One proven strategy for campaigns that have little substantive by the way of policy to offer and which are trailing in the polls is to drop any pretence of having a grounded policy platform and instead turn to populist demagoguery while casting slings and arrows at opponents. The most common is the “sky is falling” approach, whereby the social and political backdrop to the campaign is cast as one of doom and gloom, with armageddon-like results if the opposition wins. Those undertaking this strategy depict the struggle as a fight between good and evil, as a last chance to roll back the hounds of hell bent on devouring what is left of the good ole days and the traditional way of doing things. The key to the strategy is to divert public attention from core policy issues and towards incidental yet highly emotive areas of social exchange where purchase can be made of difference, uncertainty and fear.
In the current US election campaign, that is precisely what the GOP candidates, Donald Trump in particular, have been doing. They frame the contest as if the US was staring at the abyss as a result of the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the lead horsewoman of the apocalypse. This is designed to tap into American’s deep sense of insecurity and pessimism even if the reality of the US condition suggests that many of these concerns–which are held mostly but not exclusively by conservatives–are both exaggerated and unfounded.
The GOP version of the sky is falling approach has twist in that it invokes so-called “culture wars.” The notion that the US is in the midst of “culture wars” started out as an anti-political correctness theme among conservative politicians and media commentators. It has now morphed into an all-encompassing attack on so-called progressive and “secular humanist” socio-economic reform and social changes that may or may not have been pushed by political actors. It is resurrected by the media and political Right every election year. For example, conservatives today rail against the outsourcing of US jobs done supposedly in order to curry favour with foreign trading partners even though in the past they have no issue with the dynamics of globalized production. And yet it is has been advances in robotic technologies rather than politicians that have displaced blue collar shop floor jobs in the US, and the US is not the only place where this has happened. For this crowd abortion is not an individual choice but state-sanctioned murder, and scientific research that uses fetal tissue is part of a vast death machine targeted mainly at (potential) white christians. The so-called “War on Christmas” is really an attack on Christianity and the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Republic. In this appeal, the siren call is that it is time to make a stand and confront the usurpers of the traditional faith, however illusory they may be.
The same folk have reacted viscerally to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviving some unhappy ghosts of the past in doing so, by seeing it as a group of self-entitled freeloaders, enablers, opportunists (yes, Al Sharpton is there), plus assorted and occasionally organised thugs who seek to divert responsibility from their collective lack of values as well as the actions of people of colour who have brought lethal police attention upon themselves (in spite of the compelling evidence of epidemic-level police shootings of unarmed black men). They see in Muslims an insidious fifth column bent on imposing Sharia law and usurping the American dream from within. They consider gay marriage as an assault on the sanctity of straight marriage (in a country with a divorce rate of over 50 percent of straight marriages) and the incorporation of openly gay members in the military as a sign of its deliberate weakening. They see universal health care as the imposition of “socialism” and yet another assault on individual freedom of choice. The see attempts at tighter gun control as the antecedent to federal imposition of martial law. The see feminism as the beginning of the end for the traditional family. They take refuge in xenophobia and bigotry as bulwarks against “progressivism” and the inevitable national decline that they believe that it entails.
And, to put it mildly, many of these people see the current US president as representative of all of these maladies. His upcoming trip to Hiroshima encapsulates the view: despite the White House issuing a public statement saying that the president will not apologise for the nuclear attack on the city and will lay a wreath to pay his respects for the innocent civilian dead, conservatives are using this as further evidence of his plan to destroy America while invoking Pearl Harbour as a reason his apology is treasonous (ignoring the fact that senior Japanese government officials have laid wreaths at the Pearl Harbor memorial in the past).
These commentators see progressive brainwashing everywhere, from the “liberal” (yet somehow corporate) media to every level of the educational system. They see indolence and disrespect amongst their youth and expressions of non-Caucasian ethnic pride as the divisive product of political correctness. They basically see the US going to hell in a hand basket.
The entire premise of the sky is falling/cultural wars strategy is defensive. It is designed to prey on people’s fears of losing what they have and their insecurities about keeping or improving on what they have in an uncertain future marked by rapid demographic and social change in an age of global flux. It makes a dark possibility seem like an imminent reality. It is a push-back reaction rather than a forward-looking progression. It plays, ultimately, on ignorance, and in the US there is plenty of ignorance to go around.
The resort to such a strategy would be laughable except for one thing: it works. It diverts people’s attention away from difficult matters of national policy and on to things that have deeply personal resonance and which touch on primitive instincts and desires. Its appeal is unthinking and visceral rather than cerebral and critical. The more raw and emotional the appeal, the more likely the target audience will react spasmodically to it. In doing so, those who invoke that response are able to counter the policy prescriptions of their opponents without really engaging with them.
That is why I am puzzled by the Obama’s decision to push legal action to facilitate transgender use of toilet facilities based on self-identity, not physical traits. Actually, it is not the legal recognition of transgender rights that bothers me but the timing of the push for them. Why could this not have waited until the next presidential term, especially since Hillary looks to win and even Trump is not opposed to the move? Â Or is that why the initiative is being made now, as it can be seen as further dividing the GOP base from its presumptive presidential candidate?
If so, I think that it is an unnecessary and counterproductive ploy. By pushing for transgender rights at the particular time the White House has thrown a lifeline to the troglodyte Right, who in turn can pressure the GOP elite and Trump to wage war on such a cultural abomination. Already we hear the clamour about perverts lurking in little girl’s toilets, and The Donald’s penchant for flip flopping on issues is well known, so why on earth start up this particular culture war when a year from now passage of transgender rights legislation would have less electoral impact?
If I was a Democratic strategist I wouldÂ urge the Party and its candidates to not be baited into culture war debates. That will only trap them in a no-win circular shouting match about science and daily practice grounded in “common” versus “good” sense based on different ideas about ethics and morality–but not intellectually honest or informed Â people but with aggregations of the mental equivalent of Trump’s Mexican built Wall.
Instead, I would urge them to laugh at sky is falling arguments and refute them with the facts. The country is getting more colour in its demographic, has become more tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles, has robust religious diversity, has innovative production and entrepreneurship and remains, regardless of what the GOP doomsayers claim, economically strong and relatively secure in spite (rather than because) of its foreign military adventures. It may not be utopia or even the mythological house on the hill, but it sure ain’t a bloated carcass of decadence floating towards oblivion (unless you are referring to the GOP itself, in which case the analogy applies).
The Democrats should focus on what Gramsci referred to as “touching the essential,” that is, the real state of the economy and national affairs, addressing the real problems of average people in proper perspective (and there are plenty to consider), and offer practical (and practicable) solutions to specific policy issues. That will leave the GOP to bark into the wind about girly men, safe spaces and serial adulterers. Because when the dust has settled on November 8, the sky will still be there and the cultural wars of the Right will have been lost yet again.