Democrats facing perfect political storm?
GOP raises misinformation to an art form
By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / February 22, 2010
As E.J. Dionne writes, Barack Obama, Democrats, and liberals are losing now. Big time! The Democrats are in a terrible fix because there is no prospect that joblessness will be ended anytime soon and people are frustrated because government appears to have accomplished little for months on end.
The G.O.P.’s strategy of across- the-board obstruction and disinformation has worked so well that they have a shot at picking up eight Senate seats and perhaps 25 to 30 House seats. For a year, they have framed the political debate and there is no evidence that the hapless Democrats are capable of reversing this tendency.
The Republicans’ wall-to-wall obstructionism is not very patriotic, but it is paying big political dividends. People blame Obama and the governing Democrats for government’s paralysis. Most voters do not follow politics very carefully and do not grasp that the GOP, with its 41 lockstep Senate votes has an absolute veto on policy.
No amount of explaining will make a difference; it requires too much thought. Nor do most voters have good memories. They have heard the Republican talking points so often that they now blame unemployment on the Democratic stimulus package and even accept the idea that the Wall Street bailout was a Democratic idea.
Behind what appear to be conventional political tactics, the Republicans are
- Drawing upon expertise in linguistics and cognitive psychology,
- Creating a low grade authority crisis that is bound to hurt those in power,
- Continuing to perfectly arouse and exploit right-wing populism,
- Moving beyond generic populism to something more powerful and dangerous,
- Reaping the benefits of the Tea Bag nation movement as it evolves a collective memory.
There is no question that the Republicans have been coached by communications experts, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether they have had expert help with the rest.
Expertise in framing political discussions
For decades the GOP adeptly practiced message control, but without almost everyone reading from the same script at the same time. Few remember when the GOP pundits got together to coordinate their anti-Clinton messages. Republican strategists understand cognitive science and linguistics and are expert at destroying the public image of the Democratic brand and at portraying their essentially unpopular conservative policies in the best possible light.
Somehow they have learned how the emotions are tied to cognitive processes and they have mastered ways of rewiring people’s memories that guarantee that they will reach desired convulsions. They understand “post rational” and “post factual” political debate while Democrats are stuck with the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment notion of dispassionate reason as the duty of citizenship.
Anyone who doubts Republican expertise in framing messages and shaping opinion needs only to look at these recent Daily Kos poll results. One quarter of Republicans think their states should leave the federal union to escape President Barack Obama’s socialist policies! Thirty-six percent are sure Obama was born outside the United States. Thirty-one percent think Obama is a racist who hates whites. Twenty-four percent are sure he wants the terrorists to win, and a third were not sure.
There has been no need to directly address race. A recent Stanford study found that “People’s implicit racial prejudices corresponded with a reluctance to vote for Obama and with opposition to his health care reform plan.” Faced, with a looming depression and collapse of the financial system, some people — probably so-called independents — briefly put aside racial hang-ups to vote for Obama. As soon as he averted both depression and financial crack up, their long established thought patterns reasserted themselves.
Among Republicans, the old mental programming came back in full force with people believing with John Boehner that all was fine until Obama came along with socialist designs and big spending.
Collecting the benefits of an authority crisis
Since the days when Newt Gingrich was minority leader, the GOP has deployed obstructionist tactics and shunned civility. Bob Dole and older leaders briefly criticized these tactics and then fell in line. By the mid-1990s, Dole was using regular threats of filibusters to blackmail the Democrats. They have practiced obstructionism so long now it seems to have become an acceptable political tactic.
Now it is gridlock across the board as cynical Mitch McConnell holds an absolute veto in the Senate, and not one of his followers is willing to buck him for long. Most recent judicial nominees have been blocked, and the Bush U.S. attorneys are clinging to power, refusing to resign. Two top Treasury Undersecretary nominations are blocked.
Obama even took a big hit for the Transportation Safety Administration’s screw ups in the Christmas underwear bomber case even though the GOP refused to let him have a chief for that agency. Jim DeMint, who refused to vote for funding for the agency and was blocking the nominee, drew praise for leading the criticism.
