Fear and the Fiscal Cliff

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Nov 24, 2012 7:00am
ap obama boehner lt 121124 wblog Fear and the Fiscal Cliff

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

Many of us use fear as a great motivator. We use it to push our children to behave properly by threat of punishment.  Employers use it to try to get more and better work out of employees. Coaches use it to try to improve athletes’ performances. And our military uses it to try to keep other countries from harming us.

Fear seems like a useful leadership tool, but in the end it is fear that prevents us as individuals, as leaders, as a country, and as a human race from becoming our best self.

When one views the landscape of current events, it seems difficult to find a common thread: the seeming irresolvable budget crisis in Washington, D.C., where leaders of both parties can’t seem to come together to avoid going over the fiscal cliff; the on-again, off-again hostilities between the Palestinians and the Israelis where no peace seems to hold for very long; and for us hockey fans, the inability of the players and owners to come together to save the NHL season.

Get more politics at ABCNews.com/Politics and a different take at OTUSNews.com.

The lesson in all these disparate clashes is the force of fear in preventing positive outcomes. Fear has been a part of our makeup since we began. It saves us when we have a sixth sense of danger ahead and the hairs on the back of our neck stand up warning of us of possible harm. The gut reaction to fear is fight, flight or freeze, and it does come in handy at times. However, if fear isn’t acknowledged in others and ourselves, then it creates impediments or progress.

I believe that all global events and interactions are really just macro manifestations of what plays out in our personal relationships. As we seek more intimacy and greater connection between another and ourselves it is fear that keeps us from crossing the bridge to a better place. We hold deep down fears coming from wounds and scars from long ago that when touched cause us to erect walls we think will protect and secure us, but in the end they keep us held inside an insecure and lonely place.  Acknowledging that all of this is going on either consciously or unconsciously is the only way we can get past the fight, flight or freeze reaction with another. And by getting past those basic animal tendencies we are able to live a loving and secure full life.

Republicans and Democrats are afraid to come to the table in areal way and solve the fiscal crisis because they are afraid they will look weak. Political leaders believe giving in and looking weak is a huge political mistake. I remember countless conversations I used to have with folks in the White House during President George W. Bush’s presidency when they would say we have to continue to fight with the Democrats and not give in because the country can’t perceive the administration as weak. I would suggest from a place of justice (as well as polling data) that giving in or admitting a mistake or reaching across the aisle is actually perceived by most voters as a sign of strength.

Infographic: What to Know About the Fiscal Cliff

And because the polarized media that supports the “principled” part of their own tribe is constantly on the lookout for wavering, the choice feels to partisan leaders like one of fighting either against the “enemy” across from you at the bargaining table or being attacked by friendly fire within your own camp. True strength in a relationship, and in politics, is shown in the capacity to look those fears straight in the eye, and to choose a path of love and consensus.

The above plays out in a horrific way in the conflict in the Middle East, which has been in turmoil for generations.  Each side sits in fear of the other and of their own people.  Palestinians fear the Israelis both in a military way and from potential physical harm, but also the fear exists of the loss of their whole meaning of existence if they give in.  And the Israelis fear the exact same thing and in the same way. It is almost as if they no longer can see a life that doesn’t include fighting, and so if they had to give it up, they don’t know what they would be. Fear has become such a common feeling and reaction that both sides sink into it and rely on it to give their life meaning.

We often wonder why drug addicts or alcoholics or people in abusive relationships can’t seem to conquer it or give up on a behavior that is so clearly detrimental to one’s self.  There are many reasons, but a major one is that these folks just can’t see a life without drugs or drinking or emotional or physical trauma.   And if they can’t see a life ahead of freedom, and compassion, and solid ground, then giving up on destructive behaviors will leave them untethered to anything and without meaning.

And my beloved Detroit Red Wings aren’t playing hockey because of the fears played out between owners and players.  Each side can’t seem to see a path to get past their own fears, or perhaps they haven’t even taken the time to acknowledge the fears they have and that those are the impediments to a deal.

In the end, it isn’t the level of taxes or budget cuts that keep Washington, D.C., from reaching agreement; it isn’t where the lines might be drawn on a two-state solution in the Middle East or where capitols might be located that prevent peace; and it isn’t what share of revenue NHL owners should give to the players or the level of salaries that is about to tragically end a season.  In all these cases the main impediment to agreement and moving forward is fear.

And until all of the relevant players involved in all of these situations, as well as ourselves who participate either as advocates or commentators, pause and acknowledge that fear is the dominant force in our world holding us back as individuals and society, then we will never reach lasting agreements.   And in the end it is by first conquering our own fears within our intimate relationships and ourselves that we provide the path forward for our leaders.

Because leaders will ultimately follow where we show them we want to go – a world in which we choose love over fear.

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