Fearmongering has been a tool of the political trade — and of journalism too, I’ll confess — since the infancy of the republic. It can be a temptingly effective tool in the short run. But over time, it makes an ugly mess for democracy.
I think Minnesotans get that. Fear-mongers haven’t scored many wins in this state. Minnesota’s political heroes include Floyd B. Olson, Hubert Humphrey, Harold Stassen, Paul Wellstone — all purveyors of hope rather than fear.
That’s why I’m confident that many of the good citizens of District 48A in Hopkins and Minnetonka and District 56B in Burnsville and Lakeville took one look at the fear-bearing flier that landed in their mailboxes a few weeks ago and tossed it in the nearest recycling bin. Complete with the grainy, unflattering black-and-white photo of its target that’s de rigueur on such hit pieces, it implies that the local first-time DFL candidate for the Minnesota House is in sympathy with “Iranian mullahs.”
On what basis? When the nuclear weapons agreement between Iran and multiple nations was struck in July 2015, both Laurie Pryor in 48A and Lindsey Port in 56B took to social media to post the news and praise an accord that struck them as preferable to going to war with Iran.
One tweet by Pryor — months before she knew she would run for the Legislature — and one Facebook post by Port was all it took for the Minnesota Republican Party and the House Republican Campaign Committee’s attack artists to go to work.
My call to the state House GOP to learn more about the handbill’s authorship went unanswered. My guess is that its template was created in a partisan research shop whose phone number has a 202 area code. Such operations are the birthplaces of an increasing share of material for both parties and for the independent groups that this month are filling many a Minnesota mailbox with dubious claims and charges about legislative candidates.
That’s one reason this flier didn’t go directly into my own trash receptacle. I suspect that it illustrates the nationalizing of local politics — even in Minnesota, where folks used to boast about political exceptionalism, and even in the Republican Party, which in 1975 was so keen to distance itself from its national counterpart that it changed its name to Independent-Republican.
These handbills attempt to inject a foreign-policy issue where it does not belong. The 2017 Legislature will be fully occupied with state issues like health care, transportation, education and public safety.
Yes, public safety includes protecting Minnesotans from violent attacks by Islamic extremists. Yes, Minnesota has particular reason to take steps to deter radicalization within its Islamic immigrant population — as the Sept. 17 stabbings at Crossroads Center in St. Cloud painfully illustrate. Discussion of what those steps should be is indeed fair game for legislative campaign conversation.
But the Legislature has no role in setting U.S.-Iranian policy. That’s the topic of the handbills in question.
Republicans know that full well. My guess is that their hit piece isn’t really about the value of the agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry helped negotiate to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Rather, it’s about tying a local DFLer to a masked, menacing figure next to an Iranian flag. The caption, “CHILLS for Minnesota families,” describes the intended response — fear.
“Sadly, fear and prejudice are part of the DNA of American politics,” sighed Hamline University political scientist David Schultz when I described the fliers to him.
This campaign season is awash in fearmongering, he noted. “Donald Trump is using fear against all kinds of people for his benefit, and Hillary Clinton is using fear of Trump for her benefit.” It’s a campaign tactic with a definite downside for democracy, Schultz said. “Fear gets us to do ugly, unwise things. By its very nature, it’s not rational. It gets us to look past facts. It appeals to base instincts.”
Fear convinced otherwise fair-minded Americans to look the other way when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and shipped to camps in 1942, and when my great-grandmother and other German-Americans were taunted — and worse — in 1917-18. Fear, I’d argue, is what allows Trump’s supporters to tolerate his ad hominem attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, and to justify his proposal to round up and deport millions of undocumented but contributing immigrants.
Will fear sway voters in Districts 48A and 56B? Port and Pryor say no. Both report hearing from constituents who were put off by the GOP handbill. “We’ve had a sizable chunk of donations from people who reached out to the campaign and said ‘We just received this in the mail and we’re disgusted. We’re donating,’ ” Port said.
The world is a dangerous place — as it has been many times before when Americans went to the polls. It takes goodly measures of mature judgment and political sophistication to slough off appeals to fear and opt instead for hope. Fortunately, Minnesota is well-populated with voters who possess those very traits.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.