The president told Americans to gird for a disaster. Sequestration would result in unspeakable suffering. The elderly would starve; kids would miss vaccinations; teachers would be laid off; airplanes would crash mid-air due to a dearth of air traffic controllers. And don’t bother calling for help—no one’s coming thanks to massive layoffs of police and firefighters.
Fast forward to today. America is still standing. The public is still waiting for the wave to hit. Now President Obama has launched a charm offensive toward the Republicans who called his alarmist bluff.
Sadly, such alarmism isn’t limited to budget debates and sequestration cuts. Today, alarmism permeates nearly every nook and cranny of our culture. Americans are told to be on high alert about everything from their common household cleaners, toys, plastic bottles and canned food, to their child’s favorite pair of sandals, garden hoses, school supplies and playground equipment.
Women—particularly mothers—are the prime target for such messaging. For mothers, there’s nothing more distressing than the idea that something might harm her child. In today’s information age, mothers face a daily avalanche of information—much of it meant to terrify.
Among the great proliferators of alarmist rhetoric are so-called public health and consumer advocacy organizations. These organizations portray themselves as looking out for the little guy—a legion of Davids aiming for the Goliath of big business. Yet, increasingly, these organizations rely on dubious science to spread fear and push regulations that won’t make a difference to the health of the public.
The media is more than happy to buy whatever these groups are selling. After all, nothing sells as well as a scary headline. The public can no longer rely on the media to perform the most basic research, or on the reporters covering these issues to simply read the studies on which they report. As a result, the public can expect a never-ending string of frightful stories containing no critical analysis.
Most organizations promoting alarmism have morphed from providing health and consumer information to being cogs in the radical left-wing wheel dedicated to growing government, limiting consumer choices through regulations, and making the lives of Americans less free, and a whole lot less fun.
Regulation isn’t the only goal of these groups. They also want to influence consumer demand to bend industry to their will. Since women are the leading consumers of everything from groceries to electronics to cars, and take on the lion’s share of responsibility for cleaning the house, caring for the kids and paying the bills, these organizations work hard to convince women that they need to buy only the products and make the choices which comport with the organization’s vision. As a result, women end up paying more for products that claim to avoid the threat — whether it be a preservative, a packaging material or a common ingredient — even if that pricy product does little to advance the well-being of their family members.
Alarmism also presents vast opportunities for politicians. If you tell a mother that a product might harm her child, she’s far more likely to utter those magic words — the words every alarmist yearns to hear — “something must be done!” Enter the helpful, eager and desperately concerned politician who will suggest regulations, bans and taxes to address the so-called problem.
We’ve seen this tactic recently employed with the food industry. Despite being praised by Michelle Obama for providing consumers with healthier choices, this month, food manufactures were targeted by one of the better-known alarmist organizations — The Center for Science in the Public Interest — which petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to reduce sugar in beverages, breakfast cereals, baked goods, and other foods. Relying on standard alarmist rhetoric, the head of the organization said sugary drinks are “like a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon.”
Most reasonable people meet such statements with a collective eye roll, but others believe the alarmism. They become pawns in the push to create a bigger, more powerful government, which sadly will do little to improve their families’ health and will be yet another regulatory drag on our economy. That’s not the worst outcome, either. Needless worry and wasted energy are perhaps the most pernicious results of this alarmist culture, which makes living and being a parent less fun and much more stressful.
As so often is the case, identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. So here’s a warning American women should truly heed: Be on the look-out for this type of alarmist rhetoric, then take a deep breath and look away.
Julie Gunlock is director of the Culture of Alarmism Project at the Independent Women’s Forum.