Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

I take the title of this post, of course, from FDR's first inaugural address in 1933. As I pointed out recently, FDR uttered those words in a time of far greater crisis than anything the United States now faces.

But in this presidential campaign season, most of we hear about is what we should be afraid of. Already I am seeing dire warnings from both Left and Right of how our country will collapse if this or that candidate is elected. There is plenty of rhetoric, both from candidates and from partisans, about "disasters" and our nation "going off a cliff". It's enough to call to mind Chuck Norris' prediction four years ago of "1000 years of darkness" if Obama were re-elected. (I've not yet noticed any unusual amounts of darkness in the last four years...)

This is not to say that we don't have challenges. And it's not that I don't have preferences among the candidates - I like some and dislike others. I'm not interested in discussing those things, at least not here, because there are plenty of other people already doing so. Where I see the national conversation lacking is in the arena of anyone willing to call bulls**t on the increasingly extreme predictions of apocalyptic futures if some candidate wins this or that electoral contest.

So that's my aim here - to call BS on all of the "sky is falling" rhetoric, from whatever side and direction. You should not, in fact, be afraid. Here are several reasons why:

• Terrorism is not the existential crisis that politicians want you to think it is. By now, anybody who cares about facts knows the numbers: you're more likely to be killed by furniture than by terrorists, your odds of even being near a terrorist attack are lower than your odds of being struck by lightning, etc. To the raw data, political scientists can add perspective: all of the anti-Western terrorists in the world put together don't have a measurable fraction of the military power of the US. That's not to say they can't cause damage - they can, and they often do, usually to each other first and foremost. But given the geographic scope and range of the terrorist organizations involved, their disparate and often contradictory goals, and the general resilience and strength of modern wealthy societies, there's just no way these clowns can put a dent in our existence. They can kill a few people and blow up a few things, but that's it. They cannot credibly threaten America or "our way of life". We are not 100% safe against everything, but we are safer than nearly any society in the history of humanity.

• The Presidency is not nearly as important, or as powerful, as we think it is. Sometimes I think the greatest punishment for Donald Trump would be to elect him President and then watch him implode in frustration as he realizes just how limited the power of the position is. No matter who becomes President next, that person will have to deal with Congress, the Supreme Court, and the array of interests and preferences held by various sectors of society. Gilens and Page (2014) have pointed out that the preferences of the masses don't have much effect on policy; outcomes tend to be more in line with what the rich and powerful want. Those same forces will be at play in 2017 just as they were in 2015. That's not to say that we might not prefer some policy directions over others, and it's certainly not to argue that Presidents don't matter at all. But it is far beyond the capacity of any President to destroy the United States or bring down 1000 years of darkness. A bad President can cause a lot of damage, but again this doesn't rise to the level of an existential crisis.

• Regardless of who takes the Presidency in 2017, some bad things and some good things are going to happen over the next four years. Whoever sits in the Oval Office will have limited ability to stop the bad things from happening, and will likewise have limited ability to make good things happen that weren't going to happen otherwise. Most of the effects are marginal. The George W Bush administration's response to Katrina was bad, and it made a very bad situation worse - but Katrina was coming regardless. Francois Hollande was powerless to stop the Paris attacks. And despite badly overheated political rhetoric, Obama is not to blame for the financial crisis (neither, except in a marginal way, was George W). Chances are good that whatever happens, the US will deal with it - sometimes well, sometimes poorly. We must, of course, do our best to meet every challenge. But our survival, either as a country or as a population, does not depend on who sits in the White House.

• Lastly, as electoral seasons heat up there is always a hefty infusion of religious rhetoric that comes along for the ride. In the United States in particular, many people are guided in their voting choices by their understanding of their faith - in particular, their Christian faith (being the majority religion). For those who would invoke Christianity in the name of supporting this or that political position (what C.S. Lewis' devil Screwtape derisively referred to as "Christianity and..."), remember that the more you sound the alarm of fear the farther you are moving from the Gospel you supposedly profess. "Do not be afraid" is the single most repeated commandment in the Bible. The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are chock full of exhortations to put aside fear and to trust in the provenance of God. They also remind us of the superiority of spiritual concerns over material (or political) ones. There is no theological justification for fear, especially fear of this or that political ruler. Paul did not fear the Roman Empire, a far more powerful and draconian system than any we could face. Prophets and apostles throughout the Bible moved amongst tyrants and ruthless kings. What possible claim can you make to be afraid of a Bernie Sanders or a Ted Cruz?

There are issues of importance facing our society - as there always are. Political leadership can make a difference, but rarely if ever can it remake the world entirely. This is not "the most important election of our lifetimes", and it certainly is not "a turning point in our history" - any more than last year was, or two years from now will be. ALL moments in history are turning points. We are much better off - we make better decisions and we become our better selves - when we face each of those moments without fear. So set aside the "sky is falling" BS, move the fear to the back burner, and engage the issues and candidates from something other than panic and dread.

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