Cookie-cutter politics

By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
web posted October 11, 1999

Why does the American political scene seem so pre-fab, predictable, and uninspired? Why are half the voters so bored with it all that they would rather take a long lunch than go to the polls? Part of the reason is the clamor for a nationally "unified" political message. This strategy ends up turning every candidate into a clone of every other, automatons reading scripts written by distant consultants rather than people who think for themselves.

To hammer out a unified message, the GOP is dumping millions on polling firms in hopes that pseudo-scientists will help the party maintain a majority in the 2000 election. The unified message is to be crafted by the shadowy Communications Working Group. The CWG has printed up briefing books to be memorized by every candidate. It provides coaching services, training House members 40 at a time to say only what CWG deems to be politically viable.

Here's what these geniuses have come up with so far: every GOP candidate should promise to cuts taxes, save Social Security, improve education, and strengthen the military. Yawn. Not only is this package dull beyond belief, it is intellectually incoherent. Are "save," "improve," and "strengthen" synonyms for spending more tax dollars? If so, you can't cut taxes. Or can you only save, improve, and strengthen through cutting? We can't know, which is precisely the point.

Ask your local Rep to give a fuller explanation and he'll respond like a CD player set on one-track playback. Expecting honesty and frankness is apparently too much these days. After all, these phrases supposedly pleased the focus groups. Everyone up for reelection must be programmed to repeat them again and again, at rallies, on tv, in debates, in speeches from the House floor. Why? The CWG says so, and the CWG is endorsed by the top mucky-mucks in the party who pay the bills.

When queried by World Magazine, Republicans claimed that the CWG doesn't dictate the agenda. It only provides help in the rhetoric. In fact, you can't separate the two. If you have promised only to "improve education" in your campaign and on the floor of the House, you are not likely to suddenly propose to abolish the Department of Education or even cut its budget. In any case, if you did, the CWG would crack down on you. The rhetoric is the agenda, no more and no less (if you can even imagine less).

The unified, necessarily watered-down, message is an insult to voters. It presumes that they are automatons without a thought in their heads; they react predictably to verbal stimulus like rats in a Skinnerian behavioral model. Maybe these politicians really do believe that most people are beyond freedom and dignity, but certainly the activists who go to the polls aren't. If you don't inspire people with some show of courage, they won't bother.

What's more, unified messages don't speak to the vital regional reality of this country's history. The continuing glory of America is that it is made up of a wide range of local and state customs, symbols, and political dispositions. The issues in the West (e.g., federal control of lands) are different from those in the South (e.g., judicial control of schools) and the North (e.g., HUD's imperial overreach). The really successful politicians in our time are those who perfectly speak the language of the communities that gave them birth and address voters in terms of issues that matter to them.

Clinton, for example, knows better than to abandon the rhetoric of his Arkansas roots, while George W. has started playing up his Texas origins. Meanwhile, disembodied politicos who have let the focus-group determine their approach (Al Gore and Steve Forbes come to mind) are suffering unexpectedly.

From the CWG's perspective, the ideal politician is Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-CWG): dull, lifeless, void of colorful rhetoric or ideological conviction. Is there any thinking man on the planet who would walk down the block to hear him speak? Or even return his phone call? For all their faults, Jesse Ventura and Pat Buchanan speak their minds and address a real constituency instead of a focus group. Hence they inspire some degree of public interest.

How did the GOP come to be so thoroughly hornswoggled by the message-unifying wizards at Beltway polling firms? It all began with Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America." Recall that this document is widely credited with the 1994 election. Ever since then, the Contract experience of "nationalizing" the message has been repeated, with ever less impressive results.

Ready for a shock? There is no evidence that the Contract With America had anything whatsoever to do with the Republican 1994 victory. In 1994, the GOP party structure, still smarting from having lost the executive branch, was weak and disorganized. The candidates who emerged to run on the Republican ticket were mostly homegrown folks who despised what Clinton was attempting to do to the country. They went into politics to stop him and everything he represented. Speeches that year were wild, wooly, and gloriously radical, and they inspired millions to go to the polls.

The real purpose of the Contract With America was known only in esoteric circles. It was actually cooked up by the elites in the party as a last-minute tactic to achieve two goals if the Republicans regained Congress: first, to permit the leadership to hog credit for what was actually a consequence of passionate campaigning by individual politicians, and second, to hamstring the radical freshmen once they got in office.

Sadly, it worked on both fronts. To this day, the freshman class of the 104th believes it owes its success to Gingrich, and still doesn't realize that it was the Contract–consisting mostly of meaningless procedural reforms–that prevented the Congress from accomplishing anything substantive.

Today, the political establishment desperately wants to repeat that success (or failure, depending on whether you pay taxes or spend them). That means a unified message from the party because it, along with the entire power elite, fears the fracturing of the country into its natural regional identities.

The elites' idea of the ultimate threat is something like the Southern Party, a vigorous new political organization that calls for Southern rights above all else. Ideally, there would be Western, Heartland, and Yankee parties as well. The more fracturing that takes place, the less the central state is able to control us all.

There is only one source of unanimity in this country, but the CWG is not likely to discover it. We are unified in having a common enemy in the Leviathan state that loots and pillages us, gets us into wars, and ropes us into its orbit of command and control. Above all, the attempt to unify the party's electoral message is an attempt to keep that truth under wraps.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.




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