Hey Progressives: “I Sense Much Fear In You.”

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In retrospect, this should have been my second or third post! I’ll get back to my Bubbles series later, but first us liberals need to talk about fear.

The title of this post is a quote from Star Wars Episode I. Yoda is meeting with young Anakin Skywalker and he, along with others on the Jedi Council, pick up on Anakin’s fear of losing his mother. Their concerns are largely ignored as Anakin becomes a Jedi, and the true extent of the problem is recognized only after it is too late. I hope this time the warning is better understood.

To its credit, fear is a powerful motivator that lets us recruit. Liberal elected officials and activist groups with which I am involved understand this well, at least intuitively, and are using messaging that encourages their fellow progressives to get off the couch and take action. This is clearly necessary to keep the movement going.

The trouble with fear is how it affects our decision making. This is not an area I have expertise with, but there are some interesting resources out there on the concept as applied to things other than political movements. [1]

Let’s consider how fear affected the Tea Party for six years under President Obama. We all witnessed the election of representatives to Congress who were just there to oppose and “fight.” They led a government shutdown in 2013 accomplished nothing and left them with the blame. Endless conspiracy theories spread about Obama, Islam, Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ community. Tea Partiers have generally dismissed all mainstream news and information as biased mainly because it does not fit their fear-based interpretations; many would only listen to Fox News and talk radio hosts. At this point it became a self-reinforcing cycle, as the opposition could push fear-based messaging and conspiracy theories with no basis in fact (Obama faked Sandy Hook because he wants to take your guns away!) to kill even basic reforms with broad popular support.

Now it is liberals who are starting down the same path! As I see it, strategic errors are being committed that undermine potential sympathy and support for the movement. Conspiracy theories and fake news are circulated routinely. Based on what I see shared among my friends on Facebook, liberal news sources like The Hill, HuffPo, and worse are growing in prominence. This is not an equivalence to the right, yet I cannot help but wonder if it would get as bad as the Tea Party after six to eight years.

Still, I have not forgotten who the enemy is. Resistance movements are decentralized by their very nature. None of us can control people’s thoughts and behaviors. We can, however, control our own; our personal decisions can influence how effective our efforts are. Repressing our emotions would of course sap us of motivation; if we can just control our emotions, though, we may be able to make better decisions.

I started overcoming my own fear pretty quickly. On the night of the election as I watched the returns coming in, it slowly dawned on me what was happening. I had already resolved to take up resisting if Trump were to win, but that did not mean I was mentally prepared. What got myself under control was falling back on “rich white guy” privilege: I was going to be okay. Trump will not come after me personally. Rather, because of my education, assets and income, I can expect many of his promised policies to benefit me (on average) more than they harm me. This may strike you as selfish thinking, and within that limited scope at the time, it was. I merely needed to give myself room to maneuver and convince myself I have choices in how I respond to what is happening.

This realization gave me time to pause. I did not go out and protest in #notmypresident events in the days after the election. I did not immediately start organizing. I did not post my still half-formed opinions on the Internet. I began educating myself further, listening to others, synthesizing theories and making plans. I share the goals of many liberal activists I talk with, but I think this is why my methods are different.

I recognize that not everyone has enough privilege to reach this mental state. Many are directly threatened by this president or the culture of hate he cultivated, and some have seen those threats carried out against them. I am not trying to criticize those Americans’ responses; as I said, fear and anger are proving useful as they galvanize support among progressives. To the rest of us: I feel like I could use some help here! I am surprised at how much fear is present in those trying to lead resistance movements right now, and it is leading to overlooked mistakes.

If the goal is to take back the House in 2018, some Trump supporters will have to change their minds. Tactics and messaging in use right now are well-tailored to turning out other liberals, and this may even bear fruit in 2018 by unseating the 23 House Republicans who hold seats in districts that Clinton won. [2] We must acknowledge simple math, though; Democrats need to gain 24 seats to take the majority. And as if that’s not bad enough, ten Democratic Senators will be up for re-election in states Trump won. Fear-based progressive rhetoric is a turn-off for these voters just like Tea Party rhetoric was for Obama supporters, so tailored messaging will be needed. If we can control our fear, it should help us better empathize with them and understand what they want; they are not all that different from us. [3]

Eventually I will get back to those Bubble posts I planned, but I want to do a more tactical piece on messaging against the American Health Care Act. I may also write something about the progressive bills for importing prescription drugs from Canada. These will be good examples of how we can be more successful at our goals if we don’t let fear and anger cloud our vision of what’s happening.

Learn more:

  1. In Hard Times, Fear Can Impact Decision Making (NYT, from 2008)
    Emotion and Decision Making (Lerner et al)
  2. These 23 Republicans hold congressional districts that voted for Hillary Clinton (Daily Kos Elections)
  3. Macomb County in the Age of Trump (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research on behalf of Democracy Corps)

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