The Only Thing We Have to Fear

By Michael A. Smith of Emporia State University

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Senator and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey‘s nickname was The Happy Warrior. He worked tirelessly on behalf of causes he championed, and usually seemed joyful when doing so, even though he lived through and served during one of the most divisive periods in modern American history, taking his fair share of abuse in the process.

Perhaps political science can teach us all how to be happy warriors. No realistic observer of today’s politics in the United States, or worldwide, can seriously say “don’t worry, be happy,” as in the song from the 1980s. Democracy and diversity are under a great deal of stress at home and abroad. However, political science remains a useful tool to help stay centered.

Political science is an analytical tool that enables readers to sift through this nonsense, identifying what is important and tossing out the rest. - Michael A. Smith

About two years ago, I wrote a blog post here arguing that like meditation, political science could be an important tool for relaxation. In brief, my point was that there is a lot of hue and cry about politics on social media and elsewhere. Political science is an analytical tool that enables readers to sift through this nonsense, identifying what is important and tossing out the rest. Real-world politics is often a great deal less dramatic than all the carrying on that we see on the social media, cable TV, and perhaps even the family reunion.

Since I wrote, circumstances have overtaken me. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, surprising a lot of observers, forcing us to re-examine our assumptions, and leading to a new era in American politics. Or, is it an aberration? Time will tell. At any rate, my message two years ago needs a re-do. Democracy is in danger in the United States and around the world, with the “strong man” style of leadership becoming increasingly popular, while pluralistic democracy is in peril. What to do?

It is important for citizens to be informed, vote, and take thoughtful, conscientious action, both political and non-political. However there are still a lot of things that many of us do which are a waste of time. Even some political scientists do this, and we should know better. What follow are a number of suggestions to use political science, be happier, and use time more effectively. That includes time spent being active in politics.

Lesson #1: Stop Ranting on Social Media

Nothing characterizes the dysfunctional politics of our age better than social media rants. Give yourself a break. Get off social media, or just use it to keep up with old friends. Do not rely on it for news — it is unreliable, fact-checking is time-consuming, and there is nothing you need to know that cannot be found out from a more traditional news outlet. More importantly, social media rants are ineffective, and here’s why. Long before Facebook, research revealed that people tend to group together with the like-minded. All the way back in 1940, the famous Erie County studies revealed this, while also noting that some people like to rant about politics because they gain “psychic rewards” from doing so. This is really the only benefit, and it can quickly turn into negative energy.

Most of your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat friends probably have similar views to yours. When you rant on social media, all you do is give them something to “like.” The few social media friends you still have that disagree with your politics are extremely unlikely to change their minds. They may unfriend you, they may rant back, or they may ignore you, but they will not shift their opinions. Just let it be.

Lesson #2: A Vote is a Vote

On the eve of the ultra-close 2000 Presidential election, my satirical horoscope in The Onion was as follows, “your carefully considered, policy-based vote will be canceled out by a hairdresser who likes the other guy’s ties.”

So true, although somewhat unfair to hair care professionals, whose votes are presumably no more and no less carefully-considered than those working in other professions. It is important to be a frequent voter, and even consider taking other political action, such as volunteering or giving money to an interest group, candidate, or party that advocates for something about which you are passionate. This time is well-spent, and can help change election outcomes and give a feeling of doing civic duty. However, once you have voted, you have voted. Intense feelings about the election do not increase your vote.

A case in point is the difference between supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, and those backing Secretary Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination. Bernie had the energy — his supporters appeared more passionate than Hillary’s, which gave him an advantage in caucus states. However, Bernie supporters also made the classic mistake of conflating intensity with number of votes. The outcome of the 2016 Democratic primaries and caucuses was not close. Clinton captured 55% of the popular vote, to 43% for Sanders, all before a single superdelegate cast a convention ballot. This is not to dismiss Sanders or his supporters — in another blog post, I challenged them to start a political movement like the conservative Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s and 70s, but on the liberal side this time. Sanders’ supporters have a lot to contribute. My point is not to dismiss them, but to point out while they had passion, Hillary had the numbers. Unfortunately, because her supporters were less enthusiastic and outspoken, many Sanders supporters interpreted that to mean that Clinton only gained the Democratic nomination due to superdelegates, which is incorrect. She won more votes — over 3 and a half million more — from her often low-key supporters than Sanders did from his.

A vote counts the same, no matter the voter’s intensity. It is especially important not to forget those low-turnout elections like local races, party primaries, and the midterm elections happening right now, when your vote really does count for more, because it is one of a smaller number. Get informed, get involved, and vote. Then, get on with life. A vote will still count the same whether the voter obsesses about it or not. You voted. You did your civic duty. Time to get on with life.

