All That’s Changed Is The Debate

A lot of people have complained that the public has not been asked to make sacrifices for the “War on Terror” the way people made sacrifices in World War II and Vietnam. For instance, nylons were not available to women during the war, and many foods were reserved for the military. To this day, my father-in-law won’t drink coffee because when he was growing up, a wheat product called “Postum” was used in its place so that the troops could have the “real” coffee that was available.

If we had, would our commitment to the struggle be greater or less than it is today? Probably about the same. There is a lot of debate about the particulars and the role of Iraq, but it seems to me that there is substantial resolve to see the struggle through across the spectrum. If we civilians had suffered more privation these past five years, would we have had greater success than we have enjoyed in our various battlefields or in the world political arena? Probably not. But the terms of the debate would be different — there would be greater pressure to bring things to a conclusion, so that the sacrifices could come to an end.

One such commentator is Sideways Mencken. Reading his blog reveals an interesting take on the way that the terms of the political debate have changed since the 2000 election. In essence, he observes that the Republicans used to play to voters’ anger, but have switched to playing to voters’ fear. In response, the Democrats gave up playing to voters’ guilt, and have picked up anger as their emotional touchstone.

If he is right, I would suggest that the Democrats find a different way to direct their message. The Republicans tried “anger” during the Clinton Presidency, and the public correctly saw that the anger was little more than sour grapes about losing the White House. The public has also correctly seen the same attitude within the Democrats’ reflexive Bush-hating. Hate is not enough to set a political agenda in motion.

When the Republicans succeeded in the Nineties it was in 1994, with Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. If you think about it, Gingrich & Co. did not really deliver a lot of the goods promised in the “Contract With America,” but that was never the point. The point was to convince the public that Republicans were going to make things better in specific ways. The 2000 and 2004 elections were both very, very close, so it’s difficult for either party to claim that their message resonated with the country as a whole.

I also think the Democrats need to reckon with the fact that when fear really resonates wwith people, anger doesn’t matter, much less guilt, pride, greed, hope, love, nationalism, trust, or any of the other emotional appeals that have been used in the past.

The Republicans, for their part, need to think carefully about fear as a failsafe message. It’s a high-stakes gamble, to manipulate voters’ fears. If the voters agree that the enemy you identify should be feared, and the voters agree that your solution to the threat is the right one, you will be richly rewarded. If you miss either, you risk handing your opponent either the opportunity to offer a better solution, or exposing your cynical ploy.

Mencken also ignores another emotional message that the ideological extremes are selling to themselves — contempt on the right and nostalgia on the left. The Ann Coulters of the world have been dispensing contempt for the left and even for moderates for quite some time now. On the left, and Ralph Nader and the like would like nothing better than to return the debate of the day to the terms of the 1960’s, when the issues of the day were the evils of big corporations and when American troops would come home from an unwinnable foreign war. Instead of big auto companies and Vietnam, they see things as coming full circle with oil companies and Iraq cast in the “bad guy” roles.

These products are sold mainly to “energize the base,” rather than to appeal to the middle. It does not appeal to the middle to be told, “We’ve been here before and it didn’t work out so well,” because that message does not offer any solution for making things better. Nor does it any good to appeal to political moderates by insulting them.

Mencken’s picture is significantly incomplete, however, because the target audiences of contempt and nostalgia are probably more important than those of us in the middle. I might be scared, or outraged, into voting one way or the other. But so many of the messages are targeted at those with whom the leaders already agree that I rather doubt that the message of fear is intended to change anyone’s mind — it is a get-out-the-vote strategy.

What’s particualrly interesting to think about is how much, or more likely how little, 9/11 did to change the terms of our political debate to this. The Republicans have seized on 9/11 and the fear it created as their lietmotif for the past five years, but if it had not been terrorists, the Republicans would probably have seized on immigration as the polarizing target of fear; even today this issue has substantial resonance with both core and many centrist voters. But the Democrats’ message of outrage and rekindling the fires of the sixties would probably have been exactly what it is now no matter what had happened.

So what’s really happening is just the continuing realignment of our own internal politics. Three thousand people died five years ago, and about all that seems to have happened as a result of that is that we finally realized that yes, the world is full of very dangerous people who want to kill most of us and convert the rest of us forcibly to their bizarre, extremist version of their religion. But we’ve all but forgotten Afghanistan — after knocking that country back to the stone age, we left it alone and focused on obtaining control of an oil-rich area that had little to do with the provocation that started it all. For better or worse, we’re stuck there and have tolerated the continuing existence of our national demons in the hills around Jallalabad, the halls of Parliament in Tehran, and the parade grounds of Pyongang. We would rather continue to argue amongst ourselves about how other people have sex, who should get to avoid paying their fair share of the costs of our government (turns out, all of us do) and to listen to mixed messages about an unacceptably ambiguous, chaotic, and bloody situation in our new military protectorate.

So do we need to start making sacrifices? Yes, but the sacrifices we need to make are not the ones that people have been talking about.

The solution to our problems is not to be found in a timetable for withdrawal, it is not to be found in calls to “stay the course,” and it is not to be found in appeals to our religious prejudices. We need to address our continuing failure to update our energy infrastructure to have more nuclear power and more efficient personal transportation. We need to commit to balanced budgets. We need to stop rewarding politicians of both parties who distract the public debate from vapid emotional appeals at the expense of offering concrete ideas to improve our collective strength and wealth. If we’re going to commit to a military adventure, we cannot allow military strategy to become a political football and must instead be willing to devote the long-term resources to achieve both military and political success.

These things are hard and must be done consistently over the long term. But for too long we have been doing what is easy and expedient in the short term. It is short-term expediency that we must sacrifice, not pantyhose and pork bellies.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.