I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of war.
The Democratic National Committee accuses the GOP of a “Republican War on Women,” to go along with its “war on working families” (according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee) and “Paul Ryan’s war on seniors” (Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky).
Various Republicans accuse President Obama of waging “war on religious freedom” or even, in the words of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “a war on religion.” According to the Republican National Committee, the president is also waging “war on energy,” the sequel, apparently, to what the House Republican Leadership has called “Democrats’ war on American jobs.”
Progressive author Chris Mooney called his book “The Republican War on Science”; not to be outdone, conservatives Grover Norquist and John R. Lott Jr. have published “Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth.”
A Washington Times editorial warned Wisconsin taxpayers that “President Obama and the Democratic National Committee have declared war on you.” “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau observes that “[Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh, et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate.”
And on and on and on — until you could almost lose sight of the fact that not one of these institutions or individuals is describing a physical conflict in which people fight, bleed and die.
There are, of course, plenty of real wars raging around the world; in some of them, Americans are dying. But the folks back home, busy with their election-year quarrels, have little interest in discussing such matters.
No, what the metaphor-mongers are referring to is political disagreement among citizens of the same democracy. And the last time I checked, most of those disagreements were being expressed through peaceful means — and neither side in any of these debates had a monopoly on the truth.
To be sure, we have been waging “war on” this or that for decades. America is such a diverse and disputatious country that war, actual or metaphorical, has been one of the few causes capable of bringing together its various factions, regions and races. That is why we had Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and a series of presidents’ war on cancer. Heck, even Jimmy Carter tried to convince us that saving energy was “the moral equivalent of war.”
These metaphors attempted to recast an abstract threat as a particular enemy, thereby rallying the country to a common effort.
That is totally different from what the professional polarizers who dominate today’s politics, and their respective media allies, are trying to achieve.
Crying “war on women” probably doesn’t attract many Republicans or independents to the Democratic cause. But that’s not the point. The point is to fire up the Democratic base. Ditto for the GOP and “Obama’s war on religious freedom.”
For both parties, the goal is to encourage Americans to think of one another as enemies and, eventually, to hate and fear one another. Today’s “wars on” are all civil wars.
Amid the fog of blog posts,Twitter, Facebook, talk radio and the rest, only hyperbole has a chance to break through. Even so, many, if not most, people tune out the parties’ “war” propaganda. The shriller it gets, the less seriously they take it. For any given individual, this is a mentally healthy response.
Multiplied across the entire electorate, however, the effect may be more corrosive. To the extent that sensible citizens tune out politics, they abandon the field to people who are receptive to constant cries of war, war, war — people who are prepared to think of their opponents as enemies.
When you think of someone as an enemy, it’s harder to contemplate trusting, respecting or cooperating with him or her. Indeed, those behaviors start to look like treason, instead of what they really are: the minimum requirements of democratic life.
On his Web site, Frank Luntz, the erstwhile GOP propagandist whose credits include rebranding the estate tax as the “death tax,” tells potential clients about “transforming mere words into an effective arsenal for the war of perception we all wage each and every day.”
According to Luntz, “We all submit to the power of language, whether we know it or not.”
My fear is that he’s right. All the more reason to stop the wars.