Politics is not allowed in pubs, just redneck bullies.
Paul Rogat Loeb
August 20, 2004
Examples abound of how bullying politics have shaped our country in the past four years. From the mob in Miami-Dade county to the jammed phone lines of a Democratic voting call center, manipulative tactics have become astoundingly commonplace. The challenge now, says Paul Rogat Loeb, is to make the issue of bullying the central theme of the election. Demanding that our leaders play fair isn't old-fashioned—it's democracy.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books, August 2004 www.theimpossible.org), and of Soul of a Citizen.
The best thing John Kerry did at the Democratic convention was to challenge the bullying. He talked of the flag belonging to all of us, and how “standing up to speak our minds is not a challenge to patriotism [but] the heart and soul of patriotism.” By doing this, he drew the line against the pattern of intimidation that the Bush administration has used to wage war on democracy itself.
A former Air Force colonel I know described the administration’s attitude toward dissent as “shut up and color,” as if we were unruly eight-year-olds. Whatever we may think of Bush’s particular policies, the most dangerous thing he’s done is to promote a culture that equates questioning with treason. This threatens the very dialogue that’s at the core of our republic.
Think of the eve of the Iraq war, and the contempt heaped on those generals who dared to suggest that the war might take far more troops and money than the administration was suggesting. Think of the attacks on the reputations and motives of longtime Republicans who’ve recently dared to question, like national security advisor Richard Clarke, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and Bush’s own former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill. Think of the Republican TV ads, the 2000 Georgia Senate race—which paired Democratic Sen. Max Cleland with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein—asserting that because Cleland opposed President Bush’s Homeland Security bill, he lacked “the courage to lead.”
In this last case, it didn’t matter that Cleland had lost two legs and an arm in Vietnam, while the Republican who eventually defeated him had never worn a uniform. Nor that Republican strategists nearly defeated South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson in the same election, with similar ads, although Johnson was the only person in Congress whose child was actually serving with the U.S. military—and would see active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s hard to talk about such intimidation without sounding partisan or shrill, but we need to make it a central issue, because if it succeeds, it becomes impossible to discuss any other issues. Remember after the 9/11 attacks, when Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly declared that anyone who disagreed with administration policy was an ally of terrorism. We were still stunned and reeling at that point. Yet Democrats and honorable Republicans should have had the courage to say that this definition was unacceptable. Instead they capitulated to the tactics of Republican strategists like Grover Norquist, who proudly quotes Lenin’s motto, “Probe with bayonets, looking for weakness.” And a message of intimidation has dominated since, amplified through the endless echo chamber of O’Reilly, Rush, Hannity and Drudge.
Some who’ve embraced this approach believe they’re on a divinely sanctioned crusade. Others simply love the game—like Karl Rove, who got his start by destroying the reputation of a fellow contender to head the national Young Republicans, and helped Bush first take office by spreading rumors that then-Texas governor Ann Richards was a lesbian. My friend Egil Krogh—who worked in the Nixon administration, hired G. Gordon Liddy, and went to prison for Watergate—did things he knew were morally wrong, wanting to be loyal. He watched Nixon’s administration frame everything in terms of national security, then identify that security as whatever consolidated their power, while branding those who challenged them as traitors. Bush’s administration, to Krogh, seems even more ruthless.
The resulting rule of intimidation and manipulation grinds into the dust traditional conservative ethics of honesty and fair play. In the 2000 election, while the Florida ballots were still being counted, a mob of a couple hundred people, pounding on doors and windows, succeeded in permanently stopping a count of 10,000 Miami-Dade County ballots that were expected to favor Al Gore. As The Wall Street Journal reported, this mob was made up largely of Republican Congressional aides, organized by future House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and flown in by the Bush campaign. In a tight 2002 race for the New Hampshire Senate seat that Republican John Sununu eventually won, a Virginia-based campaign consultant group, GOP Marketplace, hired an Idaho telemarketing firm to jam the phone lines of Democratic "get-out-the-vote" call centers. More recently, Michigan and Oregon Republicans have gone all out to get Ralph Nader on the ballot, to siphon off votes from John Kerry.
The United States is an experiment, one whose outcome can be in doubt on any given day. But when our leaders embrace the ethics of Don Corleone, they undermine the very terms of our democracy. Go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” where he deliberately used racially polarizing language and images to lure white southerners into the Republican Party. Or the Willie Horton ads overseen by Karl Rove’s mentor, Lee Atwater. Or the Iran-Contra scandal, when the first President Bush and key members of the current president’s administration, then working for Reagan, crafted and enacted secret foreign policies that defied the will of Congress—while collaborating with dictators and terrorists. Or the illegitimate purging, in the 2000 election, of 94,000 largely poor and minority voters from the Florida rolls. Recently, the same five Supreme Court justices who installed Bush prevailed by a single vote in upholding Tom DeLay’s midnight redistricting in Texas and Pennsylvania—where Republicans broke all conventional rules about redistricting only after a census, and instead gerrymandered as many Congressional seats as they could, just because they held the reins of power.
Whatever our party identifications or stands on particular issues—which, of course, will vary—we should be profoundly troubled by these developments. Since the United States was founded, neither major political party has exercised a monopoly on deceit, venality or political abuse. Dead people voted in Chicago. Lyndon Johnson closed an air base in a Congressional district that dared to vote against him. No administration since the World War I Palmer Raids, however, has so systematically attempted to silence its critics.
But just as a culture of silence is contagious, so is one of courage. And citizens are beginning to stand up and question—from Republican conservationists questioning Bush’s environmental policies, to career foreign service officers decrying the rift our unilateral actions are creating between us and the world, to cities across America challenging the USA PATRIOT Act.
The challenge now is to make the issue of bullying the central theme of the election, linking the intimidation of all questioners with the blind insularity that leads to debacles like Iraq. If we can do this, Bush will lose. As old-fashioned as it may sound, the demand that our political leaders play fair still resonates. And in a democracy, we should expect nothing less.