Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Politics of Domination

In my imagination, it starts like this… It is late November, 1995, and Karl Rove is sitting in his living room in his underwear, munching on a bucket of extra-crispy KFC chicken wings, listening avidly to CNN. The Federal government has been shut down for six days as Senate Majority Leader Dole and House Majority Leader Gingrich remain locked in a stalemate with President Clinton over Federal budget priorities.

At the top of the hour, the news anchor announces that there has been a breakthrough agreement to end the impasse! The text is a patchwork of loose timetables and constructive ambiguity, but it is enough. Congress passes a revised temporary spending resolution and ends the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Smiling on camera, House Minority Leader Gephardt proclaims, "Everyone won. Everyone got to put their beliefs in the resolution." House Budget Chairman John Kasich says of the work ahead, "We’ll get this done. We’ll work it out. We put the country first and got the framework—-and Happy Thanksgiving!"

It is at this point, as the pundits begin to yammer on about the delicate arts of negotiation and compromise, that I imagine Karl Rove curses and smashes his fist into the bucket of chicken wings. And then, as he peers down and surveys his ruined dinner, the inspiration of his life hits him. He thinks: “All this talk of making deals is horseshit! Politics isn’t about finding solutions—-it’s about winning. And why you should ever compromise if you could win?”

Forget the politics of coalition. In that moment was born the politics of domination—a strategy George W. Bush has employed with devastating effectiveness to hold his party together and push an extreme right-wing agenda, even while moderates in his own party are sickened. Here is how it works.

1. DEMAND. Always ask for everything you want and accept nothing less. Never reach toward the middle. Never throw a bone to someone to assuage their feelings. Politics is not about making friends. It’s about getting what you want. And if you stay this course, and never relent, paradise can be yours.

2. POLARIZE. Treat anyone who denies you anything as your enemy, even if they are allies in your own party. There is no need to be “reasonable” with them if they say they’ve already helped you out a lot—-the question is, what have they done for you lately? And don’t even think about helping someone else because it’s their turn. There are no “turns” in politics—-it’s always your turn. You are 100% in the right and they are 100% wrong. “Either you are with me, or you are my enemy.” The atmosphere of war is perfect for this—you can even act patriotic as you say nasty things.

3. INTIMIDATE. The key is that your allies must learn to fear you! Don’t waste time trying to intimidate the other party. It’s your own party you need to keep in line. If they have denied you something (and thus become your enemy) you must humiliate them. Yes, this can be very difficult, but don’t worry—-all that really matters is that you succeed fairly openly in your first few smears. Dirty tricks are an acceptable risk, and the truth is utterly irrelevant.

4. EMBITTER. This is what you should be doing to the other party. Make them hate you. Be arrogant, act ignorant, lie to their faces—-and smile sweetly when you win… again. The key, however, is that you implicate the rest of your party with you—-you want the other party to hate your party. You want to make it impossible for anyone to reach across the aisle and compromise. Poison the atmosphere in each chamber of Congress any way you can. Packing Congress with ideologues is perfect. Remember if Congress is dysfunctional, it will be weak and then you can make it do what you want.

5. NEVER STOP. For this strategy to work, you must always win: the aura of invincibility and inevitability is key. Don’t take no for an answer—-just go at it all over again and wear your enemies down. Nothing is "final" until you get your way. It does not matter if you win by a single vote--always rub it in as a huge victory. Of course, if the other party should manage to win even the tiniest fight, they will gloat even worse, and then they will be emboldened and re-energized to work for the next victory. But don't worry--here’s where all the bitterness you have sown comes to fruition. Because if the opposing party should actually manage to take power, their pent-up anger and hatred will be so bad that they will destroy you all-—and with that very credible and unspoken threat, you can lash your party members to your side and force them to vote with you.

To win at the Politics of Domination must you must bully your friends more than your enemies. You must spread hate so your enemies and allies would rather die than work together. You must deliberately set it up so that any loss is a total loss. Do this, and your party will give you everything you want because they are afraid to do anything else and see no other alternative.

I am interested in hearing The Citizens' views on how to fight this kind of politics. I don't believe that playing the same game is going to bear fruit--nor do I believe it would be good for our country. In fact, I think it plays into their hands. I’ll bet Karl Rove smiles every time he hears Democrats curse George W. Bush’s name… because that means he’s winning.


Anonymous said...

Interesting assesment. But you have the moment of revelation too late in the time line. Karl Rove was a national Young Republican leader during the Nixon administration. The tactics you describe fit Nixon very well.

