When the 2012 election returns came in there was no more tragic and revealing figure than Karl Rove. His live reaction in the Fox newsroom after the network called Ohio for the Democratic incumbent was that of a man at odds with reality. He simply couldn’t grasp that his narrative had slipped free from the world, the map hewn in twain by the sudden jutting of an unexpected iceberg.
Rove was clearly very surprised by the results in Ohio. So much so that a cynical eye might think he was suffering his own mutiny at the hands of his operatives – an apoplexy born on the rending of his utter confidence that the fix was in. He was like Mortimer Duke at the end of Trading Places, unwilling to accept that the Duke’s scheming had failed to corner the market. You could almost imagine Rove screaming “turn the machines back on!” and falling to his knees on the floor of the Fox soundstage.
If the tides are indeed turning – and that’s a big “if” – then Rove is the ship left behind on dry ground, with much of his party trying to figure out why their charts failed to keep them clear of the rocks. But when your strategy is to make the maps say what you want them to say, there’s little pity when the terra firma reasserts itself against you.
The maturity of the GOP in the digital age was born on a keen insight that if you owned the narrative, then you would own the vote. As GOP operative Frank Luntz advocated, control the language of the issues to frame them in terms favorable to your party. Marketing wizards like Clotaire Rapaille pointed towards the deep emotionality of people and the value of appealing to the older, more animal parts of the brain – desire, belonging, safety, fear. Frame the language to reinforce these triggers. Use highly emotional wedge issues to motivate voters and drive them to the polls. Tap in to fear and draw the opposition as a threat to everything you believe. Roger Ailes and Fox News stepped in to carry the narrative to the masses.
In the 2012 election cycle, the GOP continued to push an emotional narrative of fear and anger. From challenges to clean energy & climate science, question’s of Obama’s citizenship, and claims of supposed socialism (laughable), to painting health care reform as state fascism, defining women’s rights as an edict of God, and entirely dismissing the role of non-white Americans as anything other than lazy moochers or illegals, they drew their maps around a narrative that simply did not meet with the facts evident to most people who actually live in the world around them.
And yet they thought that if they yelled loudly enough and painted their opponents with enough tar, the facts would somehow bend to approximate their telling of reality. In the middle of all this stands Karl Rove manipulating the untenable base of southern religious fundamentalists and poor, old, white people clinging to memories of a world that simply no longer exists. His spotlight is dimming, his hands getting shakier, and his map is looking less and less like the territory.
Demographics are carving out the cherished base of white males. It’s easy to get them riled up with fear and anger but it leaves them unequipped to effectively contribute to the growth of our republic. In their zeal to pursue a Southern Strategy, the Romney campaign has lost women, Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and the fleets of geeks & intellectuals building the new information economy. They ran on a platform more befitting the 1950’s than the second decade of the 21st century.
And this is the point where the tragedy of Karl Rove reveals the depths of the American psyche. For a hundred years we’ve been caught up in our own narrative. We created the American Dream and then refused to wake from it when the Global Reality came knocking. The GOP strategy of controlling the dream to keep the sleeper comfortable has frayed and shown its failure in translating into effective policy relevant to the times. More so, it has engendered unwillingness to collaborate with half of the management staff – the Democrats – who seem to believe in a fundamentally different version of reality. And perhaps most damaging to the republic, the GOP-led Fox News insistence on propagating a narrative of fear, division, and victimization has inflicted legions of otherwise-decent Americans with a near-militant hostility towards compromise and collaboration. If Rove is the rational cunning of the GOP, perhaps the tentacled blob of Donald Trump/Bill O’Reilly/Glenn Beck/Insert Latest Caustic Blowhard is its raving blindness, sputtering and Tweeting(!) for revolution on a technology platform run by a generation of tech-savvy, globalized people with little time for Old World priests of yesteryear. Honestly, what has Trump lost by this election? Does anybody really believe he’s so principled? The Democrats may be spineless and corrupt but the real failure of the GOP is that they far too often come off as assholes, plain and simple.
Hopefully, the 2012 election results suggest that the US electorate is waking from the dream and is beginning to understand that the territory beats the map every time. In spite of the anti-socialist, anti-government, anti-liberal froth churned up by the Right, Obama was still re-elected on a pretty decent somewhat-right-of-center record. The list of progressive wins is considerable: equal rights for marriage in Maryland & Maine, legalization of marijuana in Washington & Colorado, Elizabeth Warren – a true progressive voice for the Left – winning Massachusetts, and the defeat of Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock after their contemptible & woefully ignorant comments about rape & pregnancy. When you draw Islamic Sharia into the spotlight as the new Big Fear, it helps if your own party doesn’t come across as equally intolerant, totalitarian nutjobs.
In the midst of this stands New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, who magnanimously thanked President Obama for his big government assistance with Hurricane Sandy (or at least was smart enough to reach across the aisle to the likely winner a week before the election). Christie is looking like a model for a functional and, dare I say, respectable GOP. Next to him is Nate Silver, the superstar statistician who showed the unbeatable value of mathematics while simultaneously reminding us all of the silly, unreliable theatrics inherent to popular punditry on both sides. Sandy herself put climate change and global warming center stage and arguably did more to move that discussion forward than any sitting politician in the last 10 years. Imagine if FEMA was disbanded and emergency disaster assistance outsourced to private, for-pay service providers? The market is not much incentivized to allocate capital to disaster relief.
The net result looks like a win for facts and a blow to truthiness and narrative-based electioneering. Whether the parties will be able to clean their wounds and come together to tackle the many looming & threatening problems we face remains to be seen. It’s hard to work together when every concession is felt as a defeat and when the party echo chambers continually reinforce division & polarization. Football politics does not talk about sharing the endzone. Likewise, the electorate is fickle and often small-minded. These wins may just be another swing of the pendulum and savvier electioneering may swing it back in 2014 or 2016. The results today, however, will certainly drive an evolution in the dialectic of US politics. Statistics are the new sexy, as incomprehensible as this seems, but the Jocks have been losing ground to the Nerds for years now. Rove may play a part in 2014 when they do turn the machines back on but it’s unlikely that his credibility and influence will recover its former might.
The GOP seems to be at a crossroads where it can either hitch a ride with reality and step into the 21st century, or double-down on its deal with the devil and push further into segregation and balkanization. The former would honestly be surprising but then, I assumed this election would go to the Supreme Court, as I have since 2004 so… maybe Democracy still sort of works. (Or, as someone tweeted into the election Twitter stream, rigging the votes doesn’t matter when the candidates are already rigged.) The latter scenario, where the Good Old Party retreats into fear and incites greater rebellion, could lead to a southern revolution and a possible breaking of the republic. A true test of Big Government versus State’s Rights, with generals, super-empowered billionaires, cartel lords, and rogue agents fighting to control the spoils.
Whether or not you agree with Obama and the Democrats, it’s imperative that our government returns to a model of collaboration and compromise, and that we all work to diminish the voice & influence of anti-science neophobes in determining our collective ability to grapple with the great challenges of our times. We have the tools to understand the territory with greater detail and accuracy than ever before in human history. We cannot afford to keep getting lost in compelling maps that lead us away from reality.