Dealing with political bullies

The Thinker by Rodin

In April I discussed how Republicans win through intimidation. I said in a future post that I would give my thoughts on how to deal with their bullying. Today I finally get around providing my thoughts on the question.

This is a tough problem for Democrats because, with a few exceptions like Howard Dean, we haven’t learned to fight in a way that sways. Thus, Republicans have a natural advantage. They are used to having their way and they generally get their way through a lot of intimidation, bullying and money, which they have aplenty. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to be civilized people. We think it is impolite to shout and figure everyone has the right to be heard. We like to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that Republicans have a better and pluralistic nature. And so pretty much every time we debate, we avoid going for the jugular. We don’t want to be seen as one of them, which in our minds is worse than winning.

All bullies understand one thing very well: to wield power over someone, you must connect with someone emotionally, not logically. Chances were that when you encountered a bully in school, one encounter was enough. The bully never tried to reason with you. Instead, he went straight for the jugular and used every weapon is his well-stocked arsenal: physical, emotional and mental. You quickly learned to avoid the bully because man, this dude is a loose cannon. If encountered, you found it pragmatic to give them what they wanted to avoid retribution. Why does this work? It is because for most people it takes about ten logical propositions (or more) to overwhelm one emotional proposition.

To really beat a political bully, it helps to have cut a few of them down to size. This come from standing up to bullies, which few of us have tried. Oddly enough, most bullies, when confronted by an opponent with determination, will give way. This will happen particularly if they sense from those around them that by standing up, many others will find the courage to stand up as well. This is because a crowd against you has more power than any bully by himself.

One way bullies deal with this uncomfortable fact is to have more bullies stand up with them. This way you become something of a gang, and a gang is more powerful than a single person. Yet the powerful bully actually walks a fine line. He must be seen as powerful and intimidating, but not so powerful that it behooves those they are intimidating to join ranks. Success often comes from being very loud, carrying a big stick but wielding it selectively.

In fact, this is pretty much how the Confederates managed to dominate the first half of The Civil War. It helped that Union generals tended to be wimps and ineffectual while Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson were brilliant tacticians. (The Union started winning when soldiers like Grant proved they would not allow their armies to be intimidated.) The “rebel yell” was very effective for the Confederate Army, and involved them forming a line, pointing rifles and sabers forward then running forward en masse, often in sync, yelling and whooping the whole time. Union soldiers found the rebel yell unnerving because it was, well, crazy, and often gave way. It was a great tactic while it worked, and it stopped working when the Union Army found its courage. Today’s Republican bullies may be channeling the spirit of their rebellious forefathers. Using sabers against political opponents is not a good idea, but yelling is still politically acceptable, as is charging en masse, which today means honing a finely tuned and simple message and broadcasting it repeatedly everywhere.

See these tactics at work with attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s amazing that they get away with it. The Affordable Care Act, after all, is the law of the land. Civilized people of course respect the law, even when they disagree with it. If they don’t like it, they will work to repeal the law. That’s not good enough for these new Confederates. The law must be killed through all means, fair and unfair. This includes deliberate foot dragging from red states, outright refusal to begin the process of setting up health care exchanges (despite The Supremacy Clause), and filing endless legal challenges, mostly with friendly courts. Some of their tactics give new meaning to the word chutzpah, such as refusing to fund the law that was already enacted. Make it a law in name only. Whatever works, fair or foul, is okay. Civilized people, of course, retch at these tactics, but if you are a bully it is just one item in your bag of tricks.

Curiously, the very best Democrats at fighting Republican bullies come from deeply red states, in particular Texas. This becomes less curious when you consider this behavior forms part of the culture of the state. Former (now deceased) Texas Governor Ann Richards had mastered the art, as has Jim Hightower. Many of these luminaries worked for The Texas Observer, a monthly magazine principally about Texas politics with a Democratic bent that was widely read. The late Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower both worked for or contributed to The Texas Observer, as did Larry L. King, who is perhaps best known as the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Democrats trying to counter these Republican bullies would be wise to study and emulate their tactics.

