Peddling Anger and Fear

The Perennial Republican GOTV Strategy

Municipal elections, like next week’s (the one for which you’ve received your ballot), typically demonstrate low ballot turn-in (aka “voter turnout”) numbers. Four years ago, in the November 2017 elections, when, like this year, the highest profile contests were for seats on the Spokane City Council, only 34 of 100 ballots were returned. (In 2019 when the positions of Spokane City Council and Spokane Mayor were at stake, the numbers were a little higher, 47 of 100. For perspective, last year’s high profile presidential election ballot turn-in was 81 of 100.)

Winning low profile elections is all about motivating your voters. For most people there is no greater motivator than fear and anger. The Republican unified propaganda machine lives off this concept. “Mexican immigrants are dark-skinned rapists and murderers—and they’re going to replace you at the voting booth and then take your job.” In each election there are a few well-organized Republican themes designed to gin up fear and anger so as to turn out the base vote. Republican campaigns in “non-partisan,” off-year local elections follow the same prescription. 

In the 2019 municipal elections a west-side Republican operative’s propaganda video, “Seattle is Dying” set the fear-based theme for the election season. Pushed on social media, “Seattle is Dying” depicted Seattle as completely overrun by criminal homeless people. The message of fear for Spokane voters: “Spokane will look like this video of homeless camps unless you elect the Republican slate of candidates—people who will be ‘tough on crime’ and save us from this menace.” Financing the campaign of fear were realtors and developers hoping to maximize profit margins—by changing rules around sprawl, infill, and housing types.

This year Republican fear mongering is more transparent—and wildly twisted. First, instead of concentrating on a community effort to conquer the Covid pandemic, Republicans are concentrating on fear that the efforts to control the pandemic will curtail their individual freedom to infect their friends and neighbors. This manifests as boisterous, threatening opposition to mask and vaccination mandates (and careful avoidance of acknowledging that many of the fear mongers chose vaccination for themselves). Certainly such twisted opposition will motivate the most rabid don’t-tread-on-me Republican extremists to vote—but, properly understood, voiced opposition to mask and vaccine mandates should motivate rational people to reject such candidates. Rhetoric around “freedom” in this election cycle is code for opposing efforts to control the pandemic that has killed three quarters of a million Americans. 

The second Republican message this election cycle appeals to an even more basic fear: fear of a challenge to one’s worldview, one’s place in the world, specifically, fear of losing our belief in the white-washed myth of our founding by acknowledging the messy and sometimes sordid details of U.S. history. A well-funded national Republican narrative around the claimed evil and inaccuracy of Critical Race Theory, The 1619 Project, and the teaching of Equity in schools is meant to heighten the sense of threat while suppressing the complicated story of our founding and our struggles. Pre-emptive Republican rhetoric motivates the base to cast ballots for candidates who declare they will banish these imagined, Trumped-up (pun intended) evils from our schools and our discourse—and serves to suppress the teaching of the full history of our founding fathers, of the Jim Crow era, of lynchings, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, of segregation, of red-lining and race-based housing exclusion. Republican operatives understanding that acknowledging that history would eventually challenge the simmering racist narrative of much of the far right Republican voting base. 

Before you fill out your ballot look for the statements with the code words that identify the candidates who are pushing these contrived narratives—and push back with your vote. Then contact everyone you know and encourage them to cast a similar ballot. This election, like all of these off-year municipal elections, will be about which side’s supporters are motivated to vote. 

Keep to the high ground,