As far as moral issues are concerned, it is important to make the Republicans’ implicit appeals to authoritarian concerns about difference into explicit appeals. In her book about the 1988 presidential campaign, The Race Card, Tali Mendelberg showed that implicit racial appeals like the Willie Horton advertisement were effective. Had Republicans made explicit appeals to racial prejudice, however, they would have failed, because we live in an era where a norm of racial equality prevails and very few people want to see themselves as racists. In fact, once Jesse Jackson made the Republicans’ implicit appeals to racial resentment explicit, Mendelberg argued, the tide of the election began to turn, though by then it was too late.
We argue that a similar strategy is worthy of consideration here. We live in an era where, generally speaking, norms of tolerance and opposition to bigotry prevail. Evidence for this norm has been clear in President Bush’s speeches. After 9/11, for instance, tolerance of religious differences featured prominently in his rhetoric. On a more subtle note, a favored Bush phrase over the past two years, in chiding liberals on standards and educational reform, has been “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s understood that tolerance is good, as a rule, and bigotry is bad.
Republicans have avoided being tagged with these negative labels because Democrats haven’t called them on it in any global way. When Republicans raise the issue of gay marriage, they raise it as a matter of defending the family and the social order. Perhaps Democrats could get traction by arguing that such appeals, at bottom, are rooted in bigotry and social divisiveness. The goal here would not be to paint with the brush of bigotry and intolerance every voter who opposes gay marriage. Rather, it would challenge as bigots those individuals who repeatedly make an issue of it. If Rick Santorum can call gay relationships the effective equivalent of bigamy and bestiality, then why not argue that Santorum’s real quarry isn’t defending marriage, but instead, fomenting hatred and intolerance more generally. Making explicit what has been allowed to remain implicit in the intolerance, fear and deep-seated pessimism under-girding the authoritarian worldview might change the terms of debate, forcing Republicans to either defend their positions on these issues in more explicit terms — “we do fear difference, and won’t stand for it” — or backing off.
Here are some questions I use specifically to rebut the national security/adventurism charge.
- The US spends more on national defense than all the other countries combined. And yet, we are more afraid of foreign threats than anyone around. Albania spends practically nothing on military defense, yet they don’t have this level of paranoia. Can you explain why?
- Does a nation like North Korea have the right to launch a preemptive strike against the White House if it perceives its national interests at stake?
- Canada spends a fraction of its government budget on military expenditures, and yet they are well-regarded by many countries (including by many nations opposed to our own foreign policy). Can you explain why?
- Should the US have the right to go into sovereign nations and arrest foreigners if it wants? Do you think North Korea or China should have this same right?
- More than 3000 US soldiers have died so far in Iraq. If it were possible for you individually to prevent these deaths by paying a tax, how much would you be willing to pay?
- If the US wrongfully imprisons or kills an innocent civilian in a foreign military action, should it be required to pay the family some compensation? How much should they pay?
- Do you think Jesus would have personally approved of the bombing of Iraq?
- When Americans feel more afraid, which political party stands to benefit more? Why?
- We frequently chastise terrorists for killing innocent civilians, yet 9/10 of the casualties from recent American conflicts overseas have been innocent civilians. Doesn’t that give foreigners the right to equate our actions with that of the terrorists? Why or why not?
- Is defense spending a good investment of taxpayer money? How does it improve your individual life?