The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are full of post-election coverage trying to explain why Obama won. One of the more interesting pieces is one in the New York Review by Michael Massing, whom I have cited approvingly here on other topics, based upon a trip to Ohio. Massing stopped in three northwestern Ohio towns a few weeks before the election (unfortunately the account of one of the towns, Bowling Green, appears to have been cut out), and he did some important collateral research, listening to Rush Limbaugh and discovering that he has an audience estimated at between ten and fifteen million men. Meanwhile, I watched The Boogie Man, the documentary on Lee Atwater, one of the founders of modern Republicanism, which can now be seen on Frontline after a very brief theatrical release. All this set me thinking about what American politics has been through over the last forty years, and posed a troubling question: have we had a real brush with Fascism? That there are parallels to the events of the 1920s and 1930s (especially on the electoral plain) I am quite sure; but in the end, I think, the answer is no.
“Modern” Republicanism, of one wants to call it that, was an electoral strategy introduced disastrously by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and ridden into the White House by Richard Nixon, narrowly in 1968 and overwhelmingly in 1972. It began with the substantial segment of the Republican Party that had never reconciled itself to the New Deal or stopped calling for a return to small government and unregulated markets—those who read Human Events (Ronald Reagan’s favorite journal) and the National Review. But it proceeded to take advantage of a political sea change that had been brewing for twenty years and that had reached a climax with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: the defection of white Southerners from the Democratic Party. Goldwater carried five deep South states in 1964, and between them, Wallace and Nixon carried the entire old Confederacy, less Texas, in 1968. For the next forty years, the only way the Democratic Party could carry any southern states was by running a southerner itself.
To the racial prejudice of centuries, the Republicans added the social reaction of older generations to the Awakening of the 1960s—the fear (progressively) of long hair, feminism, affirmative action, and gay rights, so common among older Americans and much of the white working class. Since those social issues were replacing economic ones as the main concerns of the Democratic Party, they made very easy and productive targets. To this Republicans added the idea that Democrats were soft on national security, although I suspect this was generally only a minor part of their appeal. Beginning with the passage of the Jarvis-Gann referendum in California in the late 1970s, an anti-tax revolt became another plank of the platform. The Atwater documentary made a profound impression upon me because it showed how Atwater and Karl Rove (who had known each other since the early 1970s) had turned these issues into the essence of Republican presidential campaigns beginning in 1980, when Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign at the Philadelphia, Mississippi county fair—just a few miles away from the murders of Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman in 1964—with Strom Thurmond by his side. But it also showed, with the help of details from Atwater’s earliest campaigns in his native South Carolina, how another element had been added to the mix: the propagation of complete lies about one’s opponent. (Books about Karl Rove have gone into his use of this tactic in Texas, as well.) And during the last twenty years this contributed not only to the degradation of American politics, but to the collapse of American government.
The turning point, it seemed to me, came with the Bush-Dukakis campaign of 1988, Atwater’s greatest triumph. First of all, the candidate himself, George H. W. Bush—a traditional eastern moderate at heart—shamelessly accepted the strategies Atwater prescribed, declaring himself a born-again Christian, referring to Michael Dukakis as a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” impugning his patriotism, and most of all, making Willie Horton the centerpiece of his campaign. A commentator in The Boogie Man noted Ronald Reagan had actually signed into law a prison furlough program similar to the Massachusetts one in California. Even The Boogie Man failed to mention that the Massachusetts program itself was the brainchild of Dukakis’s predecessor Francis Sargent, a patrician moderate Republican very similar in style and temperament to George H. W. Bush himself.
That, however, was only part of the story. The second critical shift in 1988—and in the long run, perhaps, the more important one—involved the choice of Bush’s Vice President, Dan Quayle, the first Boomer on a national ticket. That Quayle was manifestly intellectually unqualified to be President—and that his whole life was simply a tribute to the power of a wealthy bloodline—apparently made no difference to Atwater. In fact, looking at the whole history of the last twenty years, I am convinced that it was, to Atwater and other consultants like him, an advantage. Their appeal was, among other things, anti-intellectual, aimed at rousing hatred against Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, Ivy-League educated intellectuals. A candidate with obvious intellectual defects could only increase that appeal, all the more so when the eastern media began pointing them out. And such a candidate—and this was probably critical—would be much easier to keep on message, since he (or she) would not be unduly troubled by his own autonomous, spontaneous thoughts. Not only Republican consultants, but neoconservative intellectuals, have shown a preference for intellectually limited candidates ever since. The line that began with Dan Quayle runs directly to George W. Bush, and thence to Sarah Palin. George W. Bush has shown again and again that he lacks the capacity to think an issue through or even to react to new data. That must have been apparent to those who worked with him when he was still Governor of Texas, but it did not occur to anyone that it might disqualify him from even higher office. Going a step further, Sarah Palin actually anticipated major media attacks upon herself in her carefully drafted acceptance speech. Let us hope that she has provided its reductio ad absurdum
The talk radio empire of which Limbaugh is only the most visible notable was another element of the new Republican machine. Like me, Michael Massing has taken the time to listen to Limbaugh lately, and he was shocked by the depths to which Rush sinks almost every day. I was even more shocked, however, to realize how closely his worst excesses reflected Republican campaign strategy over the last two decades. The Boogie Man included something I had completely forgotten, a statement by Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama that he had heard (from a source he could not identify) that during the 1960s Kitty Dukakis had attended an antiwar demonstration at which the American flag had been burned. Just a few weeks earlier I had heard Rush tell his devoted audience about reports of a tape of Michelle Obama ranting about “whitey this and whitey that.” No such tape, needless to say, has ever surfaced. Every day Rush delivered a standard paragraph about Barack Obama, a “sixties radical” and an “angry black man” who was the stealth presidential candidate of Bill Ayres, Bernadine Dohrn, and Jeremiah Wright. From time to time Rush also favored the audio equivalent of blackface parodies of gangstas commenting on the campaign, an obvious attempt to rouse the most blatant racial prejudice. (Many of these also targeted Michelle Obama.) Reports have surfaced from time to time that talk show hosts get daily talking points from the Republican Party, and I believe it. This time, however, the tactics did not work well enough.
