The previous three installments of this ongoing project (here, here, and here) took a look at the ongoing Chris Christie saga in New Jersey, whereby the Great 'Moderate' Hope of the Republican Party for 2016 and the White House got in trouble over a bridge too near.
Revelations that approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed as an apparent act of political retribution (and possibly as a message over financing for a development project) have since expanded into a number of investigations and reports throwing light into some pretty dark places for Christie and his administration. And yet, while the allegations are disturbing, more disturbing is the way in which so little about Christie's real character is a surprise. How is it that so many like Chris Christie seem to rise and thrive in America these days?
Follow me past the Orange Omnilepticon for a quick recap and discussion of what the Christie Mystery says about the current State of the Union.
The Mystery of Chris Christie is simple: how did someone whose increasingly obvious character flaws, documented bad behavior, partisanship, and questionable judgement pass himself off for so long as a centrist, can-do champion of bi-partisanship governing, a regular guy who'd be a great choice to be president? Part 1 of this series touched on just a few of the things that should have raised warning flags about Christie's fitness to hold office; this diary by middlegirl details how his very first successful run for office was fueled in part by smears and a dishonest media campaign.
The Problem of the PressThe story in Part 1 is about the failure of the media to perform the functions a supposedly free press needs to do to in a viable democracy: inform an engaged voting public, challenge the government as needed, and provide context and background in a manner which at the very least attempts some objectivity. Instead we get horse race reporting where the focus is on who is winning and who is losing. We get trivialization of important matters, where complex issues are reduced to sound bites without any background or context, reporting a mile wide and an inch deep. We get stenography, where reporters repeat back what they're told uncritically in exchange for access. We get narratives, where once an 'official' version of events gets established in the press, anything that doesn't fit it gets omitted from coverage. (Benghazi! IRS scandal!) We get false equivalence, where no distinctions are made between one side or another - just uncritical equal time for every side without regard to actual facts. (Example: "Some say Earth is round; others disagree.)
Except, of course, IOKIYAR and things like this happen. (Or don't happen - h/t to Digby for noting it.) It's not surprising when you look at the whole picture. Contributing to these failures of the press is the existence of "the mighty Wurlitzer" - a combination of dedicated right-wing 'news' networks, talk radio, newspapers, radio stations, think tank propaganda mills, astroturf groups with dark money, etc. that is constantly working to shape narratives it favors and suppress those it doesn't - and attack its designated enemies - which includes the 'liberal media'. Conservatives have deliberately built a vast messaging machine, and they know how to use it.
They work at framing issues to control the Overton Window - the things that actually get discussed and considered in political debate as 'reasonable' while excluding everything else. (Example: until Occupy Wall Street forced the issue, inequality got damned little attention from the press.) What happens when someone relies on FOX for news exclusively? It's not just the predictable spin on issues; it's also the things that disappear.
Given the statistics about Fox’s conservative influence and the way it misleads its viewers, I think it is fair to classify much of what it does as propaganda. My liberal cynicism seemed to render me immune to that — their O’Reilly-style hectoring eliciting a few laughs, but doing little to change my worldview. But Fox, as I came to discover, indulges in another form of opinion creation. Let’s call this the propaganda of ignorance. By choosing which stories to cover, and, perhaps more important, which stories to ignore, Fox is able to advance its political agenda in a much more subtle and insidious way.emphasis added
I think that some of my fascination with the news comes from a basic fearfulness, a neurotic belief that the world is a threatening place, but that if I know enough about what is going on, I will be able to avoid the most horrific of disasters.
But now I was aware of Fox’s role as a purveyor, not only of right-wing information but of right-wing ignorance, and I began to examine my mind for things that I hadn’t gotten any information about in the past month. The most notable items that were missing, I realized, were people from other countries and poverty. Aside from the times when picturesque destruction video was available, there was essentially no coverage of foreign affairs. On the poverty side, programs like food stamps and welfare were generally referred to as handouts, and the only time poor people were mentioned was when they were a source of malfeasance. One prominent “Fox & Friends” story, for example, cited a woman who, because of a computer glitch, managed to buy $700 worth of food on a food stamp debit card with a balance of $.47.
What they can't control, they work hard to suppress by attacking other media outlets and their sources. Not that they have to work too hard at it - the rest of the media, as Kos notes, can't be bothered to do real reporting and/or fact checking. It's gotten to the point where people get more accurate information from comedy shows than supposed news organizations. (H/T to BruinKid)
It is a phenomenon exacerbated by the consolidation and corporatization of the press. When a news organization is only one element in a corporate empire, its survival depends on ROI and the bottom line. At which point, the choice between telling people what they need to know versus what they want to hear (or others want them to be told)… becomes no choice at all. (The mission statement of Charles P. Pierce is a refreshing blast of fresh air.) It's rather difficult for the 'free press' to do its job in supporting democracy when the bottom line rules all.
