03/17/2008 05:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Fear Game

The game to which American policy and politics have been anchored under the Bush administration is a remnant of the Industrial Age, an era when people like W. and Cheney and their cronies could get away with using the populations of entire nations as human lubricants for their massive, taxpayer-supported, insanely profitable, ultimately toxic machines.

Call it the Fear Game.

There are many variations of the Fear Game, many games within games, but the meta game goes like this: I initiate it by telling you I'm scared. Scared of something that might even seem normal (let's say, oh, aluminum tubes) until I point out that it's really not normal, it's insidious and scary as hell. As soon as I get you to agree that you're scared, too, as soon as I get you tilting just a little bit away from your fears, the game is on. After that, all I have to do is amplify, heighten, raise the stakes, give a name to the enemy: Gypsy. Catholic. Immigrant. Negro. Hippie. Communist. Muslim. Saddam. The Unknown. Anyone Not Like You. Before long, fear and its cousin, confusion, govern your decision-making. Lock the doors. Don't leave the house. Stay glued to your telly for the latest developments. Spend your 600 bucks now because ya never know. Soon you're fleeing in the direction I choose. Orange Alert! Red Alert! Boo. Gah. Boo-gah, boo-gah. Boo-gah-boo-gah-boo-gah-boo-gah-boogah-boogah, pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa! The insanely profitable machine lubricated by the lives of unwitting human beings is fueled by their fears.

The Fear Game has always been an easy game for politicians to play, because anything can be scary if you choose to see it that way. Hollywood? Responsible for your screwed-up family. North Korea? Nookyuler warheads targeting your backyard. White powder? It's gotta be anthrax or ricin. 9/12? Tomorrow is even more dangerous than yesterday. Immigrants? They're a threat to hardworking Amurricans. Mortgage contracts? "You know these mortgages can be pretty frightening to people," says George W. Bush, quoted by Gail Collins in the NY Times. "I mean there's a lot of tiny print."

We cannot afford, and the world cannot benefit from the continued playing of this game. It has exhausted the U.S. economy and provided most taxpayers with an unsatisfactory return on their investment. It pays off for only a few politically-connected players. It has eroded our international standing. It has put a knife through the hearts of so many honorable American families and innocent Iraqis who have lost loved ones in a senseless conflict that can never be resolved as long as this the game we play.

Cancer claims over half a million American lives a year. Ten times the number who lost their lives in the Twin Towers get killed every year in the U.S. by firearms. Our health care system needs fixing, public schools are in decline and our public infrastructure is in a sorry state of disrepair. But let's spend three trillion dollars on a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists. It is a strategy whose madness only makes sense when you're playing the Fear Game.

We no longer live in the Industrial Age. We live in a Networked World, when our wealth and well-being depend on how well we connect with one another, share information, and synthesize your ideas and mine into new and productive behaviors. The Fear Game, characterized by rigid, dogmatic, top-down thinking, and a neverending competition for control of the political narrative, simply cannot be effective in this new world. Its polarizing dynamics will only result in deeper despair, more enemies, more hurt for military families, more wealth for the wealthy and less for the poor, more power to the privileged and fewer opportunities for the disadvantaged. It will certainly not help guide future generations toward peaceful, prosperous paths.

As my friend Hind Culhane, who grew up in Baghdad, today teaches sociology at SUNY and spent the first two years after the U.S. invasion working with the Red Cross in Iraq, says, "If this is the war we have when we have enough oil to last another hundred years, what kind of war will we have when we have fifty years of oil left? Or twenty?"

The specifics of a presidential candidate's platform are cosmetic -- the embroidery of factual knowledge and political acuity with which they adorn themselves to appeal to various constituencies. It's a legitimate litmus test for candidates because it weeds out the the tone-deaf and the disconnected. Articulating a platform requires the communication skills that are important to effective governance. But it's ultimately all bullshit. When the election is over, every campaign promise made by every candidate gets compromised by the political realities.

Only one thing matters in this presidential election: Which candidate can best guide the U.S. toward a new game? Call it the Inspiration Game. The Innovation Game. The Education Game. The Health Game. The Cleanup Game. The New Energy Game. The Making Friends in the World Game. Hell, call it the We're Sending Michael Jackson to Iraq as the Singing Ambassador Game. I don't care what it is, as long as we don't let the one we're playing now creep into November and beyond.

Mike Bonifer is the author of GameChangers -- Improvisation for the Business in the Networked World. His blog can be found at