For as long as I can remember, Digby has been one of the most astute political bloggers on the left. I remember the first time I called her at home, during the 2004 presidential election. I was handling netroots outreach for the Kerry campaign and I wanted to connect with one of my favorite writers. The person on the other end was a kindred spirit and ended up providing years of advice, guidance and friendship. I’m still not sure why, but almost everyone assumed Digby was a man, so I, along with the handful of other progressive bloggers who knew, kept her gender secret until she finally revealed herself. I still read her site daily and just came across this razor sharp observation:
Anyone who is writing about the unreasoned radicalism of the right wing as if it just manifested itself out of nowhere has at least been in denial for well over a decade and a half.
Nothing more to add.
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?
The great rightwing resurgence: right or wrong, Republicans project strength, Democrats project weakness
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.
Barney Frank explains the root cause:
President Barack Obama is afraid of acting in a way that would spur voters to view him as weak on defense, a top Democrat charged Wednesday. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the president was “intimidated” by certain issues, particularly an effort by Frank and a few other lawmakers in both parties to rein in defense spending. “It’s the one area where I’m disappointed in the president,” Frank said Tuesday evening during an appearance on MSNBC. “I think he gets intimidated by this notion of, ‘Oh, you’ll look weak on defense.’ “
This is a perennial problem. In many ways, the progressive blogosphere was created to fill the vacuum left by the persistent image (and reality) of Democratic weakness, to convey the truth that militarism is not the only definition of strength, that moral might trumps material might. By nature, online progressives are confrontational activists, loyal to causes, not people. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are no netroots darlings. Anyone who crosses the community on a matter of principle faces a similar backlash. Witness Howard Dean’s dressing down over his mosque position.
Progressive bloggers exert an enduring and outsized influence on the public discourse because they project strength. With few partners in the Democratic leadership, their impact on policy is proportionally small, but they are despised by the political and media establishments precisely because they ferociously stand their ground on core values. It’s why they are an indispensable counterweight to the rampaging right.
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. Why do you think Glenn Beck wants to co-opt Martin Luther King Jr.? Democrats have the ideas and the ideals, they just need the courage of their convictions.
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.
I dislike the phrase “desecration of hallowed ground,” but if it applies to anything, it’s Glenn Beck’s obscene appropriation of MLK
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.”
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.
Progressive activists have been raising the red flag for almost two years. The message to Democrats has been simple: if you don’t present a grand unified vision of what Democrats stand for, the rightwing noise machine will step into the vacuum and frame everything you do as part of a liberal conspiracy to destroy America.
The progressive message has not gotten through. The result is now a wave election, with Democrats scrambling to avoid a total wipeout. In this state of chaos and confusion, Democrats are now resorting to the “nutcase defense” — trying to tell voters that they are ‘crazy to vote for crazy people.’ But this is a gross misreading of the rise of the Tea Party, the age of Palinmania and America’s sudden rightward shift. Case in point: this DNC ad could easily be released by the RNC and would be an effective GOTV tool:
UPDATE: Sarah Posner expresses a similar view:
I covered 9/12/09. It was pretty “crazy” looking, but at the same time, I talked to plenty of people who weren’t carrying Obama-is-the-Antichrist signs and were, it seemed to me, looking for someone to give them some easy answers about why the economy was in the crapper. (See here and here for my perspective on the events.) They were looking in the wrong place, obviously, but the Democrats won’t win by telling these people they’re crazy or cavort with crazy people. But that always seems like the easiest way to go.
That’s not to say that nativism, racism, and other ugliness shouldn’t be reported and reviled. But Democrats shouldn’t be “gleefully noting to reporters” anything about Beck. Until they have their own brilliant plan to rally the faithful, glee shouldn’t be part of their vocabulary or their talking points.