By Robert Becker
Scene: Large Washington hotel room full of Democratic staffers.
Speaker: Savvy PR operative, speaking bluntly.
Message: People vote their prejudices, so public relations rule.
Americans still buy the myth that national elections engage core issues, policies, or proposals – in another time called rational “content.” In fact, style wins elections, though curiously only one half of our political establishment honors this proposition. Simple question: why does Democratic publicity stink, outflanked, outpandered and outwitted by crude, Karl Rove-style schoolyard bullying? Name one snappy zinger from this White House that neutralized fake barrages from Birthers, racists, government-hating know nothings spewing out “death panels,” or smears against a “food stamp president” with a “phony theology.”
Name one memorable, post-inauguration line from President Obama that historians in fifty years will cite as capturing the spirit of the age. What, Joe Biden’s line, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”? Why can’t a leader competent at oratory not annihilate pernicious foes with snappy, cogent word bullets that stop liars in their tracks? Curious, no, from a candidate whose stylish campaigning brought him to victory?
When policy debate withers, surface matters soars, whether looks, mannerisms, wedge issues or irrelevancies, like one's Sunday religion, gas prices, weather and natural disasters. That means the next president will be the hero of the most compelling election narrative. As cultural historian Neil Gabler said to Bill Moyers:
what we're really watching is not so much political debate, though it's called that, as we are watching a movie in which candidates are contending to be our protagonist-in-chief . . . the expectations are that our political leaders are going to operate the same way that movie heroes operate . . . that they'll essentially slash their way through problems and vanquish them at the end of the presidency, which in this case is the end of the national movie.
Not only that, but the movie format overlaps the sporting event format, with obsession about who's in the lead, culminating in simply winning and losing:
the election is the greatest movie of all. And when the lights come up on election day and we leave the theater [saying, as in 2008], 'Boy, this is, what a great day for America that we could actually elect an African American to the presidency' . . . [but] there's a sequel. And the sequel is governance . . . a very bad movie . . . Elections are a better movie . . . a clean framework [where] there's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser.
When elections are competitions for the “protagonist-in-chief,” that elevates the script and narrative, and that glorifies public relations (read: smart pandering). Not all pandering follows Rush Limbaugh’s guttersnipes – outrageous, offensive and fabricated. High-class political pandering plays to real feelings, unstated values (often prejudices), and legitimate projections.
State of the state of our politics: the rightwing, despite its hated last presidency and utterly dismal primary candidates devoid of job proposals, still dictates terms of national discourse – the result of cunning marketing. Instead of enacting well-tested, economic “pump priming,” we’re stuck in austerity quicksand. Instead of a learning curve after failed wars, we’re saber-rattling against another oil producer not about to attack us. How else to explain this telling paradox: a personally-popular, war-ending, centrist incumbent – untarnished by W.-sized scandals or blunders – barely leading three stooges: a gaffe-prone empty suit, a sex-obsessed ayatollah, and a grotesque hustler?
Okay, time for specifics. Here’s a regimen of targeted pandering:
1) Support Obama, the most conservative liberal president around. After all, this “radical” has left intact far more than he’s changed, like 90%. On war-making, anti-terrorism, Wall Street, and Constitutional betrayals, he’s tried to please everyone (except far-out lefties). Plus, aside from gains in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and pledges to cut nuclear arms, who doubts this president won’t match the belligerence of almost any Republican?
2) Endorse American exceptionalism – Why not? Tie in equally vacuous boasts, like God Bless America. No doubt we’re still the best if you measure bluster, military spending and fire power. Less so on social goodness. Disregard our pollution, disease totals, childhood poverty (20%), high infant mortality rates, and skyrocketing costs to cover the uninsured.
3) Gays are your friends, especially unthreatening to macho rednecks fretting over decreased potency. Gays don’t covet your women, nor breed liberal babies. Gay spending spurs the economy, hip to fashion, furnishings, home restoration, upscale food and vacations. Gay marriage is a stabilizing force, getting “suspect characters” off the street and away from schools.
4) Affirm the Ten Commandments. Who cares the first few present an unpleasantly jealous, Old Testament deity? The rest affirm enduring values, especially that one about false witnessing – now that’s a sacred cudgel to strike down the constant rightwing addiction to lying.
5) Sex is not a dirty, four-letter word. Unmarried sex, or not for procreation, is only sin for repressed fundamentalists. Second, birth control is less about sexual promiscuity than not getting pregnant. What “small government” has the right to invade our bedrooms or doctor’s offices, let alone dictate to women? Figure on crossovers here to libertarians.
6) Minorities, even undocumented, are good for all, stabilizing our affluent lifestyles with uncomplaining, cheap labor. Immigrants are linchpins in any hierarchical economy, and they come cheap, without benefits or liabilities. Face facts: rich democracies don’t grow peasant-workers any more, folks eager to cut large suburban lawns.
7) Radical terrorists, especially marginalized cave-dwellers, stimulate growth, even innovation. Without a live enemy, where would your local military-industrial complex be, as billions would vanish from the economy? Pity the Pentagon. Without "sharia" threats to "Christian civilization,” who’d buoy up evangelical churches, or the Tea Party, let alone racist militias?
8) Speak well of unelectable Republicans: concede that Sarah Palin may not be the dumbest ex-politician in America; support her or Gingrich or Santorum for V.P. Praise “good rightwingers” (like Reagan, maybe Ron Paul) to embarrasses the bad ones (well, that's all the GOP leadership). Casually mention why compromised demagogues (like Limbaugh, Hannity, Rove, and Beck) look down on college – they never finished.
If this strikes you as cynical, underhanded, even akin to rightwing tactics, I leave you with Neal Gabler again, depicting “American schizophrenia” about politics: “we love to sit back and see [candidates] compelled to seduce us because elections are basically about seduction . . . that's what the process is. So we sit there and we say, 'How well are they going to seduce us?'”
When will the Democrats learn it's hard to seduce anyone if you never find the right words to channel the conversation?