SUNDAY, FEB. 17, 2013

Smart Bombs: Prop. 2 fails its own test

It looks like Proposition 2 will squeak past by about 900 votes when the final count is completed. About 40,000 people will end up deciding whether the Spokane City Council should have a supermajority requirement for tax increases. That’s about one in four people of voting age deciding whether three of seven council members should control taxation.

One of the arguments for the supermajority is that if the case for a tax increase is strong enough, there shouldn’t be a problem luring five votes. On the other hand, if the case for the supermajority were so strong, it should’ve drawn more people to the polls and picked up the kind of overwhelming support for Proposition 1 (police ombudsman, about 70 percent) and Proposition 3 (libraries, about 66 percent).

The only item to fail to win a supermajority was the supermajority.

Dread Lock. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote his influential Harper’s essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” in which he traced the effectiveness of fear-mongering throughout American history.

Today, fear is being exploited on a number of fronts, and it doesn’t take much to ramp up anxiety. I recently received an email about the nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, being a secret radical Muslim. An Internet link took me to a familiar conspiracy filling station. As usual, no evidence was provided. But if you’re easily spooked in the first place, it’s easy to believe. Political operatives and talk radio hosts know this and don’t mind exploiting it.

A recent Brown University study shed light on the inner workings of this dynamic by showing that people who were genetically predisposed to fear had more negative opinions about immigrants and were more sympathetic to segregation. This fear of the unknown or of people who are different is a powerful force in developing political positions, but it’s not just a matter of genetics. Low educational attainment was also an indicator of high anxiety.

Political scientist Rose McDermott, who co-authored the study, said, “It’s not that conservative people are more fearful, it’s that fearful people are more conservative. People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they don’t know, and things they don’t understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security.”

Recall that much of the hysteria surrounding illegal immigrants and their “siege” on Arizona was stoked by hyperbole and outright falsehoods. But if you were already frightened, it was easy to believe U.S. Sen. John McCain when he wrongly asserted that Phoenix was the kidnapping capital of the world, or Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer when she “misspoke” about law enforcement finding decapitated bodies along the Mexican border.

As the nation considers sensible gun control regulations, the debate is darkened with warnings about needing to battle our own government. It doesn’t do any good to correct the record or urge calm when fear is riding shotgun.

Quick draw. On Tuesday, this newspaper posted on its website a three-paragraph Associated Press article in which Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich urged people to call authorities rather than attempt to stop shoplifters and robbers. Apparently, there has been an uptick in do-it-yourself law enforcement. Commenters quickly chimed in:

“The question is what is more risky, waiting for him or being armed & ready. I choose the latter.”

“Demonstrate that your boys are any good at crime-fighting Ozzie and you might get a chance.”

“If you want protection in Spokane Co. you better be able to provide it for yourself.”

This is in reaction to nonviolent crimes. Yes, fear itself is mighty scary.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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