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Snarled up

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

Albert Camus told us that after a certain age every man is responsible for his face. The habits of welcome and repulsion, openness and deceit, materialize – they crystallize into the material stuff of flesh and bone. Theoretical posture hardens into physical posture. The line and tilt of the jaw set into the pattern stamped by habit, that is, by character.

So it was not surprising that vice president Dick Cheney should not have let much time pass during Tuesday night’s debate without baring his teeth. This is not an incidental fact of physiognomy: Cheney’s world view is a snarl. Everywhere there are vultures – vultures everywhere. Experience must be trusted all the way over the precipice. Don’t change horses in mid-apocalypse, as the slogan goes.

If John Edwards didn’t always make clear how thoroughly Cheney was lying – Slate’s acute Fred Kaplan makes the case that Edwards let Cheney slip away – Edwards did mobilize his own sunny but firm persona as a convincing rebuttal to Cheney’s grim, predatory appearance. He was confrontational without harshness, indignant without scowls. Addressing his audience at the end, he was addressing a jury. He has that spooky magic of knowing how to look into people’s eyes, radiate goodness, and win you over. His expression says that he trusts you to do right by his client – in this case, John Kerry.

Against this whippersnapper, Cheney displayed aggression incarnate. No surprise: Aggression is his world view. It comes easily to him. Ask him about Iraq and he comes out with the same boilerplate every time – 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, and by the way, al-Qaida, and did I mention 9/11? When asked about Cleveland’s poverty, Cheney had to study his notes.

What does this matter?

Allow for the intrinsic difficulty and you can say that without doubt Edwards and Cheney played well to their respective hard cores.

Cheney leaned so heavily on his drumbeat message, it creaked. About domestic programs, he laundry-listed, sounding perfunctory. (On poverty, he quickly drifted away from the subject over to schools, where, as in Iraq, “we’re making significant progress.”) About Iraq, in the face of continuing inside dissension –Paul Bremer’s just-reported speech that the administration had botched the occupation by failing to send a sufficient number of troops, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s decidedly off-message denial that there had been a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida – Cheney repeated the mantra, “significant progress.” Edwards was blunt: “There is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11. Period. The 9/11 Commission has said that’s true. Colin Powell has said it’s true.”

Cheney pressed the “flip-flopper” button. Edwards pressed his own, pointing out that the Bush administration had opposed the 9/11 commission before it supported it; had opposed a Homeland Security department before it supported it; and so on.

Cheney played the good guard dog, and had the snarl to show for the role. In accordance with Republican talking points since the first Republican debate, he insinuated that Kerry’s “global test” phrase of Sept. 30 had a sinister multilateralist significance. He went ad hominem to show up Edwards as a lightweight, dismissing Edwards’ “record in the Senate” as “not very distinguished,” going so far as to say they’d never met before – a charge that turns out to be flatly false. He charged that Edwards’ Senate attendance record is so shoddy, “Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you Senator Gone.” (In truth, the epithet comes from the Southern Pines [North Carolina] Pilot, in an editorial published 25 June 2003. This 3-day-a-week paper has a grand circulation of 31,960.

Edwards took a walk on the ad hominem side himself, taking a couple of shots at Cheney’s association with Halliburton. Here, Edwards was on solid ground, although sometimes less than precise. Halliburton, under Cheney, had opposed sanctions against Libya and Iran, “two sworn enemies of the United States.” What Cheney did not attempt to rebut was Edwards’ charge that Halliburton has gotten special treatment: “They’ve gotten a $7 billion no-bid contract in Iraq and, instead of part of their money being withheld, which is the way it’s normally done, because they’re under investigation [for bribing foreign officials], they’ve continued to get their money.”

Halliburton, Edwards said, was reminiscent of “Enron and Ken Lay.” Better if he had spelled out the insinuation. What he meant, and what might impress some swing voters, is that, deferred CEO compensation aside, the Cheney view of the world harmonizes with the Halliburtons of the world. Cheney sees the world from the board rooms of big oil, big pharma, big and bigger. Edwards, the (horrors!) trial lawyer, sees the world from the point of view of the cheated, the helpless, the little. That came across – I think.

But second-guessing voters who’ve succeeded in staying on the fence after months of intensive campaigning is a fool’s game that everyone can play – all you need do is pretend you know almost nothing about the wider world.

Democrats can comfort themselves that Edwards defeated Cheney 41-28 percent among those famous – or is it notorious? – “uncommitted voters" polled by CBS News just afterwards. Republicans can draw cheer from other polls that show little if any difference between pre-poll and post-poll numbers.

But perhaps all the fact checks don’t get at the campaigns’ deep strategies, the subliminal messages that the candidates put forward – in particular, Cheney’s incessant reminders that weapons of mass destruction are on the verge of going off in American cities. A recent article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes some recent social-psychological research that might have some bearing on Cheney’s weird and, on the face of it, counterintuitive appeal. These studies, by Jeff Greenberg (of the University of Arizona, Tucson) and colleagues, are described in the September issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and the forthcoming December issue of Psychological Science, Glenn writes. They purport to demonstrate the power of fear – specifically, mortal fear.

In Glenn’s summary: “If people are haunted by not-quite-conscious anxieties about their mortality – the kind of half-conscious anxiety one might suffer several hours after being asked to imagine one's own funeral – they act very differently than do otherwise-similar people who have not been prompted to think about death. The death-haunted people are more likely to prefer charismatic (as opposed to ‘relationship oriented’ or ‘task oriented’) leaders. And in studies in which people are asked about real-world candidates, the mortality-conscious participants are much more likely than their peers to prefer George W. Bush to John Kerry.”

Cheney’s dire promptings about an apocalyptic future, in other words, may kindle a warm fuzzy feeling about authoritarian leaders like himself.

Glenn cites this passage from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin article: The experimental results “may not bode well for the philosophical democratic ideal that political preferences are the result of rational choice based on an informed understanding of the relevant issues.”

I’ll say. Depending on what happens in four weeks, I’m prepared to rethink every political theory I’ve ever harbored.

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