“Clinton, McCain, Obama, Fox News and the Politics of Demonization"
Mark Q. Sawyer
Barack Obama and the democrats have learned that while Hillary Clinton may be one of the most unfairly demonized figures in American politics it is relatively easy to demonize one of the most demonized figures in America, the black man.
First let me describe the politics of demonization. It involves making your opponent appear to be not someone with a different style, approach or ideas contrary to ones own, but to suggest that your opponent holds contempt for or perhaps even hates the voters and all they hold dear. In the politics of demonization your opponent is not just a worthy adversary with contrasting ideas, but dangerous. The goal of the politics of demonization is to create a caricature using some aspect of the person, some statement, some personal association and exaggerate it into a convoluted unrecognizable mess that not even those who promote the caricature honestly believe. Unfortunately the media rather than dismissing this silly game either embraces it, i.e. Fox News or simply speculates on whether it will “hurt” a candidate without ever mentioning the foolishness of the claims themselves.
Senator Clinton has been the target of these attacks. Hillary Clinton has been portrayed as a radical leftist and a “Femi-Nazi” by political foes. They have suggested she hates men, motherhood, and perhaps even babies at various times. The caricature of course has some grounding. She is a professional woman who is unapologetic about being first a professional and now a power broker and formidable candidate. But of course the caricature is unfair and as Obama honestly noted in the Pennsylvania debate, “Well that’s not who she is. That is not what she believes.”
However, Clinton having been the target of these caricatures as a woman wants to show the democratic super delegates, voters and Senator Barack Obama how easy it is to caricature someone and in particular an African American man.
The subtle attacks failed to get her through to voters on Super Tuesday so going into the Texas, Ohio primaries, and then on to Pennsylvania the attacks have become less and less subtle and more overt. The irony is her biggest aid has been her one time and perhaps future enemies, Fox News and pundits like Sean Hannity.
Here is the Obama caricature as it appears on Fox News and in Clinton/McCain campaign rhetoric: Barack Obama is dangerous because, he hates white people, America, and law and order. He is perhaps only one step removed or perhaps a hybrid of the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam on steroids, this time trying to take over the White House. He has contempt for and maybe even hates “real Americans” (meaning whites), is intent upon letting terrorists attack the US, is willing to let crime run rampant, and supports desecrating the American flag. Change coming from Obama is dangerous and radical. This is a caricature of Obama’s Themes of Hope and Change and way to deflect the positive notion that a more inclusive America run from the bottom up and not the top down might open up new possibilities for things like universal health care and bring even those who have felt left out into the big tent.
Demonization depends upon suggesting those who vote for the other candidate are dangerous themselves. Clinton backers have suggested Obama’s white voters and young people are cult members being led by a mainstream “Jim Jones.” Jeremiah Wright’s critique of American foreign policy and the neglect of black communities have stood in for portraying black voters as anti-American (hence “Does Jeremiah Wright love America as much as you?”), conspiracy theorists, who hate white people and want to destroy white America.
Senator Obama has not played the demonization game. Not that he thinks it is beneath him as the press suggests, but because it is antithetical to what he believes. He wants to compete for all votes, even those of gun toting, evangelical, bowling, working class, and rural whites. He cannot demonize his opponent or by consequence their supporters. Clinton and McCain want to win by driving wedges and Obama wants to win by building bridges.
The problem with demonization a technique developed perfected by Karl Rove and the Bush spin machine is that ultimately when you demonize someone else it invites the other side to equally feel angered or impassioned about the person doing the demonizing. The hatred simply begets hatred. This can be seen in the increasingly hateful portrayal of Obama on blogs, in Internet commentary and on Fox News and in the increasing anger of the responses by Obama supporters. The tactic ultimately poisons the well such that reasoned debate becomes impossible. It will be interesting to see if the Fall campaign allows Obama to continue to build bridges or if uses race and demonization to drive wedges.
Mark Q. Sawyer is Director, UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics, Associate Professor of Political Science and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and the author of Racial Politics in Post-Revolutionary Cuba.