How to fight it? It won't do any good to copy it (something a lot of Democrats say they wich the party would do). I think the Democrats should agressively challenge this entire approach to politics. Try to forge alliances with factions of the Republican constituency that Rove has allienated by "lashing them to his side and forcing them to vote for him." I'm thinking here of secular, fiscal conservatives. The Rove formula is a three legged stool (theocrats, nationalists, small government types) in which only two of the legs get any respect (theocrats and nationalists).

That gives the Democrats an opening to detach the small government crowd from the rest. "It's the economy stupid!"  

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

I think RBR is right, but I also think that the strategy he proposes goes on behind the scenes. But I think in terms of winning certain battles in the public mind, democrats have to be more aggressive and more assertive about their vaules- fairness,opportunity for all,a more equal playing field, community building and family supporting,etc. As I said in an e-mail to RBR last night, I think we have to do a better job at winning the media battle. We have to put more attractive, more assertive debaters on these media outlets. And we have to be less afraid of playing dirty with the reasonable conservatives across the aisle. Eventually, Congress will get tired of being bulllied.

I think that this is why Howard Dean appeals to people because he has this assertiveness . . .so long as he can do it without putting his foot in his mouth. SO I think Democrats have to use multiple strategies. 

// posted by USWest

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR is right about Rove. In fact, no doubt the politics of the dark side (hey, I should have used *that* as the post title!) has been around for centuries. I just liked the image of Karl Rove eating a greasy bucket of KFC.

USWest's call for, "more attractive [!], more assertive," debaters in the media would certainly help, though the logic underlying the "more attractive" part is troubling to me. But I think it is a big mistake to try to play the game "dirty" the way the Republicans are playing it. Easier and more seductive this strategy may be--but it is not stronger.

If Democrats can somehow recover hope, pride, and optimism, and spread this to their Republican colleagues, especially the "small government" ones RbR indicated, then maybe we have a chance. It is also essential that the Democrats resist the temptation to distort and spin and lie.

I have to believe that a collegial environment in which dishonesty is not tolerated could only benefit the good guys.

Anonymous said...

Let me summarize Dr. Strangelove's point:

Republicans have hit upon a strategy that works. Democrats must respond by emulating it or finding a way to defuse it.

I have a very good friend, an doctor, who believes that the public is getting fed up with polarizing politics, and will endorse a good centrist candidate. My take on this: sorry, it's wishful thinking. The good doctor may be right about that attitude of certain elites, particularly the liberally-inclined and politically alienated elites of California and other blue states distant from the Imperial Seat (Washington), but not the general public. We are a long way from a vibrant disaffected-yet-politically-active centrist movement.

Why does the Republican strategy work? The Republican strategy works because it is supported by a cultural framework that allows them to portray their intransigence and pigheadedness as "having values and firm convictions." They say that compromisers lack values. Republicans talk values, Democrats talk policy and compromise. The Democrats come off as the weasels. To defeat the Republican strategy you have to broadly attack the cultural framework that equates Republicans with having values. This means doing two things: (1) Making a big deal of the fact that Republicans are hypocrites, even to the extent of demonizing the leaders; (2) Articulating your own values clearly. Clinton was able to play the centrist and get liberal votes ("triangulation" they called it). Bush tried that in 2000 as a "reformer with results," and he failed (the electoral college success was a fluke that was in nobody's plans). Now the strategy is dead. Nobody can run for president and claim to be a centrist unless (like McCain, who isn't a centrist but gets crossover votes because he is perceived as a man of integrity) he or she is perceived as a rebel candidate.

Thus, as Pat Buchanan correctly said 13 years ago, this is a culture war. He was ridiculed, but he was right, and missing that we were at war meant that Democrats conceded the battlefield. Thus, Republicans are proud to be conservative, but even most Democrats think liberal is a swear word. Almost anyone who flies a flag or says they follow Jesus is now presumed to be a Republican. Many Democrats can't articulate much other than that they are not Republican. The policy debate got lost. So did liberal values. Democrats have to engage the values debate fully, not shy away from it as confrontational and icky.

As someone who has studied how civil wars end, I can tell you this: compromise only happens when each side is convinced it cannot win. We need to fight a war to get to that stage where we can even talk about the need for "cooler heads to prevail." At the very least, we need to show up ready for battle.  

// posted by Law Talking Guy

Dr. Strangelove said...

There's an important point I feel LTG missed in his summary. My assessment was not so much that the Republicans that have found an effective strategy to dominate the nation as that a clique of right-wing extremists have found an effective strategy to dominate the Republican party. And by dominating it so thoroughly, Bush is able to use his party's razor-thin majority as though it were a total mandate.

