In the aftermath of the debt ceiling fiasco, there’s a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching going on among activists, pundits and political observers.
How can the Tea Party exert such outsized influence?
Is President Obama an awful negotiator incapable of getting progressive results or a good negotiator getting exactly the anti-progressive results he wants?
Is liberal activist anger at Obama a problem or does the White House welcome it?
Do Democrats stand for anything? If so, what?
Are Republicans reckless enough to destabilize the US economy for political ends? If so, how do they get away with it?
Is Washington really broken or does it work just fine for the rich and powerful?
Is America a democracy, kleptocracy, or corporatocracy?
Are our best days ahead of us or behind us?
On the left, and specifically the online activist left, early disappointment with Obama and Democratic leaders has given way to outright disgust. The level of frustration and rage is at a boiling point and Obama is fortunate that there’s no viable primary opponent or he’d have a problem with a flood of energy, money and media attention flowing to that candidate. Granted, he and his strategists can take solace in strong (early) fundraising and relative stability in the polls among Democrats, but the netroots are canaries in the coal mine, and if I had to bet, I’d say that the president’s re-election campaign will rue the day the netroots were spurned.
As the left vents its exasperation, the issue of progressive power (and powerlessness) is front and center. The shunning of the netroots under this president – and by the Democratic Party during the Bush years – is especially galling to them considering that Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 wouldn’t have been possible without their activism and sacrifices, both in offline protests and online action, a point I argued on the eve of President Obama’s election:
One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the tortured path to that day and the ragtag group of activists who embraced a new medium and labored tirelessly, thanklessly, congregating on websites, blogs, message boards and any other online forum they could find to write, debate, argue and resist a radical administration and a lockstep Republican Party.
When we look back at the eight years beginning with a grim night in 2000 when George W. Bush was declared the victor over Al Gore, we should give credit to those who held tough when Bush was at the height of his swagger, the ‘ten percenters’ who took pride in opposing Bush when his approval rating was near 90%, the media fawning over him, the likes of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft, Yoo, Addington, Wolfowitz, Rove and Gonzales holding sway over the nation, with Coulter, Hannity, Savage and Limbaugh spewing hate and liberals labeled traitors.
In 2005, I published an essay titled The Triangle: Limits of Blog Power, where I voiced my thoughts on the rising influence of progressive online activists and their shaky relationship with the party establishment, something I had experienced firsthand working at John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Living in DC was a rude awakening – Beltway culture was something I wrote about from the outside but hadn’t seen up close and personal. I never imagined that at the highest levels, politics and media was just high school — but more immature. Power struggles, vanity, ineptitude, irresponsibility, social-climbing, spinelessness, bullying, this was the behavior that defined DC’s political culture and it disabused me of any notion that Washington’s power brokers put the public interest above their own.
When I wrote the Triangle piece, fascination with blogs and bloggers was at a peak, as was over-exuberance about the potential of the medium. Being part of that community, I was happy about the attention, but worried that its impact was being overstated. I posited a simple structure to explain how voters adopt their views, how conventional wisdom is created, and how the netroots fit into that system:
Looking at the political landscape, one proposition seems unambiguous: blog power on both the right and left is a function of the relationship of the netroots to the media and the political establishment. Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom. This is partly a factor of audience size, but it’s also a matter, frankly, of trust and legitimacy.
Despite the astronomical growth of the netroots and the slow and steady encroachment of bloggers on the hallowed turf of Washington’s opinion-makers, it is still the Russerts and Broders and Gergens and Finemans, the WSJ, WaPo and NYT editorial pages, the cable nets, Stewart and Letterman and Leno, and senior elected officials, who play a pivotal role in shaping people’s political views. That is not to say that blogs can’t be the first to draw attention to an issue, as they often do, but the half-life of an online buzz can be measured in days and weeks, and even when a story has enough netroots momentum to float around for months, it will have little effect on the wider public discourse without the other sides of the triangle in place.
Should we conclude, then, that the inability of bloggers on the left and right to alter or create conventional wisdom means that they have negligible political clout? The answer, of course, is no. Bloggers, though unable to change conventional wisdom on their own, are able to use their proficiencies and resources to persuade the media and political establishment to join them in pushing a particular story or issue.
Six years later, despite the advent of Facebook, YouTube and countless other platforms, and the migration of the political dialogue to Twitter, things haven’t changed dramatically. There’s an unmistakable power that results from the ‘closing’ of the triangle, the impact on conventional wisdom of the media, the political establishment and the online commentariat coalescing around a particular concept, belief or line of argument. If anything has changed in recent years, it’s the complexity and volume of online commentary and the steady merging of the traditional and online media worlds. Here’s how I described it in 2008:
If there’s one thing that makes the 2008 election an inflection point, it is this: that the context, perception, and course of events is fundamentally changed by the collective behavior of the Internet’s innumerable opinion-makers. Every piece of news and information is instantly processed by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences, speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and minutes. This wasn’t the case during the last presidential election — the venues and the voices populating them hadn’t reached critical mass. They have now.
