I Will DecideOne of the more interesting “advertisers” on A Prairie Home Companion is the “Fear-Monger’s Shop,” catering to all your phobia needs. Garrison Keillor is of course satirizing what commercial advertisers have long known: that our fears are stronger than our loves when it comes to our purchases. Fear of losing our looks, of appearing unfashionable, of getting old, of life itself, leads us to spend a great deal on objects of questionable utility, while constantly throwing away objects that are perfectly serviceable. Love may make the world go round, but fear keeps the economy humming.

Long before the commercial world discovered it, politicians grasped instinctively the value of fear in selling themselves and creating political dependency. This is especially important in an electoral democracy, where keeping your supporters loyal is often a matter of demonizing the alternative. The road to power is paved with phobias, and even positive terms like “hope” and “change” really refer to darker fears that we hope will change.

One never needs to search very far for examples of this. Still, some examples are better than others, with the recent “death panels” controversy being among the most egregious. The end-of-life counseling that is the subject of the debate is recommended by just about every organization that deals with the elderly or those with terminal diseases. Making it part of Medicare was originally a Republican idea proposed by Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Newt Gingrich was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea as late as July 2, claiming it would save 32% of Medicare costs. Sarah Palin was also a great supporter of the idea, and even proclaimed, in her half-term as governor, a “Healthcare Decisions Day” for all Alaskans.

Then, on July 16th, came an interview with a certain Elizabeth “Betsy” McCaughey on former Senator Fred Thompson’s radio show. Thompson described McCaughey as a “constitutional scholar” and “health care researcher,” although I suspect one would be hard-pressed to find any articles of hers on either subject in any scholarly journal. What McCaughey was really known for was a series of bizarre claims that few took seriously. Nevertheless, she used the Thompson interview to claim that these consultations where really about forcing euthanasia on the old and constituted death panels. The blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree, with (I am ashamed to say it) the Catholic bloggers taking the point position on this excursion into fantasy land. Then came Sarah Palin’s famous “death panels for Down syndrome tweet” and the game was on. Sarah likely can’t remember her position on any given issue from week to week, but Newt Gingrich can. That didn’t stop him from getting on the death panel bandwagon and denouncing the plan he had previously supported.

We are all familiar with politicians whose principles are, ah, flexible, but this is the kind of volta face that gives cynicism a bad name. People were amazed that the “Town Hell” meetings were so raucous; I was amazed that they were so calm. After all, if somebody had convinced me that my congressperson was out to off grandma to kill all the handicapped, I might have shown up with a shotgun myself. (Can I say that? Will I be getting a visit from Homeland Security?) Since the famous Palin tweet, any serious discussion on health care reform has been seriously impaired, with even Chuck Grassley signing up as a Palin-ite. But then, stopping debate was the object. In any contest between fear and reason, bet on fear every time.

The death panel debate will provide, I am sure, subject matter for more than just a few doctoral dissertations in political science schools. However, let me suggest a more promising field for the budding academic pundit, and that is the use of fear in commercializing politics. What I am speaking of here is fear as a political business model. At this point, political etiquette requires me to be fair (or unfair) to both sides and denounce both equally. Nevertheless, I value truth more than fairness, and hence I must praise the Republicans far more than the Democrats. I can make this judgment because I am somewhat politically ambidextrous and hence my inbox is always stuffed with appeals from both sides, each denouncing the other and asking for funds, seeing as how the fate of the Republic depends on my $25 dollars, this week, and will require a further infusion next week if freedom is to be preserved. I love to read the mutual denunciations, but I never click to send cash. I should mind you; the entertainment value alone is worth it.

The internet has certainly changed the game of fund raising. The techniques were pioneered by Howard Dean, Ron Paul, and preeminently, Barrack Obama. Indeed, Obama could not have survived as a candidate without his team’s internet acumen. But these operations were still about fund-raising; they were about making their case and asking for cash. They were never properly commercialized. Were these internet geniuses missing the whole point? Were they throwing away the vast commercial potential of their donor base? Could the donor base be converted into a pure sales channel?

