The ghost of Richard Nixon stalks this election.
One of Nixon’s enduring legacies is the lesson, taught to him by his political mentor Murray Chotiner, that fear motivates voters more effectively than any other emotion. Make people scared, Tricky Dick understood, and you can drive them to the polls like an expert ranch hand herding cattle.
Nixon’s insight, sadly, has animated much of our politics for the past half-century. Both Republicans and Democrats have learned the tricks and tactics of mashing the electorate’s panic button when it comes time to vote – and thus, sadly, both parties are in some ways Nixon’s students and heirs – but no one mastered the material as well as conservatives have.
They know the value of a good scare when Election Day draws near.
That’s particularly true now, when there isn’t all that much about which to be concerned and the electorate seems to be sleepwalking to the day when the votes are counted.
The economy – the issue that, in one way or another, has dominated the national discourse for the past half-decade – seems to have settled into an upward trajectory.
We have had more than five years – 63 months – of economic expansion. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has climbed more than 10,000 points since it hit the early 2009 low point in its freefall at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. And the percentage of jobless Americans has been cut nearly in half in the past five years.
And the economic meltdown of the Affordable Care Act that President Obama’s opponents have prophesied – and maybe even hoped for – has yet to materialize. At least 7 million Americans who didn’t have health insurance before the ACA became law now do – and health-care costs are rising at the slowest rate in more than 50 years.
In addition, the federal deficit also has been decreasing steadily.
Pocketbook issues drive big elections. Economic insecurity can motivate a large number of people to turn out.
But when there isn’t much anxiety – and even the consumer confidence numbers seem to be stabilizing – a lot of people stay home.
And fears that are less immediate can serve to motivate the relatively small number of people necessary to sway a small-turnout election.
Like this one.
That’s why we’re hearing shouts of alarm about Ebola and urgent demands to end flights to and from Africa to protect us from the “threat.”
The reality is that only one person in America has died from Ebola – and the other person reported to have contracted the disease was a health-care professional who worked with that person.
We can’t get Ebola from the air. We can’t get it from water. We can’t get it from food.
The only way we can get it is by touching the blood or bodily fluids of a person or animal that has the disease, has died from Ebola or by touching a contaminated object, such as a needle.
In other words, the chances of the average American contracting Ebola – much less dying from it – are less than miniscule.
Guns and cars represent much greater threats to people’s lives and health – about 30,000 to 40,000 times greater in this country – and we think next to nothing of keeping those often deadly objects nearby.
But guns and cars are known, familiar things while Ebola is something new and strange. That makes it a much more effective tool for terrorizing the narrow demographic necessary to turn an otherwise quiet election.
This, I suppose, is the time when I should fulminate against fear-mongering as a dereliction of the real responsibilities of leadership – because it is – but the reality is that we have lived in Richard Nixon’s America for a long time now.
We Americans are used to being scared. There’s some evidence that we even like it, despite what we say.
And our leaders have grown skilled at giving us what we want, even when we protest otherwise.
They learned a long time ago from Richard Nixon that there’s a reason Halloween and an election are separated by only a few days.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.