Back before the age of “reality” shows, Fox News and staged wrestling, television was a serious cultural medium with the courage to present real news and to reflect on our fears and anxieties through drama in an intelligent, non-vitriolic way.
An especially memorable episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone from that era, imagined the arrival of some apparently benign aliens whose book bore a title that was translated into English as “To Serve Man.” Since the human characters could not translate the content of the book, they interpreted the book to be a manual for “helping” mankind. Only at the end when it is too late do the humans realize that it is a cookbook with humans as the main ingredient. Serling’s voice-over at the end notes man’s fall from ruling the planet to being "an ingredient in someone's soup."
Such will be the fate of legions of voters who have been “groomed” to believe that the GOP represents their needs and interests.
When it comes to the GOP in general, and the Tea Party in particular, the messages often seem like they were composed in an alien language. As many commentators on the left have mused, how is it possible for voters to support political positions that seem manifestly against their self-interest? The only plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that the voters don’t see that their own interests are imperiled by conservative policies and priorities.
What crystalized this problem for me was the occasional chant of “keep government hands off my Medicare” at Tea Party rallies and raucous town hall meetings in 2009. We might want to label those voters as “stupid”
"To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people. I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs!"
- Wanda to Otto in A Fish Called Wanda
which, while satisfying, is not helpful. Worse, it is counterproductive in that it reinforces the charge that we are left wing elitists.
We have to discern why voters are thinking this way. What does this apparent cognitive dissonance tell us? If anything, it tells us that these voters perceive peril coming from an entirely different direction. GOP messaging drives those perceptions.
Political messaging has often been about campaign pitches containing coded references that mean one thing to one group of people, and something entirely different to others. The GOP in particular has a knack for this technique, such as the southern strategy with its references to “state’s rights” (obliquely signaling sympathy with simmering southern white racism and confederate ideology), or the infamous Willy Horton ad run against Dukakis in 1988 (a law & order pitch with a distinctly racist taint).
Over the years, GOP messaging has become a full time operation, slipping the confines of political campaigns. GOP messaging is now more about setting the stage – “grooming” voters by altering voter’s perception of reality – so that subsequent positioning seems more like a rational response to reality. On the left, we know that this is not reality at all, and get tied up in knots trying to refute false facts. Meanwhile the GOP message hits home.
The cat was let out of the bag several years ago, though few of us caught it and understood its meaning. Ray Pensador touched on this recently in his discussion of the apparent advantage conservatives have selling their agenda. Ray referred to a 2004 article by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.
Suskind was primarily interested in the “faith” and “gut instinct” decision making processes of the Bush White House, which discouraged discussion and dissent. He was also fascinated by the “signaling system” employed to appeal to the evangelical base without alienating non-evangelicals.
Every few months, a report surfaces of the president using strikingly Messianic language, only to be dismissed by the White House. Three months ago, for instance, in a private meeting with Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pa., Bush was reported to have said, ''I trust God speaks through me.'' In this ongoing game of winks and nods, a White House spokesman denied the president had specifically spoken those words, but noted that ''his faith helps him in his service to people.''
. . . .
This signaling system -- forceful, national, varied, yet clean of the president's specific fingerprint -- carries enormous weight . . . . [emphasis mine]
However, a little earlier in the article, Suskind recounts a conversation with a Bush “senior advisor” (apparently Suskind later identified the aide as Karl Rove, but I've not found a truly reliable source for that assertion) which is the real bombshell of the article:
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'' [emphasis mine]
Suskind had been called to receive White House displeasure in 2002 over an Esquire article about Karen Hughes. Suskind understood this exchange as getting to the heart of the Bush presidency; what he did not understand is that it gets to the heart of the conservative grooming of America.
The level of arogance revealed by the Bush "senior advisor" is not unusual. In GOP Has Been Openly Scamming Dems for 30 Years Now swellsman called attention to a recent Washington Post op-ed by Deval Patrick wherein he reminisced about an encounter with Grover Norquist in 2003. Norquist's brazen assertions, recounted by Patrick, are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg; Karl Rove was openly predicting a permanent Republican majority during that same time period. Rove and Norquist felt that they could be so candid because the ground work had been done and they were then reaping the fruits of their efforts.
One wonders why the Democrats seem to keep falling in line, aiding and abetting the right wing. Part of the answer may be that Democrats inevitably feel pressure created by GOP predatory grooming and succumb to the appearance of public opinion. It's a scam and it's effective.
