The politics of law and order

Will the Republican National Committee protests play into the McCain campaign’s underlying message?

Jason Stahl

At the end of my last column, I wrote that a plea “to a common sense long past – the clear basis for McCain’s campaign – still has an appeal under the right circumstances.” Before I get to these circumstances, I first want to discuss the precise “common sense long past” which I see the McCain campaign appealing to.

Fundamentally, I believe the McCain campaign is based on an appeal to the politics of law and order – a politics which was first successfully employed at the presidential level by Richard Nixon in 1968 and which has been in play, in one form or another, ever since. By the “politics of law and order,” I do not mean a politics which focuses limitedly on domestic crime and criminality. Rather, as historian Michael Flamm has argued in his history of the subject, this type of politics works much more amorphously. For instance, in the 1968 campaign Flamm argues that such politics, as practiced by Republicans, conflated “race, crime [and] civil rights” with “civil unrest Ö at home and abroad.” Thus, Nixon’s appeal to “law and order” could mean several things at once – all of which implicated a permissive liberalism as the root cause of various problems which could be lumped under the heading of “disorder.”

I don’t believe it is 1968 again. The politics of race are different. Urban crime is not the problem it was then. Moreover, it is conservatism which has made us a torturing nation, involved us in an intractable war, and sent the economy into the tank. I believe Obama will win precisely because he is the only one speaking to the current U.S. common sense which recognizes these fundamental facts. However, this does not mean that progressives should underestimate the ideological basis for McCain’s campaign – one which professes to bring order to chaos, particularly in the international arena. From his “No Surrender” tour where McCain promised a century-long occupation of Iraq to his promise that “one of the things [he] would do if [he] were President would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, ‘Stop the bullshit,’ ” McCain’s candidacy is fundamentally about a no-nonsense politics of law and order which declares it will bring stability to an unruly world.

Despite the throwback nature of this message it can still have resonance when Americans are going through trying times. Its appeal to order can be seen as comforting despite its reactionary nature.

In this vein, I wonder how the coming protests at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul might play into such a message. Again, this is not 1968. Circumstances are different and there will certainly not be the replay of the 1968 riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago which fed into Nixon’s message. However, should there be any violence at all, I wonder if organizers worry about adding an easily mediated domestic component to McCain’s law and order message. More broadly, I wonder what those participating in the protests hope to achieve. These are open questions to which I confess having no answers. So, I was hoping I could solicit responses from those who plan on participating in the protests. Feel free to e-mail or write a letter to the editor. I’ll be writing about the responses I receive in a couple of weeks.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]