The people who operate the 24 hour a day cable news cycle dare not explain how the obstruction works; to do so would be perceived as unfair to the Republicans.
Recently, McConnell and six other Republicans who had favored a Congressional deficit reduction commission reversed their position to embarrass President Obama. Few in the mainstream media noted the betrayal. Likewise, the few columnists in the political middle pass over all of this in silence. The size of their syndication lists might shrink.
Creating governmental paralysis generates anti-Washington and anti-governing party sentiment. It is being done so well now that we are on the edge of a low grade crisis of authority. Crises of authority generally damage the party in power no matter who is responsible for gridlock.
Our strong habits of political stability will guarantee that the crisis does not go beyond ugly words, occasional incidents, and an electoral nightmare for the Democrats. Since Obama’s election, there have been nine political deaths, including that of abortionist Dr. George Tiller. Professors, political organizers, and progressive activists are reporting more death threats than before.
The authority crisis has generated a new, powerful conservative movement that is demanding, as the price of alliance with the GOP, that Republicans continue to refuse to compromise with Democrats.
If the authority crisis gets out of hand, it is possible that the nation will have to attack Iran or enlarge our wars in some other way. Ernest Becker once wrote, “war is a sociological safety valve that cleverly diverts popular hatred for the ruling classes into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies.”
Going beyond generic right-wing populism
Republican success has been built on manipulating right-wing populism, with its fear of imaginary “elites” and profound trust in the gut instincts of provincial America. George Will just wrote a column arguing that Sarah Palin is a populist and thus need not be feared. Populists do not win presidential elections and populism’s impact is supposedly short- lived.
What he did not note is that the GOP has found ways to fan the flames of right-wing populism for decades and to harvest populist votes without giving them the presidency. So long as “otherization” works well against liberals, right-wing populists will focus on their fears and anger and not notice they receive very little for their votes.
From time to time, Republicans, use people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to activate people who inhabit the right-wing fringes of American politics — the Constitutionalists, the survivalists, the militias, the “patriots,” white supremacists, Christian Identity types, the many Christian Dominionists, Alaska Independence Party folks, and just plain libertarians. These folks were bizarrely silent when George W. Bush was rolling up big deficits; now they are up in arms and blaming all our woes on liberals, Democrats, and that “socialist” Obama.
In 2008, there was a concerted effort to activate these people, and some Republican rallies, especially those of Governor Sarah Palin, took on the aspect of Klan meetings. The effort to keep those people excited and at a fever pitch continued in the “birthers” movement. The Tea Baggers emerged out of the efforts to disrupt town hall meetings.
We have watched numerous town meetings at which raging rightists shouted down Congressmen and Senators. The noisy ones rarely had coherent comments. They came to disrupt and were fueled by their hatred of progressives.
When President Barack Obama appeared in Arizona, people showed up wearing guns. One man showed newsmen his semiautomatic rifle. Others had guns strapped on their hips. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a man named William Kostric showed up with a gun at President Obama’s August 11, 2009, meeting and recited Thomas Jefferson’s words about occasionally sprinkling the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.
This man did not understand that most Americans believe that violence may have been sanctioned before we became a republic, but that violence thereafter is an attack on the republic and people of the United States.
Lately people have been appearing at meetings with posters of Obama as Hitler. Some of these posters came from the followers of Lyndon LaRouche. One can only wonder who gave the cash-strapped LaRouche movement money for the vile signs. The inclusion of the LaRouchists in the rightist anti-Obama coalition underscores a decision to draw more upon the growing far-right fringe groups.
Now there are more Tea Baggers than anyone could have thought possible because so many independents have joined their ranks. By some accounts, they are, in the words of The Economist “the most potent force in American politics. In 21 states, they are now organizing at the precinct level. Recently they elected Republican Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat and, in New York, they forced a moderate Republican to abandon a Congressional race.
There are some cranks and racists among the Tea Baggers, but most of these people are as intelligent as other Americans. A recent survey showed that almost 48% of them hold college degrees. Most of them are not prone to violence or racism, they are white working people who are simply very worried about mounting debt and threats to their economic security.
