The email was succinct, if not outright blunt. “We’re on the very verge of catastrophe,” it began.
Catastrophe? Well, yes, I suppose we are always on the very verge of catastrophe, as humans packed together on a small and vulnerable planet, although this was not what the email meant.
The message is that fear is all that matters. In that sense, the Democrats’ fundraising emails pick up where the 2016 campaign left off.
Rather, it was a fundraising request paid for the Democratic Governors Association, warning that “recent polls show Virginia’s critical governor’s race is NECK AND NECK!” I don’t dispute either assertion, that the race is critical or that it has tightened: According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released last week, Democrat Ralph Northam’s lead has shrunk to 5 points from 13.
And yet, for all that I am sympathetic to the cause, this email and many others like it speaks to a disturbing dislocation – the increasing reliance on fear to stir up political response. Here’s another message I received recently, from a Democratic PAC: “David, are you there??!!? We’re PANICKING.”
I don’t know about you, but if the party – and, by extension, its candidates – are panicking about campaign money, then how can I expect them to lead?
I think of Barack Obama, who coolly asked that a reference to Osama bin Laden be removed from his remarks at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, the night before the raid that killed the al-Qaeda chief. I think of JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, of FDR’s famous admonition that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
We live in a different era now, I understand that. Our prevaricator-in-chief spends much of his energy deflecting responsibility, or blame, for his own colossal failures of judgment or intention: The buck stops anywhere but here. The prospect of leaving him to govern unresisted is, yes, a terrifying one.
Even so, what message are the Democrats offering in these emails? There is no vision, no policy articulated here. Indeed, their fundraising campaigns mirror the party’s larger dislocation, its inability to find common ground or articulate real policy distinctions, its reluctance to stand up for itself and fight.
Instead, the message is that fear is all that matters, that we should participate in the electoral process not out of a desire to reflect, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature” but for more base and atavistic ends. This was the mistake of the 2016 election, or one of them – the belief that to vote against someone or something might somehow be enough.
In that sense, the Democrats’ fundraising emails pick up where the 2016 campaign left off.
I am, it should be said, the target audience for such come-ons: a voter who feels strongly that the country is going in the wrong direction, a donor to progressive causes and candidates. To be scolded, however, is not only annoying but also alienating, pushing me away from the party and its candidates.
In 1968, on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Robert Kennedy spoke unscripted to an audience in Indianapolis. “What we need in the United States,” he declared, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion.”
This, I want to argue, is the message with which to oppose the president and his agenda – not fear but its inverse, which is not courage precisely but something harder and more exacting, what Kennedy referred to (quoting the poet Aeschylus) in that same speech in Indianapolis as “the awful grace of God.”
David L. Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.