There are several rather astounding things about the current campaign of Glenn Beck against various Administration appointees. Most astounding, however, has been the Obama Administration reaction to date: quick capitulation in the face of relatively small pressure. Indeed, one of the reasons there was so little initial defense of Van Jones in progressive circles was because most of us were unaware of the attack until the Van Jone’s “resignation.” As compared to previous campaigns in the Clinton years or Bush years to oust various officials, pressure to fire Van Jones had not even approached noticeable, let alone “scary.” Indeed, I am sufficiently cynical wrt the DLC/Rahm Emmanuel faction of the Ds that I cannot help but wonder if the Beck-led anti-Jones campaign was merely a convenient excuse for pushing out a smart and effective progressive.
But whatever the reason, the Van Jones firing proved a major strategic blunder. It infuriated the Netroots and younger civil rights constituencies, who felt betrayed, and it emboldened Beck and his following to seek new “kills.” It also demonstrated the truth of Feld’s Rule of Political Power: “Your political power is directly related to your perceived ability to cause pain.” Within a week, Beck was claiming another kill in the form of Yosi Seargant at National Endowment for the Arts, prompting talk of an unstoppable McCarthy-esque crusade (or campaign of freedom, depending on your political perspective).
Among the latest targets of Beck and his followers is Mark Lloyd. I’ve known Mark for some years and consider him friend, so I am hardly the most impartial of defenders here. Besides, my Public Knowledge colleague Art Brodsky and others have written strong personal defenses of Mark and debunked the charges against him as well or better than I could. Nor is my purpose here merely to fulfill my Biblical obligation not to suffer “a tale bearer among thy people, nor stand by the blood of thy neighbor” (Lev. 19:16) by re-iterating the defense of Mark Lloyd.
Rather, I note this is a splendid opportunity for Genachowski to save Obama’s tuchus by showing that you do much better standing up for your own people than caving (one of the few lessons Obama could stand to learn from Bush). Whether the Van Jones “resignation” came from heartless political infighting from the DLC faction, brainless failure to consider the natural consequences, or simply lack of political courage, Genachowski has the opportunity to give the Administration a heart and a brain and — what it appears to need most these days — courage. Because, as the far too lengthy an wonky analysis below shows, this ain’t the 1990s anymore, and the best overall political strategy is to take a page from the Bush Administration and stand firmly with the base by telling these guys to bugger off.
More below . . . .
I can’t help but begin with an extremely lengthy analysis of how the attack strategy developed, its inter-relationship with media consolidation, and how changes in the existing media and voter environment explain why Beck’s recent attacks are actually fairly weak and dictate the proper counter strategy. This, of course, is why my Technorati rating is so low it is impossible to measure. But I gotta be me, and me is pretty verbose.
Anatomy of The Classic Conservative Attack Strategy
For those out there too young to remember the Clinton years in detail, the conservative movement of the time developed an excellent attack strategy to keep the Ds hopelessly helpless and utterly unable to act. It works like this:
1. Find the strongest point in the opponent to convert it into a weakness. This has the advantage of surprise and neutralizes your opponents greatest assets.
2. The attack should focus away from issues of relevance to the technical requirements (e.g., is the person actually qualified, is the proposed bill tailored to the specific problem addressed) but instead on “moral” or “cultural” issues. This has several advantages: (a) they are non-rebuttable (how do you rebut “radical, not mainstream”); (b) it can include acts from any length of time, can include friends or acquaintances, former organizational affiliations, and other irrelevancies, because it is designed to resonate on the emotional level rather than the rational level (I discussed why this works so effectively during the attack on Oprah almost exactly a year ago.
3. Because “there is no man on Earth so righteous that he does only good and does not sin” (Eccl. 7:20), you will always find something you can use. More to the point, because the initial stage of the attack is targeted to the base, not the independents (see below), it is OK to use something that the other side values and use that as proof of the emotional attack.
