Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Politics of Fear and the Silent Majority's Last Hurrah

Despite what many smug liberals I know like to think, conservatives are not stupid.  Their base might be made up of people who think the earth is 6000 years old and humans don't cause climate change, but they know how to win elections a whole helluva lot better than liberals do.  The Democratic Party has tended to assemble coalitions of voters as their base, then acted as milquetoast and non-threatening as possible to grab voters in the middle.  For instance, they court Latinos, but won't move on immigration reform lest they upset bigots.  Needless to say, this approach leaves their base unmotivated and undecided voters less than awed.

Conservatives, however, have expertly used the manifest reservoirs of fear in American life over the past fifty years.  (For more on our fearful society, read this post of mine from a few days ago.)  They know that most voters do not buy into their Randian, libertarian economic philosophy, and that appeals to religious conservatives (especially on gay rights) increasingly make them look retrograde.  However, fear is the trump card that reactionary politicians always have up their sleeve.  There are plenty of non-ideological, disengaged voters out there who in uncertain times will flock to the proverbial man on horseback giving calls for "law and order."

Republican candidates have been quick to use the current instability in the world, especially fears over Ebola and ISIS, in their campaign ads this year.  Somehow these problems are the fault of president Obama, despite the fact that neo-conservatives brought on the invasion of Iraq that created the ground for ISIS to grow in, and that Congress's forced sequestration cuts slashed money going to disease prevention.  The strategy is simple: scare the shit out of the voters so that they will be too afraid not to vote for you.

That strategy was first pioneered in 1968 by Richard Nixon's campaign, which adopted many of the themes of third party candidate (and arch-segregationist) George Wallace, but toned their edge enough to avoid charges of extremism.  Nixon called for "law and order" amidst the protest movements of the day, and would later claim to represent a "silent majority" of Americans threatened by calls for social change.  While Nixon would bring control and order, his ads accused the Democrats of having been responsible for the mounting dissention in American life.

That comes across most forcefully in an ad called "Convention," which involves no words.  A manic soundtrack of "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" plays over images of riots, the Vietnam War, and squalor, interspersed with photos of a smiling Hubert Humphrey complete with jarring, psychedelic sound effects.  It's got to be one of the most manipulative ads ever run, keying in on viewers' fears in a blatant fashion devoid of any larger message other than to fear and hate the Democratic candidate.  In that respect it is similar to Fox News video collages associating the current president with chaos.  That's no mistake, since Roger Ailes runs Fox and also ran TV for Nixon's campaign.

The strategy of fear worked so well in 1968 that Republicans have gone back to this well time and time again.  In 1980 Reagan claimed to rescue the nation from a federal government run amock.  In 1988 George Bush's used racial fears via the infamous Willie Horton ad to defeat Michael Dukakis.  After 9/11 Democrats were routinely accused of being "soft on terror," with the 2002 ads connecting Democratic Senator Max Clelland to Osama bin Laden an especially egregious example.  Conservatives know that most people don't follow their extreme political ideology, and that "values voters" are scarcer and scarcer with each passing year.  However, there is a big, broad middle of the American electorate that cares little for politics, but can be easily roused if it feels threatened.  2014 and 2016 just might end up being the Silent Majority's last big hurrah.

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