"Republicans care more about catching Democrats than catching terrorists," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "They have spent years taking Roosevelt's notion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself and given us nothing but fear." Republicans manipulate us with fear. Democrats free us from fear, following in the footsteps of the iconic liberal, FDR.
Really? Let's check a few facts.
First, Roosevelt never said "We have nothing to fear." He said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." It's a common mistake. Lots of people like the sound of "We have nothing to fear." They'd love to believe it.
But FDR never would have said that. He always told the voters they had something to fear. He spent his political life naming those sources of fear -- only occasionally was it "fear itself" -- and convincing the public that he was tough enough to stand up to the terrors and defeat them.
As a young state legislator in New York, FDR had hardly any positive program. He made his name fighting against the evil power brokers of Tammany Hall. By the time he became president, of course, the enemy was the depression. If FDR had said, in that first inaugural address, that the U.S. had nothing to fear, no one would have believed him. When he said the only thing to fear was fear, no one took him literally. Everyone knew what they were really afraid of: poverty.
And FDR's famous speech was a stirring call to arms against this new enemy, a plea to treat the depression "as we would treat the emergency of a war." He was already skilled at the language of warfighting. He had learned it from an expert, his revered Democratic mentor, Woodrow Wilson,.
FDR also learned from Wilson that the first casualty of war is truth, and the second is civil liberties. To gain public support for an unpopular war, Wilson mounted the largest propaganda effort the federal government had ever seen. To win the war, Wilson and his administration appropriated unprecedented power for the federal government -- including the power to throw people in jail for writing or speaking out against the war (made legal by the Espionage Act and Sedition Act). Wilson's success taught Roosevelt that the art of manipulating public opinion was essential to being a great president. No one ever did it better than FDR.
Again, his first inaugural address is fine evidence. Roosevelt said he would fight the depression just like he would wage a war. And if Congress didn't give him what he wanted, he would ask Congress for "broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe." Here he was threatening to become a virtual dictator, and even the arch-conservative Chicago Tribune applauded: "President Roosevelt's inaugural strikes the dominant note of courageous confidence."
But how much confidence can you create when you build your whole program around a negative, fighting against "unreasoning, unjustified terror"? That's the question Rahm Emanuel raised. Certainly the Republicans try to present themselves as the great American warriors against terror. They forget that the real terror we have to fear is our own unjustified feelings of terror, which far exceed the reality of the threat we face.
But if Rep. Emanuel wants us to believe that the Republicans are the only purveyors of fear-based politics, he's forgotten how FDR ramped up American's unjustified terror in the late 1930s. Even before Germany invaded Poland, Roosevelt was conjuring up images of the Nazis conquering South America and sending their bombers to destroy New Orleans and Kansas City, adding that the Japanese had designs on conquering the Western hemisphere too. Although no foreign army was closer than 3,000 miles away, he told Americans that the Germans and Japanese were "gangsters and bandits" trying to break into their homes and murder them. He wielded those frightening images so skillfully that most Americans were ready to support war well before Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Once the U.S. was in the war, Roosevelt remembered the other lesson he had learned from Wilson. He played on the nation's terrors to abridge civil liberties on a scale that makes the Bush administration look something like the ACLU. The internment of the Japanese was the archetypal example, though only the most egregious of many. As crazy as it seems today, when all the Japanese-Americans were either locked up in concentration camps or shipped overseas to fight for the USA, most white Americans probably did feel safer.
So Democrats as well as Republicans have played the fear card. They still do. The leading Democratic candidates for president all want us to believe that somehow the war will be brought to an end while tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain in Iraq indefinitely -- to fight terror, of course, and to be a bulwark against the specter of chaos that is supposed to terrify us. Like FDR, they craft their political message around the public's terror. Unlike FDR, though, they don't acknowledge that the unjustified terror that plagues us most is our own.
But perhaps the Democrats follow in FDR's footsteps not out of belief (no one knows what they really believe, just as even the best historians can't figure out what he believed), but out of common political sense. They see one unmistakable fact: The appeal to fear works. In the last month the Bush administration has turned the tables on antiwar Democrats, who are now running for political cover by embracing half-measures that offer no real hope of ending the war.
The conventional wisdom says the hawks are flying higher because of all the good news coming out of Iraq: We are turning the tide, light at the end of the tunnel, etc. But with all the bad news that still flows from Iraq, there's no compelling reason to believe the new rosy scenarios -- unless you want to. Enough people want to, it seems, that the political tide is beginning to turn.
Why? Because it gives them a way to accept the larger framework of Bush's war story: If we don't fight them there, they will follow us and attack us here. It's FDR's New Orleans and Kansas City scenarios all over again. The great unjustified terror now is that if we let down our guard in Iraq, chaos will erupt that will soon engulf not just the Middle East, but our homeland. Like the fear of Japanese-Americans in World War II, it doesn't matter how crazy it seems to thoughtful observers. What matters is how real the terror is that grips the average American. That terror drives many to grasp at any shreds of good news, any reason to justify continuing the war.
So this fall we'll have to endure the spectacle of the two major parties fighting to see who is better, not at fighting terror abroad, but at cultivating terror here at home. While we watch, it's worth remembering that all of them, Republican and Democrat alike, are still walking in the shadow of FDR.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org