By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / September 22, 2009
Pundits have been writing that the Republicans will pay a heavy price for their tactics of distortion, rejection of bipartisan outreach, and hysteria. But the facts suggest that Negativism has paid off in spades.
President Barack Obama’s popularity this summer has plummeted from around 70% to 50% and approval of his handling of the health care problem has fallen from 57% to 46%. What is troubling is that more than a few of the people who moved from “approving” Obama have moved to “strongly disapprove.”
The last polling indicates that 41% of voters trust Democrats on health care compared to 39% for the Republicans. This represents a dramatic improvement for the Republicans and the highest score they have had in this area in decades. Scare tactics work!
Dishonest and irresponsible tactics
In this time of strong party cohesion and ideological unity, the Republicans are able to keep their few moderates in line and seem to win points among voters for a consistent refusal to be open to bipartisanship. They have not forgotten that in 1994, the voters rewarded them handsomely for torpedoing health care reform and hanging tough on almost everything else. Over the years, they have convinced so many Americans that government can do nothing right that a long term strategy of opposing government activism yields big rewards.
Recently Salon correctly noted that “Now more than ever, bipartisanship is for suckers.” Democrats have kept reaching out to a few moderate Republicans long after it was clear there probably was no one to talk to. Of course, they have little choice because they are, in far, burdened with the problem of trying to appease the large conservative element in their own party.
Republicans have said that they are for health care reform while doing everything possible to block it. Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, a member of the “Gang of Six” — which is supposed to be working for a bipartisan compromise — tipped his hand when giving the party’s radio address. He denounced every single Democratic proposal in the most partisan of language.
His colleagues, led by always-simpering Mitch McConnell dutifully repeated talking points about bureaucrats making health care decisions and big government seizing the entire industry. They were reading off of talking points manufactured by pollster Frank Luntz. Each point was tested in polls for its effectiveness at getting people excited.
Politics is not beanbags and there are no Marquis of Queensbury rules. But the Luntz talking points, except the one about the possibility of cost overruns, are entirely untrue.
One can understand putting a bit of pepper on the gloves in an argument, but the GOP was resorting to complete untruths. Government was not taking over the industry, and even the doomed “public option” would be in the hands of a company that would enjoy a temporary up-front loan.
No Republican generated more headlines about wanting a bipartisan plan than Senator Charles Grassley, but even he was spouting the party line about “death panels” at the Iowa State Fair. Clearly these Republican politicians were out to block any reform.
With nearly 50 million people lacking health care and high health costs burdening efforts at industrial recovery, one would expect something other than opportunism and obstructionism from the Republican Party.
Senator Jim De Mint, a South Carolinian, gave away the strategy when he said that “if we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” When Obama tried to rescue health care reform by addressing Congress, Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!”
The debate over the propriety of this act almost completely derailed discussion of Obama’s speech and dominated the news cycle for a week. One might almost wonder if the Wilson outburst was planned. The House Democrats stupidly prolonged the distractive discussion by scheduling a vote of mild censure.
Some might recall that Mr. Wilson had led the campaign to smear a young African American woman who claimed to be the daughter of segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. Tea Bagger organizer and pundit Glenn Beck says that Obama hates white people, offers no proof, and remains on television.
People at anti-health care rallies have been carrying signs showing Obama as an African witch doctor or signs saying that a village in Kenya is missing its local idiot. There were signs denouncing “Afro-Socialism” — whatever that is. Some pass out leaflets with a dummied up Kenyan birth certificate for Obama. At the most recent tea bagger rallies, a very slick video was often shown which depicted most advocates of health care reform as being black, but there were some Jews included.
Angry demonstrators at the Capitol on September 12 carried signs saying “Traitors Run Our Government,” “Don’t Blame Me; I Voted for ‘The American’,” and “Is This Russia?” Mike Pence, the number three Republican in the House, told the assemblage that America was on the edge of “the abyss that has swallowed much of Europe in an avalanche of socialism.”
One can only wonder why. When Jimmy Carter raised the obvious point that some of the opposition to Obama was racial, he was accused of unfairly interjecting the question of race. Obama and his White House, of course, have had to deny that any of the opposition was racial.
