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McGrath: Too many voters are hostages to fear

Updated: October 17, 2012 6:36AM



As we approach the presidential election, you really cannot blame my neighbor Denise.

The same way you cannot fault someone who has been kidnapped for cooperating with her captors because she fears that her life and future hang in the balance.

Denise, of course, is not a kidnapping victim, but the Republican Party strategists have used fear and false promises in an analogously manipulative manner to get her on their side — even when it means voting against her best interests.

This is not my analysis, but a phenomenon of human behavior diagnosed by psychologists and that’s known as “Stockholm syndrome.” It’s a defensive state of mind that grips a hostage so he or she bonds with the perpetrator and develops fondness and sympathy for him.

The term was coined by psychiatrist Nils Bejerot in 1973 to describe the mind disorder of bank employees who were held hostage for five days by bank robbers in Sweden. During the siege, the employees became emotionally attached to the robbers, refusing police help and even speaking in support of the robbers after they were freed.

A classic case of Stockholm syndrome involved Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who in 1974 was kidnapped and sexually abused but went on to help her abusers rob a bank and commit other crimes.

In a comparable fashion, Denise and other middle-class Americans are being intimidated by fear and misinformation to form an alliance with those who ultimately would hurt them. And like the bank employees declining help in Sweden, they reject initiatives that would help their families and improve their quality of life.

One example of how GOP operatives have been swaying Denise and other middle-class citizens to vote against themselves is the issue of financial regulation. The federal government has been trying to prevent another recession by imposing limits on the kind of reckless and unethical behavior by banks and other financial institutions that crippled the economy in the first place.

But in service of their Wall Street constituency, Republicans have bombarded the country with ads and election propaganda accusing the Obama administration of threatening Americans’ freedom with socialist policies.

Feeling trapped in a stagnant economy, with high unemployment and a housing foreclosure crisis, Denise reacts to the hot-button words “freedom” and “socialism,” and, irrationally, supports a return to the old Wall Street poker game of derivatives and credit default swaps. Nothing good for Denise, while the corporate chieftains get rich all over again.

The politics of Stockholm syndrome were implemented as early as 1988, when Republican strategist Lee Atwater harnessed white America’s fear of Willie Horton. Horton was a black felon who committed more crimes after being let out on a prison furlough in Massachusetts when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was governor. The Horton scarecrow is largely credited with frightening enough voters to sink Dukakis and elect George H. W. Bush as president in 1988.

Today, the Republicans are substituting illegal aliens for Willie Horton. Right-wing intolerance for immigration amnesty or compassionate reform is a calculation to promote nationwide the kind of paranoia and panic percolating in Arizona.

There, Hispanic immigrants have been blamed for higher rates of unemployment and crime, driving Arizonans to identify with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and extremists such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. That there is no correlation between high immigration and rising unemployment or crime is not a concern to the GOP promoters, as long as it scares Denise and her ilk to their side.

The same Stockholm syndrome strategy is manifested in Mitt Romney’s accusation that President Obama was dropping work requirements in the welfare program. That’s false, according to independent fact checkers, but the cliched image of minority welfare recipients emptying Denise’s wallet had its intended effect.

The pattern repeats, as Republicans use falsehoods and fears in an effort to eliminate or alter access to voting rights, public unions, Medicare, contraception, environmental protections and Obama’s health care program — all of which would enhance the middle class’ quality of life.

A separate column can be devoted to each issue to demonstrate, for example, how Denise risks the health of her family by agreeing to the gutting of the Clean Water Act. Republicans contend that the historic 1972 law costs money and jobs, when in reality it has produced a net gain in jobs while generating many billions of dollars annually for the recreation industry, commercial fishing, agriculture, real estate and manufacturing.

Denise, as I said, is not to blame. The odds are stacked against her due to the unlimited spending that the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted the so-called SuperPACs to use.

So she’s got a sign in front of her house urging everyone to “take back America,” predicated on the assumption that the nation somehow has been highjacked. In the campaign of intimidation and whispers in Denise’s ear, that’s the biggest lie of all.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage and writes frequently on education and politics.



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