4. Begin from the ground up by going live in outlets to the base before trying to push into mainstream media nd the general public. Not only does this resonate the base, it has the positive virtue of sustaining the base. Even in the mid-1990s, the conservative base was always described as “angry.” It is central to the maintenance of the base to always keep them stoked. Providing them with a new target based on the attack therefore energizes the base and ensures a significant numerical response to your action item.
5. Use the strength of the reaction from the base to prove both the validity of the attack and its “mainstream” nature. Remember, your base is always mainstream, the other side are radical extremists out of the mainstream.
6. This is usually good enough to attract the attention of “mainstream media,” who give surface coverage to the controversy itself and present as a “one side says A, the other B” story. If necessary, beat up on the MSM for its “refusal to cover the story.” In the 1990s, this was extraordinarily effective. Even if they continue to ignore it, you will win by re-enforcing for your base their status as true heroes and warriors for the Truth, constantly under threat, and ignored by the Liberal Media.
Surface coverage by the MSM is good because for the vast majority of people to believe that there must be something to the attack, especially if the attack is designed well and resonates on an emotional level with pre-existing frames and stereotypes (e.g., “big government,” “reverse discrimination”) that dominate the existing public policy framework. The happy side effect of this for those who profit from these frames and stereotypes is it reenforces them as the appropriate frames for all issue analysis. By contrast, actual in depth coverage (for example, of the sort McCarthy received once he went after the army), is bad. Happily, due to the state of the MSM as a consequence of various regulatory changes relaxing media ownership rules (see below), surface coverage is pretty much the only thing out there.
By this time, if you’ve done it right, your opponents are totally on the defensive. They either cave and allow you to declare victory, further re-energizing the base, re-enforcing the framing, and magnifying your own political power because of the perception that you will always win — or at least that your opponent will lose. On the flip side, your opponent becomes increasingly ineffective and demoralized. You have neutralized a key asset, required the leadership to betray an element of its core base (thus diminishing support and morale), and concentrated your opponent on a desperate effort to analyze “what they did wrong” and how they “lost control.” This generates a fear of action, more wasted resources on “vetting,” and boxes the opposition in to the point where any action is “outside the mainstream.”
After 1994, but particularly after 2000, the Ds made fitful attempts to implement a similar strategy. It failed miserably. It was not until Howard Dean completely revised Democratic strategy in 2006, coupled with changes in the media environment generally (and, of course, the total collapse of the Iraq War and the economy), that the Democratic Party fortunes changed.
Why Does This Work So Well Against Democrats and Not Republicans?
The virtue of this strategy is that it plays on two essential fallacies of the DLC and Democratic “centrists” (aka “wussies”) while simultaneously plays to the conservative strength. Again, Karl Rove deserves credit for the essential insight here. Conservatives believe that winning is about getting the most votes. So that means (a) maximize your base turnout, and (b) minimize turnout for the opponents. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many independents become disgusted with the process provided they are equally disgusted with the opposition or the process genuinely. Further, Rs understand that most voters absorb impressions of parties over time, but do not follow specific issues closely (a factor more pronounced before the internet made tracking specific issues easier). By contrast, the base follows issues intensely, and is constantly alert for signs of betrayal.
Democrats, by contrast, believe that the key to staying in power is to play to the hypothetical middle — which is defined as avoiding controversy or “extreme” positions. The concomitant fallacy, also relevant here, is the belief that core constituents (organized labor, African-Americans/civil rights supporters, and now Netroots) will always come back to the party because they have nowhere else to go and the alternative is worse. The fact that this strategy worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s (culminating in the “soccer mom” strategy of 1996) has caused the Democratic leadership (all of whom go back that far) to believe that this strategy works — lessons of the Republican success from 1994 to 2006 notwithstanding). The result is a D party leadership that cares much about hypothetical independent voters than its actual supporters, eager to avoid anything that would make independent voters shy away from an “extreme” or “non-mainstream” position. The D position is further complicated by the fact that the big donors and financial interests it wishes to court and keep have interests diametrically opposed to other segments of the Democratic base (e.g., unions). This further pushes the leadership to seek “centrist,” “compromise,” and “pragmatic” positions.
