Saturday, August 19, 2006

Should Democrats Use Fear-Mongering in 2006?

Given that the candidates' positioning (or should we rather say: posturing?) on Iraq and counterterrorism will be one of the key variables determining success or failure in the 2006 midterm elections, what message should Democrats adopt vis-à-vis Republicans?

According to Kevin Drum, who writes the Washington Monthly’s blog, Political Animal, the Republican message is straightforward:
‘If you vote for Democrats, terrorists will kill you.’

After all, this formula of the politics of fear has proven successful in 2002 and 2004, so why should it not work in 2006? As is well-known, this is precisely the Rovian approach.

In Scare Them Back (Slate, August 18, 2006), John Dickerson, Slate’s chief political correspondent, strongly recommends that Democrats should fight fear-mongering with fear-mongering, which essentially would come down to a slogan like:
‘If you vote for Republicans, even more terrorists will kill you!’

Dickerson argues, like a growing number of observers, that Bush’s war on terror is actually counterproductive, since it produces more terrorists than it eliminates. Drum, in Fear Mongering (Political Animal, August 18, 2006), agrees with this point, adding:
As with George Bush's domestic policy, it creates the illusion of present-day action at the expense of long-term disaster.

But he doubts whether Dickerson’s approach can be effective, and cautions:
People who are scared want action right now, which means that a strategy of fear-mongering is simply not compatible with the long-term policy of tactical restraint, counterinsurgency, and economic engagement that Democrats need to be selling.

Dickerson is right that fear-mongering helped John F. Kennedy win election in 1960, but it also contributed to the hysterical atmosphere that helped bring us the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and finally the Vietnam backlash. In the long run, did that help either the country or the Democratic Party?

That's an extremely arguable point. But I'd like to hear those arguments before I buy into fear-mongering as a 2006 campaign strategy.

As far as progressive strategy is concerned, it is important to note that potentially effective short-term tactics can undermine long-term strategy. Will the 2006 campaign be yet another illustration of tactics trumping strategy or has the US electorate become receptive to a more effective strategy against terrorism?

Drum’s use of ‘strategy’ interchangeably with ‘tactics’ and ‘policy’ unfortunately is all too common in contributions to progressive strategy. After all, ‘fear-mongering’ is not a strategy but a tactic, and more precisely a technique of how to frame certain messages. Likewise, ‘killing terrorists’ is neither a strategy nor a tactic. It can be either an objective or an operation. This critique is not only about semantics. Confused strategic thinking leads to confused strategies. Whether implemented in campaigns or in policies, they always risk being counterproductive.

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