The mythical potency of terrorism fear-mongering

Media figures ignore empirical data to depict Americans as more frightened of terrorists than they really are

Published February 10, 2010 10:11AM (EST)

The New York Times Editorial Page today asserts a commonly held belief among the political and media class: 

An election is coming, so the Republicans are trying to scare Americans by making it appear as if the Democrats don’t care about catching or punishing terrorists.

It’s nonsense, of course, but effective.  The be-very-afraid approach helped former President George W. Bush ram laws through Congress that chipped away at Americans’ rights. He used it to get re-elected in 2004. Now the Republicans are playing the fear card for the fall elections.

That Terrorism fear-mongering has long been a central GOP political tactic is beyond dispute, but its current efficacy is far from clear.  Just consider a new Washington Post poll released today.  After months of GOP and media pummeling of Obama for being generally "soft on terror" and specifically for the crime of using the rule of law against (some) accused Terrorists, Americans (a) approve of Obama's "handling of the threat of terrorism" by a margin of 56-39 (his highest rating by far on any single issue); (b) approve of Obama's terrorism polices more so over the past couple of months (since the Christmas Day bomber incident) than they did previously; and (c) trust Obama more than the GOP to handle "the threat of terrorism" by a margin of 47-42 (though that gap has closed modestly in recent months).  The poll does show that more Americans than ever before (55-39) want 9/11 defendants tried in military commissions rather than in civilian courts -- hardly a surprise given that even the Obama administration has embraced military commissions -- but the constant attacks on Obama's alleged "softness on terror" has had very little effect on his political standing.

Even more compelling evidence is found in the 2006 and 2008 elections.  As I documented at length, the centerpiece of Karl Rove's 2006 midterm strategy was to depict the Democrats as "soft on terror" by virtue of their alleged opposition to warrantless eavesdropping, military commissions, and torture (he arranged votes on those issues right before the election) -- yet the Republicans were crushed in that election in one of the most humiliating defeats of the last several decades, losing control of both houses of Congress.  Included among the GOP incumbents who suffered the most resounding defeats were those who relied most on Terrorism fear-mongering.  And in 2008, Obama repeatedly vowed to roll back the defining Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies, to restore "our values,"  and was elected rather easily.  While Terrorism fear-mongering was undoubtedly potent in the few years after 9/11, and still works on a part of the population even today, its efficacy as a political weapon is vastly overrated.  Throughout the Bush years, media figures routinely claimed that the public overwhelmingly supported Bush/Cheney "terrorism" policies about which Americans were, in fact, largely split down the middle (or even opposed), including warrantless eavesdropping, the Iraq War and torture policies.

Why does this conventional political and media wisdom persist even in the face of fairly strong empirical data negating it?   There are three primary reasons, I believe:  (1) a substantial faction of the coddled DC and NYC-based media and political class is genuinely petrified of Terrorists, has long been more frightened of the threat than the average American, and -- as they always do -- project their own biases and belief system onto the electorate, pretending that they remain above-it-all, objective and merely describing how "the real people" think while, in reality, masquerading their own beliefs and fears under the banner of "how real Americans think"; (2) to affirm the notion that fear-mongering works is to pressure the political class into maintaining core Bush/Cheney policies (you abandon them at your political peril), policies which the media class largely supported and still support; and (3) media elites maintain a deeply patronizing view of "real Americans" (those ignorant, easily-led American masses -- the ones over there -- are constantly manipulated by primitive fear-based tactics).  The myth that fear-mongering is some sort of all-powerful political tactic also allows loyalists of various political leaders to excuse bad policies and bad actions (be a "pragmatist":  you can't expect him to reverse these Bush policies or vote for that bill because if he opposes those things, he'll lose re-election; Democrats supported those bad policies not because they agree with them (perish the thought) but because they'd lose the election if they didn't, etc. etc.).

Fear-mongering obviously worked wonders for the Republicans in the several years following 9/11, but those attacks took place more than eight years ago, and the potency of those tactics have diminished substantially.  The false claim to the contrary persists because it serves the various interests of those who continue to perpetuate it.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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