One way the right wing grooms voters is by repeating blatantly false facts with the zeal of TV pitchmen. This particular method appears to be William Kristol’s specialty - see Fed up Fed’s diary on Bill Kristol. But that is a blunt instrument and by no means the most common grooming technique. The more subtle and persistent methods involve misdirections that focus the public’s attention away from reality and on something else. Typically, the effect of the misdirection is to cast GOP policies and actions – or Democrat actions and policies – as something other than what they really are. Once misdirected, voters do not see what is really happening until the damage is done.
Conservative misdirection takes many forms. The most common form is creating straw men that the GOP heros can then bust up. Charges of “death panels” and “destroys Medicare” during and after the health care reform debate are examples of that tactic.
Another form of misdirection is the failure to disagree with someone else’s egregiously false, sexist or racist statement. Take the GOP silence over the phony birther controversy. Silence implies agreement, which then supports other more conventional attacks on Obama’s policies and integrity. And, having said nothing, when critics point out that the birther narrative is racist, the GOP accuses them of “playing the race card” and gets away with it.
Other misdirections play off the “who’s at fault / who gets the blame” game. The meme that has emerged in recent years – and is sometimes reflected in polling – is that both parties are equally derelict in caring for the needs of the country. So it is quite common now for reporters to include in an article somebody’s opinion along the lines of “I’m sure both parties are to blame,” as Reuters did in a recent article on the Minnesota government shutdown.
The “everyone is to blame” narrative implies a moral and intellectual equivalency between competing positions – otherwise known as the “false equivalency argument” – reinforcing the message that “government is the problem, and is incapable of formulating and executing solutions.” Having misdirected and alienated voters from their representatives in general, the GOP can, for example, manufacture a deficit crisis while evading responsibility for doubling the national debt when they controlled Congress during the Bush years. Democrats, in turn, get forced into playing deficit reduction roulette.
There are other techniques - character assassination/ad hominem attacks, scapegoating and guilt by association are a few of my favorites - that are employed to divert attention and distort voters' perceptions of reality. For a really good rundown of the various ways this is done, with special attention to Fox News' modus operandi, see 14 Propaganda Techniques Fox "News" Uses to Brainwash Americans. Most if not all of those techniques are recognizably present throughout right wing messaging. As the author notes at the end:
Fox audiences, birthers and Tea Partiers often defend their arguments by pointing to the fact that a lot of people share the same perceptions . . . . But, the fact that a lot of people believe something is not necessarily a sign that it's true; it's just a sign that it's been effectively marketed.
How do they pull it off? We might want to take the easy way out and just blame it on Fox News. Surely the drumbeat of misinformation and anti-liberal propaganda coming out of Fox (and others) is part of the problem, and surely they are very much a part of the right wing messaging machine. That does not entirely account for the proliferation of GOP messaging outside the realm of Fox viewers and dittoheads. From the perspective of understanding the flow of information and opinion, the rightward drift of the “mainstream” media – evidenced by the matter-of-fact repetition of right wing messaging – is more problematic.
Jon Stewart offered the perspective in his recent Fox News Sunday interview that the drift is caused not by bias but by a combination of laziness and sensationalism. There is merit to that argument, yet I’m not sure that entirely captures the problem. Even the supposedly centrist-to-left media employs people who, upon closer examination, appear to be knowing participants in the right wing messaging machine.
Take, for example, Glenn Kessler a/k/a “The Fact Checker” at The Washington Post who routinely excoriates Democrats over alleged factual inaccuracies – often involving things that are not facts at all – while giving Republicans a free pass. In Kessler’s recent criticism of Senator Barbara Boxer(D-CA), he complains that Boxer's recent floor speech crediting Clinton’s 1993 budget with ultimately leading to the surplus of 1998 was inaccurate because – wait for it –
“the Clinton plan was never intended to achieve a balanced budget”
and that after the disastrous 1994 elections
“Republicans immediately set the goal of achieving a balanced budget within seven years. After resisting for a few months, Clinton shocked many fellow Democrats by announcing that he, too, would embrace the idea of a balanced budget.”
Kessler concedes that not one Republican voted for Clinton’s 1993 plan, in part because it included higher taxes on the top two percent of taxpayers, and further concedes that it was an even tighter budget than President George H. W. Bush’s deficit reduction package of 1990. Nevertheless, because the Nineties turned out to be the period of the great stock market bubble resulting in capital-gains taxes flowing in the government coffers, Kessler deftly pronounces Clinton “lucky to become president just as a revolution in computer and information technologies was unleashed.” That Congressional Republicans were lucky for the same reason escapes Kessler’s notice.
