After New York Times columnist David Brooks offered a revisionist account of Ronald Reagan's appeal to states rights during the launch of his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers were murdered in 1964, commentators debated whether or not Reagan was a racist. According to some, Reagan's tactics were purely strategic, and in his heart he felt no disdain towards African-Americans. By contrast, others have claimed, as one Times' letter writer observed, that "Ronald Reagan's very appearance in Neshoba County was transparently racist."
While interesting and important, the question of what Reagan felt in his heart is less significant than the simple fact that he was willing to play divide and conquer politics to advance his career. One could make the case that Reagan's agenda of lowering taxes and standing up to the Soviet Union were so important that if the path to the White House required him to appeal to the politics of fear, then so be it. Maybe divisiveness was a small price to pay for victory in the Cold War and conservative fiscal policy.
Whether or not one supports Reagan's overall agenda, it is vital to appreciate the costs that the politics of fear continue to impose on the American public and to avoid the temptation to dismiss those costs as the trivial byproduct of what it takes for some to gain and hold power.
One sad truth about the politics of scapegoating and fear is that they almost always work. There are occasions when demagogues go just a little too far, as when the late Jerry Falwell blamed the September 11 attacks on gays. In most cases, however, demagogues with just a bit more moderation than Falwell can reap handsome profits by appealing to paranoia. It takes a strong and brave leader to disavow this path of least resistance. Reagan was not such a leader.
But why should anyone care? On top of the often tragic consequences for particular groups that find themselves on the receiving end of the politics of scapegoating, the American people are going to have a difficult time navigating rising seas, terrorist attacks, and other formidable challenges if we let paranoia and divisiveness trump a sense of collective well being. Does it make sense, for example, to have a calm, national, data-driven discussion about which factors give rise to terrorism in the first place, and which strategies have been most effective in mitigating threats, or does it make sense to look for scapegoats for our problems?
Falwell may have seemed ridiculous when he tried to blame gays for 9/11, but the latest Republican rhetoric on immigration shows that many conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere believe that their lives would be better if only illegal immigrants could be banished. I wish that the leading Republican candidates would tell primary voters that even if all immigrants could be deported, we would not be any better off.
When a population is scared and desperate, as we certainly will be after the next terrorist attack, it becomes highly tempting to look for witches. But if Americans can't bring out the best in ourselves now, what chance will we have when circumstances get worse? We need to start practicing how to resist the temptation to scapegoat sooner, not later. When Reagan appeals to states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi; when Bush demonizes gay marriage; when Republican presidential candidates blame illegal immigrants for our ills, they give the finger to all Americans who yearn to transcend fear-based politics. How much more precious social capital will we waste?