Indeed, rather than appeal to its base, the D leadership is constantly trying to “keep the base in line,” “control the extremists,” and generally hush up anyone who cares passionately enough about an issue to have a set of minimum demands. Over time, this diminishes the enthusiasm of the Democratic base and reduces it to a manageable set of co-opted insiders or marginalized outsiders who accept the Ds as the only game in town for them. But, contrary to all D leadership expectation, it does not attract independents, for the simple reason that remaining “centrist” positions have no attraction. People vote because they want to see problems solved. Projecting an image of a clueless nonentity does not attract independent voters, even if they are equally disgusted by what they see as the strident bullying of the other party. And, as noted above, that works to R advantage.
As a result, Republicans confronted with the attack strategy noted above welcomed it. It fired up the base as groundless attacks, provides an endless justification for future actions (“even if I’m wrong, you were wrong first and worse”), and failed to resonate with the dispirited D base. More importantly, as the R discovered, if you firmly stand your ground and turn it into an attack, the issue eventually goes away in the 24-hour news cycle if you wait long enough. The opponents eventually accept it as more proof of the other side’s perfidy, and the public wander off to the next Octomom.
Republicans also enjoyed substantial media environment advantage. Particularly after the rise of media consolidation in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which centralized programming in the hands of a few dominant players, conservatives enjoyed an unquestioning dominance of talk radio. The rise of Fox News, which introduced a British-style partisan-type reporting (purportedly to counteract the “liberal bias” of the media), also gave prominence to the conservative strategy.
But even more devastating for the electorate was the loss of news generally. Consolidation on every traditional media front throughout the 1990s (newspapers, broadcast and cable) combined with the need to reduce costs to pay debt from these acquisitions and keep up earnings resulted in a general decline in “hard news” or detailed analysis. The extent news and analysis were not from explicitly conservative sources, it reduced to the “one side v. the other” surface coverage described above.
How the Strategy Collapsed
The effectiveness of the attack strategy began to break down after the 2002 elections for several reasons. First, no matter how hard you try, it is always harder to feel oppressed when your party is in power. The conservative base is more energized now than it has been in years. Mind you, as stats keep showing, there are fewer of them than in 2004, and they are generally older. But what they lack in youth and numbers they certainly make up for in enthusiasm.
The second element of the collapse of the attack strategy was the change in the media environment. Fewer people look to traditional media for news because the news they produce sucks rocks. What there is out there now includes less “neutral” news and more partisan news on both sides. Progressives can rally around MSNBC and get their side/opinion out there, beat up what’s left of the MSM for not covering their side of the story, etc. etc.
Finally, we have the rise of social networking. Note, I say “social networking” not “blogging” or even “broadband.” Dean’s insight in the 50-state strategy was not merely that success depended on getting around existing consolidated intermediaries in the traditional medi tht insisted on framing the debate in terms of irrelevancies that conservatives were better able to exploit. It also lay in the notion that all politics is local, and that the internet is actually an engine for facilitating local political action. It allows individuals to use the vast distributed resources of the internet to develop opinions and communicate directly to the (relatively) few people who value our opinions because they know us and we speak their language.
This does not diminish the importance of traditional media or substitute for it. Indeed, as we saw in the fight between broadcasting and cable, the fracturing of the audience by cable actually made broadcasting more valuable because the ability to aggregate “eyeballs” is more valuable when all other aggregators are much smaller. A broadcast network that used to get 30 million viewers that now gets 20 million viewers were actually able to extract higher ad rates because the next largest number of viewers is an order of magnitude less. (Don’t take my word for it, that’s what Leslie Moonves to Bank of America analysts yesterday.) Similarly, the mainstream media outlets, while losing ground for news, remain extremely important sources of news because of the overall fracturing of the audience.
