Tune out, turn off, drop out

Back in the heady days of the early naughties, Karl Rove's (allegedly genius) electoral strategy was said to be to divide the electorate in such a way that his side would always take the bigger chunk.

What if — despite their robust alternative media — conservatives are now cutting themselves a smaller and smaller chunk all the time? What if they're creating for themselves a sort of counterculture, opposed to and outside of mainstream culture? What if the majority culture is trending left — not just with the 2006-09 Zeitgeist, but for demographic, structural, more intractable reasons?

It's an idea. I'm not even sure I believe it. But I wonder if the current cultural/ideological cleavages leave open for the Democrats the photo-negative of a Nixonian, “silent majority” strategy. Nixon won a divisive race in 1972 in a massive landslide — at least partly by standing against the social unrest of the era. In Rick Perlstein's words, ““the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos … eight years later, pulled the level for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”

Can the Democrats take advantage of a similar dynamic?

Let's start with race: Plainly, the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama have proven a crisis moment for white racists — who are not rare, even in electoral terms. Racism is, of course, the basis for the birth certificate attacks — the assumption being that no one named “Barack Obama” could really be a real American. That tribal instinct — unfortunately a hard-wired part of human nature — plainly provides some of the fuel to the health care opposition. It's not usually stated so obviously, but here's an example:

Mr. RICHIE DRAKE: The health care plan he's got, Obama, is going to hurt people in the long run. Minorities are going to get more attention than the whites and stuff like that. That's the way I take it from what the news was talking about.

Is this where mainstream political culture is? Yes and no. Amazingly, a nationwide plurality of Republicans believe Obama's not a citizen. Even so … it's not a majority opinion: Thankfully, 77% of public believes he is.

As Ruy Teixeira and John Judis forecast in 2002's The Emerging Democratic Majority”, the country is demographically shifting towards traditionally more left-voting groups. With almost perfect historical timing, the GOP decided to cut off its finger, electorally speaking, and endorsed Tom Tancredo's immigrant-bashing, xenophobic agenda — losing Hispanics and other minorities for the moment, and possibly longer.

Meanwhile younger voters have swung to the left: Obama won a stunning 66%-31% victory among voters under the age of 30. It tends to be the case that people develop their voting habits at this age, and keep them for life. The George W. Bush era of plutocracy and war-by-choice seems to have hatched a generation of quacking young Democrats.

In the short term, I cannot forecast how the townhall screamers will have affected support of health care in the general public or Congress. But let's be clear that the vast majority of Americans support something called “health care reform” I'm quite confident that such tactics will not result in higher approval for conservative ideas — whatever those may be. The protestors are not offering a palatable alternative to the Democrats' basic blueprint for health care reform. Polls indicate diminished support for Congress, and somewhat diminished support for “health care reform” — but hardly a bump for Republicans.

The point is this: There's a new “mainstream America.” And it's not what the right-wing imagines it is, anymore. Mainstream America is fast becoming non-white. It is becoming less Christian. It is becoming less homophobic. Even Merle Haggard — the anti-hippie “Okie from Muskogee” of 1969 — penned a song for Obama's inauguration.

And so the extreme cleavages in our politics, hawked by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and their ilk, threaten mostly to isolate their very followers from the political mainstream. This sense of isolation and grievance is enormously profitable for those individuals, no doubt — last year Beck was bumbling along on a low-rated CNN show. They also plainly exert a lot of influence on a considerable chunk of the electorate: Not a majority, maybe not even a majority of the minority, but enough to make itself heard. Charles Grassley heard them. Mike Huckabee heard them. But Arlen Specter also heard them — and changed parties.

Therefore Beck and Palin might also provide easy foils for aggressive politicians of the center and left — if the mainstream, now inhabited mostly by Democrats, bothers to seal them out. Such politicians could easily ask the public: Can you believe this rot? Is this what you want your country to be?

If Obama, or the Democrats in general decide to become culturally aggressive, one wonders if the Republicans might end up hemorrhaging even more of their own voters. 

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6 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. $quot;Republican Gomorrah$quot;

    This might interest you from today's Democracy Now!:

    "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party"

    In a Democracy Now! exclusive, award-winning journalist, Max Blumenthal, joins us for the first extended interview about his debut book, "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party." The book traces the rise of the radical right in the U.S. and how it used the concept of personal crisis to grow as a movement and eventually capture control of the GOP to transform it from the party of Dwight Eisenhower to the party of Sarah Palin.

    • More here from the same author

      Quoting Eisenhower, in an Op-Ed he wrote for yesterday's NYT:

      "I doubt that citizens like yourself could ever, under our democratic system, be provided with the universal degree of certainty, the confidence in their understanding of our problems, and the clear guidance from higher authority that you believe needed," Eisenhower wrote on Feb. 10, 1959. "Such unity is not only logical but indeed indispensable in a successful military organization, but in a democracy debate is the breath of life."
  2. The cleaving of the...

    ... party has begun:

    In the 1960's, William F. Buckley denounced the John Birch Society leadership for being "so far removed from common sense" and later said "We cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner."

    The Birthers are the Birchers of our time, and WorldNetDaily is their pamphlet.


    I have also inquired with the RNC, which appears to have recently paid for access to the WorldNetDaily email list.  I have not gotten a substantive response from the RNC yet.

    (hat tip Ed Brayton)

  3. culture war is a sham

    Your mistake is to divide by left and right... that analysis will consistently fail to explain what happens in the world of political debate (such as why the Obama health plan, or the stimulus package, or the bank bailout were unpopular).

    You will resort to "What's the matter with Kansas?" reasoning to explain these results.

    First off this will give you poor political judgement. You'll be wrong a lot. Second it will destroy your faith in humanity.

    The main division is not between left and right, but between middle class and elite. It is between individual and institution. Using such a framework, I can much more easily explain Obama's victory AND Obama's defeat on healthcare.  

    • Well ...

      you should do so. I don't wish to resort to "What the Matter with Kansas" - style reasoning, either -- maybe I have, and I welcome further correction.

      I think what we're seeing is a political hysteria that is, in fact, ideologically driven, i.e. driven by a panic at the loss of power by self-identified conservatives. How that intersects with culture is not entirely clear, though it does seem to be regional.

      I'm not sure how class politics fits in with that, but I'd love to learn. I hope you'll tell us.

      • Health care fascism

        Charley if Obama's plan went through, as it was constituted in early August, the secretary of hhs and the heads of 5 or 6 insurance companies would meet in the year 2020 and decide what treatments were going to get paid for and what were not.

        The town hallers are all over the place, that is true, but they have a legitimate fear of collusion between corporations and government. It's not like they've had great treatment at the hands of the insurance companies. That collusion is the dictionary definition of fascism -- a unity of the smart people at the top of the pyramid to dictate to the rest of us what we deserve.  

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