Since Tom Corker used a racist advertisement that suggested that Harold Ford parties with white women at a Playboy Club to win a Tennessee Senate seat, it has become possible to use racial appeals and not get called on it. The new conventional wisdom is that the nation has moved beyond racism, so Representative Ford had to say his defeat had nothing to do with race.
More recently we heard a lot about Reverend Jeremiah Wright but very little about a few of the white extremists who endorsed John McCain and Sarah Palin. During that campaign, Jerome Corsi, a Republican writer, slyly noted that Obama’s mother seemed to prefer black men, but no one called him on exploiting race. Rush Limbaugh referred to Obama as “a little black man child” and few protested. He still uses the word “reparations” to refer to social programs and integration. Now we have conservative talk show host Tammy Bruce calling Michelle Obama “trash,” and there is little hubbub.
There has been a 400% increase in threats against the president. Guns and ammo are flying off of store shelves. But race is no longer a problem, and no one is exploiting it.
Of course, not all or even a majority of Obama’s critics are racists. But the size of the “birther” movement suggests that many of his critics are either racists or are very uncomfortable with a black man in the Oval Office. Despite many failed law suits and abundant evidence that the president was born in Hawaii, the birther movement has persisted and Republican Congressmen from the North and South continue to feed it. A recent Daily Kos poll showed that 58% of Republicans either thought the president was born in Kenya or were unsure if he was born in the United States.
Tea Baggers and effective demagoguery
Of course, the Tea Baggers are not a new phenomenon. They are the same kind of people who protested integration, denouncing it as “Big Government.” Yes, they don’t like taxes either. They are to be found out on the fringes in militias and survivalist movements, in among white supremacists, in the Christian Identity movement, and in the Alaska Independence Party. Since Obama’s election, membership in militias has swelled.
The Republican Party has long been known for its Southern Strategy, and Ronald Reagan even began his campaign speaking about state’s rights at a place where two young civil rights workers were murdered. Talk about code — but it was only recently that the GOP has made overt appeals to these fringe elements and enlisted them as its shock troops.
For years, Republicans have borrowed a little of the extremists’ rhetoric; now they are taking it in dollops. These people are zealots and work hard at politics, and, given these uncertain times, their wild and extremist views seem to be contagious.
Sarah Palin threw red meat to people on the lunatic fringe and did so out of habit and mental inclination. Before her selection, a 24 year-old West Virginia man recently said that he supported John McCain because he was “a full blooded American.” One’s first reaction might be to welcome the news that McCain was a 100% native American.
Columnist Kathleen Parker tried to put the best face possible on the young man’s comment. This was not a racial comment , she says, because American politics have moved beyond all that. People at Palin and McCain rallies were responding with anger directed at Obama and Democrats, including the openly gay Representative Barney Frank.
They used thumbs down and middle finger up gestures, and they yelled “traitor,” “treason,” “liar,” “terrorist,” “Kill him, Kill Him,” “Off with his head.” They were responding to the tactic of associating Barack Obama with William Ayers, a Moslem spokesman, and Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright.” It was all about saying Obama was the strange OTHER who was to be feared, especially if he is of a different color.
Eventually, John McCain decided to dial down the hysteria, explaining to a confused woman that Obama really was not a socialist or evil man. McCain probably could not have won even if the party kept appealing to these ugly emotions because the terrible economic crisis temporarily overshadowed all else.
Now, the GOP has consciously opted to go back to the demagogic tactics that seemed to temporarily invigorate the McCain campaign. The massive demonstration before the Capitol on the second weekend of September could not have come off without much advanced planning, staff work, and money.
Republicans still insist that the Tea Bagger movement was organic and spontaneous, but evidence mounts that it was carefully orchestrated. Some of the work was done by a few organizations with close ties to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. During the 2008 election he insisted that race would be a big factor. It called it the “Bubba vote” and said that, deplorable as it is, “There’s an awful lot of people in America, bless their heart, who simply are not emotionally prepared to vote for a black man. “
He added that the Bubba vote is invisible because people will not admit that they have problems with Obama’s race. Armey added that Obama’s “funny name” would hurt, and that there would be concerns about the possibility that he could be a Muslim.