But the fracturing of the audience and the rise of social networking does diminish the bottleneck power of traditional media in framing and shaping the debate necessary for the success of the attack strategy. The result is the paradox that while partisan news sources have greater aggregate share (Fox news is now far and away the most watched news network, followed by MSNBC with less than half the same ratings, and CNN third among cable networks), they have less overall impact because they attract only partisans. The MSM, meanwhile, is much more difficult to drive because the news gathering functions have atrophied so badly and because there is now a push back by progressive outlets against conservative outlets. As a result, partisans get stoked by non-partisans may not even notice an attack because it just doesn’t bubble up to the MSM that easily. While it is not impossible for conservatives to drive the news cycle and overall frame of cable, it is much harder for these random drive-bys to break through.
Analysis of the Beck v. Jones Displays This Weakness, Rather Than Strength
An analysis of the Beck attack on Jones shows this pattern of overall weakness. After Glenn Beck called Obama a racist, ColorofChange.org, launched a advertiser boycott campaign, and some significant advertisers responded. Beck retaliated by elevating his attack on Van Jones — who had helped found ColorofChange.org. It helped that Van Jones fit the profile for the attack strategy in a number of ways. A smart and accomplished progressive, Van Jones had tremendous support among Netroots and the younger generation of civil rights activists. His being African American fit nicely with the “reverse discrimination/fear of black men” subtext that informs the underlying emotional appeal. To the vast majority of Americans who would never have heard of Van Jones before the attack, he would seem precisely the quintessential angry black radical who wants to confiscate white people property for reparations and probably has his eye on your white daughters. This resonance worked extremely effectively during the campaign during the Jeremiah Wright controversy.
The narrative was further re-enforced by discovery that Van Jones had signed a petition in 2004 asking Congress to investigate whether Bush had failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks as a way of getting us into the Iraq War. As noted above, it is irrelevant that this single instance of supposed allegiance to the vast Truther conspiracy has nothing to do with his qualification to advise the Administration on how to develop ecologically-friendly jobs. Nor does the fact that it is a single instance in a lifetime filed with relevant experience — and an utter lack of Truther or Socialist conspiracy — matter. Remember, this is an emotional appeal that starts with a primed base that wants to believe. Evidence — however scant or ultimately irrelevant — is only needed for when it bubbles up to the MSM, where a single fact used properly is sufficient for the surface coverage. (Or, as the great master and sage Stephen Colbert once remarked about Howard Dean’s supposed temper: “It’s been widely reported, it doesn’t need facts. It’s ‘factesque.’”)
All of the elements were clearly in place. It was even August, a traditional lull time in the news cycle and thus enhancing the likelihood that the MSM would pick up on the story.
But funny thing happened. Despite weeks of banging the drum, the story failed to achieve breakout velocity to the MSM and the public at large. Certainly the conservative base were motivated and valiantly making noise. The conservatives also demonstrated that they have closed the gap on “new media” by generating significant internet buzz. But the fractured nature of the audience made this bound for obscurity along with the Obama Dijon mustard frenzy. To the extent the MSM covers news, this was relegated to the partisan press so that they could cover Michael Jackson’s death and health care town hall debates.
In other words, until the Administration fired Van Jones, the attack was failing. While it would have had the positive effect of getting the base more stoked (because, if you’re conservative, you can never have your base too angry or too scared) and confirming the shamefulness of the liberal media once again, it would have had zero overall impact.
