Hyperbolic GOP Rhetoric

Maine Governor Le Page’s comparison of the IRS to the Gestapo may be hyperbolic, but it’s increasingly typical of GOP rhetoric in this election year.

Republican rhetoric has become hyperbolic.   If you listen to RNC Chair Reince Prebius last weekend he said that people had to vote Republican to save America.   Here in Maine Governor Paul LePage blasted the Supreme Court health care ruling by claiming it makes the IRS “the Gestapo.”    Others lament the “loss of freedom” or even the “end of America.” Apparently the Democrats are a threat to the country and we need a single party state.   Even in the emotion of an election year such hyperbolic rhetoric is striking.

One of the most important things for the vibrance and success of democracy is acceptance of the necessity and importance of opposing parties.   When people believe only ones’ own party fit to govern and that the other will destroy the country, then democracy is threatened.   From that perspective, this rhetoric is startling.

Priebus says to vote Republican to “save America.”

However, it’s not new.   Talk like this emerged in the early nineties with Bill Clinton as the target.  The “draft dodging womanizing child of the sixties” was regarded by many as the most dangerous President ever.  He tried to allow gays to serve openly in the military, pushed for universal health care, and was branded an anti-American dangerous narcissist who had to be stopped.  It’s easy to forget how frothy the far right got over Clinton.

Now seen as the grey haired Democratic patriarch, a younger Bill Clinton was demonized by the far right

While the “strangeness” of Obama to many on the right (he’s black, grew up overseas, flirted with radical ideas as a student) explains part of the hyperbole, it’s more than that.   As with Clinton it’s a reaction to a cultural shift that has been building for decades.   Demography is against this reactionary nostalgia, at least in the long term.

This assault on the cultural change that has been building in the US has two components.  One is an attack by the economic elites.   They seek to equate freedom for large corporate actors to evade oversight and regulation with freedom for the average person to live their life unencumbered.  It is a false convergence, but one that many on the right have internalized.  It became extremely popular amongst working class whites, people who earlier had been likely to vote Democratic.

This created a quandary for the Democrats, which Clinton “solved” by essentially siding with Wall Street and the economic elites in order to get as much as he could for his agenda.    Given the appearance of economic success (we know now that high debt levels in the eighties and bubble economies created an illusion of success) he had little choice — the conservative narrative was dominant.

After 9-11 and the Bush years this narrative took a dramatic twist.   Suddenly America was under attack both from within (the left wanting to “tear down freedom”) and without (Islamic extremists).   This siege mentality grew.    A decorated war hero like John Kerry was ‘swiftboated’ and demonized for being elitist.   For awhile any critical utterance was punished – the Dixie Chicks were boycotted, Bill Maher fired, and the Attorney General told people to “watch what they say.”

The post-9-11 emotion made critiques of US policy and the President dangerous to engage in, though that mood dissipated quickly

That view of America under assault still resonates on the right.   The economic crisis (caused by the policies started in the early eighties and continued for nearly thirty years), the rise of someone like Barack Obama, and the changing social scene creates a sense of doom.

An emotional mix of themes – the memory of 9-11, a knee jerk defense of big business while condemning big government, and a nostalgia for a time when values were not so much in flux create an almost paranoid belief that it’s Obama and the Democrats to blame for everything, and it’s them who threaten freedom.

Fortunately for the Democrats, this isn’t universal.   Minorities don’t share that sense of doom over change – most of them did poorly under the old rules, and welcome change.   Whites are split.  Working class and less educated whites are more likely to feel that fear, but the youth and well educated whites tend to support Obama.   The reality is that the ‘save America’ line has limited appeal.   It’s strong enough to have taken over the GOP, but not strong enough to take the country.   Maine’s bombastic Governor LePage won with 39% of the vote, if the progressives hadn’t split the vote by running a strong independent alongside a weak Democrat he would not have made it.

The growing acceptance of same sex marriage feeds a belief by many that American culture is under attack.

This also means a lot of conservatives are wearing blinders.   So convinced that it’s obvious that Obama and the Democrats mean the destruction of all we value, they believe it’s almost inevitable that others will agree and come around to vote him out of office.   How could they not?  In their minds the Democrats want to create a dependent culture with government largesse giving bureaucrats and politicians control over peoples’ lives.  It’s an fantastical mix of Orwell and Huxley – scarey!

But it’s not true.  In fact, the growth of dominant power by the big business using campaign contributions, lobbying and inside connections to essentially get government in their pocket has been the real threat to our freedom – a threat not seen by many who simply define freedom as freedom from government.    The real threat to traditional American values comes from the declining middle class, and increasingly large number of people at or near poverty.  Yes, poverty in America is far more comfortable than even above average wealth in third world countries, but in relative terms it weakens the fabric of society.

Reflecting the fact that the hard core anti-Obama base is over 50, old Cold War themes still dominate – but don’t resonate with the youth.

And many Americans get that.   That’s why Obama still leads in the polls, that’s why his argument resonated so well in 2008.   It’s only the economy that renders him at all vulnerable – and with the whole world caught in economic crisis it’s hard to say that Obama could have magically fixed things by now.

