Who Wins When Americans Are Afraid?

By Connie Schultz

August 11, 2009 5 min read

So many Americans believe only the people who scare them.

So a thoughtful debate over health care reform has devolved into scenes of screaming protests by mostly red-faced senior citizens looking frightened and enraged. Their terror is stoked by cynical political operatives who know that when it comes to stirring up the masses, nothing beats scaring people to death.

"In politics, the emotions that really sway voters are hate, hope and fear or anxiety," psychologist Drew Westen told Newsweek in 2007. He is the author of the book "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation."

"The skillful use of fear is unmatched in leading to enthusiasm for one candidate and causing voters to turn away from another."

Substitute "issue" for "candidate" to describe what is happening now in the debate over how to give more Americans access to affordable health care.

Anatomy works against us. Humans trust fear over reason, researchers say.

"The brain ... is wired to flinch first and ask questions later," Newsweek's Sharon Begley wrote in a 2007 story titled "The Roots of Fear." Quoting 18th-century political theorist Edmund Burke, she added, "No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear."

Westen wrote about fear's spillover effect. His 2007 example: "Fear that you cannot provide for your family because of an economic downturn can translate into hatred for immigrants."

The 2009 version: Fear that you will lose the health care you have translates into a me-first, you-never disdain for those who have no health care at all.

So far, Republican officials seem unwilling to douse the flames of hysteria if it means ending up in the cross hairs of Rush Limbaugh. How else to explain their silence as the talk show hatemonger compares President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler?


References to swastikas, Nazis and Obama-as-Hitler have become so rampant that some of the most prominent Jewish groups in the U.S., including the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have publicly denounced Limbaugh's tactics — and in the harshest terms.

Not to be outdone in the quest for ratings, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted this last Friday on Facebook:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

There are no "death panels" mentioned in any version of the health care bill. None. Nobody familiar with the various proposals of health care reform could claim credibly that the government wants to kill the oldest and most vulnerable among us, including children with disabilities.

Limbaugh and Palin count on most Americans' never reading the proposed bills. They know that in such an environment, misinformation festers. It is particularly viral among those older than 65, which was the only age group to choose McCain over Obama — 53 to 45 percent — in last year's election.

There are physical realities of aging: We become more vulnerable and need more health care. We also need more patience from everyone around us.

In this youth-obsessed culture focused on how to avoid looking or acting our age, it's easy to see how our elderly could think America is so done with them. If we revered older citizens as we should, this preposterous notion would have died at conception.

But age does not sap intelligence. Most people older than 65 are living proof that with years comes wisdom. And so I ask two questions of our wisest Americans:

Why would anyone want you to believe you're so powerless?

Who wins when you are that afraid?

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House: "Life Happens" and "... and His Lovely Wife." To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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