Beware of Lou Dobbs and the politics of anger

“In America, anyone can become president,” Adlai Stevenson Jr., the two-time Democratic presidential nominee said, adding with his characteristic high-brow humor: “That’s one of the risks you take.”

The quote comes to mind with news that Lou Dobbs, the controversial former CNN anchor, is exploring not just a U.S. Senate bid from New Jersey but also an independent presidential bid in 2012.

That Dobbs, a man with no political experience and a disturbing pattern of recklessness when addressing hot-button political issues, would draw 14 percent in a three-way race with President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (according to a Rasmussen poll) should not surprise us.

It should worry us, however. For Dobbs and the support he attracts is a sign of the angry and uncertain times in today’s America. His appeal tells us something troubling about the national mood.

Historically speaking, Dobbs would be just the latest third-party candidate to exploit the public fears that he has done much to flame. In 1948, Strom Thurmond exploited racial tensions to garner 1.2 million popular votes (about 2.4 percent) while Henry Wallace focused on Cold War tensions to secure almost as many.

Two decades later, George Wallace focused on race and social disharmony to win nearly 10 million votes and the 46 electoral votes of five states, nearly denying Richard Nixon the presidency.

Then in 1992, Ross Perot exploited economic insecurity, decried the federal budget deficit, lambasted free trade and argued that only a non-politician like himself could fix the problems that ailed Washington. He won an astonishing 20 million votes, nearly one in every five that was cast.

Today, Americans are angry once more. Living standards are stagnant, income inequality is growing, the deficit is exploding, terrorists are infiltrating communities from New York to California, an Iranian dictator is developing nuclear weapons with which to threaten America and its allies, and Washington is again bitterly polarized over how to address problems at home and abroad.

Democrats are struggling to unite progressives and moderates around solutions, Republicans are almost uniformly opposed to Obama but badly split over where they would take the country, and Americans are increasingly ditching both parties and identifying themselves as political

“independents.”

No third-party candidate has ever won the presidency, but we should not rest easy about Dobbs. Even if our leaders in Washington do everything right, times will remain troubled for awhile. The economy will recover slowly, budget deficits will remain high, and the war in Afghanistan will drag on.

Anger, then, will likely grow before it subsides, and Dobbs’ appeal will likely grow with it.

Thus, we should take Dobbs seriously. If we do, we will find a man who appeals to the basest of human emotions, one who’s fast and loose with facts and has dismissed his critics as “commies” and “fascists,” one who would further divide Americans rather than unite them, exploiting their fears rather than calming them.

Dobbs is the political wannabe as weather vane. Once a button-down figure who seemed to speak for corporate America, he’s now a born-again populist for a more populist audience. His books (e.g., War on the Middle Class, Exporting America), his CNN segments (e.g., “Exporting America, “Broken Borders”), and his public persona all reflect the anger that’s at the heart of his appeal.

Dobbs has been a strong critic of U.S. trade deals, which he says ship American jobs overseas but which, most mainstream economists say, actually create high-paying jobs at home. He blasted Washington’s aggressive action late last year to rescue teetering financial institutions as a “Wall Street bailout.”

Dobbs even gave air time to the fringe “birther” movement, whose followers argue that President Obama is not legally eligible to be president because, they say, he wasn’t born in the United States.

But Dobbs’s favorite target is immigration, though he’s quick to say that it’s “illegal” immigrants who trouble him. He claimed a third of inmates in U.S. prisons were illegal immigrants (the real figure was 6 percent), and he suggested that recent immigration legislation was designed to create a new “North American union” that would combine the United States with Canada and Mexico.

Most outrageously, he claimed in 2005 that illegal aliens were responsible for 7,000 new cases of leprosy to the United States over the prior three years, saying “the invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans.” In fact, the 7,000 cases occurred over the prior 30 years, the highest number of cases in any year was 456, and experts detected no threat to public health from immigration (legal or otherwise).

Dobbs is popular for the same reason he’s dangerous – he provides targets to blame and conspiracies to explain the problems that ail Americans. As the nation struggles in the coming years to confront its awesome challenges at home and abroad, Dobbs’s appeal will likely edge higher.

That could make Dobbs more eager to run in 2012, giving him an even broader platform from which to spew his divisive theories. And that, in turn, is a prospect that none of us should welcome.