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Monday, December 19, 2005

On Image

I've been holding this post for a couple days because I just can't figure out a way to say this without sounding like an incredibly stupid master of the obvious and digging into my Hollywood roots in a way I am ordinarily loath to do, but I spent some time on the phone with Digby this morning to clarify what I was trying to say and finally screwed up my courage so here goes.

When Hollywood (or anybody else) develops a movie no matter how complex they know at heart they are always playing with powerful emotional archtetypes and familiar, basic narratives to tug at people's heart strings and engage them in a particular drama. It is not happenstance that it is his wife Bruce Willis is trying to rescue from the exploding skyscraper and not his accountant.

The GOP really seized its current high ground after 9/11 when they were able to take advantage of national outrage and capitalize on the fact that most Americans felt that their country was under attack. Painting themselves as the Party of Men, George Bush preened in his flight suit and cod piece, called himself a "war president," and used simple, aggressive language to convince the country he was the man to preserve our security. His popularity soared.

When the village is under attack you send in the men; tales of Boadicea and Ripley notwithstanding, this is a fundamental construct of our dramatic culture that appeals to the reptilian brain and causes people to put aside rational thought that might lead them to other conclusions.

In the 2004 election John Kerry would be painted as a girlie man by the GOP, a "flip flopper," soft and feminine and flaccid and not at all capable of leading the troops into battle to defend the village. A pretty amazing PR feat considering the fact that Kerry actually was in the military, as opposed to Bush who spent his days in the Texas Air National Guard snorting coke off of some Texas stripper's rock-solid ass, but such is the power of a skillfully manipulated media. The Democrats were the party of women, and Karl Rove himself said they wanted to coddle the terrorists and give them therapy.

This was no accident either.

And the Democrats unwittingly played into this. Nobody wanted to be perceived as soft on terror, no siree, even though anybody with two IQ points knew that the reasons for going to war with Iraq had been ginned up by a bunch of crackpot imperialistic con men. Almost every Democratic leader tore at one another in a mad scramble for the center as they sought to be Tough On Terror. And it backfired. The Republicans already have that piece of emotional real estate, it is not up for grabs. The Democrats who voted for this phony war only succeeded in rubber stamping GOP bullshit.

The Joe Bidens of the world think they appear strong and manly for such stances, but they only wind up looking like battered wives who bat their eyelashes and blow kisses at the men who continue to whallop them. And when someone really stands up to the bullying Republicans like Howard Dean did when he said they were the white, Christian party and Tom DeLay belonged in jail, the thoroughly useless Bidens and Bill Richardsons and Nancy Pelosis and Barak Obamas (yes, I said it) make Republican critique superfluous as they come out and discipline him themselves.

Do they understand how bad this makes them look? They don't look centrist and reasonable, they look like a bunch of Phyllis Schlaflys beating down her own so others won't have to. I can't tell you how much that one still rankles. You don't bash your own brand you fucking morons.

The construction a counter-narrative to the highly successful GOP war drama is extremely tricky. The Republicans evolved their current brand image not only by tapping into white male rage, but by playing on very powerful strains within the American psyche. "America right or wrong" and "might makes right" and "love it or leave it" play very well with the post 9/11 public. Even though the war has turned into a fiasco, the underlying story -- of Men going off to fight to defend the village from its enemies -- is very difficult to deconstruct. And to do so, the Democrats must find an equally powerful, equally limbic emotional narrative that will trump the one that the GOP has fobbed off on the public.

To wit -- the village is on fire. It's time to come home.

Basically, the Republicans got caught in a PR trap when there turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction. They had to shift into talk about Sadaam's torture chambers, but that was quite dangerous because the American public doesn't really give a shit about stuff like that when it happens in countries like Rwanda or Sierra Leone. What they were being offered at that point was an excuse for having supported the war, because nobody in the public wants to admit that they were wrong, either. But excuses last only so long, and that's why Dick Cheney will continue to talk about ties between Al Quaeda and Sadaam every time he opens his mouth. No, he's not stupid. True or not, it offers a powerful morality play to people who want to buy into it. And he knows the other side has nothing better.

Even though Katrina and other recent events offered the Democrats the perfect opportunity to say "the village is on fire," it's still hard to put that across in a way that will not be countered by the message machine of the right as sounding negative and down on America. But the fact is the village is on fire, and people are awakening to that fact. It's time to seize the "Republicans are crooks and bullies" meme, invest in some long term strategies and become a meaningful opposition party. It's the third act, Ma's fed up because the thieves are stealing her crops and she can't feed the kids, the audience is emotionally ready for her to grab the shotgun and run 'em all off so Pa will have something to come home to.

It's incredibly hoakey but it's a quite fundamental dramatic truth and until the Democrats like Joe Biden stop licking David Brooks's boots on national TV and competing for the title of Biggest Pussyman in the Democratic Party (yes I said that too, and I mean it) there will be no effective challenge to the GOP tyranny we now live under. Russ Feingold is looking awfully strong right now for having voted against the Patriot Act. The Democrats would do well to remember that and stop reaching for Dubya's prop codpiece.