11/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Too Much Fear

Over the past few days, many on the left have drawn solace from what appears to be the frenzied death-rattle of the McCain campaign, but the race has been giving me another, very American feeling that is not usually associated with the political season, but rather the subsequent holidays. This is the feeling of looking down at my overstuffed belly after a particularly delicious meal, and wondering how did I let this happen? How pathetically easy it can be to replace dignified, grown-up self-restraint with a third of pie.

It's the same sick, panicky feeling I get when I see John McCain and Sarah Palin scaring people on television with their bloated, paranoid rhetoric, offering themselves as the safer, more familiar and trustworthy option. Have over two hundred years of democratic tradition left America with a political culture so thin that our next president will be elected because he scares people less than his opponent does? I wish we could do better than that, but I would be lying to deny that despite all my serious reasons for supporting Barack Obama, fear of a McCain-Palin administration is right up there. How did we let this happen?

I'm afraid of McCain and Palin, I guess because if we know one thing to fear, it's fear itself, and fear seems to be their big selling point. Like its sister technique -- terror -- fear undermines serious, rational conversation, and it stifles dissent. Serious political debate could be happening right now, but McCain won't hold up his end of the conversation, but rather keeps on drumming up questions about whether Obama is friends with terrorists. Obama has responded by taking out an infomercial. This is not dialogue.

Obama's speeches are vigorous and inspiring, but they lose significance when they are part of a bigger picture in which our democracy lacks serious debate. McCain's failure to make a serious case for his side has victimized the whole country because now, whoever wins this election won't have won because of ideas or vision, but because fewer people are worried about the threat he poses to our way of life.

Weight-loss strategy can be of use, here: to change an outcome, identify problem behavior. What is making us particularly vulnerable to fear today? Well, people on the left feel our democracy has been deliberately and systematically destabilized by the current president's consolidation of power to the executive branch, and we are all affected by his administration's insidious tendency to justify foreign policy in personal terms (implicitly the president's), rather than, say, the interests of the country as a whole. I'm not sure many would disagree that the president signifies far more today than he did eight years ago, and that this has been done deliberately. Scary.

Insisting that America show things like resolve and determination, for example, has re-located our national character away from where it belongs, with the people and into the person of the president. The truth is, wanting to show "strength" and "resolve" is no more relevant a justification for military action than the desire to show "happiness" would validate buying every Iraqi a balloon. If this bothers Americans even at a merely subconscious level, that's a good thing, because such personification evokes the exact system of government that our nation formed in order to reject: monarchy. If we're still uncomfortable with that, all is not lost.

But can a people remain democratic and self-reliant when its choices are dictated by fear? Democratic government's great advantage lies in its ability to express the will of the people, but can a people even have a 'will' under such conditions, other than to survive? If so, it's barely appearing in the campaign coverage. We see voters on each side who are terrified that the opposition will destroy the country should he win, and other issues are all secondary, 'politics as usual.'

I am in the same boat, because I can't stop myself from fearing a McCain victory (any more than I can will myself to stop overeating at the holidays). Both McCain and Palin seem unpredictable, undignified, and barely in control of any situation. These are not traits that characterize an America I want to live in, and much as I oppose our monarchic turn, this election does feel like a moment in time when our body politic is about to switch heads.

While Obama may be a good candidate for new 'head', we are a nation founded in pursuit of self-reliance, and as such, the position should not be available. Whoever wins, we must find a way to thrive under his administration without being ruled by it (I doubt Obama would disagree). It is precisely because democracies do not mistake the desires of their leaders for those of the people that we don't tend to start wars. America has begun blurring both lines, and we need to stop.

It is looking like the Democrats are going to do very well in this election, which may help: a bigger government would necessitate the spreading of power. But it will be at our nation's peril if the new, left-leaning leaders interpret their victory, as Bush did his narrow 2004 win, as a clear mandate to institute the kind of broad social changes that so many of us liberals would dearly love to see. They need to restore trust in our democracy first, and to do that they have to restore our trust in government itself by resisting the urge to treat legislation like a game of tetherball, forcing as much through as possible while they're in control.

If Obama and Biden win, after all, it will be because conservative Americans feel they cannot trust McCain with all that power, and not because they have had a sudden change of heart about the estate tax. While I may be writing this from a position of fear, I believe it: those conservatives are going to save this country by voting Obama, and they should not be thanked having their values ignored. To do so would be to ignore the national conversation that has been taking place over the past two years, and they deserve better.

We all deserve better, because all of America needs a government we can trust--not love, but trust, so that, for example, campaign promises to shrink and weaken the government seem as ludicrous as they would in any other job interview. Once we don't need to rely on the president to embody all that we stand for, we can focus on his job performance and evaluate him accordingly without getting swept away in persona.

Such scrutiny makes leaders better leaders, and it is why democracy works. I hope our leaders start working to earn back the public trust in the next few years, so that our next elections feel a little more democratic, and a lot less scary, to everyone.