They Are Only Lying to Most of Us.

Posted on October 16, 2010 by

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David Brigham

This blog intends to explore the notion that candidates may be communicating to voters their beliefs without explicitly stating their beliefs.  This is not be a new issue: it has always been nigh impossible to get a straight answer out of a candidate when they are being questioned.  What piqued my curiosity were two reports that I recently read pertaining to Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

In a Vanity Fair article by Michael Gross about Sarah Palin (which is required reading in my opinion) the author noted that Palin subtly communicates to “fundamentalist Christians” that she is one of them:

Whenever I heard Palin speak on the road, her remarks were scored with code phrases expressing solidarity with fundamentalist Christians. Her talk of leading with “a servant’s heart” is a dog whistle for the born-again. Her dig at health-care reform as an expression of Democratic ambitions to “build a Utopia” in the United States is practically a trumpet call (because the Kingdom of God is not of this earth, and perfection can be achieved only in the life to come). But it is Palin’s persistent encouragement of the prayer warriors that most clearly reveals her worldview: she is good, her opponents are evil, and the war is on.

I knew that Palin is a right-wing politician, by definition then I assumed that she was an evangelical or one of the other flavors of fundamentalist Christianity.  What I did not know was that she was actively letting all of the other fundamentalist Christians know this at almost every opportunity.  Again, this would not bother me except for the fact that this language is coded.  If she simply said that she subscribed to such and such a fundamentalist belief structure, this wouldn’t bother me: I already don’t like her and there is little she can do to offend me into disliking her more.  So… why the coded language?

In the Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (a must read for any political junkie) he talks about the composition of the Reagan coalition (that is the different groups that Reagan brought together to form the base of voters for the GOP to win elections, arguably this is still the base to which the GOP turns.)  Frank makes an important differentiation between two primary groups in the GOP base: the first group is social conservatives; broadly speaking this would be the people who vote for GOP candidates based on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and religion.  The second group are fiscal conservatives: they are concerned with low-taxes, the free market, and most importantly with the economy and business.  Frank’s assertion is that this second group is essentially corporatist, meaning that they belong to a corporate culture that votes Republican because it is good for business, but that they lack enthusiasm for the social policies of the right (to evidence this Frank points to corporate culture in which demonizing homosexuals is against the rules, for example.)

It is important to note here that the tea-party candidates do not fit into this second group in the way that seems the most obvious, and in fact I would say that it is unclear in what way the tea-party fits into Frank’s framework.  At any rate, what is of note is the way in which Sarah Palin in particular has let those who are in the tea-party and are fundamentalist Christians know that she is one of them without alerting Frank’s second group of corporatist Republicans to this fact.  I would argue that the fear is that the second group would view her religious and thus social ideology unfavorably.  Specifically, homophobic attitudes, Pro-life attitudes, and other attitudes that infringe on the rights of the individual may not go down so well.*  Nonetheless, while this will be what is explored in the later part of this blog, we first turn to Glenn Beck.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Dana Milbank, argues that Glenn Beck has been using a phrase that invokes a Mormon prophecy which informs Mormon viewers that he is one of them, and in a similar manner to Palin’s comments, does not make it clear to the rest of us that he is a Mormon.  Milbank explains:

In one of his first appearances on Fox News, Glenn Beck sent a coded message to the nation’s six million Mormons — or at least those Mormons who believe in what the Latter-day Saints call “the White Horse Prophecy.”

“We are at the place where the Constitution hangs in the balance,” Beck told Bill O’Reilly on November 14, 2008, just after President Obama’s election. “I feel the Constitution is hanging in the balance right now, hanging by a thread unless the good Americans wake up.”

The Constitution is hanging by a thread.

Most Americans would have heard this as just another bit of overblown commentary and thought nothing more of it. But to those familiar with the White Horse Prophecy, it was an unmistakable signal.

The phrase is often attributed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church. Smith is believed to have said in 1840 that when the Constitution hangs by a thread, elders of the Mormon Church will step in — on the proverbial white horse — to save the country.

“When the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the ‘Mormon’ Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it,” Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as head of the church, wrote in 1855.

Was it just a coincidence in wording, or was Beck, a 1999 Mormon convert, speaking in coded language about the need to fulfill the Mormon prophecy?

