The Unease Factor

It seemed like this day would never come: Americans are about to actually start voting in the presidential primaries. And as the clock wound down, the policy differences, small as they were to begin with, receded into the background. While the Republican race is a factional contest pitting different arms of the GOP coalition against each other, the Democratic race has become, as Mark Schmitt so astutely argued, the "theory of change" primary. Hillary Clinton's talking point -- "Some people think you hope for change. Some people think you demand it. I believe you work for it" -- is a reasonably fair summation of the three candidates' perspectives, even if none of them have actually told us anything in particular about how they'd go about overcoming opposition to enacting things like health-care reform. When Clinton says she'll work really hard and bring her experience to bear, what exactly does that mean? When John Edwards says he'll "fight" the insurance companies, what sort of fight is he talking about, with what kinds of weapons? When Barack Obama says he'll bring people together to solve problems, how is he going to overcome the opposition of people who simply don't want to go along? No one knows.

And they don't seem to want to tell us. But what we do know is what each of the Democratic candidates wants us to feel. Barack Obama wants us to feel hopeful. John Edwards wants us to feel angry. And Hillary Clinton wants us to feel afraid.

That may be overstating things a bit. It would be grossly unfair to charge that Clinton is endeavoring to stir up the same kind of fear that George W. Bush did four years ago. "Fear" may not even be the right word -- it's more like "unease." She isn't arguing, as Bush and Cheney did, that if we don't vote for her we're all going to die. But there is little question that she is trying to make voters feel unsettled.

Salon correspondent Mike Madden described it last week -- on the stump in Iowa, Clinton "leads voters through a recitation of the dangers facing the country, then ticks through her experience. … At this point in the campaign, even the Mount Pleasant high school marching band stayed on message -- when they kept the crowd entertained before the rally, they opened with 'The Final Countdown.'"

When she says to The Des Moines Register "I want people to imagine what is going to be waiting on the desk in the Oval Office ... the whole range of pressing issues that are going to bear down on the next president, plus everything we can't predict," she isn't talking about wonderful opportunities for positive change. She's talking about the bad stuff -- crises, threats, and danger. And about her chief rival, husband Bill has said (in a line Obama has now turned into his own talking point), that electing the Illinois senator would be a "roll of the dice."

It hasn't gone completely unnoticed. As Torie Clarke, formerly chief spinmeister for Don Rumsfeld, put in on ABC's This Week (before Benazir Bhutto was assassinated), "Hillary Clinton has got to hope that Iraq or some national security matter starts to get back in the news again, because as Iraq recedes, then people can more easily embrace change for change's sake around Obama. If there are scary things going on…"

Or look at Hillary's closing ad in Iowa:

This spot follows the time-tested formula the advertising industry calls "Get 'em sick, then get 'em well." First, the problem is introduced, in all its horrifying menace ("No wonder no one will talk to you, Bob -- you've got dandruff!"). Then the product is offered ("Try this remarkable shampoo!"), and finally order is restored ("I got that promotion, and Sally agreed to go to dinner with me, all thanks to Head & Shoulders!").

But in Clinton's ad, we wend our way through the awful present to a future that sounds good but doesn't feel so great. The music isn't hopeful or triumphant; instead, it sounds straight out of Saving Private Ryan, desperately heavy with intonations of tragedy and loss. As a result, the emotional aftertaste of the ad is serious, even morose.

To repeat, the degree to which Clinton is working to evoke these unpleasant feelings in voters is tiny compared to what we've come to expect from Republicans. It isn't that no Democrat has ever run a campaign based on fear -- in 1980 Jimmy Carter tried to paint Ronald Reagan as a trigger-happy extremist ready to start nuclear war, just as Lyndon Johnson did to Barry Goldwater 16 years prior, and in 1996 Bill Clinton's ads said that if Bob Dole were in the Oval Office and Newt Gingrich ran the Congress, "There'll be no one there to stop them." But fear has always been a Republican forte.

In recent weeks, a number of articles have appeared discussing Terror Management Theory, which essentially says that when the idea of our own deaths is presented to us, we undergo any of a number of psychological shifts, from feeling more generous to feeling more … conservative. When reminded of death, we are more likely to be attracted to authoritarian leaders who draw stark distinctions between Us and Them and who claim that salvation can be found in traditional morality.

And the answer to your next question is yes: Research has found that voters reminded of their mortality were more likely to lean toward George W. Bush. As this article detailed:

They demonstrated that subliminal 9/11-related images stimulated nonconscious death-related thoughts, that reminders of 9/11 increased support for Bush, and finally, that reminders of mortality increased people's support for Bush and decreased their support for Kerry -- regardless of whether the participants considered themselves liberal or conservative.

As Drew Westen notes in The Political Brain, the very phrase "War on Terror" serves to prime people to feel uneasy: We are fighting a war not on an organization (al-Qaeda) or even a method of violence (terrorism) -- both of which might be rationalized as distant from ourselves -- but on a feeling. Every time we hear the word "terror" a shadow of that feeling courses through our hearts.

That Hillary Clinton is the most conservative of the Democratic candidates (all of them, not just the front-runners) is not often mentioned. But primary campaigns are seldom about ideology, and this year's Democratic race is no exception. Given who the three leading candidates are, it was almost inevitable that the one with the most insider credentials would seek to evoke the more somber emotions. Though she talks of "change," her real message says, be nervous. Not afraid or terrified but just uneasy enough to make the safe choice.

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