Which is what makes the firing of Van Jones so puzzling. Was it simply a reflex from wussy-Dems on the eve of the big healthcare speech? Or was it a convenient excuse for the DLC/Rahm Emmanuel wing to push out another Netroots progressive? Either way, as events show, it was a catastrophically wrong response. The Netroots, who actually use the internet for its social networking functions, were incensed over the callous way one of their own was dumped. Meanwhile, having scored a major victory, Beck quickly selected a new set of targets: Mark Lloyd, Cass Sunstein, and Carol Browner. One should note that the targets were selected even before the “evidence” was gathered (Beck’s command is for his army of volunteers to “FIND EVERYTHING YOU CAN”). It is enough that all three fit the profile of those least likely to be attacked — serious scholars with significant records of accomplishment.
And, of course, the Van Jones story is now receiving far more attention than it ever did before with the Administration being portrayed as idiots for “not vetting enough” and for succumbing to conservative pressure and enraging his own base. They get to be clueless twice over. [Another rule of Realpolitik for Rahm. If you are going to sell your people out, you need to get your money’s worth. Selling your own people out and buying only more abuse in the process is generally regarded amongst us policy wonks as — to use the language of our people — facacht.]
Which Brings Us Back to Mark Lloyd
All of which now brings us around to Mark Lloyd, the evil witch Glenn Beck, and his army of poo-flinging flying monkeys. As noted above, Genachowski has the opportunity here to give the FCC and the Obama Administration a boost by doing the smart thing and borrowing a page from the Bush book. Stand by your pick and, if pressed by reporters, turn it into an attack on the partisanship and rancor of the lunatic fringe of you opponents. The Senate has already taken the lead by confirming Sunstein (at last). Now Genachowski need only follow and wait for the story to get lost in the 24-hour news cycle. Yes, Mark Lloyd is destined to remain permanent boogeyman/cause celebre to the conservatives, whose name will no doubt be invoked any time they want to piss and moan about the fairness doctrine. But sacrificing Lloyd doesn’t buy Genachowski anything on this score anyway. Worse, it will be proof to the independents vaguely following this that the Obama people are screwing up by letting all these dangerous angry black men in (or why else would they get fired when the controversy heats up?). It also invites the identical tactics on any FCC decision or hire. Remember Feld’s Law of Political Power: “Your political power is directly proportional to your perceived ability to cause pain. The converse is also true — show you are susceptible to a particular form of pressure and you will get hit with it every time, rendering you paralyzed.
Netroots are already starting to sour on the Obama FCC, despite the importance of tech issues to this Administration and its commitment to Net Neutrality, largely owing to a combination of delays and missteps over relatively trivial things. Although most Netroots folks don’t think old media are terribly relevnt (when I went to Big Tent at least year’s Democratic Convention in Denver, a bare handful showed up at the panel on media concentration and hate speech in media), they will take it as another sign that the FCC won’t stand up for ‘net freedom if Genachowski caves to Beck and the flying monkeys. it will also piss off the core public interest and civil rights constituencies, who have known Mark Lloyd for years.
Please note I’m not recommending that Genachowski blow this up — but he needs to be firm and not ignore it. A statement that allegations are baseless and part of the effort to derail real progress with partisan attacks, blah blah blah should suffice. Nor should there be any ”apologies“ for supposed past sins. The key word/message point is ”partisan attacks.“ Repeat it often enough and it will frame it as ”they said we said“ and the mainstream audience will zone out.
A final word. None of this contradicts what my friends and fellow activist Malkia Cyril told the folks on Democracy Now about the need to build up a progressive ”echo chamber“ to counteract the conservative echo chamber. I am not preaching that the problem will go away if we ignore it. I am saying that Democrats in the Obama Administration need to stop living in the past and recognize that the Beck’s of the world drive the agenda when the Administration and the Democratic Party play their game under their rules. Dems need to grow a heart that understands the value of loyalty to those who worked hard to elect them, a brain that finally learns how to stop doing the same dumb-ass losing thing over and over again, and courage to tell the poo-flinging flying monkeys to — in the words of former Vice President Dick Cheney — ”go [fleeting expletive] themselves.”
Stay tuned . . .