As a young man 50 years ago, I was active in my support for Rev. King and the civil rights movement. I was also an active Republican. I saw absolutely no conflict in being a member of Lincoln’s party, founded on opposition to racism a century earlier, with opposition to racism a century later. It had nothing to do with politics. I saw the basic issue summarized in that one word: racism. I was not alone. Because we were successful in focusing public attention on that one word, we established the fundamental issue and if you wanted to succeed politically in following years, you had to learn that word and its primacy. Words like “state’s rights” might have raised another legitimate issue at another time, but they did not respond to the fundamental issue then facing the US.
The failure of the “opposition” to understand this, and thus fail to address that issue directly and offer a believable solution of their own, sealed their fate. Once the American public had accepted racism as the proper focus, it was only a matter of time for the civil rights movement to succeed in bringing an end to legal segregation and then move on to other parts of the nation that needed the same focus, but now for de facto racism, not just de jure racism.
Just a few years ago, the American nation went through this process again, although “clumsily” is a kind word to describe it. George W. Bush may have had his good qualities, but communication with the public was not among them. While Martin Luther King was both inspired and inspiring, President Bush was not. He had to depend on his opposition’s failure to make his point.
In the debate regarding the Iraq War, there was no single “word” that provided a focus. But if I were to choose one, I would choose “fascism,” not the Italian political ideology of the first half of the 20th century, but the word that best describes regimes that deny freedom to their people. Saddam Hussein’s regime certainly fit into that category and it was blatantly obvious to anyone who bothered to look. Although Bush never used the word, the recognition of fascism was always there in the background and that was understood by the majority of Americans, even if subconsciously. The failure of the war’s opposition to understand this, deal openly with the issue, and offer their “believable solution” sealed their fate as well.
In the face of a serious crisis, Americans will respond to inspired and inspiring leadership, but, having a simple “word” greatly helps them focus and deal with reality honestly. Lacking that leadership, the “word” may still be there to serve as a focus, even if unrecognized at the time. Having a “word” is a very important factor, often a critical factor if the response to a crisis is to be effective.
Barack Obama provided his word: change. It served him well in the campaign as he left it sufficiently ill-defined to allow his supporters to rally behind his word, without needing a definition. They were left to provide their own and they did. We now see the limitations of that word as President Obama struggles to restore his leadership. His word failed its test and he has yet to find another to replace it.
If there was one thing the Republican Party of 2008’s campaign lacked, it was its word. “Change” may have been ill-defined, but it offered more than the opposition provided. So it was that President Obama was inaugurated with his word accepted by the American public while his opposition milled in confusion, both leaderless and wordless.
That is over now. President Obama’s failure to define his word to the satisfaction of the majority has led to his party’s defeat this year. Unfortunately for him, his opposition has found its word.
The Tea Party’s major contribution to the electorate as well as to the Republican Party is the new word that moves the American people during this time of great financial crisis. That word is debt. Having established their word, the challenge for Republicans is to define it in terms of policies and implement it successfully.
If they fail and we are left with two failed words in the political vocabulary of the day, then it is an open question as to what the next word will be and who will establish it in the public mind. On the other hand, if they can make it work, the US will enter a new era. Whether we appreciate that new era cannot be determined until its underway, but this may be a point in American history when, once again, a single word summarizes far more and can serve as a guiding light…or not.
If not, we will be left wordless once again.