COMMENT: ‘Politics of fear’ seen as discounting energy politics

Oct. 22, 2007
Washington politics is no longer about issues. It is about fear.

Washington politics is no longer about issues. It is about fear. To succeed, a politician has to play on the public’s fears, most of all fear of terrorism and fear of global warming.

Republicans capitalized on fear of terrorism in 2002 and 2004 to win national elections. Democrats chose fear of global warming, and they have experienced political success with it. Strangely enough, both groups, riding a platform of fear, come to the same conclusion: Oil is the enemy. For Republicans, oil finances terrorism. For Democrats, oil causes global warming. For both, dependence on oil is a disaster in the making.

A third group, mostly but not exclusively Democrats with neoconservative attitudes-let’s call them Republocrats-has also called for eliminating dependence on oil to foster democracy in the Middle East. They believe that eliminating dependence on oil will lower prices and decrease the flow of money to Middle Eastern governments’ coffers. According to this view, lower oil revenues will force governments to be more democratic.

The three groups that dominate American politics now have a single enemy: oil. For all of them, if you eliminate dependence on oil, you solve the world’s most pressing problems: terrorism, global warming, and dictatorship.

I wish it were that easy.

Fear of terrorism, global warming, dictators, and consequently of oil has allowed politicians to spend billions of dollars to promote substitutes for oil. This spending has in turn created new and powerful industries that thrive as long as their oil-bashing supporters are in power. Amazingly, even the private sector has launched a war against oil.

Energy a top issue

It has become fashionable in Washington, DC, to talk about energy, to bash the oil companies, to suggest higher taxes on gasoline, to propose windfall profit taxes on the oil companies, and to blame the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for all the ills in the US. Even President George W. Bush has called for eliminating the nation’s “addiction to oil.”

After many flip-flops on oil, Bush has promoted soy biofuel, corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, clean coal technology, and hydrogen. Congress has passed a bill that changes US antitrust law in a way that allows lawsuits against OPEC, even though energy experts agree that refinery problems in the US caused the increase in gasoline prices toward the end of spring and beginning of the summer, not OPEC.

The high price of gasoline and of other energy products is important, but politicians have shunted aside other more significant issues in favor of energy, a surefire winner at the polls. They “Wal-Martize” the discourse when they effectively turn aside from pressing issues such as the war in Iraq, terrorism, and health care in favor of a less important issue: energy. Wal-Mart attempts to reach the widest possible customer base with low prices on products that everyone buys. So too, American politicians, along with politicians in Europe and Asia, are reaching for the widest possible constituency by promoting an issue that affects everyone: energy. No issue offers a larger customer base than the increasing cost of energy, which everyone feels every day.

It seems that politicians in Washington have adopted Wal-Mart’s policy: Discount the issues to attract more people. The war in Iraq does not touch the lives of everyone. Energy does. The people that terrorism affects are a small fraction of the population of Western countries. Energy touches the lives of everyone, including those who do not drive but still need transportation and energy-dependent goods and services.

Just one example: Energy touches the lives of millions of senior citizens on fixed incomes who cannot afford the additional costs of natural gas and electricity, and they vote. In the same way that Wal-Mart increases revenues by lowering the price and selling more, politicians have increased their political capital by discounting the war in Iraq, terrorism, and health care in favor of energy. Some of these issues are still significant, especially the war in Iraq. The policy of “wagging the dog” by focusing on energy issues might not succeed.

The oil industry is not perfect, and oil professionals are not saints. But using fear to create industries that depend heavily on government to subsidize farmers, producers, and consumers should remind us of the policies of a certain Evil Empire that fell like a house of cards in the late 1980s. The politics of fear can easily destroy three great pillars of civilization: democracy, liberty, and human rights. What we should fear is not fear itself, but the politics of fear.

The author

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A.F. Alhajji ([email protected]) is an associate professor of economics at the University of Northern Ohio at Ada, Ohio. He was a research assistant professor and visiting assistant professor at Colorado School of Mines during 1997-2001. He taught for 3 years at the University of Oklahoma, where he received his PhD in petroleum economics in 1995. Alhajji has published more than 300 articles and columns.