Saturday, October 14, 2006

Enemy Mind

Labeling one’s political opponents as traitors or “enemies within,” as the Republicans are so fond of doing, is not a new phenomenon. One can trace this particular symptom all the way back to the beginnings of the Cold War. The Democratic Party occupied the White House, one should recall, for twenty straight years, over twelve of them under FDR. Being out of power that long fostered a deep resentment in the Republican Party. Republicans saw government as the servant of big business. They hated FDR and his New Deal, which they considered socialist. Prior to Pearl Harbor, they were opposed to going to war. They feared Stalin, not because of any knowledge of mass atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, but because communism was ideologically opposed to business. Many of them liked Hitler and Mussolini. The right wing of the party contained Nazi sympathizers. After the war, during the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-communist purge of Hollywood, a number of Republican Congressmen went on record as believing that America had been duped into supporting “the wrong side” in the war. Anti-Semitism was an integral element in the anticommunist movement, on both sides of the aisle—Southern Democrats like the racist, Jew-baiting John Rankin of Mississippi (a prominent HUAC member) made common cause with the Republicans.

The Alger Hiss case alerted the Republicans that there were spies in the government. The anticommunists ran with this, raising the alarm that the entire Democratic administration was infiltrated. They made no distinction between supporters of the Soviet Union during the war (when, in fact, that country was an ally of the U.S.) and actual spies. If you were a communist, or were a communist in the past, you were an enemy and must be blacklisted or worse.

From here, the Republicans, following the lead of Joe McCarthy, began to openly accuse, or at least imply, that the liberal (non-segregationist) Democrats were Communist dupes or allies—not just political opponents, but enemies. A typical example took place during the 1952 Presidential campaign, when McCarthy referred to Adlai Stevenson (with a chuckle) as “Alger…I mean, Adlai…” The Republican Party discovered that branding one’s opponents “red” represented a path to electoral success, because it played on people’s fears. Ricard Nixon’s career is a good example. He was first elected to Congress by claiming that his opponent was financially supporting communist-influenced labor unions. He became a Senator by slandering his female opponent as “pink..." (a slang term for communist sympathizer) ..."right down to her underwear.”

Over the years, this way of thinking and operating turned into an addiction for right-wing Republicans. The accusation of treason was not the sole province of the John Birch Society—it was gradually incorporated into standard Republican ideology, just as the party itself gradually became an almost exclusively right-wing enterprise. Apologists may argue that the fear of communism was justified, but I would counter that the idea of demonizing political opponents as security threats and traitors is so tempting to politicians looking for votes, and is so much simpler than having to debate the issues in a civil manner, that it became a self-perpetuating attitude that bore little relation to national security. And since the Republicans have generally offered no positive ideas, but only reactions against liberals (government programs are bad, taxes are bad, civil rights means blacks taking white jobs away, etc.) the “enemy” approach became more and more prevalent and addictive. Karl Rove didn’t invent this—stoking fear and resentment was a prime strategy of the Reagan group. But the reactionary takeover in the 1990s, and the subsequent appointment of George W. Bush as President, took things to a new level. Now we have the President and Vice-President telling us that Democrats are aiding and abetting terrorists.

The fall of the Soviet Union presented a political dilemma to the Republicans. Since their whole strategy is based on reaction to an enemy, not on any positive moral vision, they needed a new devil. Islamic terrorists fit the bill nicely. The rightists had to turn the neat trick of identifying liberals with fundamentalist Muslims, while allying themselves with fundamentalist Christians whose social views are identical in most respect to the Muslims. But religious ignorance and bigotry can sometimes do the impossible, and the politicians and mainstream media don’t notice the contradiction most of the time.

The “enemy within” strategy has worked for the Republicans in electoral terms. As far as governing is concerned, it’s proven to be disastrous, since it inevitably involves some kind of suppression of political opposition. The Democrats have proven remarkably meek and compliant in the face of this strategy, ever since Reagan. They still show little backbone. Yet the Cheney-Rove juggernaut has pushed so hard with its fear agenda that the public seems to be souring on it, and some Democrats are beginning to see the writing on the wall. If the right espouses an “eliminationist” philosophy, as its AM radio toadies do, saying that liberalism is the cause of terrorism, and so forth, then the Democrats will have to fight or die. Contrary to rightist mythology, Bill Clinton was a fairly conservative Democrat, certainly a lover of big business and not a leftist, and we saw what happened—the right went at him as if he were the reincarnation of Ho Chi Minh. Endless attempts on the part of the great triangulator to become more Republican than the Republicans only made them more determined to destroy him. There is a lesson here for Democrats. The so-called “centrist” strategy is a failure. The Republicans, like crackheads, will not relinquish their drug. They instinctively label Democrats and liberals as enemies and traitors because it’s been their ticket to electoral success for over fifty years. After decades of avoiding issues, most do not even possess the ability to debate them on their merits. Name-calling and finger-pointing are the only "skills" remaining for them.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Republican “enemy” mindset will eventually collapse from its own emptiness and irrelevance. It appeals to the worst in our nature, but that hasn’t handicapped it very much so far. I like to think that things have gotten so bad now, with the most corrupt White House and most corrupt Congress in the history of the United States, that a politics that is responsive to the needs of the people, rather than using fear and hatred to divide Americans from each other in order to win votes, may have a chance. But I’m not holding my breath.

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