My post did not really discuss how Bush has been able to muster that razor-thin majority in both houses. I'm not even sure it was his doing--except for Jefford's defection, the Republicans have ruled both houses since the mid-nineties. But RbR's three-legged stool speaks to the point better, as does LTG's discussion of the cultural framework. While some of the same methods Bush uses on his own party are effective in a broader sense when used oh the entire electorate, it's not really the same thing.

I agree with LTG that until the Democrats start changing the terms of the debate--until they start winning the "culture war"--then Bush will keep his thin majority. I've written elsewhere about how the Democrats need to do this. My concern is that when embittered Democrats buy into this polarizing war mentality, they are unfortunately also tightening Bush's reins on his own party and thereby ensuring their own defeat in the current Congress.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that the "polarizing war" mentality will give Bush a tighter grasp on his party. I think the party is starting to rebel. Defections are starting to take place.

I agree with LTG. And, as Christopher Sheys told NOW, "The Democrats ruled for 40 years and it took them 20 years to get cocky. It's only taken the Republicans 10 years to get cocky."

But the Republicans seeded their comeback the day Nixon left the White House. They are the ones that started think tanks and university institutes that raised a generation of young Republicans into the some of the ideologues (Rove being one among many) we see in government today. They are now funding Christian based law schools and medical schools. Hello!!!

One thing that Howard Dean has tried to do is to direct money back to local parties and to effect local partisan elections. This is good thinking because he recognizes that you have to plant your seeds now. The Republican revolution shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has watched the development over time. But Democrats were so convinced that they had the high road for so long that no one could dislodge them. Then 1994 happened.

By 2008 we as Democrats might well be able to get our act together. We might be able to get a coherent platform and we might be able to take advantage of some strategic initiatives of our own. I think we are seeing the beginning of this. Democrats have succeeded in controlling the social security debate. And they have made the discussion over judges more lively. They appear to have beaten back Bolton’s nomination (he will win eventually). There are good things happening. But Democrats did this by taking risks. And in the process, they were talking about their values. No, you can't abuse employees and then be promoted. No you can't attack the UN, that represents global cooperation and then be appointed out representative. No, you can't privitize social security and disrespect our eldery that way. Democrats are being called obstructionist. Well, good. That means they are making progress. And when I say we need to get more assertive and aggressive, this is what I mean. Quit the limp dick "we have the facts and we are honest" crap and start fighting smart.

And I am sorry Dr. Strangelove if my assertion that you need more attractive debaters in the media is bothersome, but start watching who represents each side. Physical appearance matters. If you want to win “hearts and minds” you have to put up faces that people respond to. Republicans understand that they are marketing their ideas and their brand. And that is the strategy they use. We have to find a way to market our ideas in a nice package that doesn’t scare mid-westerners and Southerners. Being just honest doesn’t work.

Very few people in the "real world" are interested in the facts. It's sad, but true. Facts take thinking and energy to understand. People want something easy to grasp onto. So let's give them something. How else will they know our product from the others? The Democrats try elevating the debate time and again and they loose time and again. If you keep doing what you always did, you will keep getting what you always got.

// posted by USWEST

Anonymous said...

I've heard Democrats in Congress start to say things like "Am I being obstructionis? You bet! It's my duty to obstruct such bad laws!"

That's is a start. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest argues that the Democrats need to market their ideas better in order to sell their "product" and win the "hearts and minds" of America. To that end, USWest says Democrats ought to employ more physically attractive, more assertive spokespeople who will give the people something easier to understand than "facts." (Presumably we are talking about soundbites, slogans, photo-ops, etc.)

Although I suspect USWest feels such a strategy is a bit distasteful, USWest says it is necessary because "The Democrats try elevating the debate time and again and they lose time and again." USWest says memorably that the Democrats need to, "Quit the limp dick 'we have the facts and we are honest' crap and start fighting smart." USWest also calls for Democrats not to be afraid to "play dirty," which apparently is part of fighting "smart."

I think USWest's logic is excellent, but the premises are wrong.

1. I think the reason the product isn't selling is fundamentally because it's a bad product. When you look on the Democrats' ingredient list these days (to stretch the metaphor) you mostly find a list of what isn't in there. You shake the box and it seems light on substance. And what's more, it looks to be more expensive. On the other side of the (shopping) aisle we have the conservative offering, which is loaded with ingredients people can pronounce, is (admittedly) better packaged, and appears to be cheaper (tax cuts.) I don't think that improving the labeling on liberalism will help all that much while the box still feels empty and costly. A solid platform built around common values is needed. I think we all agree on this. My point is that I think this is what we should be focusing on, and it looks bad if you focus on labeling anyhow.

