Since the presidential election, Democrats have been challenged to go back to the basics, to remember their core values. As the process continues there is agreement on basic principles of social justice and on key ethical standards. For example, the vast majority of Democrats do not believe that the ends justify the means; unlike Republicans, they do not feel that it is okay to do anything to win. Because of these scruples, Democrats face a conundrum with regards to the tactical use of fear, how to talk to voters about the very real dangers facing America. The challenge for the Democratic leadership is to tell the truth about the perils America faces, and, yet, provide a message of hope. To reason with voters, not scare them.
To gain perspective on how Democrats might effectively play the fear card, it is helpful to consider five different calamities that might beset America in the next four years - ruling out totally random events such as an invasion by aliens or Ann Coulter becoming president.
The most obvious peril is another terrorist attack on the United States, which would inflict horrendous casualties, traumatize the populace, and paralyze the economy. A repeat of 9/11 would also demonstrate that the Bush Administration has not done enough to bolster real homeland security.
A related, but less obvious, threat is an Al Qaeda strike on overseas petroleum resources. For example, an attack on the mammoth Saudi oil refinery at Ras Tanura would drastically reduce world oil supplies, and have a devastating impact on our economy. Here again, the Bush Administration has been negligent because it has done nothing to prepare us for this possibility.
A third peril is that of a severe recession brought on by the shifting winds of geo-politics. American interest rates stay low because, to a huge extent, allies, such as China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, finance our debt. If one of these countries decided to quit buying our treasuries, interest rates would spike upward, triggering an economic downturn. The Bush Administration has refused to consider this problem, causing one foreign economist to complain, "There's nobody home on economic policy in America."
The fourth threat is that presented by rapid climate change. If present trends continue, Americans will experience increasingly savage weather: vast ice storms, hurricanes, droughts, and floods. This continued onslaught will surely impact the economy; imagine, for example, if arctic temperatures persisted in New York for months, rather than weeks. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration pretends that this problem does not exist.
Finally, Americans are in peril from the next great pandemic, whether a new strain of influenza, SARS, or some monstrous hybrid created by ill-advised biological research. In addition to the death and trauma this would cause, our economy would certainly be devastated. Once again, the Bush Administration has done little to prepare the country for such an eventuality; in fact, they have weakened our public health services.
The thread that unites these five scenarios is our brittle economy, the product of the Bush Administration's warped policy perspective. The cornerstone of their domestic agenda is tax cuts. Their foreign policy is based upon military intervention. However, global diplomacy exists within three, interconnected spheres: military, financial, and social - those dealing with common concerns such as epidemics. The Bush Administration ignores the financial and social spheres in the mistaken belief that what goes on in one area does not impact the others. For example, they assume that China will remain our economic benefactor even if we intervene militarily in their conflict with Taiwan. Following this line of reasoning the Administration has ignored all potential calamities except a direct attack.
This is terribly flawed thinking. Whatever the form of the disaster that strikes us, America will be thrown into financial turmoil, suffer the worst depression in modern times.
Yet, it is not inevitable that another national catastrophe would sink our economy. For example, when precipitous climate change begins to wreak major havoc, our economy might be structured so that it would "bend" but not break. In order for this to be true, steps would have to be taken now to bolster our economic infrastructure, to make America more resilient by, by for example, drastically reducing our use of petroleum.
Sadly this has not been an objective of the Bush Administration, which instead of regarding the American economy as a vital national resource, which must be bolstered, treats it as an infinite piggy bank. Ironically, the Bush Administration touts itself as having kept America strong. The sober truth is that their domestic and foreign policies have severely weakened us, made us more vulnerable.
When Democrats play the fear card, they need to both tell the truth about the hard times ahead, and couple this with a sensible economic plan; a proposal that produces a resilient America. This is a plan that recognizes the perils that confront us, and meets them head on with recognition that Americans can overcome any calamity if we all work together.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.