John Buell

2004 All Over Again?

My mentor, William Connolly, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, recently e-mailed some friends and colleagues a provocative quotation from his latest book: “The conviction that Kerry is a flip-flop artist was first peddled in ads early in the campaign when most people were not paying much attention. That strategy, according to advertisers familiar with neuroscience, is an effective way to plant an affect-imbued idea. It enters the thought-imbued feelings before being subjected to critical scrutiny. The plant is then harvested months later, when much of the electorate concludes that it is being reminded of a disposition it already had. Iterations by Fox News, ads by Bush, endless repetition by the Cheneys.” (Capitalism and Christianity, American Style).

Bill now worries: “This time it is happening a little later in the process. McCain and his … minions on talk TV and radio are defining Obama. McCain attacks every day in a way that defines his opponent. The media run with it, even if they criticize the attack mildly. They are giving ‘undecided’ whites excuses to be surly and resentful about him and to retain their fantasies about keeping things as they are in America. And Obama has been miserable, absent in countering this stuff. The Rove strategy is to attack the greatest strength–-war heroism in Kerry and eloquence in Obama, and then to attach that attack to every other thing negative they can say about him.”

One of Bill’s political-theory colleagues responded that he neglected “a younger generation of 18-30-year-olds of almost every ethnic and racial stripe … They don’t tune into the mainstream media or even talk shows, as much as we do. They live on other wireless and wired waves. They’re remarkably savvy readers/critics of advertising and they’re fired up. You’re also leaving out a massively mobilized Black electorate, and the possibility of a highly mobilized Latino one. “

For me, this discussion poses a key question. Are these new voters really fired up, especially as Obama increasingly temporizes his political stance not only on civil liberties and the war but even economic issues. Acting more as an incumbent playing not to lose, he assumes that core supporters have no where else to go, so he will concentrate on the center. But numerous polls, which despite their limitations probably mean something, show that Americans are becoming more progressive on taxes and healthcare, more critical of corporate-oriented trade deals, and more skeptical of huge military expenditures and the occupation of Iraq. If Obama is moving to a center, it is not one defined by the voters but by the corporate media.

My fear is that Obama temporizes out of the hope that he can or the fear that he must win media acceptance. The media, however, are likely to retain a bias for McCain. A few pundits criticized McCain’s recent Brittany/Paris ad, as negative, but as Connolly pointed out in a follow-up email “they continually replayed” the ad, which “moves through the mass scene in Germany, to Brittany and Paris, finally dissolving into the face of Barack Obama, a black man. Black-white relations visualized but not discussed. The danger a black man poses to white women, and their men. Just a bit of a cue, nothing sharp, hardly noted at a conscious level. Do the critics underline the cue as they criticize the use of celebrities in the ad verbally and generically, as they also show it over and over? Then the ad goes on to talk about Obama and offshore drilling. At the end there is a picture of Obama alongside the words FOREIGN oil, with the word foreign in caps close to his picture … Associate Obama with the foreign. A presumptuous, uppy, black man who is eloquent and foreign. A message presented without being articulated. Is it received subliminally by the target constituency? The “undecideds”?

Support for Obama in the polls, especially among working-class whites, may also be overstated. Nor should Obama necessarily count on those Internet-savvy 18-30-year-olds or newly mobilized blacks and Latinos. Many will not turn to McCain, but they may sit this one out or at the very least stop e mailing friends and staffing the many get out the vote efforts.

Obama must both define McCain right now and offer programs with appeal to all working- and middle-class Americans. Humor about the Paris ad was a good start, but his own future ads might juxtapose pictures and quotations of McCain once denouncing as gifts to the already wealthy the Bush tax cuts he now supports or quotations from him about swift and certain victory in Iraq. Visuals associating McCain with Bush, with oil conglomerates, and with powerful lobbies are essential. He should then follow such attacks with detailed positive program in each area. Obama is fortunate enough to have the money and political resources to reach voters with a message that energizes them. There is no time like the present.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Sept. 1, 2008

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2008 The Progressive Populist.