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The Politics of Shit-Slinging

In a column published yesterday, Slate's Jacob Weisberg characterizes this congressional election's nearly-unprecedented campaign shit-slinging as a "specifically conservative contribution." Republican candidates are running attack ads insinuating, or in some cases outright declaring, that Democrats are homosexual, pedophillic, flag-burning, drug-abusing, … Read More

By / November 2, 2006

In a column published yesterday, Slate's Jacob Weisberg characterizes this congressional election's nearly-unprecedented campaign shit-slinging as a "specifically conservative contribution." Republican candidates are running attack ads insinuating, or in some cases outright declaring, that Democrats are homosexual, pedophillic, flag-burning, drug-abusing, sex fiends — and hippie peaceniks, too!

It's just so unfair, Weisberg laments throughout his piece, predictably rehashing just about every other tedious article written in the midst of an electoral season in which everyone pines for an illusory yesteryear when campaign ads were, apparently, edifying Bill Moyer documentaries.

Weisberg takes the media ritual a bit further by actually blaming it all on the other team; his observations seem less that of a detached pundit than of a man suddenly worried about losing a game he assumed he'd won (this isn't insight; it's bad sportsmanship).

How else to explain the absurd claim that the contemporary attack ad's origin stretches back only to the 1988 Willie Horton ad run against Michael Dukakis. Try 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Peace, Little Girl," equated a vote for GOP candidate Barry Goldwater with dropping a nuclear bomb on a beautiful, blond, wide-eyed toddler. In comparison, a pedophillic, flag-burner isn't that bad.

Viciousness isn't the issue; it's certainty and conviction — two things Republicans do better than Democrats these days.

For the last two decades, starting with Jimmy Carter onward, the American political narrative has been primarily framed in neoliberal terms. Age of big government is over, market versus state control, globalization and so on. Democrats and Republicans were basically on the same ship.

Bush, in his first year in office, seemed amenable to the narrative. Then September 11 happened. A major inflection point can be pinpointed with Bush's national security statement delivered in 2002 which outlined 3 guiding principle: 1) there are universal values — liberty, democracy, the free market — that should be universal for the whole planet (though the values happen to be American 2) Preemption, and 3)America is an empire and better start acting like it (bold military hegemony, etc.).

This was a bold document that turned the neoliberal narrative on its head. No less a neoliberal bastion than Business Week editorialized after the statement that the new direction may be harmful to the global economy by damaging the international community that would invariably feel threatened by such American unilateralism and arrogance. Some people see this moment as marking Bush's departure from neoliberalism to neoconservatism — they see a pre-and-a-post-9/11 Bush.

That would be a simple reading. From the beginning, Bush and his policies have not fit neatly into any ideological box. His first act was No Child Left Behind, which marked a degree of federal involvement in education unmatched in American history. Onto an expansion of medicare, the interagency council on homelessness (which is a far more inventive program to combat homelessness than anything produced by the Clinton administration), his limits on late term abortion, the institution of marriage, granting religious institutions an increased role, the patriot act. This was a bold assertion of federal powers for conservative ends (a bit of an oxymoron, really).

What's interesting is that while this usage of the state is almost unprecedented going back to FDR, the bushies have stayed strictly away from articulating anything remotely close to a big government ideology. Why? That’s the question. Karl Rove knows ideology and intellectual coherence don't win elections. Americans vote on personality. What Rove has successfully formulated is a politics of values, and more importantly, a politics of certainty (which, admittedly, has reached its vitriolic apotheosis in this election's campaign ads).

Whatever else he is, Bush is sure to convey certainty about where he's going and how he feels. For an unsettled and frightened population, religious and moral certitude coupled with a renewed nationalism is comforting — ideological coherence be damned.

Can the Democrats create an alternative discourse to certainty besides Weisberg's "it's not fair!" lament? Right now, for the 10 percent of undecided voters who determine elections, even a false sense of security is better than an accurate–and nuanced–sense of reality (or for that matter, fairness).

Lets face it: the body politic is in need of some serious surgery, and now is no time to start complaining about the presence of a little blood.

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