THE BLOG
05/18/2011 10:02 am ET | Updated Jul 18, 2011

Debt Ceiling Politics: Fearocracy or Democracy?

Osama Bin Laden's death cast the fear in our politics into stark relief. One of the weirdest cultural reactions after the announcement of his killing was how the Miley Cyrus song "Party in the U.S.A" got a renewed lease on life on Youtube. That song became the unofficial anthem marking the moment. I thought at the time that the partying was mindless cheering, a sports-like spectacle over something somber and important. Yet, while I think it's generally awful to glorify killing, even in righteousness, with some more time to reflect I've changed my mind.

For over a decade, we've been running our politics on fear so often that it's hardly noticeable. Take the debt ceiling kabuki -- catastrophic economic consequences if we don't raise the ceiling, the end of America if we don't cut entitlements. This kind of fear-mongering is exactly how the banks justify any and everything to bail them out. And it's disguising the actual problems we have as a nation, the six industries strangling our freedom: health care, banking, agribusiness, defense, energy, and telecom.

The people who made "Party in the U.S.A" a hit song, twice, are mostly kids who have known nothing but a fear-based dialogue from leaders that ignore their lives and their real problems in favor of slogans about the global war on terror. There are ten-year-olds who have never lived in an America at peace, and 18-year-old soldiers that barely remember when we weren't trying to occupy Afghanistan. This is a generation that grew up on fear, and fear is very powerful.

Neuroscientists are beginning to understand that fear puts dramatic constraints on the brain, and hinders our decision-making abilities. In one recent experiment, people were told they would be given small electric shocks after a certain amount of time. It turns out, the waiting was the worst part of the process -- the person who conducted the experiment, Gregory Berns, noted that "given a choice, almost everyone preferred to expedite the shock rather than wait for it."

Fear, more than pain, induced anxiety and sucked up energy. "When the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off," Berns said. In other words, fear causes us to stop thinking, to stop exploring, and to stop caring. We immediately move into absolute lizard-brain self-preservation kill-or-be-killed mode. Blood goes to places other than the brain, in a flight-or-flight mode. Economists are recognizing that mass fear-based decision-making can lead to downward economic spirals -- that is, for instance, the essence of bank run or a financial panic. On a political level, the fear of terrorism has been a necessary solvent in creating and enlarging our national security apparatus of spies and lies.

A fearful environment is not a good way to make decisions that make a society secure or free. With Bin Laden's killing, the leverage point of fear that our government and bankers have used to keep us passive is weaker. Of course, I think it's quite clear as Glenn Greenwald notes over and over, that fear within the populace is not the only motivating factor. It's quite profitable to run a trillion dollar war machine and black box budget operation. But the fear is fundamental to making sure that we the people give our consent.

We have faced this before. Abraham Lincoln saved a country wracked by fear and bitterness, a country that enslaved a good portion of its population. His second annual message, delivered in the midst of a bitter Civil War, has words that can carry us forward today.

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

So I'm hoping that the killing of Bin Laden means that the blood will come back into our brains, and we can work on solving our real problems. It's not likely that it will happen instantly. But maybe the partying after Bin Laden's death was not so much a cheer for death, as it was a cheer for an America that is free to think, live, care, and govern itself once again.

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