Demonizing the opposition

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Paul Krugman, in his November 25, 2003 Op-Ed "The Uncivil War" for the New York Times, addresses the political technique of demonizing the opposition. Krugman writes "the Bush administration — which likes to portray itself as the inheritor of Reagan-like optimism — actually has a Nixonian habit of demonizing its opponents."

"The campaign against 'political hate speech' originates with the Republican National Committee. But last week the committee unveiled its first ad for the 2004 campaign, and it's as hateful as they come. 'Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists,' it declares. ... Again, there's that weasel word 'some.' No doubt someone doesn't believe that we should attack terrorists. But the serious criticism of the president, as the committee knows very well, is the reverse: that after an initial victory in Afghanistan he shifted his attention — and crucial resources — from fighting terrorism to other projects."[1]

"All this fuss about civility, then, is an attempt to bully critics into unilaterally disarming — into being demure and respectful of the president, even while his campaign chairman declares that the 2004 election will be a choice 'between victory in Iraq and insecurity in America.'"[2]

"The 'politics of personal destruction'--a phrase popularized by Bill Clinton during his impeachment--has been in vogue since long before Monica Lewinsky captured the attention of Clinton's indiscriminate libido. Although the tactic of demonizing the opposition has been practiced with varying intensity throughout the history of politics, this current round of hyper-partisan warfare can be traced back to 1987, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Robert H. Bork for the Supreme Court."[3]

"Blocking Supreme Court nominees for partisan reasons is nothing new; Republicans did it in 1968 to hold a seat open for Richard M. Nixon to fill. Nor is the practice of distorting an appointee's record and demonizing the opposition - there's even a name for it, Borking, resulting from the 1987 rejection of Robert Bork."[4]

"To mobilize the base, candidates in both parties take more extreme positions. Campaign rhetoric becomes more strident as campaigns try to excite supporters by demonizing the opposition. Issues become weapons to use to goad people into voting - or discourage an opponent's base from voting. For example, Republicans attack abortion and gay rights to turn out evangelical voters. Democrats practice what approaches class war as they attack wealth and corporations in order to inspire blue-collar workers to turn out.

"As a result, many people in the center become turned off by it all and no longer bother to vote. Political dialogue becomes a series of epithets and bombast hurled at opponents over the airwaves in attack ads or on talk shows. It even becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since centrist voters find little to like in either party, they quit voting. That just prompts both parties to try even harder to mobilize base voters to win increasingly low-turnout elections. Fewer centrist politicians run for office or work in politics. Instead, the humorless zealots and true believers rise to the top."[5]

"Some partisans in any cause maintain that the crisis of the moment is so urgent and compelling that we cannot wait to win over the majority of the public with facts. We must rally support through circulating horror stories, inflating statistics, and demonizing the opposition.

"Such tactics may succeed in raising a rabble and generating momentum toward achieving a specific short-term objective: storming the Bastille, sinking the Bismarck, or lynching the first strangers who ride into Ox Bow after ill-founded rumor has it that someone was murdered. Propaganda tactics are even more effective in generating donations to support cause-oriented groups, since donors typically respond to appeals on impulse, and since the consequences of making an ill-chosen donation rarely return to haunt the donor.

"But propaganda in the long run is self-defeating. It works on the psyche much like pornography, in that as the viewer becomes more familiar with the material, it becomes ever less titillating. Propagandists, like pornographers, must constantly seek out new depths of abuse and degradation to shock and excite potential donors and activists, who meanwhile may become so depressed by the barrage of horror as to quit opening the mail or even drop out of the cause entirely to avoid further emotional stress.

"Worse still, propaganda displays contempt for the recipient. It says, in effect, 'You're too stupid and insensitive to respond to facts.' People who find out they've been taken for fools often respond with a backlash rejection of anything and everything the propagandists promoted ­ sometimes including worthwhile ideas.

"Finally, propaganda devalues and debases the legitimate arguments on behalf of the cause it purportedly serves. When propagandists act on their belief that the truth alone isn't strong enough to win people over, they demonstrate a distinct lack of faith in their factual support."[6]

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