One Heck of a Good Example of the Limits of Fear and Anger as a Political Communications Strategy


I am thrilled about the healthcare bill that the President signed today.

My comment, though, does not have to do with the substance of the bill, nor with the arguments on either side. I’m thinking about the opposition’s strategy.

Why do you think the bill’s opponents chose almost “out-of-control”  anger and fear rather than substantive persuasion?  

Last week I was talking with an accomplished historian and one of the shrewdest observers of legislative politics I know.  Each of us have more than a little experience in and around government and politics, and we found ourselves shocked that we virtually never heard the alleged flaws of the bill carefully and rationally discussed by the opposition. All we heard was a lot of anger about bills getting “shoved down people’s throats” and “government takeovers” and “people losing the freedom to choose.”

This only happens in politics when a party makes a calculated decision that a fear appeal is likely to be effective.  So they chose the “fire in a theater” strategy, trying to get people all hot and bothered. Fair enough.

Well, time will tell, but I think they made a huge strategic mistake.

Not that screaming and shouting is always ineffective.   It actually does work with the extreme flanks. The ranting brought the tea-partiers into line. Screaming and shouting even occasionally got me a “Big Hunk” when I was in third grade.

But I think that a broad middle of undecided voters did want to hear a reasoned and calm presentation of their gripes. And all they heard was noise.  Believe me; I know that the opponents thought fear was a smart political calculation. In fact, any professor of media and rhetoric will tell you that fear appeals can, in some circumstances, work.

So legislators made the choice to repeat — almost verbatim — the same talking points about fear and government takeovers that were written and developed by their leaders.

I will always wonder why the opponents didn’t talk to their potential supporters like adults. Their ranting had already convinced their extremists. But they also had a slew of Democrats who were in play, and other possible opponents from the center. And what did they do? They gave them rage rather than reason.

And they lost.

Hey, you’ll hear no complaints from me.  They made a great choice as far as I am concerned. But I can’t stop wondering what they thought they were doing?  Did they even consider that all the rage and red faces would look, not simply indignant, but out of control?

Perhaps, seeing an inevitable defeat, they pulled a “Dylan Thomas” and simply raged against the dying of the light.

1 thought on “One Heck of a Good Example of the Limits of Fear and Anger as a Political Communications Strategy

  1. David Frum, neoconservative, former Bush speechwriter, agreed with you in his recent ‘Waterloo’ column about how the GOP blew it by fighting the healthcare bill with fear and blather – and now he’s been punished for his view by being kicked out of the American Enterprise Institute, his conservative think tank.

    Ha! ‘conservative think tank’ – an oxymoron right up there with “deafening silence,” “civil war” and “jumbo shrimp.”

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