Armey was right on all counts — especially that racial antipathy is deplorable. The former Congressman is busy now activating bubbas for the Tea Bagger movement. His intention may not be to appeal to racism, but the movement necessarily attracts bubbas. The word “socialist” is now being used freely, though it is doubtful if those employing it could write three coherent sentences defining it. Some use that word and “fascist” in the same sentence.
The resort to extremism seems to have no down-side. The media talking heads have joined the Republicans in defending the hysterical people who continually make claims that are far removed from reality and facts. They are even being praised for being “passionate,” as though this kind of discourse enhances the democratic process.
The initial shock over bullies shouting down speakers at meetings and preventing speakers from leaving has been replaced with observations that these people had good intentions but somehow became too exuberant in presenting their views. All but a few House Republicans even saw no reason to vote for a resolution chastising Joe Wilson for his unacceptable conduct. On the Sunday talk shows, Republican spokesmen refuse to admit that any opposition to Obama is racially motivated.
Obama, like former Representative Ford, does not dare admit that a substantial part of opposition to him is racially motivated. To state the obvious would be called exploiting race. Though the Tea Baggers remind some of the crowds that thronged Nuremberg zeppelin field in the 1930s, no one dares say that these people arouse fears of fascism. On the other hand, leaders of the Republican Party have taken to talking about socialism on a daily basis. The contrast is instructive and underscores how well the so-called conservatives have shaped conventional wisdom.
How prescient was Henry Fairlie?
Henry Fairlie was a gifted British Tory who wrote for The New Republic and noted that the Republicans represented a fake form of conservatism. Yes, like the British Conservatives, Republicans represented a union of corporate capitol and provincial-thinking “masses” that concerned Ortega y Gusset, but the Republicans were moving away from preservation of historic wisdom, institutions, and civility.
Thirty years ago, he called Ronald Reagan a “slippered pantaloon” and wrote that both Reagan and Nixon were “simply…vulgar.” With Reagan, H.L. Mencken’s “Homo bubus” became ruler because his party came to represent “the America of fear.” Reagan’s followers were “ungenerous, envious, intolerant…trivially moral, falsely patriotic” and beneath their soaring rhetoric lacked the true conservative’s “steady, unvolatile, almost unconscious confidence in the resources and resilience of his country.”
Thirty years ago, those words were a bit over the top, but they were prophetic. Today they fit the modern Republican Party and even seem a bit gentle. Reagan was probably no “homo bubus,” but more than a few Republican leaders have earned that description. Today’s Republican Party is not “conservative” in the historic sense of the term. It appeals to reactionaries and untutored radicals, seeking to cash in on the political might of bubbas, militiamen, and white supremacists.
Another reason for Republican success is the massive media campaign that has been mounted against health care reform. Sean Parnell of the right-wing Center for Competitive Politics says we need not worry about corporations entering the political process, If they overstep, people will not buy their products. Who can refuse to buy the meds he needs? Of course, we do not know who pays for most of the very effective but misleading attack advertisements.
If this sort “independent” spending is not monitored, it will grow worse. The recent decision of the Supreme Court to reopen consideration of the McCain-Feingold Act could be a step toward opening the floodgates to corporate political spending under the rubric of corporate free speech.
The late Walter Cronkite observed that “We are not educated enough to perform… the act of intelligently selecting our leaders.” The mainstream media cannot be expected to educate citizens, identify gross distortions, or call out demagoguery for the evil it is. The media approach to political questions is essentially the he said-she said approach. That is, assume the equal legitimacy of claims on both sides, report them, and usually ignore the role of fact checker. The fact that the MSM is the tool of corporate America is another reason why it cannot be expected to educate. Nor can we look to schools and colleges to do these things; they would be denounced as being partisan.
Democrats in 2009 have shown little skill in communicating and defending their positions on the stimulus package, the budget, and health care. The Democrats need to fully realize what they are up against. They need to take seriously the communications lessons of George Lakoff, start counterattacking, and demonstrate to ordinary folks that their interests are very different from the agenda of corporate America.
It would be unwise to talk about fascism or the Klan, but it is necessary to recognize the possibility that right wing populism can be transformed into things far more ugly and threatening. Without great Democratic improvement in educational and communicative skills, it is likely that Republicans will reap substantial gains in 2010 and 2012.
[Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]