Election 2008  
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How McCain Stays Popular Despite Supporting Disastrous Wars

The strange nature of McCain's appeal is directly tied to the distractions of the unwinnable Iraq occupation and the "War on Drugs."
 
 
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A majority of voters reject John McCain's positions on the two most important issues of the campaign, the economy and the war. Only 27 percent of Americans say they are Republicans. Yet McCain continues to run a statistical dead-heat with both contenders for the Democratic nomination. In some polls he shows a slim but consistent lead. Who can make sense out of it?

Of course who ever said that American politics makes sense? Voters' choices depend on a host of irrational factors. Even those who try to choose rationally have to gather their information from an ever-changing kaleidoscope of facts, spin and images, thrown together seemingly at random.

But sometimes that very randomness holds clues to a pattern hidden beneath the surface of the media deluge.

In the always-darkest hour before dawn last Sunday I called up the New York Times website to find this intriguing headline in the lead: "Iraqi Offensive Revives Debate for Campaigns. " Clicking the link took me, not to the article, but to a full-page ad with the tittilating title "Scoring Drugs Is Easier for Teens Than You Think." Just a random coincidence, I figured, as I hastily clicked on "skip this ad."

That click did take me to the story headlined " Iraqi Offensive Revives Debate for Campaigns." But rather than the text of the article (which came below), I saw a photo captioned: "Senator John McCain greeting a local official on March 16 in Haditha, Iraq. He says recent Iraqi efforts are a sign of strength." There was the Republican candidate, looking younger than his 72 years, dressed in a red baseball cap and a sport shirt covered by a flak jacket. Behind him blond Americans and swarthy Iraqis beamed equally broad smiles. Apparently everyone is happy in Iraq, as long as John McCain is on the scene -- "a true American hero," according to his latest TV ad, ready for battle. The photo might well have been produced and distributed by the McCain campaign (though in fact it was taken by a Department of Defense photographer and distributed by Agence France Press ).

Debate for campaigns ... teens scoring drugs ... McCain the war hero scoring political points by touting Iraqi war "strength." Already I was wondering if there really are any coincidences.

I moved on to the article, following Noam Chomsky's rule for reading the mainstream media: If there's anything important, it's usually at the end of the piece. So I jumped to the last paragraph, a quote from former State Department Middle East advisor Aaron Miller. If the current fighting "comes out well," Miller opined, "it will play to McCain's strength, his argument that the surge is working." But "if it comes out in a gray area and things start to unravel elsewhere," it will be all to the Democrats' advantage. "It's very much a question of what the ending is and whether it is clear cut."

I would have tossed this off as an obvious banality if I had not first stumbled on "Teens Scoring Drugs." But now I saw how it all fit together. McCain is offering us the war in Iraq just the way Ronald Reagan offered us the war on drugs. Both are wars that can never be won in any practical sense. But it's not about winning. It's about keeping up the fight. Because in both cases the "war" is theater. It's a show of moral clarity and certainty. And the show must go on.

The "war on drugs" has been going on for decades now. Every year it claims thousands of jailed victims and several billion of our tax dollars. No one who looks at the evidence can seriously think that all this will actually stop people from using drugs illegally.

In fact a whole academic industry studies the evidence seriously and pretty much proves that it's not really about stopping drug use at all. It's about lots of other things: keeping the drug-fighters employed, getting votes for "tough" politicians, diverting attention from more pressing problems, perhaps masking the real drug-related crimes so that they can continue unobserved. All these factors may also point to reasons that the Iraq war continues.

But the most sophisticated analyses of the war on drugs explore its deeper cultural role. As theater, it acts out a dramatic spectacle pitting good against evil. The point is not to put an end to evil, but to reassure ourselves that there is a clear and definite difference between good and evil.

How could we know that evil really exists unless we fight it unceasingly? And if we could not be sure that evil exists, how could we be sure that good exists? More importantly, how could we be be sure that we alone are the champions of good? But this show can go on only as long as evil persists, as long as "crimes" are committed. So the show must, and does, propagate the very crimes it's supposed to stop, in order to preserve our sense of moral clarity.

There's nothing new or radical in this kind of analysis. Every graduate student in sociology knows it all by heart.

What they and their professors may not yet have figured out is what the coincidence on the Times' website showed me: The war in Iraq -- and perhaps every war the United States fights -- is just as much a staged spectacle as the war on drugs. Most Americans are not interested in the complexities of Iraqi political infighting. As Aaron Miller so rightly pointed out, they just want a clear-cut ending, where good triumphs unmistakably over evil. They want to know: Will the good guys -- that's us, America -- win the day? Do we still have the ability and the will to succeed? Is America still, as the motto behind McCain in that latest TV ad claims, "a nation of courage"?

McCain and his campaign strategists understand (either consciously or just intuitively) that war is theater. They know how to write a script that evokes the mythic scenarios that have framed the discourse of American identity since colonial times. It's more than merely a script about good against evil.

It's about a particular kind of good: America as the embodiment of hope for Iraq, the Middle East, and the whole world; America freeing the world of the old chains of despotism, opening the way to a new, fresh life of democracy and abundance, American-style. It's about America as the land of the frontier, the nation of endless fresh starts, of perpetual youth and -- above all -- of innocence.

Which leads us back to teens scoring drugs. Why has the script of the war on drugs always focused on the threat to our children? It's not enough to depict drugs as a threat to public morals or worker productivity or whatever. The "war" gets strong public support only when it is all about the youth, the innocent victims who are the future of America, still needing our protection because they are too weak, too unformed, too impulsive to make sound, rational judgments on their own.

That's just the way the Bush administration, McCain and our mainstream media talk about Iraqis, of course: They can't possibly create a democracy, or any kind of stable government, on their own. We have to stay there until the job is done, or else leave them to suffer their own brand of adolescent chaos.

But for many Americans, the fate of Iraqis is not really the issue, just as the fate of our children and teenagers is not really the issue. These are just plot devices that allow us to act out the drama that really matters, the one that provides moral clarity: a clear-cut battle between the "better angels" of American society -- our frontier courage, our refusal to quit in the endless struggle against evil -- and the darker side of the American character, which takes the path of selfish ease, cutting and running when the going gets tough.

When McCain "says recent Iraqi efforts are a sign of strength," it sounds like he is talking about the Iraqis' strength. But in the larger context of the mythic drama, the question that drives the story is about America's moral strength. It's the same question at the heart of the "war on drugs" drama: Will the young and innocent have the strength to resist the path of selfish indulgence? And who is grown-up enough, mature enough, wise enough to protect them from that temptation?

The McCain campaign depends on keeping alive the first question, with the Iraqis playing the role of "our youth," so that it can supply the answer to the second question: Only John McCain, the war hero who turns old age into a political virtue, can summon our "better angels" and lead us courageously in the struggle against evil.

Before you laugh it off or shrug your shoulders in bewilderment and turn away, look at the puzzle of the polls. How to explain that some 60 percent to 70 percent agree with the Democrats that the war was a mistake, nearly all of them agreeing that U.S. troops should be withdrawn soon, yet only about 45 percent (give or take the margin of error) are willing to say they'll vote for Obama or Clinton rather than McCain? How to explain the recent poll ( PDF) that asked the all-important independents which candidate they trust most to handle a national security crisis? Answer: Clinton 14 percent, Obama 13 percent, McCain 42 percent!

McCain's appeal may be even more irrational than most of what unfolds in our political arena. But the show will go on. And if we don't understand why the script packs the audience appeal that it does, we have no hope of changing it.

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin .

 
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