It's even more difficult when the competition doesn't give a damn about objectivity at all, just winning the news at all costs. The problem of power is recapped below; it's worth noting that the power of the press IS a form of power, and that power can be used for good or ill. In the hands of a high SDO personality like this man with more than a little paranoia, we're not talking about a free press any more; we're talking about a weaponized propaganda machine. One of the problems the founding fathers missed while setting up a republic was that they didn't anticipate how the world would change with media empires in the information age.
The Courtier Press is worth special mention - those members of the 4th Estate who have been subsumed by their erstwhile natural prey into a kind of symbiosis, where in exchange for parroting the views of the rich and powerful and giving short shrift to those who oppose them, they consider themselves privileged members of the Established Order. Access to power is worth gold in the information age - even if it too often proves to be Fools Gold. Press and Pundits alike know the rules of courtiers - step over the line into actual journalism, and prepare to become an unperson. (Example: Mann and Ornstein.)
Christie's downfall may have one redeeming feature - it's revealing (or should) how feckless the press and punditry has become. Here's courtier David Brooks on NPR's All Things Considered on Friday:
...Nonetheless, if it does turn out to be true that he did know about the lane closing, it is actually kind of hard for me to see Christie running for president. He was OK that he's a bit of a bully.And…
It's OK because people wanted maybe to send a message to Washington that we need to send a bully to Washington, but a duplicitous bully who lied, really, about the central claim of that news conference, that's tough to run on, especially with so many other candidates in the field.
...And in Republican circles, I was having a conversation with somebody a couple hours ago, saying who can really stand up stature to stature with Hillary Clinton and the only name that was coming to mind was Governor Christie.emphasis added
It's awfully hard to read this without getting the impression that David Brooks (and who knows how many others in the press) think there's nothing about being a thug that should disqualify someone from political office - if anything they seem to respect/revere them. That is, until something comes up that they can't reconcile with their 'man crush' feelings. They were okay with Christie going to Washington because he might be able to beat Hillary Clinton (Strong Leader!) and that was all that mattered - as long as he wasn't caught out lying.
See, that's the thing about authoritarian followers - slavish adulation of their leaders, so long as they don't let them down or otherwise do something they can't deny to themselves is a betrayal. Sara Robinson notes this is one of the few ways to get authoritarian followers to break free, the realization that they're being victimized by their leaders. It doesn't mean they won't turn to others just as bad, but it does create an opening for a real learning experience.
Paul Krugman for one, is a rare bit of fresh air on this.
Chris Christie’s political success in New Jersey was based on the perception that his personal style — which involved lots of yelling at people — was a sign of his governing effectiveness. This perception may have flourished most easily in a state whose informal motto is “You got a problem with that?”John Peter Zenger weeps. And a press that has made itself irrelevant wonders why they are now being treated like the enemy. That's the problem with sucking up to authoritarian leaders - the moment you annoy them, you're expendable and to hell with freedom of the press.
But what some of us suspected all along was that Christie didn’t yell at people because he was a get-results kind of guy; he yelled at people because he had anger management issues. And his office’s bizarre screed against David Wildstein, his former ally now turned enemy, confirms that diagnosis.
The Problem of Power - Part 1
It is the nature of power that it attracts those least fit to wield it or to be trusted with it. The founding fathers attempts to temper power with a government divided into mutually competing/cooperating branches was intended to provide enough checks and balances to prevent any one branch or any one person from becoming paramount. Government of, by and for the people - not merely the powerful; a republic, "if you can keep it."
Part 2 of this series looked at research dealing with one of the more troubling aspects of human nature: authoritarianism. There is a certain mindset that is predisposed to desire 'strong leadership' because of a generally fearful and mistrustful attitude towards the world. These people are natural followers. At an instinctive level they desire an authority to submit to which promises to keep them safe, authority they support aggressively, and a world view that doesn't do nuance. You are either for them, or against them; their world is defined in large part by who their enemies are, and what frightens them. Facts and reason are not what moves them; they go with their gut.
