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So what won the US midterms - sanity or fear?

By Adam Wand - posted Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Last week almost a quarter of a million Americans converged on The Mall in Washington, DC, and at 20 satellite rallies around the US, to attend the wonderfully named "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" organised by top-flight American political comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

The rally was aimed squarely at the so-called moderate masses of middle America - those who have had enough of what they view as the shrillness and political extremes dominating US politics.

Many came with signs that said it all: "I'm an extreme moderate!", "God hates signs", "Subtlety, now!" and "I might disagree with you so let's have coffee" were among the many highlights. "Medals of Reasonableness" were also handed out to people deemed to have made a contribution to exactly that. It was great stuff.


This event, with its parallel doses of both humour and seriousness, perfectly captures all that's both wonderful and troubling about the American political system as it is today.

That people care enough about their politics to organise and attend a "rally of political moderation" is testimony to the system's strengths. And yet, the fact it was even felt necessary to have the rally in the first place is surely a sign of just how deeply, and some would say irrevocably, divided and off-the-mark the US political elite have become.

Political sanity - at least as I understand it as someone who has worked in and around politics all my adult life - is surely the ability to give some ground, to work with those from across the aisle when it's needed and to deliver policy decisions that marry action and responsibility in fairly equal doses. It's about jettisoning the extremes that isolate so many alternative thinking but reasonable people and it's about appealing to the better, more decent traits that dwell in us all.

Political fear on the other hand is pretty much the opposite of most of the above. It's about tempting our darker natures or manipulating our lack of real life knowledge about some thing or some idea. It's about intentionally conflating genuine and completely legitimate insecurities over keeping your job or paying your bills, with deeper cultural anxieties and then using this mixture for raw political gain.

Political fear is about drawing lines between things that you know really shouldn't have lines drawn between them - all debt equals waste, immigration means crime, race equals difference, Democrat means socialist. You get the point.

And as I watched the pushes and pulls of what drove the almost 250,000 people to the rally last week, I can see one clear candidate for the US embodiment of many aspects of this politics of fear, and that just has to be the populist, hyper-libertarian Tea Party Movement.


Surely this is what most moderates were reacting against when they held up signs calling for dialogue rather than screaming at each other.

OK, Obama hasn't matched the rhetoric of 2008. He has proven, at least by American standards, to be more Left-wing than many expected or would like, and stubbornly high US unemployment has left his Administration struggling on many fronts. So there are grounds for genuine dissappointment.

But the politics of fear mongering, in equal doses with petty ridicule and personal attack, is the Tea Party/Sarah Palin response: "How is that hope-y, change-y stuff working out for you?" she rants, along with a whole lot worse not worth repeating.

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About the Author

Adam Wand is a former senior political advisor. He served as a Chief of Staff in the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments from 2007-10. He is also a participant in the Australian American Young Leadership Dialogue.

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