Kessler’s “fact checking” is just another exercise in conservative opinioneering masquerading as truth and fact. More dangerous are the subtler biases in daily reporting.
Even in the supposedly liberal New York Times I’ve seen the GOP message inserted into a news article and left uncontested. Take, for example, the Times’ recent puff piece on Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina. The most egregious element was in the passage about the NLRB lawsuit against Boeing alleging that the aircraft maker has built a new facility in South Carolina – a right-to-work state – specifically to retaliate against unionized workers in Washington State. After a one-sentence summary of the case, the article goes on to say
Ms. Haley, who has support from more than a dozen governors on the issue, testified recently before a Congressional oversight committee on the role of the board. Her point? The federal government must stop getting in the way of economic growth in the states.
And that’s it. Nothing about the role of the NLRB as an independent agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act. No mention of the fact that Boeing executives have made statements that support the NLRB the charge. No raised eyebrow over the notion that Haley “testified” before Congress on this issue. Just the GOP meme that the federal government is impeding economic growth in the states.
To state the blindingly obvious: What we have here is a messaging problem.
In the Internet age, the noise level in the information stream is higher than ever. People whose normal middle class lives are unspeakably busy have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in a noise reduction process, unless noise reduction is offered to them in a readily accessible way. Enter Fox News. What the right wing understands very clearly is that messaging is an art form whose purpose is to cut through the noise and present a point of view as if it were a factual nugget, and eliminate other points of view as noise.
Messaging from the left sometimes gets through, but then gets muddied. For example, President Obama’s recent news conference contained plenty of material to report on, but what grabbed the headlines? His proposal to eliminate a tax loophole relating to corporate jets. You know it hit home because the GOP felt compelled to respond to that one thing in particular, denigrating it as class warfare and small change in the grand scheme of deficit reduction. The mainstream media – including opinioneer Kessler – picked up on the “small change” narrative.
While the right wing has been mounting an assault in entitlement programs for some time – to the point that “Medicare spending drives the budget deficit” has become a recognizable meme – some of our messages on those issues still get through intact. If Representative Charlie Dent’s (R-PA) recent town hall meeting is any indication, the GOP is in for a long, hot summer:
Yet, if you read Josh Marshall’s July 1 blog post on TPM, you have to be concerned that the Democratic message is not getting out entirely. The public overwhelmingly supports the Democratic position on taxes, Social Security and Medicare, but continues to be confused if not outright misinformed about the debt ceiling. GOP messaging continues to resonate, even though it is totally at odds with other views of the public.
When messaging becomes predatory grooming, we are fighting something far more insidious than different policies and points of view. We are fighting different perceptions and different facts. It is a problem as fundamental as whether or not the earth revolves around the sun.
When the left is focused on an issue we are capable of meeting GOP messaging head-on. But we need to learn something that the GOP figured out long ago: messaging is a long term, full-time occupation that incrementally moves perceptions of the public. Its about creating and maintaining basic perceptions that play out in specific issues later on. It is not good enough to be right on the issues if the public does not understand what the issues are and what the facts are behind them. Not only do we have to act on our issues instead of falling to dispair, we have to take control of and change the conversation.
Our messaging must be proactive instead of reactive, as much directed to where we need to be in 2021 as where we are in 2011. Instead of having issues defined for us, we have to define the issues so that it is the right wing that has to struggle to respond and defend itself. We have to drill down to the news itself and influence what is reported and how, holding the media accountable for promoting misconceptions and factual inaccuracies. We have to compel the media to differentiate itself from, rather than emulate, Fox. It is the combination of the way information is selected and presented, and the follow-up opinions of taste makers, that influences the direction of thinking among voters.
We know that contemporary GOP views and policies, like the aliens’ cookbook in The Twilight Zone, hide horrifying realities. But voters do not necessarily perceive that, and that will not change until we find ways to change public perceptions. We have to both bring and keep real facts in the public eye and influence perceptions of the GOP, driving a common understanding that they are serving voters up to their wealthiest supporters as a meal. We have to persistently get our messages out through the mainstream media, framing and discussing issues in ways that capture and keep media attention. We have to keep our messages in front of voters, countering the GOP’s attempts to remake reality to suit its purposes. Most importantly, we have to do this day in, day out for the rest of time.