How does this affect the triangle of media, political establishment, and online community? For the press and punditry, an important reversal: their agenda-setting role is eroded and they are now compelled to partner with the online commentariat for validation and legitimation. For the political establishment, the standard methodology – where strategists and pollsters conjure and test messages to be disseminated by media teams and press shops through traditional channels – is inadequate. Politicians and public officials must now contend with higher levels of risk and uncertainty that confound traditional communications strategies.
This lengthy preamble brings me to the current debt limit debate and the unfortunate outcome of a lopsided process. The White House and Democratic leaders may say this “Satan sandwich” is a wonderful deal, but others know better:
There’s just no way to enact spending reductions of this magnitude without imposing a lot of pain. And contrary to the common understanding in the Washington cocktail party circuit, “pain” does not simply mean offending certain political sensibilities. Pain means more people eating tainted food, more people breathing polluted air, more people pulling their kids out of college, and more people losing their homes — in other words, the hardships people suffer when government can’t do an adequate job of looking out for their interests. More immediately, but equally troubling, this agreement would not address our most pressing economic problem: lack of jobs. On the contrary, by reducing deficits starting next year, this deal would do the very opposite of what virtually every mainstream economist now believes we should do: increase consumer demand by pumping more money into the economy.
There is little to like about the tentative agreement between Congressional leaders and the White House except that it happened at all. The deal would avert a catastrophic government default, immediately and probably through the end of 2012. The rest of it is a nearly complete capitulation to the hostage-taking demands of Republican extremists. It will hurt programs for the middle class and poor, and hinder an economic recovery.
At the root of the problem is this: the GOP benefits from a superior communications mechanism with which to shape and reshape conventional wisdom. Faced with a public that holds opposing views, politicians can either change their positions to match the public’s views or change the public’s views to match their positions — Republicans almost always choose the latter, bolstered by a highly sophisticated framing and messaging infrastructure crafted and funded over decades.
Climate change gaining traction? No problem, put oil money to use, fund bogus studies, cram misinformation down Americans’ throats using talk radio, Fox, etc., employ the Overton Window to move the dialogue to the radical right, undercut science, attack academics, question reality, and eventually move the needle in their direction. It’s an unseemly process, but it works. Suddenly, magically, global warming is a hoax. People without the slightest scientific grounding make dogmatic pronouncements about it, disdainfully dismissing a mortal threat to their own children and grandchildren.
On the other side you have the Democratic establishment, political leaders, pollsters and strategists who, by and large, are poll addicts, chronically incapable of taking principled stands, obsessed with appealing to independent voters, hostile to progressive advocates, often just as captive to moneyed interests as their Republican counterparts. Mind-bogglingly, it was the White House and Democratic leadership that worked with BP to ‘disappear’ the Gulf spill, for fear it would harm them in the 2010 midterms. Craven doesn’t begin to describe it.
The fact that America is a low-information nation only makes the right’s task of creating conventional wisdom easier. There’s so much hype about the Tea Party that it’s easy to forget who they are: Foxified and Limbaughed citizens whose legitimate anxiety has been manipulated by a billionaire-funded misinformation machine:
One of the most understated and important aspects of U.S. politics – of politics in general – is the fact that many voters hold strong views on issue they don’t fully comprehend, from ‘defending’ a Constitution they haven’t read to opposing policies they don’t understand to railing against “big government” in the abstract but supporting big government programs.
These videos illustrate the problem:
Think about it: in a nation where Casey Anthony gets unlimited air time, how many Americans really understand the intricacies of the issues facing them? Most Americans can’t tell you where Europe is on a map, how can you expect them to assess the efficacy of Keynesian economics? And that’s not blaming them. Economists can’t even agree on the basics. So the brashest, loudest, most confident-sounding voices end up filling the knowledge void, voices that sound authoritative and principled. Rush Limbaugh, for instance. Or Sarah Palin. Sean Hannity. Ann Coulter. Bill O’Reilly.
Echoing these blaring ‘voices of authority’ are Republican politicians and the right’s online denizens. Conservative pundits and columnists then lend it all an air of seriousness. And the media, desperately seeking to appear “fair,” give an uncritical national platform to those voices. Not to mention Fox News, which pipes a steady stream of propaganda into millions of American homes. The triangle of establishment, media, and Internet comes together on the right and conventional wisdom is created. Pollsters then dutifully register that shift in sentiment and the media regurgitate it. A virtuous loop for the right.
There’s simply nothing comparable on the Democratic side.
If anything, in the debt debate, President Obama and leading Democrats were part of the Republican triangle, reinforcing GOP talking points and running roughshod over a country that didn’t even agree with the conservative position.
