October 15, 2008

Holding two conflicting thoughts

The Royal Gazette
Opinion (15 Oct. 2008)

Cognitive Dissonance: the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

It’s been four years now since Barack Obama was catapulted onto the national and global stage with his remarkable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Setting aside Bermuda’s interest in the US campaign, and even the political differences of the candidates themselves, the campaign has been fascinating. Even more interesting are the many parallels between recent US campaigns and our own.

The PLP’s Julian Hall recently described the US campaign as “the most negative, heavily-coded, but thinly-veiled, campaign of raw and naked racism in the history of modern democracy.” (“It’s the economy, stupid. And race.” The Mid Ocean News, Friday 10 October, 2008)

I would agree. Mostly. It is not unprecedented in modern democracy.

Mr. Hall is undoubtedly not alone in this sentiment in Bermuda; supporting Mr. Obama and decrying the McCain campaign’s use of raw identity politics and culture wars as a campaign strategy.

The condemnation of these tactics by a Dr. Brown/PLP insider is curious. Either Mr. Hall has a serious case of cognitive dissonance or he and others are suffering from a huge blind spot.

What exactly was the PLP’s election campaign against the UBP in 2007 if it was not a “negative, heavily-coded, but thinly-veiled, campaign of raw and naked racism”?

Let’s backtrack a little. Neither campaign should be a surprise. Mr. Obama himself predicted these attacks in a speech on July 30, 2008 in Springfield, MO:

“What they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. He doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills. He’s risky….The argument is “I know you don’t really like what we’re doing but he’s risky."

This prediction was absolutely correct; to the word in some cases.

The PLP campaign was a mirror image. It told black Bermudians to fear the UBP in response to Dr. Brown’s own unpopularity. He admitted as much when he said that the party should deal with leadership challenges after the election but band together to “slay the vile dragon”.

Michael Dunkley and his colleagues were portrayed as outsiders – pseudo-foreigners – un-Bermudian.

Both the McCain and PLP campaigns were based on raw identity politics; overt appeals to solidarity among a demographic majority.

In a recent Bermuda Sun column PLP Chairman David Burt offered Mr. Obama political advice to get aggressively negative and advocated precisely this tactic by declaring that “in politics, you're either defining your opponent or you're being defined by your opponent.”

What Mr. Burt forgets is that unlike the PLP, Mr. Obama is in the minority and must create broad based coalitions which eschew politics of division. Negativity won’t work for him. Ditto for the UBP.

Crass identity politics free of issues and policy debates are effective: the PLP defined the UBP precisely as the Republicans are attempting to define Mr. Obama. Successfully so.

Like the PLP, Mr. McCain’s campaign is trying to turn the election into a referendum on their opponents. This has been achieved through a series of extremely ugly ads and rallies implying that Mr. Obama is un-American – an Islamic terrorist even – due to his membership on a Chicago education board with a Vietnam era domestic terrorist.

Perhaps not surprisingly then the McCain rallies have degenerated into hate-filled events – much like the PLP’s “Big Events”.

Racial epithets, declaring that Mr. Obama is not American, “an Arab”, a terrorist and a traitor are common, with someone even calling out “Kill Him!” Mr. McCain has attempted – to an extent – to tamp down the tone and vitriolic outbursts, unlike Dr. Brown who led the charge.

You may also recall the extremely ugly ads which the PLP campaign ran.

These suggested that the UBP, Michael Dunkley in particular, was “out to get you”. They ran print ads declaring that Mr. Dunkley supported lynching and flogging. PLP events were filled with racial epithets, including the predictable slurring of UBP candidates as Uncle Toms, “confused Negroes”, neo-fascists and literally wanting to re-enslave black Bermudians.

Mr. Obama is being defined by his opponent as a terror sleeper cell while the UBP was defined by the PLP as a KKK branch.

Murderers, to be blunt.

These tactics are beyond the pale and unacceptable, against anyone, Mr. Obama and the UBP included.

There’s “defining your opponent”, as PLP Chairman Mr. Burt advocates, and then there’s dishonest raw naked racism and character assassination. It’s one thing to say that your opponent is wrong; it’s another entirely to portray them as killers.

And let’s not ignore the media bias strategy.

Mr. McCain, a former darling of the national media is now in an open war with reporters he formerly called “his base”. Of course in Bermuda the only non-biased media is apparently the PLP-owned and run variety (Hott 107.5, Bermuda Network News, CITV and the proposed new daily paper).

Media bias is a key tactical weapon in both the Republican and PLP campaign toolboxes.

None of this is new of course. Republican politics has been expertly exploiting identity politics and culture wars with great success for the past decade, while Democrats have dithered.

The PLP’s politics have increasingly taken the same approach, turning politics into a spectator sport built around a core strategy of identity politics and culture (race) wars.

Their insistence on recasting everything through a racial lens was best illustrated by their “Puppet Show” ad which portrayed black UBP candidate Wayne Scott as a puppet of a white master during a press conference where he got stuck for a word and received a cue.

The absurdity, insincerity and double standard of this racist attack were exposed by a rebuttal video showing PLP candidate Wayne Caines receiving the same assistance from one of his colleagues.

It is easier to stoke fear than hope; pushing the racial and cultural buttons of a demographic majority to vote for someone who looks like you.

According to the polls, Mr. Obama could be on the verge of breaking through this divisive politics. The UBP on the other hand appear frozen, at a loss to combat this and refocus both themselves and the electorate.

As the US economy has worsened considerably during this campaign, Mr. Obama has pulled ahead in the polls and the McCain strategy appears to be failing as real issues take precedence.

I suspect that the PLP’s gimmicky, unserious race based campaign would have been far harder to pull off in today’s economic environment than 10 months ago.

Posted by Christian S. Dunleavy