How to Sell Activism

Republicans may look disarrayed – Michele Bachmann out, a tempestuous House that can’t agree to act in concert, and primary challenges that drive general election candidates further and further from the mainstream – but in one regard, at least, they have a significant advantage over Democrats.

Republicans know how to draw all of their points back to a simple, easy-to-digest emotional message. Don’t listen to pundits who tell you that liberals make primarily emotional appeals – as a rhetorical strategy emotional appeal is used by both sides, but it only drives the policy of one party. Republicans, in short, know how to activate the fear receptors of their voters.

Loyal Republican voters tend to express their fears most often and eloquently – to win elections, though, the party needs to instill fear in otherwise rational voters (or suppress Democratic turnout to less than the expected Republican base votes). They do this to surprising effect.

Any writer will tell you, nothing is scarier than the unknown. This is why Republicans haven’t turned up hard evidence of much in their years of opposition. Obama terrifies the right precisely because no one articulates exactly what they should fear about him. He’s dark-skinned, with foreign connections and a suspect middle name. He uses drones – not directly bad for most Americans, but indicative of a willingness to use impersonal violence. At the same time he opposes open sale of guns – perhaps part of a plot? Add on the vague accusations surrounding Benghazi and the IRS and you have the picture of a tyrant. If you squint really hard and are already looking for a tyrant.

Of course, most people aren’t buying into this narrative. But that’s where the GOP’s policy of policy-based fear serves them well – they need to sway a few people on issues, as well, to truly undercut President Obama’s legacy and his attempts to govern.

Republican policy on immigration is based on an undeveloped fear that if there are people coming into the country, then the national character (again, vague and undefined) will suffer. It’s implied, against the facts, that most immigrants sponge up social assistance from a placid government. This is an abstract fear – the decline of a self-sufficient nation due to the negative effects of outsiders – but that’s exactly what Republicans want.

Turn to gun control. Why oppose sensible background check laws? Because that’s where tyranny starts. (Note: no one’s claiming that background checks themselves are outright tyranny – it’s an undeveloped slippery slope argument resting in an uncertain future).

Fiscal policy? Sell a story of an out-of-control debt that will grind down the economy and hobble us in our old age, or hobble our children, for years to come. Forget that in a growth economy deficit spending is sustainable and that a government that exists in perpetuity need never completely discharge its debt like a family would.

What’s the common denominator? Vague, unrealizable fears. The GOP peddles a bogeyman that takes whatever shape you fear it will – and then expects that you’ll blame that shape on Democrats.

What scares me isn’t so much this strategy – it’s an old one, rooted in demagoguery and alarmism. What scares me is the absence of a coherent counternarrative. If Democrats want to succeed in the midterm elections (and going forward), they’ll have to articulate another vision of what the country can be. Obama succeeded to some extent, but somehow Republicans have been in charge of defining the outcomes ever since.

What I want to see is a message of continued strength, compassion to our fellow citizens, and civic-minded action in our daily lives. Part of Republican success comes from its message dovetailing well with an almost pathological rejection of the body politic by key members. So many Republicans vote like they do because they fear(!) seeing their money end up benefiting someone else, even in the guise of public roads, public parks, and other open-use goods. Government doesn’t represent a strong, united front to these people, it represents a movement to take away that voter’s individuality.

Unfortunately, in the modern world we can’t succeed as a nation of “got-mine” individuals. In a perfect world, we respect one another’s individuality within the community, instead. What pure isolationism represents is, again, fear – fear of the changes that are coming whether we like it or not, fear of what tomorrow will bring. Like the best of the political monsters, this fear is also ill-defined and liable to take any shape we dread. It’s also one that saps our strength, both individual and collective. Tomorrow’s coming whether we like it or not, and wishing it away is perhaps the worst course of action we can take.



  1. You’re absolutely right about the narratives (or lack of) coming out of each party. The loss of the idea of common good, which, despite all the crowing about individuality, is what has kept us united under one government. I don’t understand the contradictory message of patriotism and the idea of strident individualism. Somebody needs a history lesson.

    1. That actually helps a lot to explain the lack of a competing narrative. By associating anything other than isolationist individualism with anti-American sentiment, we end up with suspicion of any other vision. Again, a vague suspicion, linked to foreign, socialist ideals but not fully identified. Thanks!

      1. The gun prohibitionists have no promise of a better day. There is always just one more law (to add to the 50,000+ on the books) needed.

        Also keep in mind that the backers of the gun prohibitionist movement are 1%ers who hypocritically have armed bodyguards for themselves. That doesn’t help their cause either.

      2. My focus in this blog is on terminology and its attempts to shift political discourse, which is why I’m fascinated by your choice of the term “gun prohibitionists,” which doesn’t have a lot of cachet in mainstream dialogue but does seem extremely alarmist.

        While I have no doubt that gun prohibitionists do exist, you won’t find many of them anywhere: not in the Democratic party, not elsewhere. Most safety advocates want to restrict things like children’s access to their parent’s weapons and the sale of firearms to the mentally ill. These are pretty commonsense reforms – it’s pro-gun activists who insist that if you take away our right to sell guns over the internet without a background check, it’s only a few days till the jackbooted thugs come to re-educate our kids.

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