Yes it can be; the same techniques used to save the Republic—on a daily basis—can also be used to save your colon, and the organization that realized this commercial potential is Endeavor Media Group, LLC, and its President Bobby Eberle, a mechanical engineer from Houston turned political entrepreneur. Eberle’s company runs a site called GOPUSA which has found a way to convert the bad news of politics into the good news of colon cleansing. After all, what’s the advantage of being a good citizen if your colon is shot? I tell you frankly, I am in absolute awe of Eberle’s achievement. Within a few years, he moved from obscurity to being a power broker (according to his site) and made not just a few bucks along the way.

The actual marketing is simplicity itself. Each day, the “subscribers” get an email. The email, in patriotic tones and colors, consists of a series of links to various columnists and news stories, interspersed with messages from the “sponsors.” They don’t have advertisers; that would be vulgar, only sponsors and in purchasing their products your are supporting the work of GOPUSA, a work that seems mainly about enriching Bobby Eberle. The first of the links is always to the daily thoughts of Chairman Eberle. Bobby seems to be a man who has many thoughts without ever being thoughtful. But tastes vary, and anyway that’s not the point. The point is the “sponsors,” who offer a collection of causes (the Republican Party and its various campaign committees buy lots of space), cures, stock tips, books, investment advice (from Ann Coulter, no less), survival advice and the like. Knowing something of these matters, I strongly suspect that Eberle’s pitch to his “sponsors” is that he can deliver a constantly frightened audience who are susceptible to nearly any appeal.

Some of the appeals are more appalling than others. For example, one “sponsor,” the “Coalition to Support America’s Heroes.” raised $20 million “to salute our troops.” The “salute” consisted a calling card good for a sports hotline. Just what the fighting man needs: news about the Cubs, as if things weren’t bad enough already. Others connected with the scam received better “salutes”; Richard Vigurie got $14 million of it. And an Air Force bureaucrat, General Chip Diehl, received a lucrative payoff, as did General Tommy Franks. You can read the rather disgusting details here, but in my opinion, Diehl ought to be court-martialed and stripped of his pension, while Franks ought to be disciplined.

If there is a Democratic equivalent of this, I haven’t seen it. Maybe one of our loyal readers will know. But I think a party that cannot realize the commercial possibilities of fear is simply not fit to run a commercial empire like the United States, and all the corporations for which it stands. At the base of so many enterprises—and so much of our marketing—stands the “Fear Mongers Shop.” Garrison Keillor was making a joke and a point; Bobby Eberle turned it into a business and a pile. I leave it to you to judge which is the more quintessentially American.

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  1. I’m glad that Gingrich and Palin finally came around to see how dangerous it is to let the government get involved in end-of-life counseling. Let’s give them credit for that much. There are already some really creepy characters in our medical system. Adding Obamanites to the mix would be deadly.

  2. Mr. Medaille, a tweet is a message posted on Twitter, which only allows 140 characters per post. Scary to think that the health care bill, which is sure to be hundreds or thousands of pages long, would be reduced to being debated on a medium that only allows posts slightly bigger than my original post.

    I didn’t look up Palin’s tweet, but if it’s like other tweets, it could look like this:

    “Health care bill=death panels. Bummer for down syndrome! Socialism is 2 real in this country!”

  3. Rahm Emanuel’s brother and President Obama’s “science czar” are both eugenists-euthanasists, and the New York Times published a lengthy piece of eugenist-euthanasist propaganda by Peter Singer in the midst of the health care reform debate. But to be taken aback by any of that is just to succumb to “fear.” Nothing to see here, folks, move along, and let our high-minded public servants do what they know is best for us.

  4. When did freedom of speech become the freedom to lie? Both sides of the medical insurance debate are beginning to sicken me.

    The great source of both misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent solution and another. Some of these situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them deserved to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules of either prudence or justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.

