Monday, September 8, 2008

The Lord of the Flies: Karl Rove, John McCain, and Election 2008

Amazed, astonished, appalled it's a virtual dead heat? Here's the reason.

We're watching different picture shows.

Images have always been a key part of political campaigns, but when Kennedy beat Nixon, Republicans learned that feelings trump thoughts every time.

Republicans unveiled Willie Horton, not even a little concerned about the long-term consequences for America's race relations. They knew the Horton script played on deep-seated race fears and would escalate our collective national guilt into a paranoid projection that many would be powerless to resist.

Ronald Reagan: Image personified. W: That uniquely American cowboy icon packaged as the Marlboro Man. McCain: War hero, maverick. "The Right Stuff." These are Good Daddy archetypes that bypass our brains and go directly to our oldest, most irrational fears, and trigger a panic about the state of our security.

The Strong, Good Daddy image is meant to play directly to our inner child. Contrast Republican messages about Hillary and Sarah and you'll see its female counterpart. Hockey mom Palin is pretty, fearless, maternal, upfront: Good Mommy, aka Pitbull in Lipstick, Mother, womb. Hillary is the other half of the Good/Bad duality. Bossy (pants suit), shrill, controlling, bitchy, inscrutable: Mean Mommy, aka emasculating: vagina dentata, latent dyke.

The GOP strategy works two ways. It isn't only that fear-based archetypes bypass our brains and render rational argument irrelevant. It's also that archetypal imagery like this, that speaks to the inner child, calls out the inner child, not the thinking, rational adult.

Show me a dictator who doesn't get this.

What's going on here, consciously and deliberately orchestrated by Karl Rove and the GOP, isn't a contest about what's best for the country. It's not about issues. It's really just a re-enactment of Lord of the Flies. Unfortunately for us and for the planet, the rational, problem-solving kid cannot withstand the fear of the beast. Reason, order, calm, the collective good, and the disciplined evolution of solutions isn't anywhere near as gratifying as fun, war, red meat, and individual survival.

McCain, Palin and the Right are to Jack and his tribe what Obama, Biden, and the Left are to Ralph and his tribe. That is why, for example, the inner Rightwing child isn't at all offended by McCain's adolescent, vulgar "bomb bomb bomb, bomb-bomb Iran" jibe. Their inner kid is thrilled. What could be more fun! (At this point, it's not really about reality, of course. Though he will learn to his horror, their inner kid doesn't yet know the part about torsos spilling entrails, or blown-off legs. All he knows is camping out in the back yard where Daddy and Mommy are close by if the need arises.) "Maverick's" just a big word for coloring outside the lines. What could be more natural? What could be better?

Captured by primitive terrors prodded daily into life by W's war on--guess what? Terror!--the inner Righwing child just cannot hear--much less be moved by--appeals to reason, experience, sanity. He is regressed.

Sometimes reality is its own parody. Through Sarah, future son-in-law Levi Johnston has become McCain's virile, promiscuous, bellicose young avatar, and he speaks for and he calls out all the other Levis out there:
"The boyfriend of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter describes himself on his MySpace site: 'I'm a fuckin' redneck who likes to snowboard and ride dirt bikes. But I live to play hockey. I like to go camping and hang out with the boys, do some fishing, shoot some shit and just fuckin' chillin' I guess. Ya fuck with me I'll kick ass.'"

Elsewhere, Johnston admits to having a girlfriend (Sarah's daughter, Bristol), but in the section of the MySpace page where it asks about children, he wrote, "I don't want kids." Of course he doesn't! He is a kid.

Like his older brother who will be driving for senior officers in Iraq--they don't leave the Green Zone--Levi doesn't have to worry about reality, and if he ever should, Mommy and Daddy will make sure it's all all right: No wedding? Knocked up? Whatever. Iraq? Whatever. It's all good. It's the Lord's work.

This is not so different from the legions of Rightwingers who cheer when Bush says "Bring it on," but don't actually volunteer to fight. McCain has done that for them vicariously. This isn't about reality. It's all unfolding at mythic levels where a man is a hunter/killer and a woman is a pretty hockey mom.

Here's the deal: Feelings trump thoughts every time. The GOP gets it; we don't.

As the Washington Post reported recently:
Rick Davis, campaign manager for John McCain's presidential bid, insisted that the presidential race will be decided more over personalities than issues during an interview with Post editors this morning.

"This election is not about issues," said Davis. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

This not only explains the power of GOP marketing. It also explains why the GOP can lie, and lie, and lie, and lie without ever paying a price at the polls.. The facts that contradict its messaging may be regularly blipped across our screens, but the party and the message are impervious because our kid isn't capable of using facts to manage his fears. That's not where he's at. Our kid responds only to myths. Archetypes.

Apparently this is almost incomprehensible to Democratic campaigns. Time and again, we shout out the myriad catastrophes wrought by the Bush administration, time and again we point to McCain's enthusiastic collaboration (he voted with Bush 90%-95% of the time). Time and again, we ask voters if they're better off now than they were when Bush took office. But for all our efforts, at best, the margin between Obama and McCain fluctuates a point or two.

The facts are well known, but the facts are irrelevant, just as they were irrelevant in 2004. By all logic, Bush would have been defeated. But it wasn't about logic.

Today's voters know the record--at least the parts of it that comes home, such as gas prices and home foreclosures and Bush's idle fiddling while New Orleans drowned. But that was then. This is now, and there's an uncertain future ahead.

The most profound emotion is fear. If told often enough that Obama will raise your taxes, Obama is a closet Muslim radical, McCain is a maverick, Palin cuts waste, Palin is ready now, don't let reporters be mean to Good Mommy, the voters--in a spasm of deliberately induced regression--will let their feelings trump their thinking.

Two other points, quickly.

(1) The GOP shores up this induced mass regression by vote caging, black box tinkering, and erecting hurdles, confusion, and fear for all Democratic voters. Expect that again BIG TIME this year.

(2) Obama will have a hard time playing his own fear card, which is the one thing he must do if he hope to win. He has denounced the tactic, pledged a higher level of campaign, seems sincerely committed to campaigning on the issues, and seems dispositionally uncomfortable with hitting below the belt.

But the facts are what the are: This election is about images, not issues. He'd better get into that picture show.