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The Symbolic Politics of the Republicans

State of the Union or Civil War?

by PAUL A. PASSAVANT

The significant symbolic politics of the Republican response to President Obama’s 2010 state of the union address (SOTU) escaped comment except by Stephen Colbert who got it right.  The Republican response was delivered by the newly inaugurated Republican governor for the state of Virginia, Bob McDonnell.  The commentators on Fox news walked their viewers through what they were about to see, explaining that last year, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal gave an unsuccessful response to an Obama speech.  Illustrating the superior Republican sensitivity to aesthetics, Fox blamed Jindal’s shortcomings not on the Republican message, but on the staging of his speech.  According to Fox, the problem with Jindal’s speech is that, from the viewer’s perspective, he looked like he had just walked out of a closet before speaking.  The staging for Bob McDonnell’s speech would be much improved, delivered from the Virginia state legislature.  Therefore, it would look almost exactly like an official SOTU, except it would not be delivered by the actual—Democratic—president, Barrack Obama.  Instead, it would be delivered by McDonnell.

McDonnell delivered his response in the Virginia state legislature (isn’t this a misuse of government property?).  The hall was stocked with people serving as props, or background, for McDonnell, making it seem like this pretend SOTU was actually being delivered in front of legislators, like the real one.  President Obama delivered the SOTU standing behind a lectern.  McDonnell gave his fake SOTU standing behind a lectern.  On the front of President Obama’s lectern is the presidential seal.  On the front of McDonnell’s was also a seal, though it was the state of Virginia’s if you actually looked closely.  Otherwise, it just looked like a seal similar to Obama’s.  On “applause lines,” members of Congress would stand up and applaud.  Likewise, the people helping to stage the fake SOTU would applaud at McDonnell’s applause lines (and, Fox provided close-ups of appropriately photogenic members of the audience at key moments).  

Finally, and most disturbingly, is the significance of the venue for the Republican response to the SOTU—the legislature in Richmond, Virginia.  Richmond, of course, was the capital of the confederacy.  Although the significance of the locale was missed by the networks and the Democrats, it likely would not be missed by the core Republican constituency—southern whites.  For example, in 1980, Ronald Reagan chose to give his first major campaign speech as the Republican nominee in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Philadelphia, Mississippi is where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964 (the inspiration for the movie “Mississippi Burning”).  In the speech, Reagan trumpeted his support for “states’ rights,” and advocated a return to “local control” in front of a cheering crowd that did not miss his message of support for the earlier—violent—efforts to fight integration and use any means—force, if necessary—to defend racial segregation.  This speech was in keeping with the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy,” devised by Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips, to regain the White House by shifting the Republican base from the North to the South in order to capture whites disaffected from the Democratic party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Likewise, the decision to stage the Republican response to President Obama’s SOTU in Richmond, Virginia’s state legislature—after months of tea-baggers openly carrying arms at rallies organized by Fox to oppose health care or to places where Obama was to deliver a speech—sends a message that core Republican constituencies will not mistake.  It is a message of Civil War.

This message of Civil War is in keeping with the current Republican refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Democratic president, and, even more significantly, the first black president.  It is a refusal to recognize a right to rule, and the outcome of elections if the “winner” is not a Republican.  Political legitimacy in this world equals right wing Republican.  We saw this as Republicans and Fox’s right wing commentators described Bush opponents as terrorists who hate America—in other words, as the enemy.  We also saw this in the Republican decision to try to impeach President Clinton.  Impeachment is for a public wrong.  It is appropriate for the most exceptional circumstances—when the office holder presents such a threat to the state or public wellbeing that there is no time to wait for the next election.  The threat to the public welfare must be removed immediately because this person’s presence in public office constitutes an emergency justifying the most extreme response.  When the Republicans chose impeachment as their political weapon to be wielded against Clinton and the Democrats, it became clear that they no longer viewed the opposing party as the “loyal opposition.”  They viewed them as a threat to the state.  They had come to view the Democrats, and Clinton as the personification of the Democrats, as the enemy, and not as the opponent.

Many say that Republicans live in an alternative, parallel universe.  While this joke is amusing, it does not quite capture reality.  Two parallel lines never meet.  Republican fantasies, broadcast by Fox news, are not out of relation with the rest of us.  They are not totally out of relation with the world that the rest of us inhabit.  They are at war with us.  They relate to democratic policies antagonistically. Tea baggers and the radical right say they are at war.  We should believe what they say.  They are telling the truth of their convictions.

The symbolic politics of the Republican SOTU response were likely missed by Obama’s base of support—the youngest voter demographic, which is also the most politically ignorant according to surveys.  Yet, it was also, apparently, missed by liberals, moderates, independents, and Democrats of all stripes.

Are Democrats so conflict averse—if not self deceived—that the symbolic politics of the Republican SOTU response was also lost on them?  After a summer and fall of arms-bearing zealots rallying to oppose even the mere symbolism of health care put forward by the Democrats?  It seems that they repress the emerging political reality.

The symbolic politics of the Republican party, however, were not missed by the native South Carolinian, Stephen Colbert.  In Colbert’s satire of the Republican response, he referred to the black president, and the white president. He noted that the Virginia state legislature had not been a forum for a fake white president since Jefferson Davis had spoken there. As we can see, the emerging political reality does disturb us, even if we try to keep our distance from it.  Instead, the emerging political reality manifests upon our collective consciousness in displaced form—in the forum of a comedy show by the fake newscaster Stephen Colbert.  It is funny there.  Otherwise, its significance is very scary indeed: it disturbs and disinters the deepest American political traumas.  Democrats think we are dealing with “Civil War.”  What if we are really faced with a return of the repressed?  What if, instead, in our contemporary politics, we are actually dealing with Civil War?

PAUL A. PASSAVANT is Chair, Department of Political Science
At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY. He can be reached at PASSAVANT@hws.edu