Compounding the disaster for Democrats is that Republicans understand the importance of body language and posture – fighting for a belief is always more appealing to voters than fighting for compromise. Add it all up, and it’s no wonder ideological self-identification leans in the right’s favor.
Is there an antidote to this rightward shift?
Kevin Drum is on the right track when he writes:
Public opinion is everything. … The public is mostly in favor of raising taxes on the rich — though I suspect its support is pretty soft — but on the bigger issues they mostly aren’t on [the progressive] side. They think deficits are bad, they don’t trust Keynesian economics, they don’t want a higher IRS bill (who does, after all?), and they believe the federal government is spending too much on stuff they don’t really understand. Conservatives have just flat out won this debate in recent decades, and until that changes we’re not going to be able to make much progress.
This is why I blame the broad liberal community for our failures, not just President Obama. My biggest beef with Obama is the same one I had three years ago, namely that he’s never really even tried to move public opinion in a specifically progressive direction. But that hardly even matters unless all the rest of us have laid the groundwork. And we haven’t. Wonks, hacks, activists, all of us. We just haven’t persuaded the public to support our vision of government. Until we do, the tea party tendency will always be more powerful than we are.
My fundamental disagreement with Drum is where to place the blame. From my perspective, it falls squarely with the Democratic establishment, not the broad liberal community.
Here’s why. Imagine a scenario where Democrats, instead of marginalizing the netroots, treated them with the same awe and respect the Tea Party engenders on the GOP side. Imagine an Obama presidency where the health care debate started with a fierce fight for single-payer; where Gitmo had been closed; where gay rights were unequivocally supported; where Bush and Cheney were investigated for sanctioning torture; where climate change was a top priority; where Bush’s civil liberties violations were prosecuted rather than reinforced; where the Bush tax cuts expired; where the stimulus was much bigger; where programs for the poor, for research, jobs, infrastructure, science, education, were enhanced at the expense of war and profits for the wealthy; where the Republican assault on women’s rights was met with furious resistance. I could go on and on.
In short, imagine an America where the Democratic establishment loudly proclaimed that they were unshakable champions of core progressive values and that they would work hand in hand with their base to convince America that their ideas were superior to the right’s.
Of course, that’s a fantasy. The unwillingness of Democratic leaders and strategists to do anything remotely close to that has virtually guaranteed that the triangle isn’t formed on the left. Obama’s supporters are fond of pointing to the GOP House and complaining that his hands are tied because of the 2010 midterms. But it’s precisely the Democratic establishment’s decrepitude that enabled the rise of the Tea Party and the 2010 defeat.
Greg Sargent frets that “one sixth of Americans agree with the liberal argument about the [debt] deal.” He’s right to be worried about the numbers. America’s national debate is conducted on the right’s terms. That won’t change unless and until Democrats work with their most ardent activists to move a low-information nation toward progressive positions. The online community and progressive groups simply can’t do it on their own without the participation of the Democratic leadership and media. The media won’t do it as long as the Democratic establishment marginalizes the left.
As I said previously, faced with a public that holds opposing views, politicians can either change their positions to match the public’s views or change the public’s views to match their positions. Only when Democrats decide to do the latter will America’s rightward shift be halted or reversed.
If the White House and Democratic leadership were in sync with the activist left rather than insulting them at every opportunity, the media would follow and the triangle would form. Look at Obama and Bush’s big swings in approval – the American public is far more malleable than Democrats acknowledge. In a nation where anxiety abounds, strong, principled, powerful, determined voices will change minds. Republicans know that and they have a system to take advantage of it.
Troublingly, neither Obama nor Democratic leaders and senior strategists have any intention of doing the same. I’ll leave it to others to figure out why. Suffice it to say that many progressive thought leaders believe it’s because the Democratic establishment has little in common with progressivism.
The one thing that gives me hope is that the inexorable march of human progress is the activist left’s secret weapon, ultimately trumping manufactured conventional wisdom, the deceptions of the right and the weakness of the Democratic establishment. It’s a harrowing journey, but eventually progress wins out.
UPDATE: A reader points out something I alluded to but should have noted more forcefully. Namely, that the public is often more aligned with the progressive view on many issues, but is still force-fed the right’s positions.
Joshua Holland at Alternet explains the process:
As Think Progress reported, “Since the end of the Bush presidency, shadowy right-wing groups, many of them formed for this very purpose, have primed the public with a sophisticated public relations campaign to shift the national discourse to a focus on debt reduction.” That’s resulted in what Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent describes as a “deficit feedback loop,” in which “the relentless bipartisan focus on the deficit convinces voters to be worried about it, which in turn leads lawmakers to spend still more time talking about it and less time talking about the economy.” Sargent highlighted a study released in May by the National Journal confirming his thesis. It found, “a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media’s consciousness.”