Sunday, May 21, 2006

How about a little fire, ScareRove?

This morning the New York Times' Frank Rich jazzed on The Da Vinci Code and its owners, Sony Corporation, for conning religious conservatives into promoting the film for them. Sony offered them web space to vent their displeasure at the film, creating controversy and interest Sony expects will drive up receipts.

It's a ploy reminiscent of the biennial gays, guns and God scare fest the Republican leadership whips up each cycle to provoke its hardcore base into contributing money and being good campaign foot soldiers. The GOP's interest in them and these issues fades just as soon as the polls close, until the next cycle. Rich elaborates:
Nowhere is this game more naked than in the Jack Abramoff scandal: the felonious Washington lobbyist engaged his pal Ralph Reed, the former leader of the Christian Coalition, to shepherd Christian conservative leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer and the Rev. Donald Wildmon and their flocks into ostensibly "anti-gambling" letter-writing campaigns. They were all duped: in reality these campaigns were engineered to support Mr. Abramoff's Indian casino clients by attacking competing casinos. While that scam may be the most venal exploitation of "faith" voters by Washington operatives, it's all too typical. This history repeats itself every political cycle: the conservative religious base turns out for its party and soon finds itself betrayed. The right's leaders are already threatening to stay home this election year because all they got for their support of Republicans in the previous election year was a lousy Bush-Cheney T-shirt. Actually, they also got two Supreme Court justices, but their wish list was far longer. Dr. Dobson, the child psychologist who invented Focus on the Family, set the tone with a tantrum on Fox, whining that Republicans were "ignoring those that put them in office" and warning of "some trouble down the road" if they didn't hop-to.
Actually, I listened to Focus on the Family on November 5, 2004, three days after the presidential election. Dobson was already spouting that line: the Republicans had better not yank away that football this time, or there would be hell to pay come the next presidential election, if not sooner.

Too bad Dobson's not Catholic. He could be their patron saint of empty threats.

Rich goes on to: a) knock the GOP some more while they're down, b) poke fun at Democrats for buying into the "moral values" polls and setting up a Democratic Faith Working Group in the House, and c) predict the end of "the cynical Rove strategy of exploiting faith-based voters."

There may be something to Rich's prediction, but not because the GOP's base has wised up. Rove's cyclical (as well as cynical) strategy of getting them hopped up on adrenaline over wedge issues may be about to explode in his face.

This year the GOP's political fashion necessity is illegal immigration, the wedge issue they hope will fire up the base and distract the rest of the country from the debacles the Bush administration has made of Iraq, Katrina, the budget and pretty much everything else it has touched. Since early last year (at least) there has been an effort to make illegal immigrants the latest culture wars bogeymen, just in time for the mid-terms. Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman described it this way in December 2005:
Wonder what’s behind the sudden debate over “illegal” immigrants? Listen to a retired accountant from Lake Crystal, Minn., named Pat Peoples. It turns out the demagoguery is not so sudden. It has been in the works for months.

Last February, after answering a random phone survey, Peoples was invited to take part in a focus group discussion of political issues in Mankato. The group was made up of a cross-section of voters from southern Minnesota. Taxes, gambling and sports stadiums — all being debated at the time in St. Paul — were discussed.

But there was more on the agenda at this mystery meeting, which was sponsored by a group that gave each participant a lunch and $20, but which would not identify itself.

The woman moderator, who said she was from Maryland, wanted very much to talk about immigrants. The participants already had discussed any issues they were concerned about, except the war in Iraq. There would be no talk about Iraq, the woman said. But up to that point, no one had mentioned immigration, much to the annoyance of the moderator. So she prodded the group to complain about immigrants.

“I haven’t heard anybody talk about immigration,” Peoples, an independent, recalls her saying. “Anybody have a problem with the illegal aliens coming in?”

The group’s response to the question was “a deafening silence,” Peoples says. But the woman pushed harder, listing some of the complaints she said she had heard in other states where she had conducted focus groups. Still, no one obliged her. Instead, Peoples mentioned the immigrant workers in a nearby town, praising them for how hard they seem to work.

Not the correct answer. Someone was paying money for this. They wanted problems.

“She shut me off,” Peoples recalls. “Then she said, ‘Aren’t you having problems here?’ ”


“There was no reason for this to be brought up,” Peoples says. “I think someone was trying to find an issue that will antagonize people and get them riled up so they come out and vote, without offering a solution.”

Peoples has perfectly described how demagoguery works: Exaggerate a problem; exploit the manufactured resentment at the polls; offer no solutions to address a problem without creating an even larger one.

Who sponsored the Mankato focus group is still a mystery. But there is no mystery why politicians try to capitalize on a destructive strategy. And it will be a tragedy if they succeed.
This story jibes with my experience. Last October, the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank ("we're non-partisan," wink-wink), held a series of seminars across the state to discuss/promote upcoming issues. Illegal immigration was featured as a campaign-worthy issue headed for number one with a bullet. If the public didn't seem angry yet, stay tuned.

Well, the GOP prefers its base angry and has done its work too well this time. Now that they've made immigration issue number one, the president seems unable to satisfy the far right with his guest worker program and national guard troops on the border. His prime-time speech last week was dissected by the far right. They want fences, deportations and real punishment. They are not of a mood to be placated by "amnesty," and look to be turning on their leaders.

The emotional "high" they get from fighting the culture wars may be addictive. Like church services where congregations come expecting their preacher to whip them up into an emotional fervor and deliver a cathartic release, anything less feels empty. The old wedge issues (gays, abortion, etc.) and old leaders have lost some of their zing and no longer satisfy. Now the culture warriors need stronger stuff, and the mobs are gathering pitchforks, scythes and torches to stop the alien menace. The GOP had best not get in their way.

Karl, you play with fire long enough and you get burned.

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