Today’s Democrats do not realize the extent to which the Republican Party, and the media machine that it so expertly operates, have transformed politically emotional energy into pure, purposeful political power. They do not realize that issues no longer count for much in the new reality of American politics. Emotions, and the identification and manipulation of specific political emotions, count for a lot.
The Modern Republican Party does realize all this. Indeed, modern Republican leaders have created a new reality. Specific issues, and specific words, are to a great extent only vehicles consciously chosen by Republican leaders to drive the political emotions of American voters. In many cases, political emotions do much of the “thinking” for voters in what’s left of the American democracy.
How did the founders and leaders of the Modern Republican Party (MRP) create this reality? Perhaps alchemy can offer a clue. Alchemy, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, is the process of transmuting dross (primitive emotions like fear and tribal belonging) into gold (electoral and cultural dominance).
The first emotion that MRP leaders decided to manipulate and transmute was racial animosity. MRP alchemist leaders formulated the so-called Southern Strategy, a strategy that targets voting rights, entitlements, and other racially-charged features of American life.
A second emotion that MRP alchemists decided to manipulate was patriotism of an especially charged sort, what I term fire-powered patriotism. In the 1960s, early leaders of the Modern Republican Party began to wear American flag lapel pins as a visible sign of their loyalty to God and country. Now we have Democrats like President Obama who go everywhere with their own flag lapel pins, tiny shields to deflect Republican charges that they do not sufficiently love America.
Which brings me to a third emotion, unbending religious certainty. MRP leaders preach a severely limited and rigid form of religious certainty, certainty based on prohibitions against specific behaviors that the MRP sells as religious righteousness.
Combining the three emotions of racial animosity, fire-powered patriotism, and rigid religious certainty, the Modern Republican Party has completely transformed American politics, so much so that Democrats have themselves adopted many of the policies of the MRP. The result has been the visible decline of democracy in the United States, as politics is more and more the identification and manipulation of political emotions, rather than participation in imperfect, but fundamentally rational, discussions about how to identify and resolve the problems that exist in the American democracy.
As a catalyst that accelerates the power of these three emotions, the modern media machine has been especially useful to Republicans. The modern media machine has transmuted an inexperienced, not very bright, former Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, into a political sage who is widely respected today by conservatives across America. It transmuted President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky into a constitutional crisis every bit as insidious as Richard Nixon’s massive disregard of law and order during the Watergate years.
As a transmuting agent, the modern media machine has also served to transform and transmit the meaning of words, turning them into packets of negative verbal energy. “War on terror,” “cut taxes,” “family values,” “law and order,” and many others, appear to be reasonable words. Their purpose is not to stimulate reasonable thought, but rather emotional energy, energy that creates a permanent state of war in many minds that hear “war on terror,” energy that supports a permanent state of reduction of services to the poor in many minds that hear “cut taxes,” energy that creates two groups of Americans, “them” and “us,” in many minds that hear the words “silent majority.”
Leaders of the Modern Republican Party realize that the “news” produced by the Modern Media Machine can transform elections by stimulating emotions. The hysteria surrounding the Benghazi embassy is designed to weaken Hillary Clinton in 2016. The story of Elian Gonzalez in the presidential election year of 2000 was designed to win over the Cuban community in Florida, thereby ensuring George W. Bush’s election as president. It is not hard to imagine how Republican media manipulators would have transmuted the story of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, if Al Gore had been president. The true story of a (possibly) preventable attack by maniacal criminals would have been transmuted into a Hell of incompetence and irresponsibility, perhaps even treason, blamed on insufficiently patriotic and less-than-god-fearing Democrats.
To recap, Republicans have channeled the emotional energy in racial animosity, fire-powered patriotism, and unbending religiosity, and have used the energy to convince many voters that Democrats are entitlement-friendly, America-hating, and godless. They have operated the modern media machine so that it has created false realities and false equivalencies (Clinton’s crime was worse than Nixon’s; Benghazi is Hillary Clinton’s 9/11). And how have Democrats responded? With incomprehension.
