If progressives want to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election, they first have to understand the sources of his continuing popularity. The good news is that Bush is looking much less invincible than he was just a few months ago. As unemployment remains high and as the casualty list in Iraq grows longer, targets of opportunity are emerging for the Democratic candidates. For example, Bush’s job approval rating has declined to 52 percent in the latest Time/CNN poll.
Yet Bush remains quite popular by historical standards. Moreover, the task that lies ahead for any Democrat is a daunting one, for a more fundamental reason than what Americans think about Bush’s job performance. By repeatedly insisting that only he has the tools and the determination to fend off terrorism in the post-September 11 era, Bush has cultivated feelings of crisis, pessimism, anxiety and a loss of control throughout the nation [see Brooks, “A Nation of Victims,” June 30]. He has instilled a sense of dependency in Americans–and found a place in their minds and hearts as the repository of strength, action and control. The electorate passively and often subconsciously relies on his authority and power to act on their behalf. This is why Americans consistently find ways to justify Bush and to convince themselves that he is doing a good job, even when his actions and policies are opposed to their beliefs and values.
But this core of support is not merely a result of post-September 11 patriotism or of the fact that Bush is perceived as a likable, regular guy, as the conventional wisdom has it. The President and his advisers have deliberately cultivated an image and leadership style that fosters these results.
Bush’s handlers project the President as a man of character. His team has carefully crafted an image of him as a man who is strong and moral, someone who sticks to his principles and is capable of making tough decisions. This phenomenon was foretold by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who warned: “Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
Theory soon became reality. Ronald Reagan was the first American politician to demonstrate the power of what I call the character myth, a project launched by his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, whose biography of him was titled When Character Was King. The character myth relies on the psychological phenomenon that a person who speaks frequently and passionately about morals is generally regarded as a moral person. According to the character myth, a person who demonstrates that he has “character” need not present any evidence in support of his policies or decisions. They are simply assumed to be correct, since they come from a person with the ineffable quality known as “character.” Even though Reagan was divorced and many of his Hollywood friends hardly saw him as a paragon of morality, he managed to present himself in politics as an exemplar of “family values.” Reagan was seen as having character for sticking to his principles. He was widely viewed as someone who cut taxes, even after actually raising them. Americans simply ignored all data that did not fit the myth.
Similarly, Bush’s handlers use the rhetoric of morality to bypass people’s resistance to his ideas and to convince them that they should not go beyond their core belief that “Bush is doing the right thing.” This imagery of strength and morality is inspired by the ideas of conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, who has strongly influenced many within the inner circle of the Bush Administration. As James Atlas wrote in a piece on Strauss in the May 4 New York Times, “To [some] theorists, the Bush administration’s foreign policy is entirely a Straussian creation. Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, has been identified as a disciple of Strauss; William Kristol, founding editor of The Weekly Standard, a must-read in the White House, considers himself a Straussian; Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, an influential foreign policy group started by Mr. Kristol, is firmly in the Strauss camp. One is reminded of Asa Leventhal, the hero of Saul Bellow’s novel ‘The Victim,’ who asks his oppressor, a mysterious figure named Kirby Allbee, ‘Wait a minute, what’s your idea of who runs things?’ For those who believe in the power of ideas, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to answer: the intellectual heirs of Leo Strauss.” Strauss feared the mediocrity that he believed was inherent in democratic societies. He argued that when a strong political leader explains his policies he should develop a mythology for the consumption of the general public that hides his true motivations, because the people will not accept the boldness of the leader’s initiatives if they are presented in an unvarnished fashion. This mythology should use the language of morality to mask the candidate’s real interests, which are his own survival in power and his ability to continue to exert dominance over the populace.