Their success comes down to two main factors. First, they learned the art of mean-mouthing other politicians in a way that called into question their lack of character. Barack Obama, responding to one of Mitt Romney’s crazier talking points, will give a polite and academic reply, maybe with a hint of sarcasm. Molly Ivins, if she were still alive, would not only lampoon the argument with innumerable logical holes, but would not be afraid, after providing many examples, to publicly state the logical conclusion in personal and emotional terms. If she were alive, I imagine her response to Romney’s proposal to keep cutting taxes for the rich as a solution for reducing the deficit would include a colorful metaphor. (“He wants to take money out of his little daughter’s piggy bank so he can go binge drinking at the saloon down the street.”) Metaphors like this are hard to excise from your head, particularly when they ring true. It’s even harder when it defies common sense and you can tie the allusion to an ordinary experience.

The truth, if it can be turned to an issue that a common person finds of concern, can be devastatingly effective politically, provided it is given with the right emotional punch. If is doesn’t move you, then it won’t work. A political ad on Haiti policy, for example, might concern the one percent of voters who care about Haiti, but most don’t, so the money on such advertisements is largely wasted.

Perhaps the most devastating political ad of all time was the Daisy ad that Lyndon Johnson used against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Why did it work? It worked because it combined a powerful truth with the inescapably devastating emotional consequences for everyone. Johnson portrayed himself as the sane person in the room who would avoid nuclear war. He didn’t even have to reference Barry Goldwater because the implication was obvious. Goldwater was on record as being trigger happy with the nation’s nuclear weapons.

What do people really care about most today? Principally they want a good paying job, but also a hopeful future. Issues like gay marriage animates a fringe, but only a fringe of the electorate. What will make independent voters’ spines shiver will be simple and concrete ads showing Mitt Romney’s disdain for the working class. There is plenty of material on the record to work with, including his statements that he hoped General Motors would go bankrupt. His work while leading Bain Capital is also rife with examples of working people being laid off or having their wages cut, such as at Staples, to line his pockets. Find a couple of indisputable examples, tie them to working people who experienced the wrath of his decisions, and such an ad is bound to hit the double whammy of both logical and have strong emotional impact.

Ultimately, bullies only hold power as long as the crowd lets them wield it. Political bullies are rendered powerless when they are ignored. It happened to Glenn Beck, it is happening to Rush Limbaugh and it happened most recently to Newt Gingrich, in most cases because they traversed a serious line or became a parody of themselves. Mitt Romney will use mostly surrogates for his bullying of President Obama. He will likely disclaim actions of surrogates when politically dangerous, such as a recent attempt by a PAC to resurrect the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Democrats should concentrate forces on a half dozen or less key distinguishing issues that are emotionally charged and that appeal to swing voters. The Republican War on Woman, one of the few frames Democrats created that actually stuck, is one example. Why did it stick? It stuck because it was so obviously true and it is also helpful because the majority of voters in this country are female. The frames that will be effective must connect a candidate with a concern or fear that Middle America will find deeply disturbing and undeniably true.

Do this and the bully is rendered harmless.

A sudden Rush to judgment

The Thinker by Rodin

Thank goodness at least some people you would think would not bother continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh. The conservative radio host says so many outrageous things that it is hard to keep from being inured by his latest rants. At least one person in the progressive blogosphere must tune in, because otherwise his outrageous comments on Sandra Fluke, a 30-year old Georgetown University student might have gone wholly unnoticed.

Ms. Fluke, as you doubtlessly heard, was called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Rush on his radio show last week. Once was apparently not enough for Limbaugh, who double downed his assertions the following day on his show, suggesting her every sexual encounter should be filmed for the benefit of her sponsors, the American taxpayer. Over the weekend he had a sudden change of heart, likely because his advertisers starting withdrawing their sponsorship of his show en masse. Limbaugh sort of apologized without really apologizing, and like the whiny liberal stereotype he likes to lampoon, blamed much of his behavior on liberals. At least forty of his sponsors have pulled the plug so far and more are likely to join the parade.