    Adam Smith,
    The Theory of Moral Sentiment, 1759

  5. John, this is about limits. Unlimited fear is causing people to abandon caution and prudence. Whether the medical insurance reform passes or not the medical care industry will still be a mess, nor will either result alter our path to toward totalitarianism. But the cowardice and foolishness has weakened my faith that we have the ability to change.

    (sorry of the double post my HTML Kung Fu is weak)

  6. Rex, don’t worry, the “fear” is about to go away. The whole point of this exercise was for the insurance companies to demonstrate to Obama just how much trouble they could cause. Now that they have got what they wanted (dropping the public option) they will drop funding for all of these groups and take a very conciliatory attitude (although Pelosi and the house liberal caucus still has to sign on to the deal).

    This is why “Harry and Louise” changed sides. The Obama administration gave up very early on negotiating drug prices and agreed to ban re-importation. With those limitations gone, the bill functions as a subsidy to the drug companies. With the public option gone, the bill functions as a subsidy to the insurance companies.

    Thus everybody gets what they want: the administration gets the appearance of “change,” the corporations get both a subsidy and a limitation on anything that could challenge their dominance. There are a few malcontents who actually wanted the system changed, but they have no real lobby and hence their opinion doesn’t count. That’s the way our “democracy” works.

  7. John,

    Obama certainly dropped the medical insurance reform campaign like a hot rock after taking the public option off the table. I will be watching the news of the next townhalls very closely. I do think there were some corporate funded shenanigans* going on, and if you are right, corporate sponsored media coverage will downplay or reverse air time for the crazy train. However, I think some legitimate crazies were empowered too, and getting them back on the reservation may not be simple.

    I don’t think Pelosi has the cajones to blow up the Democratic wing of the Corporatist party over a bunch of commoners that can’t afford medical care. A congress-person could loose their job (including benefits) over something like that.

    *shenanigans – boy, I just don’t get a chance to use that word enough:) Does anyone know the etymology?

  8. “Thus everybody gets what they want: the administration gets the appearance of “change,” the corporations get both a subsidy and a limitation on anything that could challenge their dominance. There are a few malcontents who actually wanted the system changed, but they have no real lobby and hence their opinion doesn’t count. That’s the way our “democracy” works.”

    This sounds really fishy. It probably isn’t true. Better report it to that place where Obama says we’re supposed to send misinformation.

  9. “The whole point of this exercise was for the insurance companies to demonstrate to Obama just how much trouble they could cause.”

    Er, Mr. Médaille, is this an example of the fear-mongering you were telling us about? Teaching us to fear the insurance companies, perhaps?

  10. Don’t worry. They can torture me, they can make me go without sleep, they can try to throw the fear of Obama into me, but the insurance companies won’t get me to tell them where you live or where you keep your loot.

    As long as they don’t try to entice me with a fine cup of coffee, brewed from freshly roasted Yemen beans, you can be sure I won’t rat on you.

  11. On the contrary, they will violate your privacy and sell your information whenever they can to whomever they will. That’s that “privacy agreement” that you signed, likely without knowing, certainly without reading it.

  12. “This is especially important in an electoral democracy, where keeping your supporters loyal is often a matter of demonizing the alternative. … One never needs to search very far for examples of this.”

    Not very far, indeed.

  13. Ok John, you were right, as usual. Obama caved, and Newt and Sarah shut their pie holes like somebody jerked the leash, and the armed crazies disappeared like the magic worms in James and the Giant Peach. I have always been slow to don the tin foil hat, but the silence this week was spookier than the flowering of the crazy tree last week. Corporatism Uber Alles.

  14. The day Obama caved, the CEO of Aetna was on PBS making happy talk about the Healthcare bill. However, there are complications. The GOP will not go along with anything, because that is part of their 2010 strategy, while the liberal caucus won’t vote for a bill without the public option.

    But the big interests want this bill; it is a series of subsidies with almost no cost to them. Just think, the insurance companies get 50 million new customers, as does the AMA and the hospital association, big pharma gets big subsidies. It will be interesting to see how the corporate lobbyists try to round up enough votes for this boondoggle.

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