are about as common as being hit by lightning. Less so.

    Being frightened by somebody near you having a holstered gun IS irrational. It happens mostly to people who've never seen a gun in a peaceful situation, whose life 'experience' of firearms consists of watching TV dramas. I'd say calling it a "phobia" is perfectly appropriate.

    Anyway, back to the politics of blame. My point is simply that, because Democrats are Democrats, not Republicans or independents, you tend to assume that Republican positions must be wildly unpopular, and would horrify the populace if ever implemented. But Republicans winning is not simply a matter of the voters not being aware of what Republicans would do if elected. The populace at large is much less hostile to Republican policies than Democrats are. What you think it nuts, they tend to be willing to have an open mind on. Thus, not everything on your list of bogey men really IS a bogey man.

    As I say, if this were not so, the balance in Congress would not be so close, and you wouldn't be worrying about losing one or both Houses.

  10. Brett,

    You may want to read this before you say any more about how silly it is to worry about guns at political rallies.

    Leaving aside the more fanciful attempts, we've had four Presidents (1/11 of the total), shot to death, and five more (Jackson, FDR, Truman, Ford, and Reagan) shot at. And quite bluntly, given the anti-Obama rage being fomented in the country, it would come as little surprise if someone tries to take a shot at him. Of course, conservatives are too concerned about black guys with nightsticks to worry about that.

  11. I may want to laugh hysterically at the thought that a law banning open carry at political rallies would deter somebody who's decided to commit murder. Very mildly inconvenience? Perhaps. Deter? Not the slightest chance.

    I've never been impressed with the whole class of laws banning non-harmful conduct on the theory that it will inconvenience somebody intent on harmful conduct. From putting Pseudophed behind the counter to annoy drug labs, to banning open carry on the theory that if somebody intent on murder has to carry their gun in their pocket they'll change their mind, they're all a crock.

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