Madonna as Campaign Consultant

I’ve been reading excerpts from Paul Waldman’s new book Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn’t Tell You. There are a few brilliant paragraphs scattered about, but like most partisan polemicists, Waldman seems to think that what he describes is unique to his enemies, in this case Republicans. To wit:

Just as Newt Gingrich once counseled that Democrats should be portrayed as “the enemy of normal Americans,” Republicans, from President Bush on down, endlessly assert that only they and those who support them are real Americans. When he travels to the Midwest or South, Bush calls it a “Home to the Heartland Tour.”

“Whenever I go home to the heartland,” Bush says, “I am reminded of the values that build strong families, strong communities and strong character, the values that make our people unique.” The implication, of course, is that the other parts of America are not so strong in those values — and not so American. When Bush makes this argument, few are so rude as to point out that the man who claimed to be “a uniter, not a divider” has no hesitation in dividing us into the “real” Americans and the not-so-real. And when conservatives say this sort of thing, liberals usually run scared, afraid to stand up and defend what they know to be true, that no one part of America is more American than any other. People who live in Rhode Island or Oregon are no less American than people who live in Oklahoma or Kansas. Nothing about life in Boise is inherently more American than life in New York. No Democrat would dare to suggest that Omaha is not really part of America, but when the Democratic Party elected to hold its 2004 convention in Boston, House Majority Leader Dick Armey quipped, “If I were a Democrat, I suspect I’d feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, America.”

But of course, the Democrats do exactly the same thing. The stump speeches of Democratic candidates are no less filled with verse singing the virtues of the “common man”, in contrast of course to Them. It’s all a bunch of hooey, and anyone with a lick of sense knows it. The politician who speaks in reverent tones of the Wisdom of the American People invariably employs a dozen or more consultants whose sole job is to manipulate those people. They take polls and form focus groups to see how different ways of phrasing or spinning an issue resonate with the masses, dig up every possible thing in their opponent’s past that could possibly be exploited by making it appear worse than it is, arrange photo opportunities with just the right lighting and just the right arrangement of images to portray the candidate as a hero, and search for every imaginable means of casting their man as Us and the opponent as Them.

Never has this been so starkly obvious as the 2000 election, with George W. Bush and Albert Gore, both 3rd generation scions from the wealthiest and most powerful of political families, frantically trying to out-bubba one another. Here’s Bush buying a ranch in Crawford, Texas, and what luck that those TV news cameras happen to be rolling when he’s walking around with a big belt buckle and cowboy boots on, preferably with a pitchfork in his hand spreading around some of the hay that his aides had bought and had shipped in to cover up the propane tanks. And there’s Gore playing tonsil hockey with his wife on stage at the Democratic convention, eagerly pushing the “see, I’m just a normal horndog like you all” subtext. Whoever strikes the Common Man pose most effectively wins, as in 1988 when Bush the Elder – the ultimate Andover-and-Yale, “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” member of the Northeastern establishment – managed to successfully portray Michael Dukakis, the son of first generation working class Greek immigrants, as a member of the “Harvard boutique”. Behind all that talk of the wisdom of the American People, these demagogues owe their success almost entirely to their ability to hoodwink the dullards who are so easily misled by the application of the techniques of public relations.

One other paragraph jumps out from Waldman’s book:
Bush unifies the various strains of the right’s anti-“elite” ideology: The geographic argument, the argument about the alleged bias of the media, and the anti-intellectual argument. In 1953, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, “Anti-intellectualism has long been the anti-Semitism of the businessman,” by which he meant that those at the top of the heap use intellectuals as a scapegoat to distract people from the societal inequities that actually affect their lives: those of wealth and power. Intellectuals are posited as both sinister and powerful, conspiratorially undermining the values of ordinary people.

If he was not a polemicist bent on elevating one party over another, he would be able to identify the two different versions of this offered by the two parties. The Republican version he has described fairly accurately, wrapped up as it is in the swaddling clothes of misology – sometimes you can hear the faint echoes of “pointy-headed intellekshuls” whispering in the background. The Democratic version is the portrayal of Republicans alone as the Party of the Rich and themselves as Defender of the Little Guy. Never mind that John Kerry was himself to the manor born, and married into an even wealthier family, or that his strongest ally in the Senate is a member of the Kennedy clan. Never mind that Bill Clinton, for all of his blather about being a good ol’ boy from Hope, was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wall Street banking establishment whose administration rewrote the rules that once protected us against such disasters as Enron and Worldcom.

And here’s the kicker – it works. All of this demagoguery and shallow manipulation, when done well, works. It gets people elected. And it always has, mind you. It was some three quarters of a century ago that Mencken famously declared that. “no one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” Were he alive today, he would still not have an example to contradict this oft-quoted nostrum. Which is why he was right, as well, when he declared that the one thing that sets apart democracy from other forms of government is that, for the man or woman who is capable of seeing beyond the surface glitter, it is the only truly amusing form of government ever invented. The mantra of the politician today, as always – strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.

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