So much for the online revolution (The triumph of Fox, Drudge, Limbaugh and the rightwing noise machine)


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.

On Climate:

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.”

On Government:

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.

On the Constitution:

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.”

Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance


Information is the currency of democracy. –Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
Get a brain! Morans –Sign displayed by conservative protester

The defining battle between Obama and the rightwing attack machine was over health insurance reform. The summer of town halls and tea parties was the official descent into the bizarre reality we face today, with Quran burnings, mosque-free zones, disappearing oil spills, rampant climate denial, conservative ‘feminism’, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, legacy theft of Dr. King, rehabilitation of George W. Bush, and shunning of the left.

During the health care debate, one question loomed largest for me: what did Americans really understand about the issue? If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?

That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?

A January Pew survey examined what Americans know – and don’t know – about health care:

The public has consistently expressed strong interest in the health care debate, but relatively few Americans can correctly answer two key questions related to the Senate’s consideration of health care legislation. In the latest installment of the Pew Research Center’s News IQ Quiz, just 32% know that the Senate passed its version of the legislation without a single Republican vote. And, in what proved to be the most difficult question on the quiz, only about a quarter (26%) knows that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate and force a vote on a bill.

Pew’s findings apply not just to health care, of course, but to the entire range of important issues facing the country. What value do we assign to voters’ views on deficit reduction, for instance, when leading economists can’t get their thoughts straight? And how can Americans make determinations about politicians, parties and issues without at least a basic comprehension of the underlying policies?

Now, far from being a screed against the supposed ‘ignorance’ of the American public, this is meant to raise the question of how to better communicate and debate good ideas without having them mangled in a partisan media filter.

No matter how shallow their knowledge, people are programmed to believe they are right and will withstand a significant amount of cognitive dissonance before reason kicks in and alters their view, if ever.

Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.

Pew tells us that “Republicans do somewhat better than Democrats on the knowledge quiz,” so this isn’t about left or right, but the following clips reflect the kind of misinformation fueling political passions.

I don’t find these interviews humorous, I find them scary. Politics is the one discipline where we’re all expected to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that affect our shared future. Unless we’re doctors, no one expects us to give medical advice; unless we’re architects no one expects us to design buildings. But if we’re going to debate the future of our country, there has to be some basis in fact, rationality, in knowledge and information.

It’s daunting to realize how much we don’t know and how our most serious decisions are often based on the flimsiest of information and understanding. As a former jazz musician, I’ve listened to countless hours of music, but it’s taken me years to realize what it means to fully appreciate the depth of the art form, the intricacies of tone, timbre, harmony, rhythm, improvisational originality, the interplay of instruments in an ensemble, the subtleties of syncopation and timing. No matter what the field, it takes a huge investment of time and effort to develop anything close to a detailed understanding – and there’s always more to learn.

This, of course, applies to politics and policy. Interpreting the Constitution is a major intellectual and moral undertaking. It’s not something you do through bumper-sticker slogans. When Glenn Greenwald warns that President Obama is undermining the Constitution by authorizing the assassination of US citizens without due process, it’s a debate we should have. When Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck reduce the Constitution to handy jingoistic soundbites, it precludes a real debate.

The single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.

In a moment of candor, outgoing Republican Senator Bob Bennett (Utah) recently said, “The public has “no understanding” of what Congress does.”

Another Pew survey finds:

Asked to name the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, and given four possible names, nearly one-in-ten Americans (8%) choose Thurgood Marshall, despite the fact that Justice Marshall left the Supreme Court roughly 20 years ago, and passed away in 1993. In fact, very few Americans can name the current chief justice in a Pew Research news quiz; just 28% were able to correctly identify John Roberts. Another 6% thought the recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens was chief justice, while 4% named Sen. Harry Reid. A majority (53%) admitted that they did not know the answer.

