Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 by hawking the dovish campaign slogan, "He kept us out of war." He ultimately did not, of course, and the public's subsequent disillusionment with America's interventionism led it to profoundly re-endorse FDR's 1940 promise that he would "not send American boys into any foreign wars."
Roosevelt's was little more than a rephrasing of Wilson's: He has kept us out of war, he is keeping us out of war, and he will continue to keep us out of war. That didn't quite work out, but the point is, America's sentiment for war throughout most of the 20th century was decidedly negative. And its politicians played to that sentiment. We fancied ourselves a peaceful breed, happy to go our own way and let the world do the same. "No more war" was the one promise from political leaders sure to grab our hearts and minds.
Contrast that history with today. Or, to be a bit more pointed, contrast that history with what the Republican Party is hawking today. Keeping us in war -- a vague, perpetual, virtually endless world war against the vague enemy of a tactic -- is the once-isolationist GOP's promise to America. It's on its masthead, it's in its blood, it litters its rhetoric.
For the GOP, gone is the bottom-up politics of the 20th century. Or, at least, the GOP wants it gone -- banished in perpetuity. What it has to sell is top-down fear, complete with Orwellian broadcasts on the big screen, full of dire warnings that unseen enemies threaten us everywhere. We must stay engaged, stay the course, stay unremittingly embroiled hither and yon.
What drives the party of perpetual war is merely, of course, a perpetual propaganda machine, every bit as ugly and pointless as Orwell's. We must win the war, although the war is amorphous. We must defeat the enemy, although he is just as amorphous. We must persevere, although the object of our perseverance is unattainable -- the eradication of a centuries-old political tactic.
Victory is at hand, so we cannot surrender, although the conflict will last for generations. Such is the GOP's "message." And just try squaring that circle.
Nevertheless that is today's Word from the top-down boys, and in this election they mean to make a fight for the eternal soul of America. They can't run on the economy, since they botched that up -- but good, so they mean to frame the contest as one in which one side defines America's character as endlessly triumphalist.
There is, however, nothing bottom-up about the effort, as politics was once played. The public has since forgotten why it is we have tens of thousands of troops slowly bleeding in the Middle East, so the GOP is launching a preemptive, frontal assault on the public's memory. Its top-down, coordinated attack is a propagandistic wonder to behold. Oceania's Big Brotherhood would drool with envy.
The warmonger in chief is already in the game, re-hammering the prefabricated message that this election will "present the country with a stark ideological choice at a time of war." The co-chief of warmongering has also hit the stumps, casting about what you might call a kind of hopeful doom: "The important thing for all of us to remember is that six and a half years after 9/11, the war on terror is still very real, that it will not be won on the defensive, and that we have to proceed on many fronts at the same time."
The presumptive propagandist is at it already, as well, mapping a course of nine solid months of framing not America, but his party, as determined victor: "If we had announced a date for withdrawal from Iraq and withdrawn troops the way that Senator Obama and Senator Clinton want to do, al Qaeda would be celebrating that they had defeated the United States of America and that we surrendered ... I will never surrender." Not "we," but I, the political equivalent of a warring godhead.
And naturally all the might-have-been presumptive propagandists are falling in line, joining the GOP orchestra's tune that they, too, will never "surrender to terror."
From here on out, from now till Election Day, the GOP will strive to make every day seem like September 12, 2001. It is already propagandistically strident almost beyond belief. Said the presumptive one just yesterday: "We all know what will happen to the United States of America if the wrong party wins in November."
Sorry, I'm afraid I don't. But thanks for the warning.
The message contained another warning, however -- one not quite as helpfully intended, and for the other side. If the opposition nominates a candidate who was somewhat unclear on the need for top-down direction from the beginning, that "stark ideological choice" that the chief warmonger spoke about will, in fact, be something dramatically less than stark. And the top-down boys won't let the electorate forget it.