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Demogoguery and the politics of cultural despair

October 10, 2008

The language that the McCain-Palin pair are using in their attempts to whip up end-game support for their party is genuinely abhorrent and even down-right scary.  It’s based on vilification of their rival, character assassination, and endless repetition of false or misleading allegations.  But even worse, it’s pretty clearly founded on an attempt to whip up the potent emotions of hatred and anger in their followers — portraying Obama as “other”, disloyal, and unworthy.  (See this story in the Washington Post on the politics of anger that the campaign is relying on, and here’s a report from the New York Times on one of Palin’s rallies in Forida.)  And it’s not too hard to see an appeal to an underlying racism in these efforts — for example, in the reactions of crowds in Clearwater and Fort Myers, Florida, to inflamed remarks by Sarah Palin.

This is genuinely disreputable and fundamentally anti-democratic.  In my opinion, anyway, a democracy depends upon a genuine commitment to the bounds of civility in political rhetoric; and this campaign by Palin and McCain has broken those bounds fundamentally.  Where is the McCain who has so often claimed to be “above” these sorts of scurrilous attacks on an opponent?  Why does McCain tolerate this dangerous and anti-democratic language?  Presumably, because winning an election at whatever cost is more important than any sense of moral outrage or limit.

So why is this turn in the campaign — this self-avowed plan to “take the gloves off” — why is this desperate attempt to whip up “core” support through appeal to the basest of political emotions “scary”? Because it sounds an awful lot like the prelude to some pretty terrible and violent episodes in world history.  We’ve heard this kind of language and strategy before — in Germany, in Italy, in Serbia, and in Kenya.  Playing to the base emotions of hatred and racial mistrust has been the strategy of opportunistic politicians in many countries, including Rwanda.  It often works to some degree — it is possible to mobilize an intense following using this kind of appeal.  And it is truly despicable within a democracy.

Enough, Mr. McCain!  None of us in America wants this kind of hatred and divisiveness in our politics.  Let’s debate the issues — and not base your campaign on demeaning, disrespectful, and hateful slurs against your opponent.

(The caption here refers to a classic book by Fritz Stern on the rise of German fascism, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology.)

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