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John McCain’s condescending reference to Barack Obama in the second debate as “that one” represents more than just a minor gaffe, or an insensitivity on the part of the Republican candidate. The comment, originally made in reference to Obama’s voting record in the Senate, is actually representative of a larger, disturbing trend in Republican politics today. The party has grown increasingly more conservative in recent decades, to the point today where its authoritarian undertones are barely concealed. McCain’s dehumanization of Obama in the debates is the most poignant, although far from the only example of this trend. Apparently, John McCain sees the Democratic presidential candidate as not worth addressing by name. While McCain downgraded Obama’s status to the subhuman “other” in the second debate, he refused to even acknowledge Obama’s presence in their first meeting. This should strike viewers as quite disturbing, considering that the whole point of a debate is for each candidate to directly engage the other’s issues and stances.
Increasingly, right-wing conservatives and Republican political leaders are issuing dire warnings to the American public that they – and only they – are the legitimate rulers of the United States and the world. This basic contempt for anything but one-party rule is manifested in a number of dire threats repeated by the party, with its members promising the end of Western civilization as we know it if they lose their dominant status in government. A review of Conservative and Republican contempt for bi-partisan politics is in order:
– On the culture war front, Republicans and conservatives have been unrelenting in their religious fanaticism and racism. Residents of West Virginia and Arkansas have received mailings directly from the Republican National Committee warning that liberals will ban the bible if they have the opportunity. On the national level, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Pallin warns of Barack Obama’s alleged support for domestic terrorism (citing his ties with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, whom Obama repeatedly condemned for his violent activities). Fox News has run claims that Obama was educated in a radical Islamist school in Indonesia, despite the fact that the story was extensively debunked by CNN. The Republican Party and conservatives even go on the offensive against Barack Obama’s allegedly fundamentalist name. They repeat the full name over and over, shamelessly and with a sort of racist pride. Presumably, simply being named Barack Hussein Obama is enough to prove you’re a terrorist, Muslim, fanatic, or all of the above (little distinction is made between these, sadly).
– Right-wing pundits, echoed by major conservative political leaders, have warned that a victory for Barack Obama will be a victory for Islam, radical terrorism, and anti-Americanism. Right-wing radio pundits such as Michael Medved warn that a vote for the Democratic Party is essentially a vote for Osama bin Laden. McCain and others repeat the claim that withdrawal from Iraq is tantamount to surrender to Al Qaeda. As the logic (or illogic) of this argument goes, since Democrats favor de-escalation in Iraq, and since Republicans are fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, Democrats must be anti-American and in favor of terrorism since they oppose this necessary war. Obviously, such claims suffer from a basic lack of evidence, considering that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups were not operating in Iraq until after Bush invaded Iraq, and since reports have actually shown that the U.S. torture and illegal detainment of Muslims at Guantanamo has actually contributed to their radicalization and their support for Islamist terrorism, rather than preventing such a threat. Studies throughout the Middle East also find that the occupation is radicalizing the region’s people against the United States. The American occupation is seen as the primary source of destruction in Iraq, rather than the “insurgency” or Al Qaeda (which is only a miniscule part of the resistance to the U.S.).
– Conservative legal officials have essentially declared war on the Democratic Party, not for violating the law, but due to their own ideological prejudices. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was recently exposed for allowing politically motivated prosecutions against prominent Democratic political officials. One statistical study from the University of Missouri showed that the Justice Department had systematically engaged in “political profiling” against Democrats, including figures such as Alabaman Governor Don Siegelman. Federal prosecutors had essentially dropped the case against Siegelman in 2004 (due to a lack of evidence against him), when they were instructed by the Justice Department to proceed with bribery and fraud charges regardless. As one Justice Department attorney said to one of the lawyers representing a Democrat who had been charged: “I know your client thinks he’s innocent. He’s offered to take a lie detector test. I’m not interested in that. In fact, I’m sure he’d pass the test. And in fact I don’t have the evidence to make out my case. No matter. I just plan to throw shit at the wall and sit back and watch as some of it drops on him. We’ll get him.”
None of these right-wing hit jobs or smear tactics should strike voters as merely “more of the same” negative politicking in an election season. On major issues, Barack Obama has bent over backwards in his emphasis on the importance of bi-partisanship, cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, and the need for an end to negative campaigning. Obama and Biden, while making many critical statements of John McCain and Sarah Palin, have generally remained respectful and even tried to draw some comparisons between themselves and their Republican competitors. They’ve spoken of their deep respect and affinity for John McCain as a military man, and even voiced their support for the Republican’s “surge” as succeeding in decreasing violence in Iraq.
The Democrats’ attempt to appeal across party lines has clearly not been the preferred tactic of the Republican Party. Angry over their likely loss of power in the upcoming election, they have become increasingly desperate in their attacks on the Democrats and the legitimacy of the two party state. This is particularly disturbing at a time when it is becoming harder and harder to discern concrete or substantive differences in the economic policies of the two parties. In reality, Obama and Biden’s vague references to “regulation” don’t amount to a whole lot when they fail to follow them up with actual policy proposals. That these Democrats are demonized by Republicans as sub-human, dangerous, or terrorist is more a sign of the growing extremism of conservatives than of the moral weakness or treachery of the Democrats. The Democratic Party today may be morally bankrupt, spineless, and bland, but none of those are anywhere near as dangerous as the Republican Party’s fundamentalist contempt for multi-party elections and bi-partisan politics.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches Politics of the Developing World and American Government at Illinois State University. His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the “War on Terror” will be released in paperback this December. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org