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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Channeling the classic “reluctant gunfighter” meme – How Obama was able to get tough with the GOP during the 2012 campaign and yet still be seen as “the good guy” in public opinion polls.

Ed Kilgore’s extremely insightful analysis of Obama’s four-year grand strategy focuses on a key point that is not often noted in the post-mortems of Obama’s victory.
Progressives were quite reasonably frustrated and even outraged by Obama’s conciliatory, “bend over backwards to achieve a compromise” approach at many points during his first term and they can easily point to strong evidence that his apparent meekness was repeatedly perceived as a lack of decisiveness and timidity by the public rather than as sensible or levelheaded moderation.
However, quite paradoxically, these same characteristics actually rebounded quite powerfully to Obama’s advantage during the crucial months of the 2012 campaign. Even as Obama firmly and repeatedly attacked Romney, the GOP could not make the charges that he was “vicious”, “nasty” “negative” or “unfair” stick against him.
The psychological dynamics of how this occurred are worth considering with some care. After all, Americans do not in general admire leaders who seem “weak” or overly willing to compromise their beliefs and ideals. Quite the contrary, progressives are entirely correct when they insist that, in general, Democratic candidates should be consistent, firm and confident in their views and “stand for something” rather than appearing uncertain, shifting with the wind and seeking compromise for its own sake. Voters are also unlikely to accept last-minute redefinitions and “repackaging,” as Romney found out to his chagrin.
So how did Obama seemingly violate this general rule?
One significant psychological insight into the answer comes not from opinion poll data but from the decades of market-based experience of Hollywood scriptwriters – from the formulas that are used in the movies to create the hero or “the good guy” and the villains or the “the bad guys”.
There are, in fact, two distinct Hollywood formulas for creating “good guys” and “bad guys,” two approaches that actually map quite clearly onto the general approaches of the GOP on the one hand and Obama on the other.

The more recent approach to creating heroes in Hollywood movies emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Hollywood began ruthlessly segmenting its films to appeal to niche audiences and designing them for distribution to international mass audiences that have limited interest in the subtle development of character or plot. The traditional Hollywood action film with clear heroes and villains became narrowly focused on the teen-to-early-20’s male market and the hallmark of these films was virtually nonstop big-bang special-effects action from the first four minutes to the closing credits.
To appeal to this very young, pure action-seeking audience, Hollywood action films entirely dispensed with any character development. Even before the opening titles of the typical action movie appear the motivation of the main character is firmly and completely established in one simplistic, hyper-rapid stroke: the hero-to-be’s wife and/or his children are molested/killed/assaulted/kidnapped or tortured in vivid and savage detail. By the time the main title flashes on the screen about 4 to 6 minutes into the movie the hero is already driving or riding in hot pursuit of the evil-doers – a square-jawed strong man who has turned into an avenging demon from hell, totally intent on revenge.
The villains in these films are equally without character or personality. They are cardboard stereotypes – venal, degenerate drug cartel bosses and their swarthy, sadistic hit men in the 1980’s and 1990’s and hate-filled fanatical Middle Eastern terrorists in the 2000’s.
This cardboard characterization of “good guys” and “bad guys” broadly corresponds with the general outlook and approach of conservative political discourse. Regardless of whether the speaker is Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the head of the Heritage Foundation or the RNC, in conservative speeches, conservatives are simply assumed to always be inherently “all-American” “moral” ,”right” and “good” and liberals latte-sipping elitists who are invariably “wrong and “bad”. The conservative politician or orator, in his or her own mind, is an avenging fury bringing fierce and well-deserved retribution to the dastardly evil-doers of the liberal world.
There is, however, another formula, one which dominated Hollywood filmmaking until the mid-1980’s and which is still the dominant formula for big “blockbuster” films like “Braveheart” , “Gladiator” and “Lord of the Rings” that aim at reaching a broad mainstream American audience.
The classic example and template for this approach was the 1953 western “Shane” which established the archetype of the “reluctant gunfighter” – the former gunslinger who has put away his guns and turned from violence because he sees its futility only to be gradually forced to take them up again because of the gradually increasing provocations and outrages committed by the films villains. Literally dozens if not hundreds of films with this theme were produced during the 1950’s and 1960’s – including virtually every western that starred John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. In the subsequent decades the storyline jumped cinematic genres to appear in urban action films (the ex-Green Beret/karate instructor/special ops guy who is forced to clean up his old urban neighborhood), in historical action films (the peaceful Scottish farmer (Braveheart) or tired-of-war Roman general (Gladiator) who is forced to leave his idyllic home to fight injustice) or in science-fiction and fantasies (the simple hobbits and gentle elves who with great reluctance join the fight against evil Sauron (Lord of the Rings) or the ethically decent human conqueror who joins the alien natives to resist invasion (Avatar)). It is one of the most durable tropes in cinematic history.
The absolute key to making this storyline work is the screenwriters’ understanding that the real drama lies in the interior struggle of the hero with his desire to avoid violence and how it is gradually overcome by his deep sense of justice and moral duty. One Hollywood screenwriter once said in a writers conference that the art of this storyline is to slowly build the suppressed fury of the audience to an absolute boiling point by very carefully and gradually increasing the outrages of the villains so that, when the Shane character finally — finally — goes to the trunk to get his six-guns, the audience literally leaps out of its seats cheering and shouting with relief.
Obama obviously did not consciously intend to invoke this Hollywood cinematic formula during his first term, but in retrospect it is clear how closely the polling data tracked this storyline. From the beginning of his presidency Obama was attacked and insulted in the most bitter fashion imaginable ( Hitler mustaches, hysterical dictator accusations and so on) but the polling showed most Americans simply could not be convinced to see him personally in a negative way. As his repeated attempts to seek compromise were rebuffed, polling did indeed indicate that, although people found him sincere, they also saw him as far too weak and tentative in defending his positions. Finally, when he began to recast the 2012 elections as a muscular contest between two approaches – one in which he was firmly and finally taking a clear stand — his positives for “caring about people” and “being on their side” rose sharply while the perception that he was weak and excessively conciliatory declined.
From the point of view of a Hollywood screenwriter the GOP’s error was clear. Republicans staked their entire approach to the 2012 elections on the belief that they could convince most Americans to see Obama as either a cardboard villain or a dithering weakling. They lost the election because the American people saw him instead as a “reluctant gunfighter,” a man who genuinely wanted peace and compromise but who was finally forced to take a stand.
The Republicans gambled that Americans could be convinced to see Obama as the sneering, America-hating villain in a low-budget Chuck Norris action flick. Instead, the voters saw Obama as a modern-day Shane.

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