Ezra Klein points out the difficulty of campaigning in a low-information environment:

The auto bailout is a perfect example. By and large, it worked. The automobile sector stabilized. GM, Chrysler and Ford are all posting profits. Millions of workers who would’ve gone down with the car companies still have their jobs. America retains an automotive industry that’s both competitive in developing markets like China and starting to scrap with the Japanese and German automakers in the high-tech, green-car market. But the policy wasn’t popular. Few liked it. Some thought it socialism. Some thought it cronyism. Which presents, of course, a difficulty for the White House: Saving millions of jobs and the American auto industry at an ultimately very small cost to the taxpayer is the sort of major policy accomplishment you should be able to run for reelection on. But what if people don’t really understand that you did it, or that it worked, or that it didn’t cost them much?

Until we work to rectify the problem of a dumbed-down public discourse, we’ll keep spinning our wheels – or going backward.

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer praises the Tea Party’s loyalty to the Constitution:

Indeed, it is among the most vigorous and salutary grass-roots movements of our time, dedicated to a genuine constitutionalism from which the country has strayed far.

How do you reconcile that with the anecdotal evidence in the clips above that Tea Party adherents have no familiarity with the document?

MORE:

Low-information nation: What do Americans really know about “big” government?
Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it?

It’s the moral authority, stupid


Who are America’s preeminent living moral leaders? Name three. Name two. OK, name one.

There’s a reason Glenn Beck tried to steal Martin Luther King, Jr.’s glory, it’s because there was no one he could put on that podium who exemplified and possessed anywhere near the same moral authority:

The Fox News host was attempting to sieze a mantle of moral authority earned and ultimately paid for with his life by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. And, sadly, I think in the eyes of some viewers, Beck might have succeeded.

If it sounds absurd that a mercurial cable TV host who regularly breaks down in tears and has called the president of the United States a racist should be able to get what appeared to be more than a hundred thousand Americans to listen and applaud as he laid claim to King’s mantle, it is. In fact, you might even say it is outrageous.

And for all the “warnings” and wakeup calls” that Beck issued from the steps of the Lincoln Monument Saturday, here’s another one: We need to think about the success of Beck’s rally Saturday and ask what it says about the lack of moral authority in this country today. We also need to wonder what it says about us as a culture that so many Americans on a Saturday in August and more than two million a day via Fox News come to Beck and apparently hear something in his hodge-podge of elementary-school history and mishmash of moral platitudes and bromides that they find meaningful.

Moral authority — that’s what the rally was really about. That’s what the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” at the end of the rally were all about. That’s what all the talk of standing on “hallowed ground” was all about. That’s what the repeated use of words like “honor,” “integrity” and “trust” were all about.

What is moral authority? Broadly speaking, it is the respect and power of suasion conferred on a person who is true to inviolable ethical principles. It is the ability to influence by setting an example of virtue and good character rather than through coercion.

Most politicians campaign using the language of right and wrong, tapping into the power of morality to persuade and sway voters. Once in office, the rhetoric is toned down as grand promises meet the reality of legislating and deal-making. That doesn’t mean that right and wrong cease to matter.

The astounding collapse of Democrats and the rightwing resurgence of 2009 and 2010 is a direct result of the squandered moral authority of Barack Obama and Democratic leaders. I say “squandered” because it is something Obama possessed during the campaign and something Democrats prioritized as the antidote to Bush and Cheney’s radicalism.

Pundits put forth myriad reasons to explain the GOP wave (jobs and the economy topping the list), but they invariably overlook the biggest one: that Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policies:

[The Obama administration’s] counterterrorism programs have in some ways departed from the expectations of change fostered by President Obama’s campaign rhetoric, which was often sharply critical of former President George W. Bush’s approach.

Among other policies, the Obama national security team has also authorized the C.I.A. to try to kill a United States citizen suspected of terrorism ties, blocked efforts by detainees in Afghanistan to bring habeas corpus lawsuits challenging the basis for their imprisonment without trial, and continued the C.I.A.’s so-called extraordinary rendition program of prisoner transfers — though the administration has forbidden torture and says it seeks assurances from other countries that detainees will not be mistreated.

Everything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values. Here’s how I explained it in a recent post:

With polls signaling peril for Democrats, identifying the cause of President Obama’s travails and the demise of ‘hope and change’ is a Washington sport. Some attribute it to the lifeless economy, others to Obama’s supposed (excessive) liberalism, and yet others to the prioritization of health insurance reform in the administration’s first year.

