Friday, September 5, 2008

Smacking Down the Bitch-Slap

Why do repugs insist on making elections about launching one ridiculous, obviously false personal attack after another against Democratic candidates?

Because if they made elections about issues, they'd lose every time, of course. But also because of this:

It Works.

Josh Marshall explains.

About four years ago I described what I called the Republicans' 'bitch slap' theory of electoral politics. Stuff like the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry and McCain's Celeb/P Diddy assault on Obama aren't really about the attacks themselves. In themselves, they're often too cartoonish to be believed in any literal sense. What they're about is smacking the other guy around and making him take it. There's no better way to demonstrate someone's lack of toughness or strength than to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves -- thus the rough slang I used above. That not only makes the other guy look weak. It also transforms him into an object of contempt, which together are politically fatal. It's this meta-message of weakness that resonates far beyond the literal claims. And it's this that Democrats so often seem to miss -- explaining the factual inaccuracies of the claims, demanding that the attacks stop, all the while reinforcing the intended message of the attacks in the first place.


(More after the jump.)

But the tempo of this election and the fall out from the 'celeb' attacks will be determined in large part not by factual particulars but by whether Obama can show that when someone hits him hard he hits back twice as hard. Not cowering, ignoring or complaining. This is about the score and not the libretto.

Marshall wrote that on August 22, before the Democratic Convention began. Two weeks later, on the last day of the republican convention, Glenn Greenwald sounded the alarm.

With last night's cheerfully vicious speeches from Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin, the Republicans did what they always do in order to win elections: they exploited raw cultural divides while mocking, belittling and demonizing Democratic leaders. Yet again, they delivered brutally effective and deeply personal blows to the Democratic presidential candidate grounded in the same manipulative and deceitful yet very potent themes they've been using for the last three decades.


Democrats seem to be banking on the fact that the agreement which most Americans have with their policy positions, along with widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of things, will outweigh the effects of this personality war -- a war which they, yet again, have allowed to be one-sided.

None of this is to say that the GOP attacks will enable them to win the election. It is quite possible that enough Americans this year are so alienated from the GOP brand that they are now largely immune from these kinds of substance-free personality assaults, that they won't be blinded by cultural tribalism and personality appeals into handing this political party an additional four years of power. But these tactics have worked in the past because cultural tribalism, resentment and alienation are very powerful influences in how people think -- in general, they're more powerful than rational assessments of policy positions or even one's self-interest -- and the Democrats' gamble that they can win this election without really engaging those issues, while allowing that war to be waged in a one-sided manner yet again, is a true gamble.


Democrats have clearly decided (yet again) to cede that lowly playing field to the GOP and are hoping (yet again) that those personality and cultural issues are not enough to outweigh the country's dislike of Republican policies. This year is indeed different -- dissatisfaction with the Government is higher than ever before, the GOP is as discredited as a party can be, and Obama is a more effective candidate than those who preceded him -- but the attacks last night were only the beginning, not the end. If John McCain remains -- even from the mouths of Democrats -- the Honored, Honorable, Principled, Heroic Maverick, the GOP chances will be as high as they can be.

I believe that if anyone can carry the Democratic banner to victory while smacking down the repugs without falling off the high road, it's Barack Obama. I believe he's playing the long game, that he's got a campaign organization unlike any ever seen in this country, and that history is on his - our - side.

And I believe it's still going to take every dollar, every walked precinct, every vote we can turn out to win.

Hate, Fear and Lies have won six and stolen one of the last 10 elections.

Not This Time.

Cross-posted at They Gave Us a Republic ...