The Politics of Hysteria By Jeff Alworth Let us begin with the ur-text for the latest round of hysteria from the far right, posted by Sarah Palin on her Facebook page last Friday: The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil. It follows recent waves of hysteria concerning black elites repressing good white cops and the Kenyan who now resides smugly and illegally in the White House. And the practice is obviously not new. You'll recall how we hysterically invaded that country of Muslims following an attack on our country by Muslims from other countries. The history of last year's election is essentially an accounting of how the hysterics lurched in panic from one accusation to the next. Sarah Palin's latest scandalous ramblings are the logical conclusion of a mass of uninformed Americans who have spent the last week whipping themselves into an apoplectic fury at town hall meetings. Neither the Democrats nor the press know how to handle this. It would be so much easier to dismiss this as astroturf politics and manufactured dissent, but the rage is real, and so are the people (even if they have been egged on by GOP media and activist elites). The are real voters, they have real opinions, and their rage must be acknowledged. The object of their rage, however, should not be taken seriously. Just a few minutes ago, I passed by a radio and heard NPR's Talk of the Nation begin. The topic? Does the Obama health care reform require death panels? I was stunned. Haven't we learned our lesson? The current incarnation of the right (which does not include every member of the GOP) has weaned its base on outrage. It's the key tactic they employ, the button elites push to provoke street-level action. In rare cases, the shock machine offers an actual policy--abortion or gay rights. But more often, they use the most emotionally-charged symbol--a blatant lie--they can conjure. Palin's "death panel" is a sad case-in-point. The problem arises when the emotionally-charged symbol is treated seriously, rather than the outrage. It is more than just a little heart-rending to watch footage of last week's town halls as otherwise goodhearted (though obviously misguided) people melted down in impotent rage. These are American citizens, parents, fellow-workers. Your heart goes out to them. But that doesn't mean we should spend an hour of network news time discussing whether death panels are a good or bad thing. The purpose of the politics of hysteria is to motivate and misdirect: get the media talking about it, which in turn fans the flames of outrage among the base. With luck, a few of the duller reporters may even go ask: "Representative X, why do you support death panels?" If the reporters are discussing it, the subject must be legit. This problem is bigger than the health care debate. So long as these tactics are successful, every legislative fight will be suffused with them. It leaves half the country demoralized and disengaged and half the country seething in rage. Last week Kari suggested that Republicans leave this aside and discuss the actual issues. I'd extend that request to the press: cover the actual issues, not the paranoid theories of a hysterical mob.