THE POLITICS OF FEAR: 75 YEARS AFTER FDR
by Ron Manuto and Sean Patrick O'Rourke
No Shortage of Fear (2006)
years ago this week, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his first inaugural address.
Scholars consider it one of the best speeches of the 20th century. They note its eloquent phrasing, powerful imagery and forceful delivery. But if you ask those who heard it why they love FDR, they invariably speak about the way he calmed their fears and put them to work -- how he showed us that "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" only paralyzes constructive thought and action -- because "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
How different from the rhetoric of our current leaders.
Few political leaders have resorted to the use of fear as have President Bush and Vice President Cheney. After Sept. 11, fear became the political ticket. They punched it again and again to achieve the administration's domestic and foreign policy goals.
This is why Roosevelt's inaugural is so important. It is an example of presidential leadership that asks us to face our fears, an alternative to the cynical exploitation of a vulnerable public.
We lived then, too, in dangerous times. The Great Depression hit its lowest point in March 1933. The economy had stalled. More than a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. Nearly two million were homeless. Fascist movements in Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy threatened us, as did imperialist Japan and the specter of communism.
Today the danger is terrorism and "rogue" nations. They are serious dangers. But how does a free people confront such dangers and the fear they breed?
In his inaugural, Roosevelt argued that a time of fear "is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly." Not so for our current leaders. According to a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism, leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the administration released more than 900 false statements about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear ambitions and Iraq's supposed connection to Al-Qaeda. The gang of six (George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Paul Wolfowitz) stirred the pot of apprehension by issuing false statements in reports, stories and speeches.
The cumulative effect was overwhelming. They knew that when Americans are sufficiently frightened, we passively follow. Fear suppresses discussion and dissent. It makes the thoughtful and deliberate into the disloyal. It suggests that you are either with established authority -- all that they say and do -- or you are against America. So, one might ask, why is it used?
Because it does precisely that.
It is a psychologically and politically potent force. We seek resolution, the quick fix, the easy way. Fear collapses power around a single authority. And that authority emptied the U.S. Treasury. Such a story rarely, if ever, represents the narrative of a free and courageous people.
Why did Roosevelt reject this ploy? Because he believed, as he said in his inaugural, "there is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously." He recognized that fear seduces only ignorance. We pay less attention to details or contradictions. We become less capable of confronting the basis of our fears.
Like Bush, Roosevelt violated separation of power at whim: the National Recovery Act of 1935 attempted to usurp Congressional authority, and the Destroyer-Base deal of 1940s actually did so. Bush has been criticized for handpicking conservatives to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court. This is less egregious than FDR's plan. In 1937, FDR tried to increase the number of Supreme Court justices with five new justices of his own choosing.
And FDR's fierce political opponents, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Al Smith, the American Liberty League and Father Charles Coughlin, had more traction with the media than any of the splintered opposition Bush has faced.
But vast numbers of Americans continue to venerate FDR long after his death, while most see Bush as one of the worst presidents in American history.
Why venerate Roosevelt? Because in his first inaugural he promized us "leadership of frankness and vigor." Because he chased "the money changers" from their "high seats in the temple of our civilization" and reminded us that fear's paralysis must be overcome with "vigorous action" that embraces the "essentials of democracy." And he delivered.
Why vilify Bush? Because Americans don't like to be played. We don't like to have our fears exploited for cynical political and commercial gains. We might be slow to catch on, blinded by patriotism and distracted by the propaganda of "freedom." But when we eventually figure it out, we are angry.
And hell hath no fury like a public scorned.
Ron Manuto is a retired communications studies professor. He writes on civil rights and legal issues from his home in Fresno, California.
Sean Patrick O'Rourke teaches courses in rhetoric and American public discourse at Furman University in South Carolina, where he chairs the Communication Studies department
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Albion Monitor March
7, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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