Hollywood’s star system and marketing methods are a major feature of American politics. A simple story line presented by an appealing cast works just as effectively on voters as it does on a movie audience.
Successful political campaigns long ago began merging traditional marketing techniques “ polling, audience research, database accumulation “ with high production values “ to manufacture simple, powerful political messages for distribution through traditional and new communication channels.
But just as Hollywood stars were the creation of producers and directors of genius -LB Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Charlie Chaplin – so too the new star-politicians owed their rise to a new class of political impresarios. And after the spectacular 2004 victory, the most successful political impresario of them all is undoubtedly George W Bush’s amanuensis, Karl Rove.
Rove has transcended his origins in the world of political strategy and consulting to become something for which there is as yet no adequate title or job description. In producing and directing Bush’s 2004 re-election, Rove might best be compared with the greatest of all directors of psychodramatic horror stories “ Alfred Hitchcock.
Rove has the great director’s eye for arresting visuals relating a powerfully moral story in which good eventually triumphs over evil. Rove also shares Hitchcock’s profound insight that the greatest fear and tension is that generated by the unseen, implied threat of danger.
Like a great show business producer, Rove saw a gap in the market, then created a demand that only his product could meet. And like a great director, Rove refused to compromise his artistic vision.
Instead, he produced a show and a story that was compelling enough to have the audience come to him “ or at least the fifty one percent of the audience sufficient to win the 2004 election. For Bush, Rove and their supporters, the 2004 victory was the culmination of a forty-year campaign to expunge from American government and society the liberal political settlement that had held a cultural and political ascendancy since the 1960s.
Rove began his career organising for Richard Nixon, who owed his narrow 1968 victory to the defection of southern white Democrats incensed by the Democrats’ passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act that enfranchised southern blacks.
The Nixon election marked the emergence of a new political and social force that took shape around the southern white churches, whose followers deserted the Democrats first over the civil rights issue, and then in rising hostility to the entire liberal social agenda.
Rove’s career developed as the Christian religious right began its long march from the fringes of American politics to the capture of its commanding heights. But while the Christian Right aligned itself to the Republican Party, it maintained its separate political and cultural identity. It developed its own sources of revenue, databases, policy processes, leadership, congregations and conferences and means of distribution “ television channels, radio, direct mail and internet.
During the 1980s, the Christian Right was able to turn out massive numbers to support Republican Party candidates in the suburbs and smaller towns and states across the United States.Yet even as it became the single most powerful faction within the Republican Party, the Christian Right grew increasingly dissatisfied with the refusal of the Republican leadership to implement its radical social agenda including the banning of abortion, the reinstatement of school prayer, anti gun-control, zealous support of Israel and the denial of civil rights to homosexuals.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton successfully moved the Democratic Party to solid centre ground, and marginalised both the Republicans and their Christian Right allies. Yet Rove grasped that Clinton’s moral turpitude, and the outrage that it provoked in the Christian Right, might be successfully exploited to prevent the Presidential succession passing from Clinton to Gore in 2000.
In George W Bush, Rove found a candidate from and entirely acceptable to the Christian Right, rather than the establishment centre of the Republican Party.
After narrowly winning the 2000 election, Bush and Rove ignored conventional political wisdom by declining to move to the political centre.Instead, Bush and Rove spent four years hunting for votes in and around their Christian Right base.
Rove identified as his priority target some four million Christian evangelicals who had not turned out for Bush in the 2000 election. Aided immeasurably by the 11 September attack, Bush and Rove spoke powerfully and effectively to those missing Christian Right voters and through them to other committed Christians, notably Catholics.
In fashioning the policies and the presentation of the first Bush term, Rove used all the arts of show business marketing, backed by a virtually limitless budget, to weave a seamless narrative around Bush.
Bush was cast as the everyman hero, fighting for good against evil. Abroad, evil was defined generally as terrorism, and personified first by Osama bin Laden and then by Saddam Hussein. Domestically, Rove’s task was to conjure up a similarly vague but credible threat.
In a stroke of political brilliance, Rove identified gay marriage as the greatest looming danger to the American family “ more threatening by far than unemployment, lack of health insurance or the federal budget deficit. In gay marriage, Rove found the single issue that crystallised all the fears of the Christian Right base.
The Christian Right regarded homosexuality as a biblical, mortal sin that had been normalised by the 1960s social revolution. During the first Bush term, homosexuality had become visible even in the television programming of the major networks. Television beamed into American homes the shocking spectacle of an urban liberal world in which gay men reconstructed the lives of straight men, and lesbianism was rampant.
Disregarding the fact that most gays and lesbians regarded gay marriage as a quaint, embarrassing facsimile of a ritual that made sense only in the context of religious belief and observance, Rove worked tirelessly to pursue his political objective “ to mobilise Christian evangelicals.
In 2003, Bush ignited the debate by proposing to Congress a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.While even his Republican Senate was not persuaded to pass the necessary legislation, Bush’s initiative cemented his standing with the Christian right.
At Rove’s urging, on election day 2004 eleven states placed before their voters propositions forbidding gay marriage and restricting or abolishing gay civil unions and other legislative protections and rights.
Ohio, the key swing state of the 2004 election, was one of the states that placed the gay marriage ban on the ballot. The aim was clear “ to mobilise the ‘missing’ Christian Right voters of 2000 into the 2004 polling booths on the issue of gay marriage, and while they were to have them vote for Bush.
The strategy succeeded.
George W Bush secured nearly sixty million votes, with the support of over eighty percent of protestant evangelicals and fifty five percent of observant Catholic voters (notwithstanding John Kerry’s Catholicism).
The mobilisation was crucial in winning Ohio for Bush and thus an electoral college majority, as well as securing increased Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Bush could claim a mandate for a slew of radical social, domestic, economic and foreign policies that broke decisively with America’s traditional alliances and past practices.
But there is a fatal flaw at the heart of Christian extremism, and the 2004 victory, that Rove’s Hitchcockian flair cannot conceal for much longer.
The extreme Christian right’s social agenda cannot be implemented without splitting the Republican Party and its mass base into its pragmatic and extremist components.
If Bush implements the Christian Right’s social agenda, this will split the Republican Party as surely as the Democrats’ support for black civil rights split southern white conservatives from urban secular liberals four decades ago.
Equally, if the Bush administration does not use the majority undeniably secured for it by the Christian Right to implement their extreme agenda, then there will be a savage reckoning between the evangelical machine and the Republican administration.
There is every prospect that this split will fracture the American right just as the grim consequences of Bush’s economic, foreign and military miscalculations become apparent. No amount of Rovian smoke and mirrors will disguise from Americans the economic consequences of the debauchery of American public finances, the impending decline of the dollar, the retreat from Iraq or the rise to world power status of China.
Bush and Rove have created expectations that they cannot meet, assumed obligations that they cannot fulfil and concluded a Faustian pact whose terms are about to fall due.
Besotted by his own transcendent technical skill, Rove will shortly find out that, unlike Hitchcock, he cannot dictate the ending to his story, nor send the audience home scared, yet happy and contented.
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