PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
Karl Rove’s Scheherezade Strategy
Karl Rove has a
simple rule, they say: When you are falling behind, attack your opponents
at their strongest point. In the upcoming election, the Democrats'
strongest point should obviously be
So he’s borrowing a page from an ancient Iranian storybook and imitating Scheherezade, the maiden whose husband’s policy was “wed 'em, bed 'em, and kill 'em at dawn.” Rove is telling Republican candidates to follow Scheherezade's rule: When policy dooms you, start telling stories -- stories so fabulous, so gripping, so spellbinding that the king (or, in this case, the American citizen who theoretically rules our country) forgets all about a lethal policy.
The GOP stories are the same ones white people have been telling each other ever since they first set foot on North American shores: If you want to be safe, go to the frontier and wipe out the Indians. As former State Department official John Brown has noted, our Indian wars are not over yet.
Now Rove and his President are trying to sell the
How do we know our military in
Naturally they hope, one day, to be able to go home to their loved ones and live the peaceable lives they long for. But they aren't quitters like those (Democratic) schoolmarms back East in the halls of Congress. They are real frontiersmen, with the will and the resolve to stay the course. They won't be scared off by suffering or bloodshed; sometimes -- let’s be honest -- it takes bloodshed for life to get better.
Republican Fairy Tales of Heroic Masculinity
George W. Bush is already out on the congressional campaign trail riffing on this old yarn. At a fundraiser for one Senate candidate he laid it out in all its marvelous simplicity: "There's an Almighty; a great gift of the Almighty is freedom for every man, woman, and child. ... The American people expect the government to protect them. It's our most important job. …
And there, my friends, is the real choice we’re being offered by Rovian rhetoric: weak-willed cowardly Democrats against Republicans who tough it out, whatever the cost, because -- above all -- they are real men.
The urge to prove manhood is central to the story. It may be what got us into
The neocons want to turn a nation of soft, lazy, mall-shopping, morally squishy “relativists" back to the manly "strenuous life" that Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan preached. That’s one big reason they worked so hard to send "our boys" (and "girls") off to the battlefields of
The frontier tales may sound trite and hackneyed to some, but they won’t go away. You probably know them by heart. In fact, without a second thought, you probably put them together intuitively and unconsciously to form a single unified narrative, doing the Republicans' work for them. Many of your fellow Americans still take that grand narrative as the tried-and-true tale about the virtues that made
Will women as
well as men fall for these fairy tales of heroic masculinity? There is still a
gender gap in
This gets us to the heart of the Scheherezade strategy. It plays on the insecurity of Americans who feel that their lives are out of control. Karl Rove knows that (as Gary Bauer, a religious right politico, once put it) "Joe Six-Pack doesn't understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn't have a say in it." So Rove constantly invents simplistic good-against-evil stories for his candidates to tell. He tries to turn every election into a moral drama, a contest of Republican moral clarity versus Democratic moral confusion.
Rove wants every vote for a Republican to be a symbolic statement: I am not merely a feather blown around by what George W. Bush has called "the winds of change." My vote anchors me in the Republican Party -- solid as a rock, tough as the toughest pioneer, willing and able to bring the savage wilderness of this terroristic planet under firm American control.
The Scheherezade strategy is a great scam, built on the
illusion that simple moralistic tales can make us feel secure, no matter what’s
actually going on out there in the world. Though it never
fulfills its promise, too many Americans keep on falling for it.
Why? Here are some clues from scholars
who trace it back to its roots in American Christianity. Catherine Albanese of
Who wants to
shoulder such a heavy burden? "To admit that too much was wrong could jeopardize
Before you know
it, you have (in
Scheherazade Fantasies and Frontier Realities
certainly deeply rooted, complex, and real feelings. Rove makes powerful use of them. His scam works, however, only so long as the
bipolar framework is believable. But there’s always going to be more American
insecurity to feed our appetite for “staying the course” in
It’s certainly making
the public insecure about the war. In that Washington Post - ABC poll, only 37%
of Americans approved of the way Bush is handling it. So Rove’s strategy may be
an act of desperation. But it’s also a shrewd trick -- some might call it
genius -- because it plays on the growing fear that
The Republican Scheherazades say, in effect, “Things may seem out of control now, but they’re bound to be far worse under the Democrats, who are completely incapable of keeping our fragile lives sheltered from the winds of violent change.” They tell the old familiar tales to plant seeds of doubt, to send the voter into the booth asking one big question: “Even if the Republicans are obviously not in control of this perilous world, do I dare to take a chance on those weak-willed flip-flop Democrats?” If a vote against the Democrats becomes a vote against uncontrollable change – then the Republicans are likely to have another election in their pockets.
frontier story and its twisted offspring have deep roots in puritan
Christianity, don't just blame the Christians for them. Long ago these tales
became the common property of secular American culture, too. And don't just
blame the Republicans. These are the same stories that led Democrats from
Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton to places like The Somme, My Lai, and
Yet ever since Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, the Republicans have managed to make the old stories their own private property. When Democrats try to tell them, they just don't sound believable any more. Right now, in fact, nothing that most mainstream Democrats have to say seems to have the ring of believability -- or the Scheherezade strategy wouldn’t have a chance of saving the Republicans’’ political life in November. So what's a Democrat to do?
A Dem can start by seeing the risks in the Scheherazade strategy. For one thing, Rove’s story depends on believable images of American strength. If
It also depends on voters letting fairy tales, not logical thinking about policies, determine their vote. The Democrats should not assume that most voters will fall prey to alluring but absurd tales, as the king in Scheherezade did. They can tell the voters -- and themselves -- a frontier story about another traditional American virtue: the courage to trust that ordinary people will use hard-headed common sense to separate fact from fiction.
The old stories tell us that the actual pioneers, not the ones who so long inhabited our movie screens, had to confront life honestly. They couldn’t afford to “stay the course” just for the sake of saving face. And they couldn’t afford to play politics with matters of life or death. When things went wrong, they were brave enough to admit it and use good old American ingenuity to set things right. They were true democrats, expecting everyone to shoulder their share of responsibility and giving their neighbors the right to express their own opinions. They didn’t call disagreement disloyalty. They knew that even the humblest guy or gal might have the best idea for fixing things.
Out on the frontier, pioneers needed that kind of courage and common sense to make sure they and their families survived. It may be just what the Democrats need to survive, too -- trusting ordinary people, even Iraqis, to find practical solutions to practical problems. If the Republican candidates want to play Scheherezade, they have to recognize that the Democrats might have a more honest, compelling story to tell. And we, the voters, are the king. We get to decide who remains alive at dawn on November 9 and who ends up a political corpse.
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