It’s really much more basic. Set aside policy and focus on sheer perception, who do you associate with strength, George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Republicans or Democrats? I’d bet good money that on both questions, many on the left would pick the former.

Bush’s bluster, born of narrow-mindedness and jingoism, led America to near ruin. But even if it was an act, transparent and loathsome to his detractors, it left an indelible impression – and I stress “impression” – of a resolute man with the courage of his convictions, no matter how terribly wrong-headed those convictions. By contrast, Barack Obama and most Democratic officials are chronically unwilling to speak in moral absolutes, to frame Democratic policies in the language of right and wrong, to project an unshakeable faith in core ideals. And far too often, the reluctance to speak with moral courage is coupled with a failure to act.

This has been the essence of the progressive critique from day one, on gay rights, civil liberties, secrecy, the environment, the economy, health care, executive power, war.

It’s baffling that pundits still don’t get it. We hear endless tea leaf (and Tea Party) reading, endless poll analysis, endless pontification about Obama’s ideology or lack thereof. He’s too liberal, he’s not liberal enough, he’s overly pragmatic, he’s a conservative, a socialist, a corporatist, he’s achieved more than any president in history, he’s presided over the biggest government takeover in history. Who cares? In the end, you either project strength or weakness. You have moral courage or you don’t.

Cheney and Bush knew one thing: from a strictly political – and cynical – perspective, pretend moral conviction is better than none at all. At the very least, it telegraphs to voters that you care deeply about something, anything. Enough to take a stand for it, to portray your opponent as unethical for opposing it.

In the best of worlds, Democrats would believe in something good and fight tooth and nail for it. Their moral compass would be true, pointing in the direction of justice, fairness, equality. Progressive ideals would guide them and they’d present America with a consistent, cohesive, powerful and inspiring worldview. Candidate Obama tapped into the force of that combination. President Obama can’t seem to do it.

Democratic weakness, real or perceived, is a self-inflicted function of the inability to project moral authority, even in cases where they possess the unequivocal high ground. Religious liberty. Torture. A war based on lies.

…It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process.The only way to break the cycle and to project strength is to go back to basics, to look inside, to find the core principles that power a life of public service and to be relentless in pursuit of those principles. Moral authority is a prerequisite to genuine, enlightened leadership.

To borrow a phrase: it’s the moral authority, stupid.

The demise of the left and the new (un)reality: a center-right America


Let’s face it, these are dark days for the left. As we barrel toward the November elections and an almost certain triumph for the GOP, we are losing the national debate and making giant strides backward on key issues.

It’s the new (un)reality:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Guns abound and the far right’s interpretation of the second amendment (the only one that seems to matter) is now inviolate.
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

All this a meager eighteen months after a wave of hope swept the nation and gave heart to progressives who had battled for sanity and rationality during the dark days of Bush. Well, these days are much darker. Already the national discourse is conducted on the right’s terms.  The marginalization of liberal thought under Bush-Cheney has only accelerated under Obama, and we must accept that indeed, America is — or is becoming — a center-right nation.

Why is this? My thoughts:

There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right.

This is something Republicans are willing to do while Democrats are not. The media plays along, so the net effect is for rightwing framing to prevail. And prevail it has. The consequence is that public opinion is shifting to the right.

The only question is how far right it can go before there’s a correction. I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE: Let me just add that by no means is this about quitting, but about being realistic. I’d never advocate giving up the progressive fight and I relish taking on those who want to take America “back” instead of taking it forward. With all the setbacks — and we’re facing a major one now — I have faith in the inexorable march of progress. Ultimately, humans will civilize themselves. Let’s hope we don’t bake our species out of existence before that happens.

Man beats man in turban: “You’re not even American, you’re Al-Qaeda. Go back to your country.”


Is this the kind of “honor” Glenn Beck want to restore?

Prosecutors have charged a man accused of punching a turban-wearing man while yelling racially-charged insults.

Brock R. Stainbrook, 35, of Seattle has been charged with malicious harassment and fourth-degree assault in the Aug. 24 incident at the 7-Eleven store on Fourth and Denny.

