I learned a lot about conservative strategy from Aaron Barlow, an academic who was targeted by the right-wing attack artist David Horowitz, and then took the time to dissect Horowitz’s mode of operating. Ever since he was a leftist, Horowitz loved the message of the “Art of War” devised by the Chinese General Sun Tzu in the sixth century BCE. That message: Destroy your enemy’s fighting ability before you even meet on the battlefield. Academia is a bastion of liberalism? Attack it. ACORN registering too many poor voters who oppose right-wing candidates? Kill it. Unions prop up the Democratic coalition supporting a regulated economy modulated with social programs like Social Security? Shrink them into insignificance.
It’s simple. Destroy your opponent’s fighting ability.
And backed by the deep pockets of reactionary industrialists like the now-notorious David Koch, the right doesn’t give up.
The midterm elections reveal another target that might be bearing fruit after years of investment – women. For decades, women have leaned Democratic in the voting booth, no matter their class background. And since women vote in greater numbers than men, this is significant power. In the midterm elections, exit polls suggest women split down the middle, with the GOP winning slightly more women’s votes. That women in Colorado backed incumbent Sen. Michael Bennett helped the Democrats retain that seat. But elsewhere, Democrats lost their advantage.
Now, this might just be the demographics of who showed up to vote, since the voting pool was older, whiter and richer. But white women, who split their vote pretty much down the middle in 2006, gave their vote to the GOP this time: 39 percent voted Democratic this year versus 49 percent voting Democratic in the last midterm election.
Could white women be seeing more of a home for themselves leaning right? And do we have conservative efforts to suppress campaigning on social issues to thank for that?
Koch and other major right-wing donors lent their fortunes to the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a libertarian-oriented group launched after the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas standoff to nurture anti-affirmative action, free market-oriented politics among women. Since the early 1990s, its staff and board have countered liberal women, who would claim that progressive taxation or government supported child care or Social Security were “good for women.” “You can’t speak for all women,” the conservatives said. And the conservatives, like IWF current president Michelle Bernard, keep silent about abortion and other social issues to try to sidestep the divisive gender politics that brought the Republican conservative Christian base to the polls, but limited the party’s ability to reach beyond that base among women. That divisive gender politics is also religious politics. It is no surprise that free-market oriented Jewish women who are liberal on abortion were among the IWF’s founders.
Two other major players in the midterms, Americans for Prosperity and Freedomworks, also sidestep divisive gender and religious politics to try to undercut the dominance of the Christian right in a GOP they wish would just be libertarian. And I found some regional Tea Partiers really did try to keep gender politics off the table to focus on tax cuts, shrinking government and going after undocumented immigrants. So, the beltway groups like IWF had a grassroots movement that mirrored their strategy with new, prochoice women finding a home in conservative organizing.
The Nevada Tea Party women, whom I interviewed, were a mix of liberals and conservatives on social issues. In that, they were not far from the women in the local Republican Women’s Clubs, which, unlike those in some other states, often tried to keep social issues to the side to maintain unity.
Most of the women I interviewed are anti-abortion conservative Christians who had not necessarily identified with the Christian right, so they could work with women the Christian right might tar as the “enemy.”
But not all were anti-abortion. I learned a lot from Charlene Bybee, who leads the Reno 9/12 group and is a flight attendant with American Airlines. “I’m union. I’m a union member in my job.”
In telling her political trajectory, she made a convincing argument for keeping social issues off the table “to make sure we’re not spending our kids’ future.”
“I’ve been involved with everything from the PTA to the Junior League to women’s athletics at the university,” she told me. “With my kids both going off to college, I was looking for something else I was passionate about. I’m a professional volunteer!”
While she had done some canvassing for a Republican gubernatorial candidate, it was only in recent years with the financial bailout, then the health care bill and then Glenn Beck lit a fire under her. Through him, she found “people as frustrated as I was that we let two political machines take over the government.”
“I never wanted to be the hysterical female no one would listen to. I wanted the facts. I found that very effective. The PTA and the Junior League trains you, and I took the skills and took them into the movement.”
“We’re bipartisan fiscal conservatives who want small government. We don’t want freedom infringed upon by government that wants more control of our lives.”
“Private enterprise has to do well. You can point to the classic things the government runs, the DMV, the post office – let’s set up more red tape!… and there’s no accountability.”
“I think the core is the fiscal issues. The social issues have heavily divided us. I’m more moderate than the really conservative person.” You should not attack someone because you don’t feel the same way about abortion or gay rights or gun rights.”
“The extreme conservative Right – on abortion or gay rights – will say, oh, they are not conservative enough. I say you have to be responsive to the people they represent.” Bybee found a political home in Tea Party organizing that allowed her to be conservative and remain friendly to abortion and gay rights. Her beltway allies like Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity want to nurture that kind of space. Because within that space, many more women voters can dwell. Whether that space remains open, only time will tell.