Midterm elec­tions: A vote on fu­ture of the US

As the cru­cial US midterms draw near, scare­mon­ger­ing has peaked, but peo­ple must not let the pol­i­tics of fear kill their hopes

Gulf News - - Front Page - By Jared Bern­stein

Aweek out from a crit­i­cally im­por­tant United States midterm elec­tion, I’m struck by the role that fear has played in get­ting us to this mo­ment. Di­ag­nos­ing how fear be­came such a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal force is tricky be­cause the minute you point fin­gers, you trig­ger pre­cisely the di­vi­sive fight that keeps Amer­ica stuck in this dark hole. This leads some to try to as­cribe blame to both sides, but that’s of­ten just a thin tac­tic to try to sound bal­anced.

In fact, over the past two years, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s strat­egy has be­come trans­par­ent: Get the po­ten­tially po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful work­ing-class to fear each other.

As long as groups whose po­lit­i­cal align­ment could se­ri­ously im­prove, their lot are at each other’s throats, the po­lit­i­cal ma­chine can qui­etly go about its busi­ness.

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing me­dia strat­egy is equally key to the suc­cess of the agenda: Keep the ac­tual poli­cies off the front pages, and when they show up there, dis­credit them. Keep the fear­mon­ger­ing part on the front pages.

Adam Ser­wer, writ­ing in the At­lantic, cor­rectly de­scribes this pow­er­ful strat­egy: “Trump con­sid­ers the me­dia ‘the en­emy of the peo­ple’ only when it suc­cess­fully un­der­mines his false­hoods; at all other times, it is a force mul­ti­plier, obey­ing his at­tempts to shift top­ics of con­ver­sa­tion from sub­stan­tive pol­icy mat­ters to racial scare­mon­ger­ing.” You could hope mem­bers of Trump’s party might care about the fu­ture enough to me­di­ate the dam­age, but their po­lit­i­cal cow­ardice of stand­ing up to Trump and their al­le­giance to the tax cut/dereg­u­la­tion agenda ren­ders them hope­less.

This all sounds aw­fully cyn­i­cal, and it is, but if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t be so ef­fec­tive. A key el­e­ment of Trump’s end­less fear cam­paign is mak­ing a group with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate elec­toral power (thanks to both Se­nate ap­por­tion­ment and the elec­toral col­lege) — older, non-ur­ban, white vot­ers in swing, rust-belt states — feel like they’re fi­nally be­ing heard. This em­pa­thetic em­brace not only in­cludes ac­cep­tance and val­i­da­tion of their fears and prej­u­dices. It also tar­gets estab­lish­ment politi­cians as dis­miss­ing these vot­ers’ con­cerns and giv­ing jobs and in­comes that they be­lieve should be theirs to im­mi­grants and peo­ple of colour.

It’s an in­cred­i­bly ef­fec­tive strat­egy. Fear of im­mi­grants, “the car­a­van” em­bed­ded with “Mid­dle-Eastern­ers”, peo­ple of colour, Mus­lims, the govern­ment, “glob­al­ists”, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, and so on, is, un­der eco­nomic con­di­tions that pre­vail to­day (eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity in a pe­riod of global and tech­no­log­i­cal change), po­lit­i­cal rocket fuel.

But it has two fun­da­men­tal prob­lems, two flaws in its DNA that ul­ti­mately de­stroy its host, two un­sta­ble in­gre­di­ents that ren­der its pow­er­ful fuel com­bustible. First, it is po­lit­i­cally non-rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and sec­ond, it is model for seiz­ing power, not for gov­ern­ing.

Re­dis­tribut­ing wealth up­wards

Re­gard­ing gov­ern­ing, those in power haven’t a clue as to what to do about health care, ed­u­ca­tion, cli­mate change, in­fra­struc­ture, poverty, in­equal­ity, re­tire­ment se­cu­rity, hous­ing, trade, geopol­i­tics, or any other of the chal­lenges for which com­plex so­ci­eties need func­tion­ing, am­ply funded gov­ern­ments. They only know how to use fear to stay in power, and how to use that power to re­dis­tribute wealth up­wards.

Be­fore the cur­rent dystopia set in, I had worked in the pre­vi­ous US ad­min­is­tra­tion, but un­til I sat down to write this op-ed, even I — per­haps be­cause of my priv­i­leged po­si­tion as a white man — didn’t fully un­der­stand the mean­ing of “the au­dac­ity of hope”. As I read that phrase to­day, it speaks to the au­da­cious, if not ahis­tor­i­cal, hope that the power of uni­fy­ing with oth­ers based on our com­mon­al­i­ties will be strong enough to block the fear­mon­gers from ex­ploit­ing our dif­fer­ences.

Young peo­ple may not know this, but for a pre­cious minute, such hope pre­vailed. Even to­day, many of us re­mem­ber it vividly and long to re­cover it. The pol­i­tics of fear has not killed our hope. But fear is once again prov­ing to be a pow­er­ful ad­ver­sary, and not just in Amer­ica.

Next Tues­day is more than “a ref­er­en­dum on our fu­ture”. It is a test to see whether hope has any life left in it, or whether fear has, at least for now, over­taken it.

■ Jared Bern­stein, a for­mer chief econ­o­mist to US vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, is a se­nior fel­low at the Cen­tre on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties and author of The Re­con­nec­tion Agenda: Re­unit­ing Growth and Pros­per­ity.

Ra­machan­dra Babu/©Gulf News

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