It’s curious that these obviously false assertions should get him in trouble when so many others have gone, if not quite unnoticed, at least unchallenged. Limbaugh coined the term “Feminazi” to describe feminists. He’s been using the term for decades but like so much other slander and filth out of his mouth, we tuned it out. You would think equating the tens of millions of peaceful but assertive American feminists with a group of fascists that were responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities might have triggered advertisers to bow out from supporting his show long ago. But almost all advertisers are glad to keep sponsoring a show to reach a target market unless it suddenly becomes politically expedient to drop them.

If only there were some tiny speck of truth in his allegations. Fluke “testified” before an unofficial panel of House Congressional Democrats, only because the six male members of the requisite House committee wouldn’t let her or any woman testify on the need to have birth control covered in employer-based health insurance contracts. Fluke wasn’t even talking about herself, but about a friend at Georgetown who needed birth control, not to sleep around, but to control PCOS. Lots of women need birth control for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy, such as for PCOS and to control periods that would be dangerously heavy or excessive. Even when women take birth control to prevent pregnancy, it doesn’t mean that the government is subsidizing birth control. The issue is whether employers should be required to offer birth control as part of their health care coverage, as is required in a majority of states already. That’s it. No government subsidies involved.

And clearly few of the 99% of women who use birth control at some point in their lives are sluts. Some have legitimate medical reasons why their periods need to be regulated. Others are happily or otherwise married women who just don’t particularly want a bun in their oven but want the freedom to have a sex life with their husband. I am not sure how you define a woman as a “slut” but I do know that since Rush cheated on his wives he was putting his dipstick into places where people like him would argue it should never be. However, Rush can avoid the “slut” label because he is a guy. Guys can’t be sluts. There’s not quite an equivalent word for a guy, because it’s okay for guys to sleep around. Granted I don’t hang around men’s locker rooms very often these days, but in my day those guys who bragged about their multiple exploits in locker rooms tended to be envied by the rest of us virgins, who would have been happy to get an opportunity to have sex with something other than our right hands. In any case, when Rush takes vacations alone in the Dominican Republic without his spouse, caught entering with illegal Viagra and is cited for the offense, this sounds like a guy who was aching to be a male slut.

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate the “slut” word. Plenty of women have high sex drives, and I’ve been fortunate to have known a few of them in the biblical sense. Having a high sex drive means you really enjoy sex, which is entirely fine and natural. Having many sex partners at the same time is probably not a wise choice if you are trying to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. It is possible to be sexually active with multiple partners and be reasonably safe at the same time. Undoubtedly some women do put out for reasons other than having a high sex drive, but the same is true with men. Whether a woman chooses to live a life of celibacy, refrains from intercourse until marriage, sleeps around before marriage or has multiple sexual partners at the same time is a choice she must live with. The same is true with men, but for some reason we don’t dwell on satyrs except possibly to envy them. It’s something about being a woman that makes being sexually active with multiple men (or women) at the same time especially morally reprehensible. Maybe its because Mary the mother of Jesus never slept around, or so we assume. Apparently Mary Magdalene did, and Jesus considered her a close friend.

Insurance companies of course are glad, even eager, to provide free contraceptives to its insured women. Entities like the Catholic Church don’t have to compromise any of their cash on principle, an accommodation that was recently granted by the Obama Administration. Fifty dollars a month in birth control pills and paying a couple of hundred dollars a year for the woman to see a gynecologist is infinitely cheaper than the costs of bringing up an unplanned child.

What really annoys the Limbaughs of the world is that many women won’t choose to live the stereotypes they would prefer they live. At the root of Limbaugh’s anger is a frustration that people like him cannot always control the intimate lives of women. They get angry when women choose to exercise their right to be free and liberated human beings. People like Limbaugh want to exert power over women, but really power over any person whose morals they object to. Democrats simply want to put freedom of choice into the individual’s hands, particularly women who otherwise could not afford $50 a month for pills and hundreds of dollars a year in doctor and lab fees to ensure their reproductive health. Let women decide whether they want to use birth control or not, since it is safe and effective. Because it is almost universally used by women, simply make it available as a health choice for them like any other treatable health condition. Because health insurance is all about maintaining personal health and by extension happiness, the same happiness our founders talked about in our constitution that we are all supposed to crave. It appears that the Limbaughs of the world very much want to take away such freedoms from anyone they don’t like while inconsistently and furtively giving themselves license to indulge.