Scene: Large Washington hotel room full of Democratic staffers.
Speaker: Savvy PR operative, speaking bluntly.
Message: People vote their prejudices, so public relations rule.
It’s remarkable how many of us harbor the myth that election engage core issues, policies, or programs – once call “content.” Dream on. 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 50 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?
To the degree content withers, surface soars, whether appearance, 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.
Interestingly, the movie format overlaps a sporting event format, thus the obsessive focus on who’s ahead, who’s catching up, then of course, the triumph of winning and the desolation of defeat:
…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, piggish, 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 right wing, despite a hated last presidency and utterly dismal candidates devoid of job proposals, still dictates terms of national discourse – the result of cunning marketing. Instead of deciding which well-tested, economic “pump priming” works best, we’re stuck in austerity quicksand. Instead of learning from failed wars, we’re saber-rattling against another oil producer not about to attack us. The failure to control messaging certainly explains 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 for consideration:
1) Support Obama, the most conservative liberal president around. After all, this traditionalist 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, that God Blesses America or we’re still the Shining City on the Hill. No doubt we’re still the best if you measure bluster, military spending and firepower. Less so on taking care of the 99%. 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 who pop Viagra. 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. What’s not to like?
4) Affirm the Ten Commandments. Who cares if 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 right wing addiction to lying.
5) Sex is not a dirty, four-letter word. Unmarried sex, or not for procreation, is only sinful for repressed fundamentalists. Let them abstain and have smaller families. 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 poor Pentagon. Without “sharia” threats to “Christian civilization,” who’d buoy up evangelical churches, or the Tea Party, let alone racist militias? Echoing Voltaire, if we didn’t have enemies, we’d have to create them (like Iran).
8) Speak well of unelectable Republicans: concede that Sarah Palin may not be the most backward ex-politician in America; support her or Gingrich or Santorum for V.P. Praise “good right wingers” (like Reagan, maybe Ron Paul) to embarrasses the bad ones (well, that’s all the GOP leadership). Casually mention why one-note demagogues (like Limbaugh, Hannity, Rove, and Beck) look down on college – they never finished.
If this strikes you as cynical, underhanded, even akin to right wing 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 and control the conversation?