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Fear & loathing on the campaign trail

Updated Sunday 2nd November 2014

The blame game allows these commonly quite similar parties in practice to distinguish themselves from each other in rhetoric, says Peter Bloom.

Presidents Bush, Obama and Clinton Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Official White House photo by Pete Souza A circle of blame? Bill Clinton recently accused the Republicans of urging Americans to “Vote Your Fears and Anger” based on their dissatisfaction with President Obama. Yet the Democrats also campaign heavily on the ‘blame game’. This is a more general problem of an American politics where ideas and solutions have been replaced by ‘blame’.

Republicans are not just asking you to blame President Obama. Immigrants, lazy welfare cheats, radical leftists and liberals are also on the list. Democrats have their own list of people and groups who are to blame though. These include President George W. Bush, special interests and most terrifying of all, extremist Republicans.

While the names change, the fear remains the same. “These threats are a danger to our country’s founding principles and present progress. The only way to stop them is to vote for us.” The rhetoric sounds very similar on both sides of the aisles.

The Republican form of demonization is often seen as the most damaging. It displays deep undercurrents of racism, classism and general intolerance. By contrast, the Democrats portray their blame game as fair in targeting the powerful and those who represent them politically. Yet it may be the Democrats whose blame campaign is the more dangerous for the country in the long run. Their leftist rhetoric often masks a quite conservative social and economic agenda. While proclaiming values of tolerance and progress, they enact policies that are commonly pro-Wall Street while doing little to address structural racism. Blaming Republicans gives them good political cover for their own brand of conservative extremism.

These midterms reflect deeper problems afflicting the American political culture. It is not that voters are being ‘urged to vote your anger and fears’. Instead, it is that this is the only politics seemingly available. In place of bipartisan solutions or even positive ideological visions are inter-party bickering and finger pointing.

This is a common lament, of course. But it points to a more fundamental truth. The same corporate donors largely fund both political parties. They have similar bases. They may trot out different enemies during election times, yet each are beholden to similar special interests when in power. The blame game thereby allows these commonly quite similar parties in practice to distinguish themselves from each other in rhetoric. It is the drama of politics, and nothing makes better drama than a villain.

A perhaps even more fundamental cause for this politics of blame is that both Democrats and Republicans are stuck between the same rock and a hard place when in comes to the economy and politics. Each is exclusively committed to a dominantly capitalist economy. They are then left to explain why this capitalist economy isn’t providing the prosperity American voters desire and expect.

Lacking positive alternatives such as a stronger social democracy, the only answer is to blame each other while looking around for the most credible scapegoat.

 Thus the litany of ‘Blame Bush’ has become the mantra of ‘Blame Obama’. The Democrats followed a similar strategy in winning their own mid-term majority when Bush was in power. It did little to stop the war in Iraq, the influence of Wall Street or the general elitist nature of American politics. The Republicans are now taking a page from an old playbook. When the ideas run dry and the country is floundering, it’s all the other guy’s fault.

If Clinton was truly interested in stopping this negative politics, he would do more than denounce the Republicans. He would also look to his own house - literally and figuratively. His wife seems intent on running another campaign that shores up her legitimately questionable liberal credentials by blaming the Republican bogeyman. And if she loses and a Republican wins the Presidency, it is a good bet that it will be the Democrats who are turning the mid-term election into a protest vote against the executive.

 American politics of the twenty-first century has become one of choosing whom to blame. This campaigning extends to both mainstream political parties equally. While the rhetoric of hope appears to ring increasingly hollow in a political system seemingly devoid of imagination and reform, the rhetoric of blame still resonates loudly.

When there are no answers, someone or some people must be what’s wrong. Voters and politicians should stop worrying about who is at fault for the country’s problems and think constructively about how they can be solved.

People and Organisation MattersThis article is part of People & Organisation Matters, a blog curated and written by members of the Department of People and Organisations, part of The Open University Business School.

Opinions expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of the University or the OUBS.

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