To understand this, we need to turn from the world of alchemy to that of music. Much like sophisticated people of the eighteenth century who deeply appreciated the music of Mozart, but who would have no conception of how to appreciate the music of Stravinsky, Democrats are lost when listening to Republican political compositions. So what do they typically do? They try to create their own Stravinsky-like music, without understanding the essential changes that occurred in the time between the creative lives of Mozart and Stravinsky. Lacking the emotional fire of the Modern Republican Party, and having set aside their own tradition of progress, Democrats have tried to imitate Republican political music, and have watched their efforts fall flat.
To return to alchemy, the MRP’s transmutation of emotional dross into political gold is continuing. Will the Modern Republican Party be able to finish the process that medieval alchemists failed to finish, and turn dross into gold? Or will the American democracy be able to set itself upright once again, and create political harmony and political progress?
The answer is dangerously, discordantly, murky.
Matthew Jacobson is a lifelong student of the history of American politics.
14 thoughts on “Republican Political Alchemy and the Disappearing Democratic Party”
Reblogged this on Vox Populi.
The author identifies three doctrinal absolutes the GOP espouses with the same absolute certainty as religious absolutes, and at least for the time being (if not permanently) this social/political dogma is similarly powerful to religious dogma, just shorter lived. It is maddening to combat.
I suggest applying one of the most powerful and easily demonstrated counterarguments to political doctrine as ever conceived against religious doctrine: the Euthyphro Dilemma.
Is a policy position correct, and therefore appropriate, because of its inherent correspondence to reality, or is it correct because authority sources confidently proclaim it so? Can positive assertions for such policy positions be demonstrated beyond circular reasoning? Give examples.
The Democratic Party has succeeded in turning gold into dross by giving us a presidential liar who promised “Hope and Change” and gave us hopelessness and changelessness. And before this disaster giving us a president who gutted Glass Steagall and made “triangulation” the immoral code of success for the Democratic Party. Between these two they have succeeded in gutting the country’s economy and undermining the moral basis of the Democratic Party.
We are so far down the road of an expansionist , fascist, corporate ruled state with this kind of thinking that digging out of this quagmire is only leading us into social unrest and a long period of regaining a moral political compass.
The moral: Wining isn’t everything it’s how you get there that is important. That’s a hard sell in a country that is obsessed with the ‘home” team always winning.
Well put. After Jimmy Carter’s defeat and the dominance of the Republican Party in the 1980s (Reagan and George H.W. Bush), candidates like Clinton concluded they had to be Republican-lite in order to win. So they abandoned all that “liberal” stuff (concerns about working-class Americans, supporting unions, reining in corporate malfeasance, a smaller defense budget and the shrinkage of the American Empire, and so on) and embraced the opposite. They “won,” only to see Republicans shift ever more rightwards in response.
Having had some of their issues co-opted by Dems like Clinton, the Republicans doubled down on emotions — patriotism, God and country, as well as “the government is your enemy because it taxes you and gives your money to lazy people” (of color, left unsaid but implied). And it worked for Bush/Cheney.
Now we have Obama, basically a pragmatist who favors military interventions and wars, refuses to take the side of the working class (empty rhetoric aside), whose administration is pro-business, pro-banking, pro-authority, pro-oil, pro-status quo.
Remind me: What have the Dems won exactly?
They won the Presidency twice and turned their backs on the “people”. And now they have the “chutzpah” to try to crown another Clinton. God bless America, we need it.
bill.. I wouldn’t describe Obama as a “pragmatist”. I would rather describe him as a rank opportunist with little moral compass. If he were truly a pragmatist he would see that all of his past international decisions have led to disasters and death and he would have become a “pragmatist” on dealing with the current ISIS situation and his self created Ukrainian problem..