The leaders who they attract and put into power tend to rank high not only in authoritarian tendencies but also high Social Dominance Orientation. As Sara Robinson summarized the work of Bob Altemeyer and John W. Dean on this:
Leaders form just a small fraction of the group. Social scientists refer to this group as having a high "social dominance orientation (SDO)" -- a set of traits that can be readily identified with psychological testing. "These are people who seize every opportunity to lead, and who enjoy having power over others," says Dean -- and they have absolutely no qualms about objectifying people and breaking rules to advance their own ambitions. High-SDO personalities tend to emerge very early in life (which suggests at least some genetic predisposition): you probably remember a few from your own sandbox days, and almost certainly have known a few who've made your adult life a living hell as well.If that doesn't read like a thumbnail sketch of Chris Christie, what does? Christie is a member of a Republican party that has become not only increasingly conservative, but authoritarian; the party has deliberately pursued a strategy of appealing to authoritarian voters by looking for people angry/afraid on the basis of things like religion and race. (And if you didn't look at the lengthy profile of Roger Ailes linked above, take another look - and there's more here.)
High-SDO people are characterized by four core traits: they are dominating, opposed to equality, committed to expanding their own personal power, and amoral. These are usually accompanied by other unsavory traits, many of which render them patently unsuitable for leadership roles in a democracy.
The problem of authoritarian leaders is that they thrive on fear and anger. They've deliberately stirred up division in America for political gain, and cultivated an atmosphere of perpetual threats that only 'strong leaders' can deal with. The paradox is, you need not be a natural authoritarian follower to fall for them, not if you ARE afraid and angry for whatever reason. (Noun - verb- 9-1-1 still sucks in a lot of people.) Actively opposing them has the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the aura of fear and anger they cultivate - and energizes their followers. Enemies to attack!
As Part 2 went into some length about, Ronald Wilson Reagan's narrative that government wasn't the solution, it was the problem, set the stage for an America that stopped working for most of us, an America in which most of us are becoming poorer, less secure, and disengaged from the necessary work of governing ourselves. And thus the Christies among us have free reign. (Again, Pierce nails it.)
The Problem of Power - Part 2
Reagan's trashing of the public sector and the very idea of a public is one of the more toxic legacies of modern conservatism - everyone for themselves, as David Frum inadvertently reveals while attempting to put Margaret Thatcher in context over her remark that there is no such thing as society. You're on your own, suckers; somehow the idea of people banding together to cope more effectively with an unfair universe has been tarred as weakness and irresponsibility.
The cult of individualism, selfishness over all, has been glorified to toxic levels. The founding fathers knew about the choice of hanging together or hanging separately; they knew that slavishly following personal interests at the expense of common interests was a recipe for defeat in the long run. Further, that foundation of common interest has been used to enable individual freedom to an extent isolated individuals could never achieve on their own. Of course, it works just fine if you're a high SDO leader with the resources and followers to get what YOU what, and screw everyone else. And it works even better if your enemies/victims can't/won't work together to oppose you.
It goes hand and hand with the glorification of the private sector as the source of all that is good in this world. Part 3 of this series looked at how it has become a de facto state religion in many regards. The fallacy of looking to market forces as the magical means of solving our problems ignores one thing: the business of business is about one thing: profit. Market forces have no inherent morality, no automatic balancing of interests, no regard for history or long term consequences. A diary by akadjian lists 25 Images of Markets "Regulating Themselves" which gives the lie to the mindless idolatry of the markets. If the founding fathers crafted our republic with an eye to avoiding the predatory inclinations of tyrants, and insisted on separation of church and state to preserve us from religious zealots as well, they did not do quite as well at protecting us from the corrupting power of wealth.
As with authoritarian movements, the private sector has become a hot bed of high SDO types, especially in the financial sector with a rather nasty form of narcissism to boot. They don't need followers for their power - they make up for it with money. And in an America, in a world with vast concentration of wealth into the hands of a few, they can damn well buy what they want, including a government that serves them and no one else.
This is part of the reason Christie was able to pass himself off as a bipartisan kind of guy, as opposed to 'values voters' social conservative types; he's coming from the financial wing of the party, an acolyte of the power of money that too many worship, on the Democratic side as well. As the spotlight on the Christie administration widens, it's becoming clear that his administration was focused on pay to play politics, as this example from Pooter03 shows.
It's that soft bigotry of low expectations. Too many of us have gotten used to the idea that we should expect little or nothing from government, that there's little difference who gets elected from either party, if we even bother to vote at all. It's too easy to assume nothing we can do will make a difference, that our best hope is to be left alone - but we expect to be ripped off anyway. There's a distaste by too many people to even talk about politics, let alone get involved. After all, politicization is bad! (And just ask any bully - they'll tell you it's not their fault their victims are always provoking them by trying to stand up for themselves.) As Yeats put it,
...Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;The antidote is simple. As Lois McMaster Bujold has put it, "The world is made by the people who show up for the job." We need to show up instead of leaving it to the Christies and those who back them. The final installment of this series will attempt to finally square this circle into submission with the power of fantasy, and also with a bit of exegis regarding a famous/notorious quote and what is (IMO) the source on which it is based.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.