11/17/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Robo Rove and Willie Horton Redux

The progressive side of American politics feels done in by the nasty work of Karl Rove, following in the muddy footprints of the late Lee Atwater, a grinning, guitar-strumming master of demagoguery. The effectiveness of slamming Michael Dukakis with the horrifying tale of Willie Horton is now being revived using mug shots of William Ayers. Rove has been retooled as robo calls in a number of swing states, all of it to see if the old black magic will keep working. Instead of erupting in outrage and secretly dreading that a smear campaign will undo Barack Obama's lead in the polls, I return to the basics.

Why did the Republican smear machine work in the first place? The answer from many on the left is that the American electorate is stupid, malleable, covertly racist, easily frightened, and capable of falling for rich white Republicans who could care less about the common man. Let's say that all those things are valid (even though most are open to debate). Such factors can't be quantified, and if asked, many people give ambiguous or misleading answers about their personal beliefs. The second point to make is that Barack Obama owes his rise, in large measure, to overlooking people's worst instincts and appealing to their better ones.

From the beginning, his campaign has posed a clear-cut choice between the best and worst in human nature. The right-wing revolution went through three stages of moral deterioration.
Stage 1 -- Resentment toward blacks, gays, immigrants, liberals, atheists, and the educated class was openly encouraged for political gain. Previously unrespectable, even anti-social beliefs were given entree into electoral debates. This was the Nixon 'silent majority' phase.
Stage 2 - Splinter groups that preached intolerance and bigotry were praised for their "values." This was the Reagan phase, which preached the hollow slogan of "Morning in America" while ignoring AIDS victims -- just one symbol of institutional immorality.
Stage 3 - As the right wing gained power, anyone who didn't agree with their ideology was smeared and labeled as immoral, unpatriotic, extremist, and disloyal. The term 'liberal' encapsulated all. of these. This was the high-water mark of the Tom DeLay, Karl Rove phase during the Bush years.

Obama isn't proposing a return to left-liberal politics so much as a reversal of these three stages of moral decline. His great adversary is apathy. As long as 40% of the electorate votes Republican out of inertia, the demagogues had an easy time getting another 8 - 10% to follow fear, intolerance, and xenophobia, the toxins that all democracies are susceptible to, especially in stressful times. Those wedge voters are probably still in place, even if they feel demoralized by the defrocking of their patron saint, Pres. Bush. Three million dedicated Christian fundamentalists, fired up by fringe issues like flag burning and gay marriage, can only sway a Presidential election if there is severely low voter turnout.

But now the apathetic majority has risen up for the first time since the Reagan revolution, not to vote for Democrats but against an immoral agenda that masked itself in sheep's clothing. I know many people who are afraid that McCain and the Rove machine can stir up the worst in human nature once again. For me, the right attitude isn't fear and suspicion but a clear-eyed realization that voters vote for immorality only when they are blind or asleep. Waking up is Obama's best hope, and although it took an economic calamity to seal McCain's fate, the electorate seems more awake this year than in a very long time

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