By Bryant L. Welch, J.D., Ph.D
Carl Rove’s recent assault on the patriotism of liberals after 9/11 for allegedly wanting to provide counseling and understanding to the enemy and the faint Democratic response to it capture a fundamental change in national politics over the last decade.
While the change was presaged in the 1988 Bush campaign with Lee Atwater and the now infamous Willie Horton ads, it became much more pronounced after the 1994 Republican election-sweep characterized by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. Over the decade from 1985 to 1995 I worked for the American Psychological Association in a role that was essentially political strategist and spokesperson for Organized Psychology.
Much of my time was spent on Capitol Hill working amongst other things to gain eligibility for psychologists to participate in Medicare. We worked with both Republicans and Democrats to do so. At the time the tone on the Hill seemed partisan and rancorous. From today’s restrospective view, however, it was within moderate limits that have been made apparent only by their evaporation in today’s political climate.
1994 caused a sea change in the degree of partisan hostility. One small personal event epitomized the change for me. Politics is full of the fickle. Almost as soon as the election results were in announcing the Republican sweep, the political action committee associated with the APA began to court the newly-elected Republicans with several fund-raising efforts. Substantial money from psychology was going to some remarkably conservative characters. Political winds shift.
Whatever the merits of the specific giving, I became concerned that we might go too far in the direction of supporting people who had never worked with us previously while neglecting our long-standing allies in Congress. (I was also dubious of the potential returns). Accordingly, I wrote in one of my monthly columns in the APA Monitor a cautionary piece saying that reports of President Clinton’s political death and certain defeat in the 1996 election were premature, and that it was important we not simply turn our back on long term friends on the Hill (most of them Democrats) simply because of current political fortunes.
A few days later Psychology’s political action committee hosted a ten thousand dollar fundraising event for Congressman Bill Thomas, a Republican from California who had just assumed the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Health subcommittee. He is currently Chair of the whole House Ways and Means Committee. I had never met Representative Thomas until that evening. When I introduced myself, I was quite startled by his quick response, “Yeah, I’ve been reading some of your articles.”
Since my work has never been exactly recognized as seminal literature in Congressional circles, at first, I was simply taken aback and puzzled that he seemed to be saying that he had actually read something I’d written. As I processed this fact, I gradually absorbed his follow-up sentence which helped to clarify my initial bewilderment. “We’re going to show people like you that it doesn’t pay to make contributions to Democrats.”
I had been in advocacy battles since I was seventeen-years- old, but to capture the body language and tone of Mr. Thomas, I had to go back to the fourth grade playground with the proverbial older bully threatening to throw me into the wall and deck me with a hard right if I didn’t surrender my own basketball to him.
His demeanor and tone were definitely designed to physically menace. I replied with what I truly felt was the most remarkable aspect of the encounter by saying, “You’re [bothering to] threaten ME?” My genuine, if less than prototypical alpha male response, seemed to leave him with little more to say, so he simply reasserted himself by saying,”Don’t forget what I’ve said,” and sauntered off.
I didn’t forget Mr. Thomas’s warning. In fact, I followed with astonishment his ascendancy to the chairmanship of the full Ways and Means Committee, making him one of the most powerful members of Congress. And every time I saw his superior in the Republican hierarchy, Tom Delay, I thought of Mr. Thomas and realized that Delay’s tactics are systemic in the Republican Congress and not simply idiosyncratic to Delay.
Ruth is the traction that attachment gives to morality. Before the 1994 neoconservatives offered up their Contract with America, there were certainly 3 differences between the parties and all manner of underhanded dealings. They were not, however, so pervasively characterized by the ruthlessness that I experienced so viscerally from Bill Thomas that night.
Few moderates or liberals in this country are unaware of the remarkable achievements of Karl Rove, Fox News, and the Swift Boat Veterans in the last election. They managed to make George Bush’s seemingly non-existent phantom war record superior to John Kerry’s and depicted George Bush as a stronger leader than Kerry (because Bush took us to war). They made gay marriage a bigger issue than the economy, jobs, education, and health care all rolled into one.
It is true, of course, they simply could not have done this without the equally impressive inability of the Democrats to throw any punches themselves or to in any way hoist the neoconservatives on their own petard. Even more fundamentally, however, the Democrats did not seem to get it that Karl Rove operates on a totally different plane of thought (and morality) from the traditional American political strategist.
Karl Rove has a much more sophisticated and radically different understanding of the mind than any other American political strategist of any era (although one must certainly acknowledge his indebtedness to Lee Atwater). He understands that the mind is not ruled by logic or even the self-interest that has primarily driven the campaigns of both political parties from their inceptions. Instead, he understands that when given the option the mind works on the basis of highly primitive fears tied to whatever primitive psychological boundaries are threatened at the moment.
Rove also knows that at the level of the mind where communications about these issues take place, the communication system is not verbal, it is symbolic. To raise such an issue, one need not verbally articulate it. One can operate exclusively on the primitive communication level of symbols as Lee Atwater so successfully did. Rove also knows that the mind, especially under times of stress, absorbs best that which is repeated and said forcefully and with certainty. You hammer nails rather than speak with reason. The numbing drum beat is the persuasive mode.
Karl Rove has reaped the significant advantage that comes from exploiting these facts with a totally amoral and absolute ruthlessness. He is the intellectual component to Bill Thomas and Tom DeLay. If one crossed him, as Ambassador Joe Wilson did, everything was fair game, even Mr. Wilson’s CIA operative wife. It’s scary for people to see this.
Bryant L. Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney living in Hilton Head
Island, SC. Email: welchfirm.com.