Waving the Bloody Shirt
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission
A funny — or maybe not-so-funny — thing happened to the Democratic Party on its way to what a lot of people thought would be an election in which at least one house of Congress would revert to Democratic control. The fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks occurred — and there was President Bush on TV virtually every day, making masterly speeches that all but came out and said, “If you elect Democrats, the terrorists win.” There Bush was, again and again, saying on September 6, “To win the war on terror, we must be able to detain, question, and, when appropriate, prosecute terrorists captured here in America, and on the battlefields around the world” — meaning, in context, that we can no longer afford to allow niggling little nit-picking about Constitutional rights and due process to get in the way; we have to be able to hold so-called “terror suspects” indefinitely and either not try them at all or put them before special military tribunals where they won’t be allowed legal representation, to confront the witnesses against them or even know the information on which they’re being charged.
Earlier in the year, when Democrats in Congress hailed the U.S. Supreme Court decision demanding that the detainees at Guantánamo be tried under due-process rights and denounced the Bush administration programs to wiretap at will and monitor the telephone calls of all Americans looking for so-called “patterns” that might indicate terrorists, Bush’s principal political strategist, Karl Rove, said, “Bring it on.” Rove was supremely confident that he and his boss have done such a great job of keeping the people afraid of new acts of terrorism — and convinced that only the authoritarian policies of the Bush administration can keep the U.S. from being hit by terrorists again — that any attempt on the part of Democrats to make the conduct of the “war on terrorism” an issue would backfire against them and help the Republicans.
On September 21, the Los Angeles Times published the results of a poll it co-sponsored with the Bloomberg network that proved that Bush and Rove were right. “President Bush’s approval rating has reached its highest level since January, helping to boost the Republican Party’s image across a range of domestic and national-security issues just seven weeks before this year’s midterm election,” Ronald Brownstein’s story on the poll results began. “Democrats hold a lead in the poll, 49 percent to 39 percent, when registered voters are asked which party they intend to support for Congress this year. But that advantage may rest on softening ground; on virtually every comparison between the parties measured in the survey, Republicans have improved their position since early summer. In particular, Republicans have nearly doubled their advantage when voters are asked which party they trust most to protect the nation against terrorism.”
In the poll, 49 percent of the respondents said they thought the Republicans would be better than the Democrats at “national security/war on terrorism” versus 32 percent who thought the Democrats would be better — and if that result holds on November 7 the Democrats might just as well stay home. The Republicans were able to make historically unprecedented gains in the 2002 midterm elections and increase their Congressional majorities in 2004 partly by creating social “wedge issues” like same-sex marriage that split African-Americans and other socially conservative people of color away from the Democrats, but mainly by making the “war on terror” the Issue of Issues, the one that separates the political men from the boys — or girls.
The Republicans have done this sort of thing many times before. Beginning in the 1866 midterm campaign, they engaged in a campaign tactic that came to be called “waving the bloody shirt.” Over and over again, Republican orators reminded voters of which party had tried to appease the South and preserve and expand slavery — and which party had forcefully resisted the South and won the Civil War. “Waving the bloody shirt” enabled the Republicans to win the next four Presidential elections after Lincoln’s assassination — even though the first postwar President they elected, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, ran the most corrupt administration the U.S. had seen to that time and essentially sold policy to the highest corporate bidder. Even as voters’ memories of the Civil War faded, the political machine the Republicans had built up by “waving the bloody shirt” enabled them to dominate American politics until the Depression, when the failure of “trickle-down” economic policies benefiting the rich became obvious for all to see.
While the Democrats got to do a bit of their own bloody-shirt waving during World War II — reminding voters of which party had wanted to challenge Hitler and the Axis and which party had provided most of the isolationists — the Republicans seized the tactic back and used it with a vengeance throughout the 1950’s. This time the “bloody shirt” was the threat of Communism in general and the accusation that the Democrats had “lost China,” and therefore were responsible for the millions murdered under Mao’s repressive regime, in particular. Under anti-Communist hawk Presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, the Democrats were able to neutralize the “bloody shirt” a bit by proclaiming their own “toughness on Communism” — resulting in the debacle of Viet Nam and the Republicans’ retaking the “national security” issue and the domination of American politics from such seemingly hapless Democrats as McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis and Clinton.
