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Technology & Innovation

Globalization Fears That Drive Political Discourse

Political candidates are jumping on the bandwagon of criticizing China for the US' economic woes. But experts say this perception is distorted and dangerous. 

What is the Big Idea?

The backlash against U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s political attack ad is coming from all sides, including those in his own party.

For those who missed it, the ad slams incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow’s foreign economic policies and depicts a young Asian woman with a rice paddy hat, riding a bike in what is suppose to be rural China while speaking in broken English.

This wouldn’t be the first time another country was used as a political scapegoat in attack ads. Check out these other commercials that depicts Asians “dancing on the grave” of America.

The danger of these ads, however, is not just that they’re racist, but that the creators of these ads are preying on Americans’ anxiety in a downtrodden economy. Experts say politicians who use this tactic undermine voters’ intelligence.

“There is no question that there is anxiety in the United States about the current economic situation and about the position of the U.S. in relation to China,” said Susan Jakes, an Arthur Ross Fellow at Asia Society. “But the ad is targeted at the least informed, least sophisticated, ugliest variety of those anxieties.”

A Pew poll conducted in December shows that 59 percent of the people surveyed perceives China’s economic growth as a threat to the U.S. economy. But Americans’ angst about the economy comes in “all shapes and sizes” and can’t be captured in numbers and polls, said Jakes.

“It’s appealing to the lowest common denominator,” said Hyeon-Ju Rho, Executive Director at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. “What he’s doing is very divisive and ultimately very un-American and very dangerous.”

What is the Significance?

Beyond the insults aimed at the minorities depicted in the ads, these attacks are emblematic of a political party scraping the barrel for ammunition. China consultant and former president of the U.S.-China Business Council Robert Kapp calls the attacks the “impassioned cries” of a party that is in trouble.

While these commercials may get through to some voters, they are ultimately the “futile flailings of those who don’t know what to do,” says Kapp.

No one is arguing that the Chinese and US economies are deeply connected. The U.S. needs China to finance its debt and China needs Americans to buy its products. The US’ economic  relationship with China, however, is not going to be a decisive factor for a lot of voters.

In fact, Kapp argues that politicians like Hoesktra are playing into the hands of those he is trying to criticize. It allows the Chinese government to skirt responsibility for their own offenses and gives them a reason to blame the U.S. for something.

“It enables them to say that any criticism of what they do — and they do plenty that is intolerable — is merely China bashing,” said Kapp. “They can say the U.S. is arrogant, racist, imperialist, neo-colonial and it’s perfect propaganda fodder for China.”

Meanwhile, the ad continues to fuel conversations on the home front. And Hoekstra isn’t the only one getting slammed.

Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC had some choice words for the young actress in the ad. “I’ve done things in show business that I’m not proud of. But I’ve never done anything that I’m ashamed of,” he said. Ad creator Fred Davis, the mastermind behind Christine O’Donnell’s “I’m Not a Witch” ads also became a target of criticism.

Football fans in Michigan got the first taste of the ad during the Super Bowl and reactions from the Twitterverse over the next few days was fierce. Even Republican consultant Mike Murphy (top of Twitter feed below), who reacted quickly on Sunday, tweeted an unfavorable response to the ad.

The ad received so many negative comments that the comments and ratings buttons were disabled on the YouTube video. Another copy of the ad was posted with a warning that says “This video will most likely be removed. Feel free to mirror if you wish as ‘Free Speech Pete’ has disabled comments.” So while it was viewed by many, the intended message will be missed.

“Even putting aside the weakness of its economic argument, I’d imagine its bound to be ineffective,” said Jakes. “Ads like this underestimates the intelligence of the American workers and American electorates.”  

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