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Fear and loathing on campaign trail is dark path for America

By Bob Houghtaling

Fear sells. Politicians to get votes also use it. While using fear, as part of a strategy is certainly not new, it is important for us all to step back and examine that which frightens us. Today’s political climate is proving to be extremely contentious. Party politics are being played to the extreme and the need for finding ‘bad guys’, to point fingers at, sates a craving for blame. All of this takes little leadership. All of this is destructive. Unfortunately, all of this gains traction because the general population’s fears have made us susceptible to jingoism and gross exaggeration. The present Republican and Democratic debates clearly illustrate this contention.

For certain, there are some concerns that warrant great attention. The constant turmoil in the Middle East, the economy, health care, prison reform, North Korea, civil rights, environmental challenges and cost effective energy are near the top of many people’s lists.

Politicians often resort to party lines when it comes to tackling these concerns. When this occurs we get slogans, vitriol, blame and eventually polarization. In addition, we see politicians targeting populations, excoriating other leaders and telling the general public that disaster looms if they choose the wrong leader. Really?

Somehow, America has survived having the White House set aflame, a Civil War, political scandals, the Great Depression, two World Wars, September 11, 2001, allowing blacks and women to vote (heaven forbid) and Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton dead. With this said, it is important that we scrutinize the messages some leaders throw our way. We should also consider how past crises were handled. Each era has its concerns. Choosing who will help guide us through them is one of our greatest responsibilities.

During their times in office, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan were heavily criticized. Washington was criticized when asking for too much Federal control. Jefferson’s career was marred by his relationship with Sally Hemings. Lincoln battled through the Civil War and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. FDR attempted to pack the Supreme Court to change the balance of opinion on the Court. Truman gave the OK to drop the atomic bombs and later fired General Douglas MacArthur. Finally, Ronald Reagan had the Iran-Contra scandal that gave us Oliver North obfuscating the truth. Many consider these guys among our best Presidents.

Other leaders like Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton have given us outrageous scandals. When today’s candidates say we are living in the worst of times, the other party is trying to destroy America and that Barack Obama is the worst President ever, they are minimizing some salient historical happenings. Look up Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan sometime. There have also been senators and representatives who have done some ridiculous things in the past, as well. One of the most disturbing is Charles Sumner being clobbered by Preston Brooks with a cane on the floor of the Senate. We might be frustrated by the challenges presented today, but populism, nationalism and jingoism need to be tempered by rationale. People might be clamoring for change, but hope can turn to despair quickly. Who leads then? Posturing, blaming and overgeneralization make for easy targets, but weak solutions. Unchecked that which sounds great can give us Huey Long.

Each generation of Americans will be confronted with the trials of their times. How we choose those who will guide us through these times reflects upon our character. Do we integrate or dis-integrate? Do we shed a light of hope, or cling to the darker side of our fears? Fear has led to us bracing for the worst. Perhaps now it is time to embrace others out of a renewed sense of goodness.

Great leaders, while acknowledging their foibles, offer possibility. They respect the past, but beseech us to move forward, even in the most trying times. I can hear them say, ‘I have a dream, that we the people, with malice towards none, have nothing to fear except fear itself, for the buck stops here.’ Let us make sure we know where our leaders are leading us.

Bob Houghtaling, an occasional contributor to The Smithfield Times, is the Director of the East Greenwich Drug Program.