Chicken Little Politics

It’s becoming hard to ignore or discount: to a remarkable extent Americans are undergoing panic attacks over Islamic State terrorism and the Ebola outbreak. That it’s happening just before a midterm election is increasingly looking like a potential ace in the hole for Republicans, though a new Politico survey showing a remarkable degree of worry about both IS and Ebola–far more than is remotely justified by facts or experience–doesn’t show it “skewing” the vote towards one party or another. Clearly Republicans believe it will help them, as part of an indictment of the Obama administration as responsible for all human misery, up to and perhaps including Original Sin.

At TNR today, Alice Robb reports on “A growing body of literature in psychology suggests that feelings of fear make people’s political outlook more conservative.” Even without benefit of psychology, of course, fear of Islamic terrorism is likely to make voters more favorably inclined to the party associated with militarism, promiscuous defense spending, hostility to Islam, and disregard for international restrictions on the use of force. And while there’s nothing inherent to a pandemic that would promote political elephantitis, a terrifying disease emanating from Africa might stimulate some warm subliminal feelings for the White Man’s Party.

Far beyond its impact on the current election, however, the susceptibility of Americans to particular types of panic-mongering is–well, not something to panic over, but a source of legitimate concern. It’s extremely likely that the upsurge of fear surrounding IS has little to do with any rational assessment of that organization’s actual capacity to carry out major acts of terrorism in the United States, and everything to do with the beheading videos, which portray a level of savagery that Americans associate with Third World habits of behavior they find scary and inscrutable. And Ebola, of course, is the latest Plague, also brought to us from the Heart of Darkness. Meanwhile, a much more pervasive and dangerous threat–that of global climate change–seems too abstract to command much public concern.

Indeed, if the Fear Factor does help Republicans do better than they otherwise could expect on November 4, it will, ironically, result not in any greater attention to IS and Ebola but to the promotion of domestic policies that ought to be a tad frightening. Ted Cruz has an op-ed at USA Today laying out his ten-point 2015 Republican agenda if his party wins the Senate, and it begins not with action on IS and Ebola (the former gets a drive-by in the final plank as part of a general strategy of throwing money at the Pentagon, and the latter isn’t mentioned at all), but with aligning the federal government aggressively with the cause of exploiting every last fossil fuel resource imaginable. Now that’s scary.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.