Not much to argue with in the original article, though there is some quibbling to be done. First, I’ll say that admirers of Sarah Palin are more morons than “conservatives.” Boobs attracted by a fairly attractive (physically) boob. (No, this is NOT an anatomical reference!) A prime example of emotion over intellect, I guess. It’s always a bright spot in the news for me when one of these self-proclaimed “christians” gets knocked off his/her pedestal when some outrageous private activity–drunken brawl, extra-marital affairs, financial malfeasance–comes to light! Concerning the 2000 elections, the “Little Havana” community in Florida was already solidly in the GOP’s pocket, had been for years. What won the White House for Dubya was gross misconduct by state officials, leading to appointment of POTUS by a one-vote majority of SCOTUS. Quite unprecedented. Now, the funny thing (this is humor that turns one’s stomach, though) about the Dems going the “Republican-lite” route is that it hasn’t really worked. Obama’s first campaign wasn’t flamingly progressive, but it certainly didn’t require the flag-waving “patriotic” BS we get from him now. Obama is final proof that there is no longer a “lesser evil” to vote for. I found the opinion poll released over the weekend fascinating: 62% approval for Obama’s approach to “the Islamic State”–that is, bomb, bomb and bomb some more–and yet 68% believe the policy will FAIL! Senator Lindsey Graham chimed in yesterday that the policy surely will fail. So, again, GOP must be calling Obama “weak on defense”?
With bin-Laden a-moldering at the bottom of the deep blue sea, IS came along very conveniently to be the new Public Enemy Number One to “justify” continuing application of military force as the only approach the US can muster to the world’s trouble spots. Hell, make that Public Fiend Number One! The MSM are all-in on the campaign of vilification. Conspiracy Theorists must find all this frightfully convenient for the generals and admirals over at the Pentagon. (The US set bin-Laden up in business in Afghanistan; who’s really behind the IS?) Fortunately for you, readers, I am NOT a Conspiracy Theorist. Of course I condemn these beheadings, but I will continue to also condemn the gross human rights violations of the US War Machine (that is, government). Oh, have you heard the latest? The Thought Police are gearing up. Per NPR News just today, the authorities will start trying to figure out in advance what US citizens might be prone to being won over to the IS. A brand of psychological/emotional profiling, I guess. No indication yet whether these suspects will be prone to assassination by drone with Obama’s signature. At what point will this crude “guilt-in-advance-by-alleged-association” be applied to political dissidents here in the US? I feel we’re quite close already. Will the 2016 presidential race be between a flat-out Fascist and a Fascist-lite? Oh boy, something to really look forward to!
Sort of like the film “Minority Report” and the idea of pre-crime. Let’s judge ahead of time if someone is prone to join IS, and sweep him up before he’s joined on the charge of thinking about maybe joining. Incipient terrorism! Thought-crime, indeed.
Bill Astore–Yes, “Minority Report” came to mind but I didn’t bother referencing it. But instead of psychics floating in warm baths (!!), I assume the geniuses at Homeland Security will concoct a computer program to examine people’s Internet comments, travel patterns, ethnic backgrounds (shocking notion, I know!!), with whom they might be linked (mosque attendance? membership in “radical” groups?) for guilt by association, etc. When they’re finished examining their “prime suspects” (or “pre-suspects”!) perhaps they’ll unleash the profiling program on absolutely every inhabitant of the US on whom they can obtain data. Is this notion the product of a febrile paranoid mind? Not at all!! I guarantee you this is the direction this nation is moving in. And to return to the theme of the original post, it won’t matter one damned bit whether the occupant of the White House calls him-/herself a Dem or a Republican. You know those few “weird” folks who eschew having anything to do with computers, smartphones, the Internet? They will be the survivors of the coming purges…at least initially!
“Or will the American democracy be able to set itself upright once again, and create political harmony and political progress?”
That prospect doesn’t look too good right now, and it’s running out of time.
