As Jacques Ellul points out in his classic 1964 book, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, propaganda cannot create something out of nothing. The human mind is not an empty vessel in which ready-made ideas can be poured like concrete into a form. Rather one must appeal to existing cultural and religious preconceptions and attach itself to feelings already present, some buried deep in the brain, manipulating them over time until they are ripe for exploitive action.
During the 1964 Republican presidential convention, the two main contenders for the nomination were Nelson Rockefeller, representing the moneyed class who despised the “socialist” Franklin D. Roosevelt and who were concentrated mainly in the Northeast; and Barry Goldwater, who appealed to those who opposed the civil rights movement, mainly in the South. Rocky pleaded with the party to expand its appeal to the larger electorate and moderate its rhetoric accordingly, noting that Congress had already passed the landmark civil rights bill earlier that year.
Goldwater refused, responding with his famous “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” speech. After winning the nomination, he was trounced by Lyndon Johnson in the general election, carrying the five deep south states and little else.
When Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Bill in 1964, he predicted that the Dems would lose the South for a generation. The Rethugs knew it too, and sifting through the wreckage of the election, set out in earnest to attract Southern Dems to their party via their Southern Strategy, a thinly disguised appeal to the racism and resentment wired deeply into the psyches of the vanquished Confederacy. (You can almost hear Pat Buchanan with a bullhorn manning the barricades warning that the Ne-groes now had unimpeded access to the polls.) Four years later the Rethugs regained the White with the election of Richard Nixon.
Fast forward to the present. The 2008 congressional election saw the last of the “moderate” Northeastern Republicans, Chris Shays, erased from the electoral map, leaving that whole the section of the country in Democratic hands. And in the Senate, only three seats remain, two occupied by the ladies from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins , the other by New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg who is not running for re-election along with five other Rethug incumbents. That includes Mel Martinez from Florida who jumped the shark early, announcing today that he’s resigning just as soon as the Charlie Crist finds a replacement. Apparently, being part of a party in a death spiral lead by hyperbolic crazies is no longer so much fun.
Freed from the burden of placating Dem Damn Yankees, the messaging has been remixed and more tightly focused, shedding its more civilized skin for a scalier exterior. Even so, overt political racism was still unacceptable among the majority of Americans. Hence another form of delegitimization was needed to undermine the Black Man occupying the White House standing in the way of Republican Utopia.
Enter the birther movement. Intellectually awkward to maintain (witness Lou Dobbs‘ recent ratings implosion), this lame attempt at deligtizimation was nonetheless necessary to keep the pump of the lizard brain primed, the fires of resentment and victimhood burning. But now with the revelation that Barack Obama’s supposedly genuine Kenyan birth certificate was a royal punking, the birther movement is shredding like a cheap rubber costume in a B-movie alien slasher flick. Time to find another vehicle.
Enter the astroturfed anti-health care reform movement. Once again, we see a further escalation in the propaganda, but this time it’s different. Where before it was psychological priming, listening to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh this week and watching the Nazi symbolism emerge in the town hall meetings, it is now evident we are in the activation stage.
Violence is sure to follow. The dog whistle has become a klaxon.