The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears and Stories: Part II

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012

In a recent op-ed, “The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears,” I talked about the fact that in 1988, Rupert Wilkinson published a remarkable little book. Wilkinson identified four fears that not only have been present from the very founding of the Republic, but are so basic that they are virtually synonymous with it: 1. The Fear of Being Owned; 2. The Fear of Falling Away; 3. The Fear of Winding Down; and 4. The Fear of Falling Apart.

Very few people know that just a year earlier in 1987, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also published a book that dealt in a different but complimentary way with the same themes. In fact, I regard it as one of his best books.

Reich described four primary myths or stories that historically have not only defined American character, but have from the very beginning of our existence as a nation shaped our major attitudes and policies towards key issues and problems.

Taken together, Reich and Wilkerson give a deep understanding of the largely unconscious forces that not only drive all Americans, but are especially powerful in motivating today’s Republicans and conservatives. Like all cultures, our unique history has “set us up” in how we approach critical issues no matter what the time period in our history or the particular problems we are facing. As Nietzsche famously said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Reich’s four stories are: 1. The Rot at the Top; 2. The Barbarians at the Gate; 3. The Triumphant Individual; and, 4., The Benevolent Society.

The Rot at the Top is all the European despots, evil Kings, and tyrants from whom we initially fled. Given that Freudian Oedipal fears are always present as a natural phase of human development, they are especially painful when they have a strong basis in historical fact and are thus easily magnified.

The Rot at the Top corresponds directly to Wilkerson’s Fear of Being Owned. Once again, it helps to explain why the outrage towards President Obama and “Obamacare” is so nasty and intense. As the head of government, a black president especially stokes fear, fury, and hatred of unimaginable force.

Of course, for liberals, the Rot is Big Business; for conservatives, it is The Government. Neither one has a monopoly when it come to basic fears.

The Barbarians at the Gate are all those “just on the outside” and forever plotting to “get in and steal all our hard earned and deserved riches.” No wonder why illegal immigrants are so feared and hated. They are just the latest representatives of the evil horde. But so are women to conservatives. This also helps to explain why all the evidence to the contrary will never be enough to dispel claims that Obama is a Muslim who was not born in the U.S. In short, “he’s not one of us!”

The Triumphant Individual is the classic, lone American Hero who all by himself — traditionally the American Hero is male — is sufficient to defeat all of America’s enemies. He is the strong, silent type who doesn’t need anyone. Of course this all too conveniently ignores the fact that it took groups of people together to cross the plains and settle the country. Individuals by themselves were much more likely to perish.

But more than this, The Triumphant Individual is the raw creative energy of America itself. As such, The Triumphant Individual is closely allied with Wilkerson’s fears of Winding Down and Falling Away from the original dream of America.

Finally, The Benevolent Society is America herself, the shining beacon of hope to all of humankind. It is an America that can do no wrong because it is the font of all that is right. This too is closely allied with Wilkerson’s fears of Winding Down and Falling Away from the original dream of America.

The point is that at a very fundamental level, there is a great consistency between different views that help to explain why we are the way we are. But they do more than this.

The thing that liberals need to understand — and I’m not sure that they really can because of the powerful Grip of The Enlightenment with its intense distrust of emotion has on their thinking — is that because Wilkerson’s fears and Reich’s basic stories resonate so strongly with conservatives, they are much more able to use them to their immense advantage. Until liberals are able to help forge new stories that define the America of the future, they will always be at a severe disadvantage in winning the hearts and souls of Americans.

Still, Republicans and conservatives may very well own America’s old stories, but as recent events demonstrate all too well, it’s not enough to guarantee that they won’t screw up and lose today’s hearts and minds. For instance, because of their gross insensitivity, they show no end to their ability to offend women and other key stakeholders.

Nonetheless, liberals shouldn’t take this for granted. We need to take the lead in telling better stories about ourselves.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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