The story of the 2008 election was the coming of age of online politics. Hundreds of millions of dollars raised. Unprecedented macro and micro-organizing. Citizen empowerment. Humongous email lists that we were told would deluge politicians who stood in the way of the Obama Internet juggernaut.
Of course, it hasn’t turned out that way.
The story of the 2010 elections is the triumph of the rightwing noise machine, a lumbering, well-greased behemoth created and honed over the course of three decades. Anchored by Fox News and talk radio, amplified by blogs and chain emails and juiced by the Drudge Report, this machine cranks out think-tank crafted soundbites that dominate the national discourse. Perennial terms like “big government,” “socialized medicine,” “judicial activism,” and “tax and spend,” are imbibed, regurgitated, magnified and proliferated, shaping perceptions and inflaming passions.
A million reasons have been put forth about how and why Democrats squandered their singular moment in 2008, everything from the economy to badly timed health insurance reform, but one thing is indisputable: the 2010 midterms are a clear victory for the right’s old-school messaging operation.
No one can argue that there weren’t warnings about putting too much faith in the Internet. A year into the Obama presidency, Zephyr Teachout predicted that Organizing for America Will, and Should, Fail:
Organizing for America sent out a request for house parties today, asking people to watch a video about Obama’s economic recovery plan, talk about it with their friends, and build support for it. While there will be tweaks, this is the kind of action we can anticipate from OFA. I predict that there will be perhaps a thousand of such parties, then hundreds, then dozens. I think OFA will fail in its mission to directly engage Obama supporters in supporting Obama’s executive actions. And I think this is a very good thing.
It will fail because Obama–suiting a President–is not oppositional, conflict-driven, and not likely to pick out particular targets to be won over–all things that are likely to engage people. It will fail because it is from OFA, not from Obama. And it will fail because OFA cannot be a new democratic party, but will have a hard time defining what it is, and what kind of real power ought exist at every level of the organization.
During the health care debate, I posted The Health Reform Fiasco Is an ‘Old’ Media Triumph — and a Red Flag for Democrats:
Political and policy battles are primarily about messaging, about shaping public perceptions; despite widespread Internet triumphalism in the wake of the 2008 campaign, ‘old’ media mechanisms are not only relevant, but potent; Obama’s victory was predominantly the result of a well-conceived and executed traditional campaign strategy (i.e. creating effective positive and negative message frames and adhering to them).
A striking fact about the current political environment is that despite the ground-breaking Democratic victory in November, the new administration is dealing with an oddly familiar political brew: the “liberal media” mantra is rekindled, conservative talk radio (i.e. anti-liberal radio) is resurgent, Rush Limbaugh is more relevant than ever, Ann Coulter is once again doing the network rounds, and if online commentary over the past month is any indication, many progressives still feel disconnected from the levers of power. The dynamics and tensions of the past decade remain firmly in play: rightwing noise machine (albeit denuded) versus progressive activists, old-school pundits and politicians versus online powerhouses, netroots versus DLC, frustrated outsiders versus back-scratching insiders, partisanship versus bi/post-partisanship, media versus bloggers, and so on. Democrats would do well to note how unpredictably the Conventional Wisdom Machine has operated (or how predictably for those who are less sanguine about the fungibility of a web-fueled grassroots campaign).
Setting aside strategic errors by the Democrats (and there have been several in this fight), just look at how reform opponents have outgunned the White House using town halls, cable news, newspaper editorials, Freepers, Drudge, talk radio and chain emails. If I close my eyes, I’m transported back to my days on the Kerry campaign and the summer of Swift Boats, Purple Heart Band-Aids and rightwing attack machine antics. It’s as though a half decade of technological advances disappeared in the blink of an eye. Forget Facebook and Twitter, it’s all about Fox and MSNBC and CNN replaying images of angry protesters at town hall meetings railing against ‘government takeovers.’ It’s about Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spreading fear and fury. It’s about anonymous emails zipping across the country, distorting the facts and sowing confusion. It’s about rightwing pundits setting the terms of the debate by foisting radical ideas on the public.