According to the statement of probable cause, Stainbrook abruptly threw change on the ground, then punched the victim on the side of the head.

Stainbrook then allegedly yelled, “You’re not even American, you’re Al-Qaeda. Go back to your country.”

A store employee then intervened and told Stainbrook to leave the store, the document said.Stainbrook allegedly broke a scanner and attempted to kick the employee before finally leaving the stores.

Read more about how hate breeds violence.

Facing an energized and unscrupulous right, Obama brings a water gun to an artillery battle


Two things are crystal clear from President Obama’s lengthy sit-down with NBC’s Brian Williams:

  • He is a decent, thoughtful, intelligent man, trying to do the best he can for his country under extremely challenging circumstances.
  • He is completely outgunned by the rightwing attack machine.

Watch the interview and ask yourself what’s missing from the president’s responses:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

On substance, President Obama makes several critical points, among them that the spilled Gulf oil is “still out there” and that he stands firm in support of the Ground Zero mosque. He is realistic about the economy and he gets an excellent quip in, saying that he can’t spend all his time with his “brith certificate plastered to his forehead.”

Still, you can’t help notice the glaring lack of offense, the cautious answers, the muted tone, the inability to channel the profound alarm and financial pain Americans are feeling. There’s fire on the right, there’s no fire being expressed by Obama. There’s no blasting of Wall Street, no outrage at BP and oil companies, no fury at the lies and obfuscations of the GOP, no grand unified vision of what Democrats stand for and why they deserve to run the country.

I’ve argued that the GOP aims for the total destruction of Obama’s presidency. Charles Lemos puts it in stark terms:

Nothing else will satisfy the GOP’s lust for power than the wanton destruction of Obama’s Presidency. From day one, this has been their game plan, obstruct, rant and rave, delay, obstruct some more, rant and rave, delay, repeat as necessary as to make the nation look ungovernable and the Administration as pathetic and dangerous if not criminal. Throw enough mud, maybe some will stick. And if nothing’s there, invent something.

Posture is everything in politics. The White House and leading Democrats are in a defensive crouch. Much of it is their own doing. Elected to be the anti-Bush, they’ve given Bush and his team a pass on Iraq lies and outflanked Bush from the right on civil liberties and executive power. Given an opportunity to turn the Gulf spill into a historic inflection point, they raced to bury the story, outdoing BP in the rosy spin department. Passing major bills, they neglected to frame them as part of a progressive vision for America, allowing their opponents to frame everything they do as a socialist takeover.

In this interview, Obama mocks the “silly season” and shrugs off Glenn Beck’s outrageous legacy theft of Martin Luther King, Jr. but there’s nothing silly about what the GOP and rightwing attack machine are doing. They are dominating the national debate.  They are brazenly and unscrupulously pushing the envelope further right than anyone imagined. They are doing Orwell proud, denying climate change in the face of obvious warming, pushing for more drilling in the face of an epic spill, drumming up anti-Muslim sentiment, angling for more bailouts for the rich, stealing legacies, and claiming feminism as their own. They are “taking back their country” and returning it to the 19th century.

And worst of all, the only force on the left with the passion and experience to take them on, the netroots, are systematically being demoralized and marginalized by the White House.

So even though I respect and admire the Obama I see in Brian Williams’ interview, appreciate his honesty and integrity, I know in my heart he is bringing a water gun to an artillery battle. With an opponent who takes no prisoners.

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”


It feels like a lifetime ago when I was on the National Mall with hundreds of thousands of fellow anti-war protesters, opposing what we believed to be an immoral war.

We were called traitors and “un-American” and I won’t do the same to those who have gathered for the “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial (except for those who are there to express racist or other such hateful and intolerant sentiments). Rather, I welcome citizen action and activism, I urge more Americans to get involved in the political process, no matter how different their views from mine.

