Nothing to Fear But Government Itself

"Last week was a bad week for the country," a constituent told me in front of a local bookstore. "And I'm afraid that every week's going to be like this from now on."

That woman was speaking literally. The mass shootings in San Bernardino, perpetrated by jihadist terrorists, made her afraid -- and she isn't alone. Gun sales are skyrocketing, the word "fear" dominates news stories and presidential candidate Donald Trump is suggesting we ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Anxieties are deep and rumors are widespread.

The new national mood is, "we have everything to fear, including fear itself." In part, it's an unintended consequence of a political strategy sparked by the far right in 2010 -- or perhaps, after all, it was intentional.

People support the institution of government when it performs basic functions, such as protecting their families, winning wars, rescuing families from hurricanes or even landing us on the moon. When government works, it gives people faith; and when they have faith, there is a social compact about the role of government in their lives. This contract legitimizes government as an institution. But when government seems to fail -- when it's so bad that it can be threatened by a shut down every few months, it no longer performs its most basic functions of the social compact. This failure is when people take things into their own hands, and when the basic notion of government becomes irrelevant. And when something becomes irrelevant, why support it? Why vote? Why pay taxes?

Less government. Lower taxes. Sound familiar?

I'm not arguing that the far right is responsible for fear. But I am strongly arguing that the tactic of delegitimizing government through shutdowns and an unremitting anti-government barrage of rhetoric has undermined people's faith that government can provide for the common defense. As one man interviewed in a recent New York Times article said, "I believe my government is supposed to protect me, but it has let me down. I resent having to defend myself. I should not have to, but at this point, I don't feel like I have a choice."

The United States is no stranger to the threat of massive attacks -- seventy-four years ago we were attacked at Pearl Harbor and then faced the constant uncertainty of nuclear war during the Cold War. The difference between then and now was that we didn't have one side of the two-party system in Congress dedicated to undermining and tearing down government as an institution. Instead, there was a sense on the street that, as bad as things were, we were in it together and together we would prevail. This environment made it possible for Franklin D. Roosevelt to say, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself."

Today such monumental words seem outdated and naïve. The right has created a toxic brew of doubt about government and a fear of outsiders, which has created a climate of danger and demagogues.

Ironically, national Republicans and presidential candidates are anxious and fearful that Donald Trump's extreme fear mongering and constant media attention will irreparably damage them on Election Day so they have started a strategy to attack and defeat him. Instead of fighting it, they should consider the role they played in creating a climate in which he thrives -- where fear and faithlessness prosper.

In the meantime, while Republican's ponder the hand they played in the Trump candidacy, we should focus on building compromises and creating policies that will once again empower our government to serve our country and the American people stronger and better. A government is only as strong as those who serve it -- so instead of fighting against it, let's renew our contract and pledge to once again make the government work for all Americans.