Paradoxically, the attempts by Democrats to counter all this by sending emails to Obama’s list and creating campaign-style fact-checking websites seem almost quaint by comparison. When a woman at a town hall spoke about “awakening a sleeping giant,” she may as well have been alluding to the old media tools and techniques that have been dismissed by pundits and tech evangelists as anachronistic in the Internet age. Simply put, despite volumes of cyber-ink about the left’s online prowess, and despite Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, the right can apparently dominate the national conversation using the same outlets they relied on five and ten years ago.
That was a year and a half ago. The midterms further cement my view.
The beliefs that have shaped the 2010 midterms can be traced directly to the likes of Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. In a post titled The unbearable lightness of being a Tea Partier, I outlined the process by which rightwing soundbites transform conventional wisdom:
Anecdotal evidence continues to mount that the Tea Party is another manifestation of a rightwing phenomenon whereby carefully crafted talking points are force-fed to the public through Fox, talk radio, chain emails and other communication mechanisms, then regurgitated in the form of deeply-held convictions.
I say “force-fed” because if you tune in to these outlets, it’s a relentless stream of indoctrination:
Liberals are worse than terrorists — Global warming is a hoax — Obama is a Kenyan socialist — Gays are trying to corrupt our children — “Big government” is oppressing us — All Muslims are bent on our destruction — “Activist judges” are trying to undermine the Constitution — The Constitution’s two main tenets are that everyone should have the right to carry assault weapons and that America is a Christian nation.
A fundamental characteristic of Tea Partiers’ views is the vehement embrace of ideas with little or no grounding in knowledge or comprehension and the parroting of Fox-style soundbites as though they were carefully considered positions.
At a candidate forum here last week, Representative Baron P. Hill, a threatened Democratic incumbent in a largely conservative southern Indiana district, was endeavoring to explain his unpopular vote for the House cap-and-trade energy bill. It will create jobs in Indiana, reduce foreign oil imports and address global warming, Mr. Hill said at a debate with Todd Young, a novice Republican candidate who is supported by an array of Indiana Tea Party groups and is a climate change skeptic. “Climate change is real, and man is causing it,” Mr. Hill said, echoing most climate scientists. “That is indisputable. And we have to do something about it.”
A rain of boos showered Mr. Hill, including a hearty growl from Norman Dennison, a 50-year-old electrician and founder of the Corydon Tea Party. “It’s a flat-out lie,” Mr. Dennison said in an interview after the debate, adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture. “I read my Bible,” Mr. Dennison said. “He made this earth for us to utilize.”
Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy.
“This so-called climate science is just ridiculous,” said Kelly Khuri, founder of the Clark County Tea Party Patriots. “I think it’s all cyclical.” “Carbon regulation, cap and trade, it’s all just a money-control avenue,” Ms. Khuri added. “Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”
A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.
The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.
The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. A Tea Party manifesto, called the Contract From America, even contains a rigid provision stipulating that all legislation passed by Congress should specify the precise clause in the Constitution giving Congress the power to pass such a law — an idea touted Thursday by the House Republican leadership.
But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.
The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.
No single group should ever presume to claim special ownership of the founding fathers or the Constitution they wrought with such skill and ingenuity. Those lofty figures, along with the seminal document they brought forth, form a sacred part of our common heritage as Americans. They should be used for the richness and diversity of their arguments, not tampered with for partisan purposes. The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once famously asserted that history was an argument without an end. Our contentious founders, who could agree on little else, would certainly have agreed on that.
The point is not to denigrate or minimize people’s views, but to demonstrate that the views are often based on erroneous information, misinformation or outright lies delivered by cynical millionaires like Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
If you’re going to ‘defend’ the Constitution or deny global warming or reject “big government”, you might want to do your own research before taking the word of Constitutional scholars and climatologists like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Christine O’Donnell.
Or as I put it recently: Only in the Tea Party can you defend a Constitution you haven’t read, deny climate change you’re causing and slam government programs you support.
UPDATE: Further evidence of the disconnect between beliefs and facts:
A Bloomberg National Poll finds that by a two-to-one margin, likely voters in the midterm elections think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program won’t be recovered.
The facts: The Obama administration cut taxes for middle-class Americans, has overseen an economy that has grown for the past four quarters and expects to make a profit on the hundreds of billions of dollars spent to rescue Wall Street banks.
Said pollster Ann Selzer: “The public view of the economy is at odds with the facts, and the blame has to go to the Democrats. It does not matter much if you make change, if you do not communicate change.”