“The Ukrainian people, suffering the massive effects of propaganda which makes extensive use of Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques, are significantly zombified, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, black from white.” — (Colonel) Igor Strelkov briefing 09/11/2014
“It’s not what you say, it’s what other people hear.” — Dr. Frank Luntz, Words that Work (2007)
“We are a symbol-using class of life, and those who rule the symbols rule us.” Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)
“Both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations — for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.” Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief” (Popular Science Monthly 12, November 1877)
What Colonel Strelkov says of Ukrainians — most likely those in the Western part of the country misgoverned by the US/EU sponsored neo-Nazi junta — applies to zombified and misgoverned Americans, as well. Corporate practitioners of zombification, like Dr. Frank Luntz (hired-gun word-magician for the Republican Party), certainly understand their Neuro-Linguistic Programming techniques, if not the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski from which they derive. However, I prefer the concepts of “Doubt” and “Belief” as advanced by C.S. Peirce in his classic essay, where in the former case, we have the person in genuine doubt scratching the itch of uncertainty by trying to think his way through a real problem; while in the case of neurologically habituated belief, we have the reflexive drool of the “believer” who has heard the word “peach” — or “death tax” — and physically reacts as if he had actually smelled the fruit or “died” because a few wealthy oligarchs had to pay their long deferred taxes. I once read of a Tibetan Buddhist monk describing this sort of behavior as “running away, screaming, from a picture of a snake.” The widespread human inability to distinguish reality from symbolic reference does indeed give the rulers just the lever they need to move the masses in any desired direction.
As for the so-called “Democrats,” they just want some of that Oligarch Money, too. I don’t think that one can say much more about them than that.
Thanks for another brilliant post, Mike! Though I’m rather well read, I hadn’t encountered these quotations prior to this. “…[T]hose who rule the symbols rule us” indeed. (Except for the very small minority in society, like us–pardon my lack of humility–who can see through their tricks.) And once again I remind all that Marx pointed out that “The ideas of the ruling class are the dominant ideas of society.” “…[T]he smell of a peach will make the mouth water.” This pre-dated Pavlov’s work, yes? There’s no doubt that Americans have been thoroughly trained to react without thought to pro-war stimuli.
Zen doesn’t appeal to me all that much but I have made a cursory examination of it. My favorite story (I think I got it from Alan W. Watts) is of the monk who went to his master’s chamber to be evaluated. Upon being informed he wasn’t a very good student, he placed his shoes on top of his head and ran, screaming loudly, from the master’s room. Upon which the master praised him for an excellent Zen response!! How I wish this nation, upon being informed by a Commander-in-Chief that yet another war escalation is necessary, would collectively place its shoes on its head and run from the C-in-C’s presence!
Your mention of Zen and Alan Watts puts me in mind of the meditation master’s classic admonition to the neophyte practitioner of self-conscious thinking: “Whatever you do, you must not think of monkeys.”
I always associate that timeless adage with something I read in Introducing NLP: Pschological Skills for Understanding and Influencing People (1995), by Joseph O’Connor & John Seymour:
“Negatives exist only in language, not experience. Negative commands work just like positive commands. The unconscious mind does not process the linguistic negative and simply disregards it. A parent or teacher who tells a child not to do something is ensuring that the child will do it again. Tell a tightrope walker, ‘Be careful!’ not ‘Don’t slip!’ … What you resist persists because it still has your attention.”
Both of these observations came to me as I watched the English subtitles roll by during a video of Igor Strelkov’s news briefing in Moscow. His offhand mention of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (or NLP) methods employed by Ukrainian junta propagandists — funded and directed by the US and EU as a means of undermining Russia — caused me upgrade my estimation of the general educational level of his Russian speaking audience. Of course, the country that produced Ivan Pavlov would probably have a better-than-average understanding of basic psychological science. I once would have thought the same thing of the country that produced B.F. Skinner and his researches into Operant Conditioning, but I now understand that only the Republican hired-gun word magicians like Frank Luntz got the message — and figured a way to turn a profit on it.
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