I think it is undeniable that in America the notion of fear plays a constant role in the election of leadership. While it may seem odd to say that in this modern day and age our government is elected not through who the public likes, but who the public fears, one need not look further than the role panic played in the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004 to be convinced. In fact, it seems that President Bush and his staff took a page right out of what could be seen as the “Machiavelli playbook” (which is, of course, colloquially called the Karl Rove Playbook) to ensure their victory. While their actions may differ from the advice Machiavelli gave to the Medici Family in the early sixteenth century, they certainly had many roots in “The Prince.” Their actions focused much more on having Americans fear what could happen to them should they be removed from power than on gaining widespread love from the public. A number of questionable decisions were made to ensure that they would remain in power for four more years.
By 2004, President Bush’s reputation could likely not be revived in the eyes of the public. From the outset of the Bush Administration, the legitimacy of his candidacy was in question. The election that put him in power was controversially decided in the Supreme Court, and many saw this election as an opportunity to finally defeat him. Now in the midst of two wars, neither of which had a foreseeable end, he was seen as an extremely vulnerable incumbent president. His opponent, Sen. John Kerry, was showing almost equal poll numbers in April of 2004, 7 months before the election.  This is when there was a stark change in strategy on the Bush campaign.
President Bush started using the memory of September 11, 2001 to woo back voters. He reminded American voters that since 9/11, America had not been attacked and that to change leadership would embolden the enemy in ways that would prove deadly to many Americans. The government also began to raise security levels in many different government run organizations to help foster this notion of danger.  Despite never directly saying anything specifically, they made it very clear that you were either with President Bush or against America. To support John Kerry was to support attacks on the American public.
All of this culminated on the eve of the election in 2004 when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, asked Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, to raise the terror warning level to a higher level.  This was blatant politicizing of a system that was supposed to be in place to protect American citizens. The system was set up to allow Americans to see the threat of a terrorist attack at any given time. Ridge was encouraged to raise the level despite a lack of reason other than to incite fear.
In his just recently published book, The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege…and How We Can Be Safe Again, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge says, “at this point there was nothing to indicate a specific threat and no reason to cause undue public alarm.”  Sec. Ridge did not end up changing the terror warning level (as he believed it to be wrong and that they would face backlash over such an action) but this was simply the climax of many different actions that put fear into the hearts of Americans, persuading them to vote Republican.
In the end, Machiavellian notions of fear prevailed. It convinced enough voters that to change leadership would be ultimately deadly for innocent Americans. Whether John Kerry would have been any more or less successful at preventing acts of terror against the American public cannot be said for sure. What can be said, however, is that George W. Bush and his allies were able to persuade more voters that to vote for Kerry (a probably more loved candidate) would be detrimental to their own interests.
Quick Note: This began as a comment to the blog post “Love Me or Fear Me” by serenagr. However, as I began to write I realized that while I was answering the first question she (sorry if I assumed wrongly here) posed, this was more of a new concept all together than a response to the many well thought out questions asked in that post. So I would just like to thank serenagr for the idea that helped me form this blog post. Also, given the short time I wasn’t able to actually obtain a copy of Tom Ridge’s book so all the quotes are from other blog style websites that offered excerpts of his book. Finally, the title is just a play on words of Hunter Thompson’s famous book. I just thought it was funny although this has nothing to do with the content.
1. ”Poll: Bush Vulnerable, Kerry Not Benefiting.” April 14, 2004.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4739326/ (accessed September 30, 2009).
2. Sharma, Versha. “Tom Ridge: I Fought Against Raising Security Threat Level On The Eve Of 2004 Election.” August 20, 2009.http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/08/tom_ridge_i_fought_against_raising_security_threat.php (accessed September 30, 2009).