They see jobs disappearing or going overseas and want to lash out in some way. If progressives call them names, they make it impossible to communicate with them and explain why they are in trouble. .
The Tea Baggers or Tea Party Nation might throw a few stones at the Republicans and criticize some GOP leaders, but they will vote with them in November and clearly are being manipulated by Republican operations such as those directed by Dick Armey and Grover Norquist.
Rick Perlstein has noted that the Republicans, at each outbreak of rightist extremism, have been able to “adroitly hive off the embarrassing fringe while laying claim to some of the grassroots anger that inspired it.” This time they cannot do this. In the House, spokespersons for the Tea Party wing are demanding a larger role in setting policy, and the GOP will eventually have to accommodate them.
Independents join the Tea Baggers or Tea Party Nation
The important thing to note is that the Tea Baggers are attracting large numbers of Independents, many of whom had voted for Obama. They were brought over to the far right by deep economic insecurity and the crisis of authority created by the Republican strategy of wall to wall filibusters, obstructionism, and perfectly delivered disinformation
The danger is that the longer these independents are allied with the Tea Baggers, the more likely it is that they will start thinking like them and get recruited into some of their other organizations. Right now, these people, who have been more or less politically inactive, are getting political educations from the Tea Party Nation. In this way, the Tea Baggers are moving from the margins into the political mainstream, and in the process the Republican Party will have to move in their direction.
Too many people think that Independents stand somewhere between the two parties, weigh matters carefully, and are moderates. The truth is that they are all over the place in their views, are too impatient to follow politics with any care, demand instant gratification, and are easily swayed by what they think is the conventional wisdom. They were set in motion by economic uncertainty and attracted by anti-government rhetoric and simplistic solutions offered by the Tea Baggers and Republicans.
Not all or even a majority of the independents are genuine racists. But race is an issue here, and there has been some racist buyers remorse. Independents who were terrified that a depression was in the offing shelved concerns about race and backed Barack Obama. Now that he has not worked miracles, they have jumped to the right.
The strength of the “birther” sentiment — the belief that Obama was not born in the United States — is one indication that Obama’s race is a problem for them. The crowd at the recent Tea Party Nation convention went wild when a speaker demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate. Another thing is the surprising number of people who think Obama favors the terrorists and hates white America.
Would so many people be screaming about socialism if he were white? Obama’s policy support ratings have fallen more rapidly than those of any president in the history of polling. He is not getting the benefit of the doubt or even credit for averting a depression and financial system meltdown.
This Republican gambit of going far beyond generic right wing populism carries with it dangers to our political process. It polarizes the electorate, drives civility from the public marketplace, and it crosses over into playing with fire — what Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a student of German history calls “eliminationism.”
The rhetoric used leads people to want to exclude others from full participation in our culture and politics. It is a very dangerous tactic, but fortunately, our fundamental built-in stability would prevent it from ever morphing into the extreme forms of eliminationism Goldhagen studied in Germany.
We see where this can go in the ranting of Tom Tancredo about wanting to return to the Jim Crow literacy tests as a means of preventing blacks and browns from voting. Tancredo addressed the recent Tea Party Nation Convention at Nashville and was rewarded with thunderous applause. He denounced the “cult of multiculturalism” and said that the election of Barack Hussein [his emphasis] Obama was a good thing because it alerted patriots to the fact that they were losing their county to socialism.
It is this kind of rhetoric that has increased gun sales. The Tea Bagger rhetoric level is white hot sometimes. Guns and ammo, are literally flying off the shelves. The presence of the first African American president has convinced the extremists that he will soon confiscate all guns.
Much of the paranoia about ACORN was really about preventing poor people from voting. After all, ACORN itself came to the authorities when some of its employees were submitting false registration data. There was no evidence ACORN ever set out to submit one fraudulent voter application. Rightists consistently overlooked this basic fact because the real target of their wrath was black people voting. ACORN’s serious management deficiencies and embezzlement cover-up did not help the situation.
The successful and growing effort to require people to present all sorts of identification materials at the polls is also about this.