But the Democrats don’t have the answers either.    America functions best when the two parties have to compromise – and that requires a Republican party that is able to work both with and against the Democrats, not just against.    The current economic crisis needs a transformation in how the US government operates — neither party alone can achieve it.   Solving these problems requires the Right to recognize that America of 2012 is very different than America of 1982 or 1952.   The future cannot be lived in the past.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Fordham on July 10, 2012 - 14:54

    Scott
    Great post and rather timely for me. I Spent a few days on vacation with some friends and relatives who have been caught up in the right wing echo chamber for the last 30 years. Naturally the evenings started with some light political conversation which led to the usual outrageous claims from some of my Fox news viewing family. I was not about to let such nonsense float by me without a slow and methodical examination of the outrageous statements. The biggest worry…. or talkng point presented to me was that “Obama is taking our freedoms away”………to which I laugh and asked repeatedly to tell me what freedoms, and when did he do this? The answers I got were so vague and of such little substance that during their diatribes you could see in their faces that they had realized the stupidity of their original claims.
    David Frum the moderate conservative had a great article a year ago about how some of his most intelligent friends with PHD’s etc. had exhibited a sort of mental disconnect when it came to the facts with regards to Barak Obama. Its as if there is shut down of the reasoning center in the brain, and no matter how you show…….present……establish……or prove data, or statements to the contrary, they just will not listen or acknowledge that you have taken the time to research what may be the truth. All I can picture is 10 chimpanzees in the classic experiment where the anthropologist sits a stuffed and quite dead leopard or cheetah, and the chimps all go apeshit at his presence and start trying to re-assure each other with chest beating, cheek taps and mock bravado. Their fear is quite evident, and while they all had a pecking order in their group earlier………….they now resorted to a common bond………………..even after the stuffed cat’s head falls off and its made to look like it had died.

    Perhaps the primative part of the brain has taken hold here where the “team” is more important than anything else including facts or reason? You would think that it would be easy for an intelligent person to overide their amygdala and resort to our more evolved spaces in the brain?

  2. #2 by lbwoodgate on July 10, 2012 - 19:58

    It will be interesting to see how the GOP reacts IF they lose their bid to regain the White House and both Houses of Congress. Will the moderates finally gain strength and extricate themselves from the fringe Tea Party element, or will they abandon it altogether and watch the party slowly decompose?

    • #3 by Norbrook on July 11, 2012 - 00:23

      My own opinion is that most of the moderates have already left the party, and in order for those to return, it’ll take a series of defeats over several election cycles.

  3. #4 by Norbrook on July 11, 2012 - 00:22

    I’ve noticed that much of the Republican rhetoric tends to use terms that might resonate with people in my age group, or older, but has very little meaning to those younger. If you were born in the ’70’s, you came of age when Glasnost was being touted, and watched the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming apart of the much feared Soviet Union. If you were born in the 80’s, it’s something you see in history books. So the “big bad communist” isn’t something that make them react.

    A commenter on my blog pointed out that the current Republican Party has much in common with its ancestor, the “Know Nothing Party.” It’s a lesson that the current group which has taken over the Republican Party seems to be unaware of, and if they are, they should look at what happened to it. Currently, all they seem to be able to do is to say “no,” and parrot the exact same talking points they’ve had for a generation. Actual ideas which might work seem to be in short supply from the Right.

  4. #5 by classicliberal2 on July 13, 2012 - 01:00

    This kind of rhetoric is nothing new. The most extreme sort of talk, including outright eliminationist rhetoric, has been a problem on the right for years. The only difference is that it’s appearing more and more often in “mainstream” conservative talk. The “conservatives intellectuals” of earlier eras are pretty much gone, now. The reactionary anti-intellectuals have taken over, the people so genuinely incensed by the fantasy of Obama’s desire to murder their grandmothers with government death-panels that they appear, in force, at townhall meetings and try to disrupt them and shut them down. That wasn’t just the mouthy misbehavior of a bunch of loud, rowdy products of sibling marriage–it was being spurred on by some of the highest-ranking elected Republicans in the U.S.

    In brief, the American right has lost its collective mind.

    This is a problem of the right, but I think you make a mistake in expressing it in such a politically partisan (as in Repubs and Demos) way. What’s happening is that a huge segment of the American population–the conservative end–has bought into the notion that everyone who isn’t of their tribe is outright evil, and that they’re entitled to their own “reality,” without regard for whether it bears any relationship to reality itself. This is what’s at the heart of what you’re describing. It’s something about which I’ve written for years. They are the Bubble People. For them, nothing is real unless it comes from Fox News or some other fringe-right source, said sources displaying the same disregard for reality. Their critical faculties, over time, often decay to near-non-existence. This is THE major problem facing both the U.S. and the world right now. It’s more important than the economy, more important than global warming, the energy crisis, nuclear proliferation, or anything else, because it’s going to dictate how the U.S.–and, hence, the world–handles all those other matters. And few are even willing to acknowledge it even exists.

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