When al-Qaeda’s hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Republican Party got the biggest, bloodiest, reddest shirt they’d had to wave since the Civil War — and they’ve made full use of it. An entire Republican infrastructure of communication aimed way beyond what we usually think of as “politics” — a network of churches spewing forth Republican propaganda from the pulpit every Sunday (while the Internal Revenue Service ignores them and instead goes after a peace-oriented Left-leaning congregation in Riverside and threatens them with loss of their tax exemption), talk radio stations broadcasting Republican propaganda 24/7, and a largely successful effort to bend the mainstream corporate media in a more Right-wing direction — projects the message again and again that Republicans are Menschen and Democrats are wimps; Republicans will keep you safe and Democrats will appease the terrorists; 9/11 was Clinton’s fault, not Bush’s; there won’t be any successful terrorist attacks on the U.S. if the Republicans stay in power but there will be if the Democrats take over.
The Republicans have far more going for them than the “bloody shirt” of 9/11 and a communications infrastructure the Democrats can’t even begin to rival. (The pathetic attempt at a “liberal” talk-radio network, Air America, is so broke it can’t even afford to pay its star broadcaster, Al Franken.) They’ve already taken power in so many state legislatures — where the lines of Congressional districts are drawn — that they’ve been able to use modern remapping software to draw districts meticulously crafted to elect as many Republicans as possible. The Republican National Committee has a program nicknamed “Voter Vault” that can actually target voters as individuals and research otherwise Democratic-leaning voters for the one piece of information about them that will give the Republicans a chance to win them over — like the mailing the GOP just sent to snowmobile owners in Michigan to persuade them that incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow is an “environmental extremist” who’s going to block them from using their snowmobiles. Not only have the Democrats barely even begun to create anything similar, the information that fuels Voter Vault comes from databases created by private corporations — and there’s nothing to stop them from selling this information to Republicans while denying it to Democrats.
The Republicans also have one other key advantage: they control the actual process of counting votes. All computer equipment and programs used in U.S. elections is made by three companies, all of whose CEO’s are heavy donors to the Republican party and its candidates. Elections in America are run on a state-by-state basis, and many decisions like how many polling places to open in which neighborhoods are made by partisan secretaries of state — and we’ve seen from the records of Katherine Harris in Florida in 2000 and Ken Blackwell in Ohio in 2004 how a secretary of state willing to bend his or her decisions in a direction that favors voters in Republican-leaning areas and handicaps voters in Democrat-leaning areas can, if not determine an outcome, at least twist it enough to support the Republicans’ bloody shirts, wedge issues and Voter Vaults and help them to victory.
But the biggest advantage the Republicans have over the Democrats is that Republicans are a vertebrate life form and Democrats aren’t. Republicans have the courage of bad convictions while Democrats seem to pride themselves on not having any convictions at all. Republicans protect, service and coddle their base, while Democrats continually bash theirs — from racist attacks on African-American cultural figures to passing “free-trade” treaties that destroy American jobs and undermine what’s left of the private-sector labor movement. Republican strategists win by reaching out to their base and getting their partisans excited about voting for them; Democrats continually reach for the will-o’-the-wisp of “swing voters” — and keep losing.
In a way, the 2006 elections are a win-win situation for the Republicans. If the Democrats do eke out a bare majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans will have them available as a ready-made scapegoat for their own failures. If the Democrats can’t parlay the abysmal record of Bush’s incompetence — Iraq, Katrina, the attempt to privatize Social Security in the guise of “reform,” a prescription drug plan that has enriched the pharmaceutical companies at the expense of the federal government and America’s senior citizens, and so on — into at least a House majority, their credibility as an opposition party will be smashed for decades to come and the “bloody shirt” of 9/11 will wave over Washington, D.C. for the rest of our lives.