James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Signs of fear and portents of decline

Some images that signal the deepest fears and most depressing problems of this country tend to haunt me for months and even years. On the surface, some of them aren’t much, yet they seem to me to scream “Something’s terribly wrong here!”

They also make me want to scream at Democratic Party leaders, words along the lines of “Get on the job, you idiots!”

The Dems are blowing it big time, and have been for years, and I can’t help but feel that John Kerry’s presidential nomination is further proof of their inability to understand or communicate with the people of this country.

In the early fall of 2002, during the campaign for governor of Minnesota, I went fishing at Leech Lake in the northern part of the state. It is an area where working people often make little more than the minimum wage, if they can find steady work, and where houses are valued at half, or less, what comparable houses would sell for in the Twin Cities. People tend to scratch for their livings, and a surprising number of them need public assistance to survive, though local residents hate to admit that’s true. The image from that trip that continues to haunt me is not the big fish that got away – I’ll forget that as I sink into senility – but the astonishing number of lawn signs for Tim Pawlenty, the right wing extremist chosen by the Bush crowd to be our governor, and Norm Coleman, a bootlicker chosen by them to be our second senator – or, rather, the third senator from Texas.

Similarly, I cannot forget a sparkling, almost new full-size pickup truck I saw in a parking lot last summer. It carried an unusually large bumper sticker proclaiming its owner “A Proud Union Member for Bush.” I thought at the time that it was like having a bumper sticker saying, “The owner of this vehicle is a dribbling idiot,” but, of course, it’s more complicated than that.

And again: There is a faded area of mostly poorly maintained small houses just south of downtown Minneapolis which blossomed with signs for Bush, Pawlenty and other right wingers during recent campaigns, and which continues to display an unusual number of “Support Our Troops” lawn signs, although they have started to disappear. There was a period of a year during which I drove through that neighborhood often. It’s a racially mixed area, and for what it’s worth, it appeared to me that most or all of the signs in question were or are on the tiny front yards of white-occupied houses. (There seems to be high unemployment in the area; folks were around a lot during the day.)

Add those signals, and many more you can see every day, to the growth of right wing religious groups, crowds screaming for a ban on gay marriages (really a call for a return to the days of closeted gays and gay bashing), the rise of fanatical antiabortion organizations, the anti-immigration movement and campaign for school vouchers (both racist at root), and other “movements” and what you have is unmistakable evidence that much of the population is badly frightened, even panicked.

In itself, that’s neither unusual nor new. People were scared, sometimes panicky, during both world wars, some were frightened all the time during the Cold War. Various events – the Cuban missile crisis, for example, not to mention the World Trade Center attack – have created short term spikes in fear levels. But the current fear seems to me more fundamental.

Life has grown immensely more complicated in some purely technical ways – computers and palm pilots and all the rest – and society has gone through major upheavals. We weathered the civil rights movement pretty well, and a substantial number of us were elated by the whole thing. But since then we’ve had the women’s movement, gay rights movement and more. Methinks a hell of a lot of people are feeling disoriented and out of place, and such feelings mean they’re also frightened. Human beings almost always fear what they cannot understand; the world has changed around them and they weren’t and aren’t ready.

That’s made worse, I think, by the fact that although college degrees in much of the country are as common as plastic shopping bags, the population as a whole seems more ignorant than at any time since around the turn of the last century. People have degrees, but they don’t read, they don’t follow public affairs because they’re “too depressing,” or they pay attention only to those who will tell them what they want to believe is true rather than what is true.

And, a very important truth about people: when they’re disoriented and/or frightened, they want someone to blame, someone to take the fall – preferably someone who is easily identifiable and obviously different from themselves.

Republicans picked up on that years ago, and have displayed no compunction about using it. I don’t know how deeply they’ve analyzed it, but they seem to have an almost instinctive sense of how to trade on fear. It may come in part from the fact that the party is run by super-rich business people who often control vast corporations through creating and using fear.

In any case, Republican messages are superbly crafted to appeal to racism, religious animosity, fears of those who are a rung or two behind one on the economic ladder, fears of anyone who is “different.” They are aided in their tactics by the lingering of some of the South’s nastier heritage and, in the north, but the enormous growth of homogeneous suburbs.

The Democrats are merely petrified.

To some degree, they read the polls and try to comply with prevailing outward sentiments, as in supporting bans on gay marriage. They are pitiful little imitation Republicans. They do that mainly because their money comes – in smaller doses – from the same taps that so lushly fill the Republican pools. At other times or in other places they simply pretend life is still as it was in the 1950s, or maybe they really don’t understand that fear is the prevailing emotion in America today.

If the United States is to survive in the form it mostly maintained (with obvious blips now and then) up to the nonelection of George W. Bush, the Democrats are going to have to undergo a major transformation. They’re going to have to find some guts somewhere within themselves.

Rather than pretending the fear doesn’t exist or, worse, playing to it in feeble imitation of the Republicans, they are going to have to acknowledge both the fear and its causes. Then they are going to have to hold a mirror up to the public and say, “Look at yourselves. You’re scared, but you’re blaming the wrong people and demanding 'solutions' that will make everything worse.”

They’re going to have to start telling the truth even when it goes against popular misconception and is contrary to the lies the Republicans so expensively foster. They have to educate the public, or the republic is going down.

With a sorrow that’s hard to express, I have to say I don’t see that coming from a party that would nominate a wishy-washy old pol like John Kerry to run against the might and money of the extreme right’s poster boy. I’m scared, too.