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Chasing the Dragon: Why the GOP Is Addicted to Negative Campaigning

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GOP narrative is composed entirely of what they are against. Republicans are addicted to the political heroine of negative campaigning.

Elections are won by using storytelling to move the base, and political storytelling uses exactly the same narrative structure as the bedtime tales of our childhoods -- a plucky little prince or princess is invited to save the kingdom from a wicked foe, and you, the audience get to play the hero. No matter the tale, it always follows one rule:

There has to be a dragon

For there to be a hero, there must be an anti-hero. Without a troll to defeat, plucky princess can never save the kingdom. Without a dragon to slay, handsome knight can never save fair lady. Hero and anti-hero are the binary stars essential to storyline. It's how good stories work. Politicians necessarily use the same technique to excite that particular group of children known as the electoral base.

Enter the dragon

FDR showed us how it's meant to be done: "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself" -- the conceptual dragon personified as fear in order to let the audience play the hero.

Think about campaigning slogans such as "winning the war against hunger," and "beating homelessness." Who are the dragons? Respectively, hunger and homelessness. These dragons allow an active story to which we can all respond -- they attack society's ills, and not individuals in society. In telling this story, no-one gets hurt and no-one gets pilloried. It's a positive political story with the aim of a happy ending.

Tragically though, politicians discover that identifying their real-life opponent as the dragon will cause the base to respond like pack-dogs on heat. Politics becomes confrontational but at least the confrontation occurs between willing combatants who put themselves into the ring, and at this level of dragon-abuse, both Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty.

Karl Rove however, during the 2000 presidential campaign, took the dragon a step further. He used the technique to target minorities, and the GOP have never been the same since.

This dog-whistle, as it was known, had nothing to do with Lassie. This whistle was all about summoning the jackals of the base's basest hatreds. The LGBT community and marriage equality were the first victims. Rove perceived that he could invite the electorate to slay the beast with their votes. It worked, and the base streamed to the polling booths.

Becoming hooked

If the dragon generated victories in the face of electoral unpopularity, then who needed the hero? Rhetoric became purely about what the politician is against -- purely about the dragon. The hero left the building. This was the state in which Rove left the Republican Party. It's a state that ordinarily they would have grown out of by now -- successive election defeats have demonstrated that a slim majority of the electorate have sickened of the tactic. So why then, do we still see the GOP campaigning almost exclusively on the negative?

The dragon goes viral

There's nothing as politically intoxicating as a wildly baying crowd, and social media turned the dragon into a self-enforcing cycle. Negative politics are now instantly rewarded by the re-tweeting adulation of the base.

Politicians increasingly mistake the Twitterverse for mass public opinion and this in turn is leading to ever more negative campaigning.

From a message perspective, this year's mid-term elections are going to be the nastiest campaign ever mounted, but this does present a problem for the GOP: the dragon has an unfortunate habit of consuming its young. Each minority only gets to be pilloried once.

Migrants were a wonderful dragon, until demographics turned Hispanic and Latino communities into substantial voting blocks. Rapid social change meanwhile, means that beating-up on the LGBT community is no longer such a sure fire bet, even though Ted Cruz remains willing to give it a try. The hunt is on for a brand new dragon, and Obamacare would be the most likely target if it wasn't for the snag that in isolation, Obamacare is merely a noun - it's a thing and not a minority, and it's minorities that Rove trained the GOP base to react against.

Red meat is needed to get the hounds howling, and the GOP will seek to extend beyond the noun that is Obamacare by linking to a group that the base perceives as unfairly benefiting from it. Expect to hear phrases such as "freeloaders." Expect to hear about entitlement culture. "Why should your hard earned taxes be used to provide the lazy with free insurance?" is a likely theme. Rand Paul might even have been slowly winding-up his pitching arm on this subject recently with comments about the long-term unemployed. Once the target is established, it's all too easy to release the dragon.

A wise-man from a galaxy far, far away once said "Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering, and that way, lies the Dark Side, young Skywalker." Both political sides, GOP and Democrat, have chased democracy into the Dark Side, but it's the GOP who have chased hardest and fastest.

As we enter this coming election cycle, listen out for the emergence of the dragon. Who is it that the parties are targeting to inflame the base? If they are targeting willing combatants, aka: other politicians, then fair enough, but if they are targeting innocent minorities then it's time we called them out.

Become involved. When politicians chase the dragon, there are two steps you can take to help them break their addiction.

"Tell me what you're for -- not what you're against"

Politicians discussing only what they are against, are chasing the dragon live on stage. It's time to demand: "What are you actually in favor of?"

Call them out

Social media gives an outsized voice to the base, and politicians mistake that voice for public opinion -- especially if genuine public opinion opts to remain silent.

It's time we played the hero in our own political stories. We need to chase the dragon back out of politics, because when political storytelling is allowed to become only about the dragon, there is seldom a happy ending.