Fearmongering, a tactic long-seen in U.S. politics

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COEUR d’ALENE — Political fearmongering is really nothing new, and while it seems to be reaching a crescendo recently, political experts say it’s really not unique to Idaho either.

Harper’s Magazine columnist Richard Hofstadter is credited with coining the term “paranoid style politics” in a November 1964 article titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

His column reads like it could have been written this week.

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority,” Hofstadter wrote in 1964. “But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Brian Ellison, a professor at University of Idaho’s Martin School of Political Science in Moscow, said the phenomenon has played itself out in American politics for more than 150 years.

“It’s kind of a weird deflecting tactic, and it’s pretty frightening,” he said. “It’s called the paranoid style of American politics, and it is uniquely American.”

In American politics, he said, politicians use the tactic to rile up emotions in people on issues they fear — even if there truly is no reason for paranoia. For example, Ellison said just this past week Rush Limbaugh was advising business owners to blame Muslims as defense for denying service to same-sex couples. Huffington Post reported Limbaugh's claim. 

“Instead of telling the gay couple that you refuse to bake the cake for their wedding because you disapprove of homosexuality, you should now say you are not going to bake a cake for the gay wedding because you fear Muslim backlash,” Limbaugh was quoted as saying. “Or, due to your respect of Islam, you cannot bake a cake for a gay wedding. See how that flies.”

Idaho politicians are also using the tactic, and it has become more and more common in the past few years.

Juliet Carlisle, an assistant professor of political science at U of I, said that kind of fearmongering has been used all over the country for years to create  “us-against-them” situations in politics. It’s been going on for years in California against Mexican Americans, she said, adding they scapegoat certain segments of society to inflame political rhetoric.

“Think about World War II, and what we did with Japanese Americans,” she said. “We interned them, and they were American citizens.”

Carlisle said, in a very general sense, paranoia-style politics are used to sideline things that really do matter.

“They are priming politicians to think about things negatively,” she said. “These negative sound bites and emotions are what people respond to.”

On Monday, Idaho will convene a special session to re-consider a bill that one committee refused to consider on a 9-8 vote during the regular legislative session. Some of the legislators cited fears of Sharia law as reason not to consider the bill even though experts said that fear was unfounded.

If the Legislature fails to pass a bill that would bring Idaho in line with an international treaty on child support, it could dismantle Idaho’s entire child support collection system.

In North Idaho, Republican groups and organizations are also inviting speakers from around the region to speak on Muslim related topics, which seems to be fueling the paranoia.

During this year’s regular legislative session, Pastor Shahram Hadian, a former Muslim who has converted to Christianity, spoke to a handful of legislators in the state Capitol just before the child support bill came up for consideration. He warned lawmakers of Muslim plans to create enclaves in Idaho, and warned that Sharia Law could eventually make its way into Idaho Court system.

Hadian has also spoke to several Republican groups in North Idaho, and even spoke at the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee’s Lincoln Day Dinner in 2010.

More recently the Kootenai County Reagan Republicans invited Barbara Bell to speak about plans to bring 300 “Muslim” refugees from Syria and Congo to the College of Southern Idaho’s Refugee Resettlement Center.

Jeff Ward, president of the Reagan Republicans, did not respond to requests for an interview on Friday.

Pastor Hadian has also insinuated that these refugees may be part of a Muslim plan to create enclaves of Muslims in the rural areas of Idaho. He also claims there may be plans for an enclave near St. Maries.

But Dr. Bill Smith, director of the Martin Institute, is an expert in international studies and said he doesn’t understand the recent fears surrounding the College of Southern Idaho's Refugee Center.

Since its inception in 1980 the center has successfully resettled more than 5,000 refugees in the United States.

“Idaho is known as a very supportive state for refugees,” he said. “Idaho takes about 1 percent of all the refugees that come into the States.”

He said that is a fair number of refugees because Idaho has about 1 percent of the population in America.

Smith said there has been a big international push to have the U.S. take more Syrian refugees.

“They are running from the extremists in their country,” he said. “They are at risk of death.”

He said unless a refugee has a sibling who is already located in Idaho, they do not have the opportunity to choose to come here, so the enclave theory doesn’t appear to have much weight.

“None of the people coming to Idaho chose to come to Idaho,” he said. “It is not like there is some plot to form sleeper cells.

“It seems like there are some who are fearmongering us away from what we have been able to accomplish in this state.”

Much like Hofstadter describes in his 1964 column, the paranoid-style politics are starting to attract like-minded people to rally around issues and conspiracies to accomplish their political goals.

A little more than a week ago, Scott Copeland, a presidential candidate for the Constitution Party, toured Idaho and Utah on his 13-state campaign trail. The Texas-based candidate came to Idaho because he sees like-minded political people here.

“I don’t know that I am targeting Idaho so much as Idaho is one of the Constitution Party’s biggest states,” he said, adding the ballot access is fairly easy, and he really thinks he can win the state.

When asked about his anti-gay and anti-Muslim positions, he said he is not engaged in fearmongering, but rather educating people about how the “establishment parties” are not dealing with the issues.

“When you allow Islamics to come into our country, they tell you they are against our Constitution, they are against freedom of speech, they are against our religious choices and they want to destroy our country,” he said. “There have been plenty of bombings and people killed not only in this country, but all over the world.”

Copeland said there is documented evidence that our government knows of 22 active jihad cells existing on American soil.

“They are actively training in different locations all over the country,” he said, adding the Federal Bureau of Investigations is monitoring them, but they aren’t arresting them or deporting them.

Smith said the sleeper cell issue is an interesting one for sure.

“If we know where they are the government can follow them and monitor their activities,” he said. “It’s the ones we don’t know about, who are the ones we should be worried about.”

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