Monday, October 20, 2008

The Ghosts of GOP Campaigns Past: A Historical Perspective

I remember when Nixon invoked the "Silent Majority" as part of his campaign theme. At the time, there was a political cartoonist who worked for the Boston Globe. His name was Paul Szep and his political cartoons were wonderful, always seeming to capture the essential political message in real but comical and amusing fashion. (He later won a Pulitzer prize for his political cartoons.)

There was one political cartoon that he did that I will always remember. At the time, the Republicans were perfecting their new "silent majority" idea when the country was at war with itself over the Vietnam war. More than half of the country was opposed to our involvement and there were massive protests that generally took place around university settings, initially consisting of largely students and faculty against the war . (At the time, the military draft was still a part of American life.) Anyway, Paul Szep did this caricature of a citizen with a very exaggerated muscular physique that resembled a champion weight lifter on steroids. What was so unusual about this "perfect American" -- this new representation of the "silent majority" -- was that this figure was conspicuously missing a HEAD!

So you had this male human specimen with a complete, very athletic, muscular physique but no head, which is to say, no brain -- and that was your Republican's idea of the perfect American. (Not much has changed in the intervening years, wouldn't you say?) It conjured up images of the stereotypical "dumb jock" or the blue collar worker who wasn't inclined to read or think about matters of deep social significance, whose physicality and ego dominated his response to social challenges. And, ladies and gentlemen, this person - this perfect American -- this new cultural metaphor for the "silent majority" -- was to later morph into what has popularly become known as the new "Reagan Democrat".

So even during the Vietnam war, the Republicans were using their patented "divide and conquer" techniques to political advantage. Only back then they were pitting the young and educated - the "effete snobs" as Spiro Agnew would refer to them -- against the huge, union dominated, blue collar working class who culturally embraced an "America. Love it or Leave it" bumper sticker mentality.

Needless to say, that cartoon was hilarious and managed to capture the hypocrisy and lunacy of Republican attempts to win the "cultural wars" which always seemed to take place during political campaigns.

And so, what was the case then applies equally well 25 years later with the Republican party's continued embrace of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove-style political campaigns. In the absence of an objective record of political accomplishment, Republican politicians opt to run deeply divisive politcal campaigns aimed at dividing the electorate into warring factions. And with the help of a largely complicit media, they were very successful in creating new and disgusting ways to destroy their political opposition.