2. I do not see that the Democrats have tried to "elevate the debate" time and time again. They speak in soundbites and slogans that are every bit as distorting as the Republicans'. They are not honest and don't give facts. And they already treat the American public as being stupid, the way USWest believes they should. I believe that the Democrats are already trying to play the media relations game.

3. The reason the Democrats are losing at the game isn't because they play badly, but because fundamentally speaking in an environment of deception and distortion, the bad guys will win. Because the conservative message seems simple (the devil is in the details!) and they can (falsely) promise more than liberals can (like lower taxes and a balanced budget along with increased spending, greater peace and security in the world through increased American warmongering and intervention...)

While the Democrats continue to play the game, they will continue to look like hypocrites and the American people (who are not all that stupid) will continue to disbelieve them and grow cynical about all politics. And in that kind of atmosphere, cynicism leads to selfishness, selfishness leads to Republicanism, and Republicanism leads to evil. Easier and more seductive the Dark Side is. Not stronger.

Anonymous said...

Point 1:  I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. S about the emptiness of the Democratic package. And what is sad about that is the number of substantive issues out there that democrats could capitalize on. I am a Democrat and I don’t know anymore why. This is why I mentioned early in my post that the platform has to be solid! It has to be a DEMOCRATIC platform, not and anti-Republican platform. This is what Dean means in part when he says he is from the Democratic wing of the Democratic party. There are Democratic values. Let’s get them in a platform. As for the packaging, they still need to do a better job.

Point 2: I disagree that Democrats haven’t been honest. I think Gore tried to be honest about the danger of tax cuts. I think Democrats have tried to be honest about the dangers of global warming, fossil fuel consumption, and energy deregulation.I think Kerry tried to be honest about the dangers of North Korean nuclear development. I think he tired to explain complex issues. Oh, but he was talking down at people. He was waffling. So how do you explain the situation to people and give them the facts without getting pegged as a waffling coastal elitist? There several great episodes of West Wing where they struggle with this very issue. The answer for them was to let the Bartlett be Bartlett. But a TV script is a far cry from reality.

Democrats haven’t been honest on the war, Gitmo, and the like. And I wonder about the intelligence of the public. I think maybe the general public isn’t stupid, but it is more tolerant or more apathetic/passive than it should be. It is less informed than it should be. I am a liberal. And one of the values we have as liberals is the idea that people in general need guidance. I can’t help myself. I am elitist, I guess. And I think that is OK so long as you don’t demean people as you present your case.

Point 3: I do find the marketing of politics disgusting. What I wouldn’t give for a real debate! I agree that the bad guys are better at the tactics game and the bad guys have definitely created an environment of distortion. Not only that, the environment is dominated by money interests. I’d love to see a televised debate between the leaders on both sides of the aisle about real issues. I’d love to see it on the networks. I’d love to hear that the Nielson rating for it hit the roof. But it isn’t going to happen. Advertising dollars drive our means of mass communication.

I agree that simply copying the Republican game is not what Democrats should do. They will get identified as posers by the public. They have to find a way, however, to play a good offense and a good defense of their own. It has to be aggressive because those are the times in which we live.

// posted by USWest

Dr. Strangelove said...

USWest--thanks for a very thoughtful response! You are correct that the Democrats have been honest about some issues, and often to their detriment. I should have acknowledged that. However, while the Democrats are also dishonest about other issues, they lose their credibility, and that's my point.

I also agree (and should have said so) that the Democratic response needs to be vibrant and aggressive. Once we get a good product and get our house in order, then we can start throwing stones and showing the world who the real liars are. We can get aggressive and media-savvy when we have something good. But our liberal leaders have got to start telling the truth all the time, even if it is complex. We have to stop playing their game and starting making it our game.

Because even in darker times, liberals have managed to win freedom for blacks and hispanics, for women, helped the poor and hungry, reined in the powerful, worked for consumer rights, better health care, safety in the workplace... indeed, every iota of progress in our society has come as liberals led the fight for freedom and conseratives have fought rear-guard action to protect their power and privilege. As Dennis Miller said once, you have to laugh at the conservatives when they talk proudly about the American revolution, because you know damned well they fighting on the side of the Tories.

Liberals can call on that powerful heritage of hope and liberation to overcome the current conservative backlash, but only when they speak clearly and truthfully will they have the leverage and credibility they need to expose the obscuration and lies of the conservatives. And in an atmosphere of civility and truthfulness, the fearful conservative ideology can never stand up against hopeful liberal spirit.

Anonymous said...

I am beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel! Good point Dr. S. You are right. Liberals have always figured out how to fight once they got back up on their feet! It is often hard to remember that these days! 

// posted by USWest