It is clear in retrospect that the appeal of such tactics peaked in 1988, at least on the national level. (They have grown more and more potent in the old South, however.) One commentator in The Boogie Man speculated that Bill Clinton would never have won in 1992 had Lee Atwater not died of cancer, but I am not so sure. Clinton did however trade potently on his own southern status. In 2000 the Republican recipe was only good enough to make the election close enough to steal. (By then, steps to disenfranchise black voters, one of the things that turned the tables in Florida and gave Bush the election, had been added to the mix.) In 2004, with the help of the aftermath of 9/11, it was enough to win the narrowest re-election victory of any President in history save Woodrow Wilson. (That victory was anomalous in several respects. George W. Bush was both the first man to serve two terms who had won his first term without winning the national popular vote (see John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison), and the first descendant of a President to be elected twice (see J Q Adams and Benjamin Harrison.) )
The other elements of the Republican coalition, in my opinion—those elements less important electorally, but critical from a policy standpoint—have actually brought it down. The combination of ever-lower taxes on the highest brackets, less regulation of the economy, and preventive war abroad have given us an economic and foreign policy nightmare, and educated Americans have noticed. That, however, also illustrates the enormous differences between the Republican Party of the last twenty years and the National Socialist movement in Germany . Both used racial and social resentment to rise to power, but they did so for completely different reasons. The Nazis actually wanted to overturn the economic and social order and eliminate their enemies from the body politic; the Republican leadership simply wanted to win elections to keep cutting taxes and (beginning in 2001) to begin slaying dragons abroad. The Bush Administration’s use of torture and indefinite detention was a frightening harbinger of possible things to come, but there in no evidence that it was designed to be extended to domestic opponents. And crucially, the shock troops of the Republican right did not put on uniforms, march in formation through the streets, or actively terrorize political opponents. Listening to Rush was enough. That’s progress.
Let us not forget, however, the other reason for Republican success (largely decisive in 2004) among poorer and less-educated whites. The current New York Review of Books also includes a long piece by Michael Tomaskly on this issue, arguing that it is poor education, rather than low economic status, which has made such whites vulnerable to Republican appeals. He adopts the line, too, that such people have been voting against their economic interests. But that, as I have argued before, is letting the Democrats off too easily. Only in the broadest possible sense have the laid-off auto workers of the Midwest been voting against their economic interests when they voted for George W. Bush. Yes, those votes meant more money for the wealthy, and they contributed to the catastrophe which all of us now face. But it has been a very long time since those people could actually promote their personal economic interests by voting Democratic. Their problems come from globalization, union-busting, and increasingly regressive taxes, and Democrats have either tolerated or collaborated in those changes. Substantial evidence is accumulating that the Democrats carried states like Ohio, Indiana, and perhaps even Virginia and North Carolina because many of those people stayed home while the Democratic turn-out increased. If Barack Obama wants to win those votes next time he will actually have to make positive changes in their lives possible.
Perhaps he can. The selection of his Cabinet, with an eye on building the broadest possible coalition, and his intense focus on the economic crisis have already proven that we now have a President-elect who cares about a lot more than staying on message and appealing to his base. The country, I think, is more than ready to respond to a President who grapples seriously, both in public and in private. With the complex problems we have to solve. And that, in turn, would prove that our nation was strong enough internally and institutionally to survive a rather frightening period in our history, one that seemed to repudiate many of our finest achievements. If you don’t believe me, go the Frontline website and watch The Booogie Man---but take comfort in the probability that we have hit bottom and that things are now getting better.
p.s. To marcdcase, below--I would love to respond to you but as I have explained before, a commenter who needs a response needs to put in his/her email--it doesn't come up when I'm notified. Thanks.