Seeing the relentless focus on the military and watching someone like Glenn Beck wrap himself in the glory of others, I wanted to post an excerpt of something I wrote five years ago:

The Ethics of Iraq: Moral Strength vs. Material Strength

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Mark 8:36

The unbridgeable divide between the left and right’s approach to Iraq and the WoT is, among other things, a disagreement over the value of moral and material strength, with the left placing a premium on the former and the right on the latter. The right (broadly speaking) can’t fathom why the left is driven into fits of rage over every Abu Ghraib, every Gitmo, every secret rendition, every breach of civil liberties, every shifting rationale for war, every soldier and civilian killed in that war, every Bush platitude in support of it, every attempt to squelch dissent. They see the left’s protestations as appeasement of a ruthless enemy. For the left (broadly speaking), America’s moral strength is of paramount importance; without it, all the brute force in the world won’t keep us safe, defeat our enemies, and preserve our role as the world’s moral leader.

War hawks squeal about America-haters and traitors, heaping scorn on the ” blame America first ” crowd, but they fail to comprehend that the left reserves the deepest disdain for those who squander our moral authority. The scars of a terrorist attack heal and we are sadder but stronger for having lived through it. When our moral leadership is compromised by people draped in the American flag, America is weakened. The loss of our moral compass leaves us rudderless, open to attacks on our character and our basic decency. And nothing makes our enemies prouder. They can’t kill us all, but if they permanently stain our dignity, they’ve done irreparable harm to America.

That’s the lens through which I see today’s event. We may gain the world through military might, but what good does it do if we lose our soul? We may pay tribute to those who risk life for country — and they deserve our respect — but Dr. King’s moral authority was born of tolerance, compassion, dignity, honor, integrity, discipline, courage and those are not things we speak about, those are things we do. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of co-opting of Dr. King’s message at this rally, but it would be nice to see his example followed by the people attending.

Mr. Beck, America knew Martin Luther King Jr.; Dr. King was a friend of ours; you’re no Dr. King.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among the handful of moral giants who have graced our planet. So it’s no surprise that when someone like Glenn Beck tries to piggyback on King’s greatness, the reaction is swift and harsh.

Glenn Greenwald:

I dislike the phrase “desecration of hallowed ground,” but if it applies to anything, it’s Glenn Beck’s obscene appropriation of MLK

Bob Herbert:

America is better than Glenn Beck. For all of his celebrity, Mr. Beck is an ignorant, divisive, pathetic figure. On the anniversary of the great 1963 March on Washington he will stand in the shadows of giants — Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Who do you think is more representative of this nation?

…Jerald Podair, a professor of American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, has called Aug. 28, 1963, “the most important single day in civil rights history.” This is the historical legacy that Glenn Beck, a small man with a mean message, has chosen to tread upon with his cynical rally on Saturday at that very same Lincoln Memorial.

Beck is a provocateur who likes to play with matches in the tinderbox of racial and ethnic confrontation. He seems oblivious to the real danger of his execrable behavior. He famously described President Obama as a man “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

Brave New Foundation:

UPDATE: A powerful piece by Steve Benen:

“We,” Glenn Beck recently told his minions, will “reclaim the civil rights movement.” “We,” he added, are “on the right side of history.” After all, it was “we” who launched the civil rights movement “in the first place.”

It’s not altogether clear who counts as part of “we,” though presumably it’s limited to those who share Beck’s twisted view of reality.

Leonard Pitts Jr. explained this week that this isn’t just shameless nonsense: “It is obscene. It is theft of legacy. It is robbery of martyr’s graves.”

Beck was part of the “we” who founded the civil rights movement!? No. Here’s who “we” is.

“We” is Emmett Till, tied to a cotton gin fan in the murky waters of the Tallahatchie River. “We” is Rosa Parks telling the bus driver no. “We” is Diane Nash on a sleepless night waiting for missing Freedom Riders to check in. “We” is Charles Sherrod, husband of Shirley, gingerly testing desegregation compliance in an Albany, Ga., bus station. “We” is a sharecropper making his X on a form held by a white college student from the North. “We” is celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando and Pernell Roberts of Bonanza, lending their names, their wealth and their labor to the cause of freedom.

“We” is Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Cynthia Wesley, Andrew Goodman, Denise McNair, James Chaney, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, shot, beaten and blown to death for that cause.

Beck and his confused followers are claiming a legacy they don’t understand. They’re trying to lift a mantle that doesn’t fit on their shoulders. They’re adding their names to the same scroll they tried and failed to destroy.