Lesson #3: Strategize

It is a truism of effective campaigning, and effective lobbying, to identify those who are undecided and target the message to them. In the case of voters, there are really two groups of undecideds: those who have not yet decided whether or not they are going to vote, and those who have not yet decided for whom they are going to vote. Appeals directed at anyone else are a waste of time. When a candidate is campaigning, she is either getting out the vote, or persuading voters. Period. There is nothing else to do. Patting supporters on the back is smug and self-righteous. Ranting at your opponent is a waste of time, unless doing so motivates your base or persuades undecideds, which it often does not.

Take political action, but take smart political action. That starts with identifying what you want to get done, and then identifying those who are undecided or inactive, and either persuading them, getting them to be active, or both. Neither preaching to the choir nor ranting and raving is time well spent. Take a nap or go for a walk instead.

Lobbying is the same way, as is legislative leadership. It begins by identifying the strong supporters, the strong opponents, and the undecideds. Then comes the time for political action: smart political action. There is no other kind. If it is not precisely targeted, then don’t bother.

Lesson #4: Look at the Big Picture

President Donald Trump won the state of Kansas, where I teach, by a comfortable 20 points. However, this does not mean Kansans endorse the more disturbing aspects of his unusual political campaign, and now his presidency. I consult for a poll called Kansas Speaks, run by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University. Our pre-election, 2016 data was very clear. In this heavily Republican state, Kansans did not like Donald Trump, rating him very low on two particular categories: trustworthiness, and understanding people like me. How did he win here? Simple. Besides not having the Republican label, Hillary Clinton was also rated even lower by the voters on these same categories. Many political scientists, such as me, seriously underestimated Hillary Clinton‘s personal unpopularity with voters. However, this does not mean that the American people gave Donald Trump a sweeping endorsement of his more-disturbing campaign promises. It is important to look at the big picture. The midterm elections going on right now will tell another important part of the story: one which is ever-evolving.

Lesson #5: FDR was Right

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Indeed.

Political and social scientists are quick to point out that much of our time spent in fear is wasted time. Human beings have evolved in such a way as to become particularly concerned with so-called “focusing events” in which a lot of destruction happens in a single space, particularly a one which can be shot on video. The recent massacre at a  Pittsburgh synagogue is a case in point. It was a horrible tragedy, in which 11 people, including a Holocaust survivor, lost their lives to murder. The coming together of the people of Pittsburgh and across the nation has been heartwarming, and it should continue. This coming Saturday has been declared a special day, in which non-Jews are encouraged to attend synagogue to learn about the Jewish faith and show solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters. What a great cause!

As a matter of fact, this is exactly the right thing to do; go to service. Religious services, and other public activities, are still relatively safe. The horror in Pittsburgh and other mass shootings are heartbreaking. It is good to honor the victims and call for interfaith understanding and healing. On the other hand, one thing not to do is live in fear.

As social scientists remind us, the probability of an American being killed in a domestic or international terrorist attack is very low. How low? Lower than the probability of being killed by one’s own clothes. It is much lower than the probability of a shorter life due to heart disease, undetected cancer, or untreated diabetes: the real killers. In fact, the situation is so extreme, the one social scientist estimated that more Americans died after the September 11 attacks than during the attacks themselves because, due to fear, they drove instead of flying (auto travel is much more dangerous than flying.) Now, get back on that plane.

FDR nailed it. Do not be afraid. And, get a colonoscopy. Eat healthy, exercise, and get plenty of sleep and outdoor time. Wear safety equipment when operating motor vehicles, including seatbelts, helmets, and life vests, depending on the vehicle. If you have suicidal ideations, get help immediately. On the other hand, the probability is really quite low that you will die in a commercial airline crash (small aircraft are another matter), a terrorist attack, or any other focusing event. But, be careful with those clothes!

Fear is what domestic and foreign terrorists want. Don’t let them win. Take care of yourself, and that includes not spending time on irrational fears or pointless political rants.

My blog post from a few years ago was a bit Pollyanna-ish. Things have, indeed,             deteriorated in the United States and elsewhere, since I posted. There are things to worry about. However, many people who are upset about these developments are still spending their time very unproductively. Venting to kindred spirits or ranting at political opponents will not win hearts and minds. Certain targeted comments and directed political activity, such as being a reasonably well-informed frequent voter are well worth doing. Taking it to the next level with intentional political activity, such as spending Election Day walking door-to-door for a Get Out The Vote campaign, or giving money to a favorite political cause, are also good.

The bottom line is, political science can still find a way to a better life, by showing how much of our psychic energy is being wasted on unproductive political rants and irrational fears. This is no time to say “don’t worry, be happy.” It is a time for thoughtful, carefully-focused political action, focused on where it will do the most good, and casting out those activities which cause a great deal of pain and are highly unproductive. There is still time for relaxation and meditation, and political science can still help you live a better life.

About the author: Michael A. Smith is a Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University where he teaches classes on state and local politics, campaigns and elections, political philosophy, legislative politics, and nonprofit management. Read more on the MPSA blog from Smith and follow him on Twitter.

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