Organizers in the immigrant community see many signs that conservative strategists, pundits, and think tanks are interested in bringing about clashes between immigrants and law enforcement. Fox News, conservative talk radio, and right wing politicians are trying to generate anger in the white community against immigrants.
The historic pattern is for exclusionists to draw heavily upon Social Darwinism, the complex of ideas that suggests that those at the top deserve to be there and those at the bottom deserve their fates. South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer provided an example when he said: “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed… so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior.”
George Will assures us there is no danger that the Republicans will nominate Sarah Palin or someone like her for the presidency. Many who are attracted to the Tea Bagger movement and eliminationism have a predisposition for authoritarianism, and part of that is they need leadership from glorified tribunes of some sort, such as Father Charles Caughlin or Senator Joseph McCarthy. They have their media tribunes in Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs is considering transitioning from a media spokesman to a politician.
At the moment, Sarah Palin, master of low soapbox oratory, has not convinced enough people that she has the smarts to be president. But if unemployment remains high and government gridlock continues, her references to shadowy “elites” and tendency to appeal to “real “ Americans could change her favorability numbers.
Now she is aligning Ronald Reagan with the Tea Baggers, noting his interest in states rights and opposition to big government. However, he did not play to the politics of grievance, though he repeatedly invoked Social Darwinism against the dispossessed.
Creating a collective memory of victimization
Now what is needed by the right is a method of keeping the fringe elements activated and tying down the allegiance of the wandering independents. The European social scientists have been studying something they call collective memory. The beauty of collective memory is that it creates memories that can have nothing to do with reality. They can be passionately believed because they become inextricable from identity. Sometimes all of this happens by historical accident, but some scholars think it can be helped along.
Creating a Tea Bagger collective memory is simply an extension of several decades of Republican mastery of linguistic and cognitive theory. The Tea Baggers are in the process of assuming the identity of American history’s victims — good, patriotic, productive folks who are victimized by big government that spends too much and does not respect their rights.
To be sure, this collective memory will include versions of historical events and processes that are far from the truth. Yet, they will be fervently believed and will become nearly impossible for outsiders to challenge with facts, logic, and analysis. The most powerful collective identities have clear enemies. Of course, liberals are at the top of the list. Others who will have this status are black and brown people.
What to do: A few modest proposals
The Democrats only have eight months to move to limit their losses. They need to start learning how to communicate. Beyond that, they must reach out to frightened, working America with specific proposals that will create jobs and enable the Democrats to explain what has gone wrong. Obama needs to stop wasting time seeking impossible bipartisanship and frame the national discussion around specific jobs measures, financial reregulation, and fees for the banks..
Big legislative packages give the GOP all kinds of room for obstruction and spreading disinformation. Bring a series of job creating, worker friendly measures up for votes.
Don’t follow Harry Reid in scuttling the bipartisan Pension Protection Act. If the Republicans vote it down, explain why.
Dust off the decades-old Hartke Bill, which strips away almost all incentives to export jobs.
Judson Phillips, who organized the recent Tea Bagger convention, claims the Tea Baggers are angry that Congress does so much for Wall Street. By backing Obama’s fee on Wall Street banks that accepted the stimulus, the Democrats can distance themselves from the banks. They must also tie this issue to reregulation. So far, not one Republican in the House has been willing to support it. There should be separate votes on these matters, and Democrats need to start the long campaign to strip corporations of their status as persons in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
If the Democrats want to avoid a repeat of 1994, they must salvage something from all their efforts on health care reform. They should put together a limited measure containing only items that have broad popular support and pass it quickly.
If all else fails, borrow a stratagem from Harry Truman. He once called Congress back into session and promised to sign Republican legislation. They produced nothing, and it was an object lesson for many independent voters.
Obama could announce that he got the message from the voters and offer the GOP a month and Democratic procedural help in enacting their jobs and health care plans. He should exclude reenactment of the Bush tax cuts and estate tax legislation, both of which should be subject to negotiations at another time. Odds are, they would produce nothing. Even if they did enact legislation, the Democrats would get some credit for cooperating and reduce their losses in November.
[Sherman DeBrosse is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. A retired history professor, he also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]