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Opinion: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Poli Psy


Published October 27, 2010 at 11:15 a.m.

In the Socialist Republic of Vermont — leader in environmental protection, marriage equity, health care and education finance reform — why are liberal Democrat Peter Shumlin and conservative Republican Brian Dubie running neck and neck in the gubernatorial race?

I’ll forgo parsing the effectiveness of their tactics — whose TV ads are better, who’s on the offensive or the defensive, even who’s telling the truth more of the time — and get right to the heart of the matter.

The emotion propelling voters in this and every other race in the country is cold-sweat economic fear. Conservatives have cleverly named the object of this fear The Deficit.

But beneath this abstract alias lurks a person — a horde of persons. They are the poor, people of color and immigrants. Some are terrorists and sexual “predators.”

When the going gets tough, the tough blame the Other. The candidate who can best marshal fear and loathing wins.

Take a look at the GOP’s “Pledge to America.” The text is the usual: “Blah blah blah Constitution. Blah liberty, taxes taxes taxes blah blah blah.” The conclusion, also paraphrased: “Eliminate government except for bombs.”

But the photographs in the pledge tell the real story: endless overfed, middle-aged white people watching white men (and one woman) explain things; soldiers; pretty small towns; and not one but two pictures of cowboys. In 48 pages there’s not a single face of color — unless you count the Statue of Liberty, which is green.

Nationwide, candidates are using similar tactics. Constituents pictured on the website of Sharron Angle, Harry Reid’s Tea Party opponent in Nevada, are also all white. That’s no accident in a state that is 35 percent nonwhite.

Vermont is not above this fray. Because race is a less discernible subtext than class here, it’s easy to miss it. But here, too, Othering is a useful tactic for solidifying a constituency — and, more subtly, undermining your opponent’s legitimacy to represent Vermont. I use the word “represent” as both a transitive and a reflexive verb.

As Seven Days political columnist Shay Totten has pointed out, Dubie’s theme, “Pure Vermont,” creepily reprises the 2006 Take Back Vermont campaign against same-sex civil unions, whose implication was that homosexuals were not Vermonters. Add to that the candidate’s gaffe that William Hsiao, the eminent Chinese American health care consultant hired by the Vermont legislature, is “a doctor from Taiwan” invading “a small little state in New England.” And top it off with the bogus “list” Dubie waved around at one debate, allegedly containing the names of 780 child pornographers and drug dealers who’d be released by Shumlin’s plan to save $40 million in corrections spending by transferring nonviolent prisoners to community supervision. “Pure” starts to evoke not maple syrup but the Aryan Nations.

But there’s another prominent person in this race who is also suspiciously impure. Peter Shumlin. The Democrat’s Otherness problem became explicit when a Dubie supporter showed up at a campaign event sporting a swastika tattoo. But you don’t have to be a Nazi to sniff a certain sinister foreignness in this guy with the big nose. Even progressives call him too smart, too confident — “arrogant,” they say, a term right up there with “cheap” in the lexicon of antiSemitism.

Dubie may not have created this bigotry or even encouraged it, but his campaign has let it go with faint condemnation: Staff called the actions of the man at the rally “childish” and “theater and jokes and games.” Still dogged by the incident, Dubie clarified his position: “Well, first of all, I don’t support swastikas.” Interestingly, the word “Jew” has not been uttered.

Shumlin doesn’t utter it much, either. The last time I can find was in 2007 — an interview with Philip Baruth in which he spoke of his Russian Jewish immigrant father and Protestant immigrant mother. As if to balance this just-barely-from-here profile, though, Shumlin added that his wife’s great-grandfather was a “full-blooded” Vermont Native American. And in this race against a fifth-generation Vermonter, he wastes no opportunity to remind voters he was born and bred in Putney. He is also frequently pictured driving a tractor.

The Democrat is unable to invoke purity, and he is possibly disgusted by the idea. His website vows to “encompass” the “legitimate concerns” of “women, men, lesbians, gays, heterosexuals, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics [and] Caucasians” in the equal application of the law under his leadership. But Shumlin has his own code for asserting his Vermont bona fides — and perhaps weakening those of his fifth-generation-Vermonter opponent.

This is “the Vermont Way,” which, Shumlin declared, Dubie’s “campaign of mistruths and fear” is not.

What is the Vermont Way? Aside from being the Shumlin Way, it is hard to say exactly. It surely evinces nostalgia for a golden Vermont, not so long ago, when politicians were civil and everyone told the truth. There’s also a suggestion of purity — if not racial, then moral — in the phrase. I mean, are political aggression and general meanness really so outré in Vermont? Was it the Vermont Way when white settlers stole Shumlin’s great-grandfather-in-law’s land?

The closer to the grassroots you go, the more blatant Othering becomes in this year’s political races. In most cases, the bogeyman’s name is the budget deficit, but his body is that of a poor person. Linda Johnston, a Greensboro Republican running for the House, assures voters that “we must preserve our safety net for our most needy and vulnerable citizens,” she told the Hardwick Gazette. But she also promises to “limit welfare benefits to a maximum of a five-year lifetime benefit.” In the following sentence she vows to reduce waste, fraud and abuse. It’s not hard to figure out whose well-being she deems wasteful to maintain.

Over in Lyndonville, Republican Senate hopeful Joe Benning decries Vermont’s decaying bridges and furloughed judges “These problems stem from trying to do too much for too many for too long and with too little,” he says. You know he’s not talking about corporate tax giveaways.

And in Bennington County, GOP State Senate candidate Gerald Woodard is tossing some witches on the fire to heat up his popularity. Among his “common-sense” plans: “Create tougher laws for sex offenders.”

Peter Shumlin has risked considerable political capital by standing up for the Other — homosexuals, teenagers seeking abortions, pot smokers and now (though under the banner of fiscal conservatism) even some criminals. Although, like Dubie, he has signaled an unwillingness to raise taxes on the wealthiest — and that means more painful cuts to programs for the poorest and most marginalized — Shumlin’s ideas for saving money, such as single-payer health care, tend to give equal value to human need and economic sustainability.

Dubie is doing his best to paint these ideas as politically too liberal for Vermont. So far, half of Vermonters are saying they don’t think so. But in the privacy of the voting booth, that soupçon of Otherness may sow enough mistrust to defeat this Putney “half-breed” and put the Pure Vermonter over the top.