Milbank goes on to explain that the phrase, “the Constitution is hanging by a thread” is not a coincidence, Beck has used it numerous times especially in conversation with fellow Mormons, and that the phrase is an integral part of Mormon ideology.  Milbank points out that while this is a signal to Mormons that Beck is a Mormon, and “large numbers of Mormons watch Beck, but likely an even larger number of his viewers and radio listeners are evangelical Protestants who have no idea that Beck is preaching to them an obscure prophecy of the Latter-day Saints — a faith many conservative Christians malign as a cult.”

Milbank explains very well why Beck would not blatantly let his audience know that he is a Mormon.  While there may be much to comment on in the specifics of Beck’s Mormon ideology, Christian relations with Mormons and so forth, what is interesting is how similar this is to Palin’s commentary that informs fundamentalist Christians that she is one of them without letting the rest of us in on it.

These two examples make me wonder if candidates in the current election are doing anything similar.  There are a number of difficulties with this inquiry however.  The first is that it fringes upon conspiracy theory: is candidate X saying that they support policy Y with a wink and a nod that lets some group know that he/she really is not a moderate on the issue, or are they simply playing politics.  The second, and for my current purpose of inquiry the most difficult, is that isolating phrases that perform this function is very difficult, and may be impossible if very few or no other phrases of this nature exist.  For example, as a progressive I know of no phraseology that indicates that someone is a socialist, so that other socialists will vote for them.  So that while Obama may have suggested that he would like to “spread the wealth around” when he was speaking to Joe the Plumber, this may have given those of us on the left hope that he would institute a more progressive tax policy, he was not in fact communicating a secret socialist agenda (unless of course you are a right-wing conspiracy nut.)

This specific example aside, I know of no phraseology on the left that performs this function at all.  A third major problem, contingent on the first two, is that any analysis of this issue using a small N sample is likely to be either inconclusive or meaningless.

I am particularly interested in the policy positions of Sharron Angle, and Christine O’donnell.  Since both of these candidates are relatively new to politics I have had trouble finding speeches by them to analyze in terms of specific terminology.  I have also had trouble finding out what terminology might be indicative of policy positions that only some voters would catch.  Hence I will take a look at one issue that relates to social policy which was addressed by both candidates in recent debates: homosexuality.

On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT):

Angle:

The, um, policies within the military, especially this one, are under review. Right now – and we should be waiting for the review of our military to make those decisions, not jumping ahead and making those decisions as Senator Reid tried to do when he put that provision in the defense bill. We, here in Nevada have been very careful to define the marriage as between a man and a woman. Through two general elections, over 70 percent of our population has voted to, uh, define marriage as between a man and a woman. I support what Nevada has done, and I will represent our constituents on that basis.

O’Donnell:

A federal judge recently ruled that we had to overturn don’t ask, don’t tell.  There are a couple of things we need to say about that.  First of all, judges should not be legislating from the bench.  Second of all, it’s up to the military to set the policy that the military believes is in the best interests of unit cohesiveness and military readiness.

The military already regulates personal behavior in that it does not allow affairs to go on within your – your chain of command.  It doesn’t allow, if you’re married, to have an adulterous affair within the military.  So the military already regulates personal behavior because it feels that it is in the best interests of our military readiness.

I don’t think that Congress should be forcing a social agenda onto our military.  I think we should leave that to the military to decide.

While the question of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell may be policy on gay rights lite, both Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle have expressed animosity toward the GLBT community in the past, and it is hard to believe that their views have changed.  While their rather benign statements on DADT seem to paint them both as moderates, neither of them are:

My analysis was cut short for a lack of data.  However, since it is likely that both of these candidates share a bigotry against homosexuals when they try to present themselves as moderates on the issue they are in fact being dishonest to the electorate.  Their base knows what they think, and as long as they give the right answers to questions about DADT for example (Oh gee I don’t think it is a good idea, let’s wait and see what the military has to say about it), they can pass as moderate for those would sympathize with gay rights.  In a sense then, this is the same kind of dishonesty that this post addressed with concern to Palin and Beck: don’t tell everyone what you really think because they will not vote for you, but wink and nod, and the base will know you are with them.

* Unfortunately, What’s the Matter with Kansas, is on loan to a friend so I am afraid that my articulation of Frank’s argument may be incomplete, though I do assert that I gave it a fair treatment.

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