Now that trashing Bush on TV is de rigueur for GOP presidential wannabes, one might think that the right-wing rhetoric of fear and violence might fall by the wayside, too. Guess again.
Tuesday night's Republican "debate" on CNN was chock full of
attempts by the candidates to say "Jihadism" and "Jihadist" as much as
posible, often coupled with direct jabs at the competence of the Bush
administration and -- no big shocker,here -- at the credibility of the
And here we see the crux of the matter on this word shift:
Republicans are still working with campaign consultants pushing the
fear frame as best path to the victory in 2008, but they are
increasingly aware that looking and sounding like George W. Bush is a
one-way ticket to wikipedia obscurity, not the White House.
Given this dilemma, whatever is today's Machiavellian authoritarian with presidential ambitions to do?
Why...switch the debate on Iraq from a "war on" an evil tactic (
e.g., terrorism) to a "war on" an evil culture (e.g. Jihadism), of course!
Criticizing Bush Means "Weak" and "Treasonous"
How to run a campaign that uses the same fear frame
and also lashes out at George W. Bush for being an idiot is the
challenge for the Republican presidential candidate -- and not an
The difficulty lies in how the Republicans over
the past 7 years have framed any criticism of Bush's policies as a sign
of "weakness" or "treason."
But with polling that shows Bush will soon be less popular
lung cancer, any Republican who does not step up and speak out against
Bush will go down with the ship.
That is easy enough of a
challenge for single-issue snowball's-chance-in-Hell candidates like
Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and Jim Gilmore. All they have to do is voice
their contempt for Bush as happened on Tuesday.
But for the candidates polling in the top or even in the
middle of the pack, the challenge is not just to say why Bush is such a
flop, but say it in a way that brings on board the whole authoritarian
pack that might otherwise go into shock at the mere suggestion that
Bush did something wrong.
Bringing on the word "Jihad" allows for just that kind of
finesse because it picks up a widely accepted critique of Bush, while
at the same time pushing the debate into an entirely new logic. "We're
still at war," it says, "But now we know it's a war against ideology
and culture -- a clash of civilizations -- not just a war against a deadly
And this kind of turn to clash of civilizations actually does
more than solve the problem of pushing fear and dissing Bush. It
forges a strong tie between the top-tier Republican candidates and the
authoritarian intellectuals that make up the pundit class of the
This is because right-wing thinkers like Dinesh D'Souzah have
been arguing for some time now that the attacks on 9/11 were not in
fact part of a the "global war on terror," as Bush has been saying, but
part of the global culture war that the right fought so effectively
against Liberals since the 1980s.
Talking about "Jihadism" as the threat we face, opens the
flood gates for every Republican to say that "liberals and terrorists"
hate American culture and, subsequently, to claim as D'Souzah has that
Democrats should not be elected because they are more concerned about
the danger of the Republican party than the danger of Al Qaeda.
Shining a Light on the Tactic: Moving Beyond "Violence" In Public Debate The
challenge, then, for Democrats is not to get snookered by all the rapid
talk about "Jihadism," but to think big and keep framing the
debate in terms of "all-over-the-board" and "smart" foreign policy.
But beyond that technical aspect of the discussion -- the aspect
that answers the question, "How will we craft and run our
policies?" -- Democrats need to find a way to push the discussion to a
level that includes the broad idea of protecting the American "way of
What Democrats hold is a vision of America where the public square is
not dominated by talk of violence. As it stands,the Republican
election campaign tactics over the past 7 years have injected so much
talk of terrorism, Jihadism and nuclear destruction into the public
square that, with each passing day, our public debate becomes more and
more saturated with violence.
The grim irony of the past 7 years is that the worst actual violence in
decades happened on American soil on September 11, 2001, but our public
debate is far more dominated by talk and fear of violence today that it
has ever been.
By doing so,the Republicans have failed on a very fundamental level.
By choosing to use fear as a tool for winning elections, the
Republicans have poisoned public debate and brought on increasingly
Getting rid of corruption and incompetence when George W. Bush
leaves office will allow us as a nation to return to a smart foreign
policy, but unless we are willing to move past violent and fear-laced
rhetoric in our public debate, we face a rising tide of cynicism that
could rip this nation in two.
That is the bigger challenge that we all face--not only here in contemporary America, but also in Iraqi and in future generations as well.
And so Democrats, if they want to gain and keep control of the debate
on national security in this election, must be willing to frame their vision for a good
foreign policy in terms of the much broader logic of restoring public
discourse in America -- of turning back the rhetoric of violence
unleashed in wave after wave, every time a Republican runs for office
in a post-9/11 campaign.
What To Expect In Response
Response to this new attempt by Democrats to talk about eliminating
violence from public debate, will likely be met by Republican efforts
to say that liberals worry more about Republicans than they do about
To that, the response should be to finish the thought for them (my suggestion, here):
again, here we see the Republican doing whatever they can to push
violent rhetoric to win votes by making us fearful. America is tired
of this. We talk more about violence 7 years after the country was
attacked than we did on September 12. The Republicans simply refuse to
stop injecting violence and fear into public debate. The American
people are tired of it. We want a foreign policy that's smart and that
works so that we don't have to spend all our time talking about
violence, not -- as the Republicans believe -- so that we can spend all our
time tangled up in violent talk."
That, of course, is just one way to phrase the idea, but the larger
point is there. As Republican candidates try to switch the debate from
the "war on terror" to the "war on Jihadism," Democrats need to step up
and frame the discussion in terms of smart policy and a vision of
public debate made free again from constant talk of violence.
(cross posted from Frameshop)