Politics & Law

On the President’s carpet: Fear itself

Jonathan Simon

Four quotations from great Presidents, two (possibly three) of them, “martyred” in office, and one martyred civil rights leader who in a slightly different universe might have ended up a President, adorn the new carpet in the oval office (at least three of the quotes also appeared in his November 8, 2008 victory speech in Chicago). Bipartisan? Sure, but more importantly, great quotes all. I would take any one of them; and in the right spirit, anyone half clever in either the liberal or conservative camp could riff on them all to state their greatest convictions. According to Sheryl Stolberg blogging at the NYTimes the five quotes are:

• The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

• “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Towards Justice” – Martin Luther King Jr.

• “Government of the People, By the People, For the People” – President Abraham Lincoln

• “No Problem of Human Destiny Is Beyond Human Beings” – President John F. Kennedy

• “The Welfare of Each of Us Is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us” – President Theodore Roosevelt

I’ll take my own guess that President Obama spends a lot of time over the next few months looking at the FDR fear quote. Fear is on the land, and all of us feel it. Problems are deep, no doubt, but never as deep as the metaphors they live by, and this is a 1933 year where the President and his speeches are carrying the weight of our historic imagination of what Roosevelt accomplished beginning with that epic first inauguration speech in the stomach clenching drop days of the Great Depression (both those who fear what Obama is trying to accomplish and those who fear he’s not doing enough to accomplish it). In that speech, FDR not only addressed that fear in a positive and a programmatic sense, he named it and defined fear as part of the problem. But when he reads that quote, which has a lot to say to today’s problems, I hope the President is reading it through two other “fear years,” 1941, and 1968.

In his 1941 State of the Union, FDR came back to fear in another epic speech, when stated his famed four freedoms, one of them being “freedom from fear.” In a speech premised on making Congress and the nation feel real fear at the prospect of what a rapid fascist victory in Europe would do the world, Roosevelt spelled out a freedom from fear as part what preventing that victory could mean. Against him was the very real and recent history of the oversold war and misguided peace of the first world war which compounded the fear for many who feared government as much as anything else. FDR was claiming new powers to govern through fear, but he was also making freedom from fear part of the meaning of victory; a standard his administration could be evaluated by and a way to balance the increased power of government with new rights for citizens in the US (and implicitly the world).

I hope his eye next moves to the 1965 quote of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and then skips ahead three years to 1968. That was a fear year too. Raging war in Vietnam, violent repression of domestic protesters by racist police forces and rising homicide rates haunted a country in a panic. The economy was still very healthy by contemporary standards, but many of its long term problems, especially the underfunding of government entitlement and policies, were well under way. King’s words in 1965 seem to anticipate the tragedy that would befall him personally and the nation in 1968. The dangers were quite real on his march from Selma that day in 1965, but the prospects of both the civil rights cause and the Johnson Administration’s related “Great Society,” seemed promising that year (much as Obama’s did after his election). Less than three years later both Johnson’s and King’s projects would be in ruins. Johnson withdrew from the Presidential race, and King was murdered. Their common cause of linking racial discrimination and persistent poverty in both the North and South was on its way to being crushed by a politics of fear that neither of them succeeded in heading off.

History has vindicated both of them for the real and permanent gains they accomplished for American society, but the fear that defeated them still remains. Crime rates are at historic lows in most of the country, but many Americans, independent voters in swing states especially, continue to understand the real fears of 2010 through the crime and race tinted lenses of 1968 (consider the ongoing moral panics about immigrants and crime in both Arizona and California). That year a politics of fear won, with Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign, that created no source of limitation or accountability of the sort FDR offered for his economic and political wars on Depression and later fascism. While the political primacy of violent crime has waxed and waned in Presidential politics ever since 1968 (it almost never goes away at the state level), the metaphors of the war on crime,— the abandoned victim, the overwhelmed police officer, the leaky prisons, —- continue to shape how citizens imagine the political. Despite four decades of laws that have made crime victims and police into sacred cows (as the phony “ground zero” controversy and last summers “beer summit” demonstrate), and made our prisons into high security human warehouses, no one feels any safer.

Nixon may have been the winner that year, but what he found out, and what every chief executive of both parties since has had to live with, and seen their presidencies damaged (if not destroyed) by, is that this “no limits” power of fear makes the nation less and less possible to govern. Its a sometimes great election politics, but its a lousy governing politics. Instead of preparing the public for significant challenges in rebuilding failed institutions, the politics of fear creates a constant cycle of demands for emotions and circuses, most of them premised on crime or crime like immorality; in which bad guys are defined and demonized, investigations pursued, heavy punishments threatened and sometimes delivered. It was a fear based politics of crime that swept Nixon himself away, and almost brought down Reagan and Clinton for violating federal laws. Its the same fear based citizenship that has produced a constant and unmeetable demand for Obama to show emotions like anger in responding to economic and environmental crisis, and to deliver harsh judgments and punishments to wrongdoers, and at the same time is constantly ready to accuse the President himself of being a friend or ally of terrorists.

The President at this point can decide to try to produce the kind of political rhetoric that might neutralize by embracing this crime based fear discourse. Bill Clinton chose that path with his harsh crime laws, V-Chip and school uniform proposals; and with the help of Newt Gingrich’s errors he saved his presidency — kind of —, but he accomplished nothing that he would want to share with King and Johnson if he should ever run into them in the next life. I don’t personally think President Obama would be particularly good at this approach, even if he was craven enough to embrace it.

The other path is to make a new commitment to freedom as FDR did in 1941, but from fear of the kind that stalks us in 2010: economic disasters, infrastructure failures, terrorism and global human rights disasters (like Pakistan, Palestine and Kashmir) and our dependence on fossil fuels. In the face of those on the right that accuse him of subverting freedom in exactly the same ways that FDR’s enemies attacked him, President Obama needs to explain exactly what freedoms his policies will create for Americans, beginning with freedom from fear.

President Obama got a start in his Xavier University speech in New Orleans when he began to talk about what it would take to make American cities resilient enough to respond effectively to something like Hurricane Katrina. He could have said more about the failures revealed that day (and since) at all levels of government, especially the federal governments failed levee system. He might also have said something about the failure of Louisiana’s policies of mass incarceration which have produced one of the highest incarceration rates on the planet but could not make its citizens safe.

As the administration tries to re-narrate their legislative accomplishments thus far in the short window before the mid-term election, the President needs to point to how his medical reforms and Wall street reforms form a part of a more comprehensive strategy to make Americans safer in their homes from all of these threats, and what he still needs Congress to do to achieve that. But the positive story will not cut through the toxic atmosphere (look how little coverage his Katrina speech got) if he does not address the fear issue directly. With the capacity to plumb complex and toxic features of our culture, as he showed as a candidate in his Philadelphia speech on race, President Obama needs to speak directly to Americans about the real costs of painting the threats of 2010 in the race baiting and crime fear centered mentalities of 1968, as is so clearly being done about immigrants, about Muslim Americans, and about him. Like war in Iraq, Obama may not ever be able to declare an end to the war on crime, but he can and must declare an end to its metaphors.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime blog.

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