The Mechanisms of Nixonland

by Henry on September 10, 2008

The week before last, I chaired an APSA panel on Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, with responses from Paul Krugman, Nolan McCarty, Paul Pierson and Eric Rauchway. I can honestly say that this was the best APSA panel I’ve ever been at (and this isn’t self-promotion – my contributions were limited to the boring non-creative stuff like organizing questions from the audience); when I finish transcribing the audio of the panel and put it up on the WWW, you’ll be able to decide for yourself. Anyway, one of the key questions that panelists discussed was the extent to which it was true that Nixonland was still with us today, and if so, why? The last couple of days (and today’s nonsense from the McCain campaign about how Obama wants to give comprehensive sex education to kindergarten children, which maps almost perfectly onto similarly nonsensical political arguments that Rick documents in the 1960s) provide pretty good evidence that Nixonland is alive and well. But why?

At the panel Paul Krugman suggested that we might want to use the concept of path dependence to understand why Nixonland has persisted until today. I think that’s right – but I also think that recent political science work (by Kathleen Thelen; by the other Paul on the panel; by Jacob Hacker) has a better grip on what path dependence actually involves than the original work by economists on Polya urn processes and the like. Political scientists argue that the basic idea of path dependence needs to be fleshed out by a more particular understanding of the specific mechanisms through which institutions and other phenomena reproduce themselves, and hence the mechanisms through which either stability or change can occur. This would suggest that in order to understand the persistence of Nixonland (which I take, as best as I understand Rick’s argument, to be a structuring of electoral politics around a perceived set of cultural controversies between a purportedly arrogant liberal elite, and a purportedly salt-of-the-earth culturally conservative ‘mainstream’) we need to look at the specific mechanisms through which this way of structuring politics has survived over the intervening thirty-odd years.

Rick suggests at least one possible cause in his book and later writings – the partly manufactured perception on the part of elite journalists that they were badly out of touch with mainstream America, after the race controversies of the late 1960s (school bussing and so on), which has led them to act with undue deference towards the self-appointed spokesmen of white middle America. I think that’s a very important part of the story – but we need to know more about why it has persisted so long over time. Cringing towards the right only becomes a long term equilibrium when it is reinforced by self-perpetuating and mutually reinforcing practices. If it were simply a learned reflex, without any outside forces to stabilize it and help it persist, we’d have expected it to decay a long time ago.

I think that one of the key mechanisms that helps explain the persistence of Nixonland over time is the way in which the media (political reporters and ‘neutral’ political commentators in the press and cable news in particular) handle political controversies. On the one hand, they perceive their role as entirely above the fray – they cover political controversies but aren’t supposed to be embroiled in these controversies themselves. On the other hand (and this is a point that both netroots types and bloggers like Ezra Klein have hammered home again and again), they themselves play a crucial and unacknowledged political role in deciding what is salient news and what isn’t – controversies don’t usually become controversies until they are described as such in the big newspapers and cable tv talkshows.

This disjuncture – between the fictitiously neutral role of political journalists in covering controversies and the actual, intensely political role that they play in actively helping to generate them – creates both opportunities for outside actors and feedback loops between these actors and journalists. Outside actors – flacks of one sort or another – find or manufacture controversies that they try to feed to the media through conference calls or other means. ‘Cultural’ controversies are especially enticing for the reasons that Rick discusses. Reporters – who doubtless have their own private opinions on whether or not these controversies are substantive or manufactured – report them because they are ‘controversies’ and hence ‘newsworthy.’ Reporters who try too strenuously to figure out whether or not these controversies have any actual basis get punished by being attacked both by the flacks and their own colleagues for not being neutral and being too political. They get denied future interviews, off the record briefings and so on. Reporters who play the game get rewarded with future information and opportunities.

This creates feedback loops between journalists and flacks, in which both have strong incentives to keep the system going the way that it does (both gain from their exchange relationship). However, the substantive result is that press neutrality ceases to have anything to do with trying to figure out the truth (which is what naive folks such as myself might once have thought journalism was supposed to do), and instead becomes a studious refusal on the part of journalists to engage their critical faculties in any meaningful way whatsoever. Being unduly critical is likely to disrupt a set of mutually congenial relations that the key actors have no incentive to disrupt.

This set of relationships obviously doesn’t bear up well under close examination. For me, the most telling moment of the last few weeks was the one occasion when political reporters seemed to be actively publicly outraged by dishonesty from the McCain campaign. This was when they discovered that some of the ‘TV ads’ that the McCain campaign had been releasing were nothing of the sort. Instead they were videos intended primarily to be consumed by political reporters who would then write up the ‘controversy.’ I reckon that’s because this revelation made it uncomfortably obvious that the man behind the curtain was the Political Reporter himself (gender specificity intended – most of the offenders are guys) in all his glory. The McCain campaign had decided that there wasn’t any need for the middleman (a mass public that was supposedly obsessed with the controversy of the day), and that it was cheaper to go directly to the journalists without even providing the excuse of a few midnight TV spots in Wichita, Arlington or wherever. The political economy of campaign ‘controversies’ doesn’t actually require public involvement; all it requires is the fiction of public involvement. But making that too obvious is a bad idea for all concerned.

Josh Marshall suggests that a number of key political reporters are beginning to figure out that this is a genuinely vicious and mendacious campaign and that McCain isn’t the honorable upstanding truthteller that they took him for. But Marshall is obviously uncertain that this dawning realization will be enough to actually change campaign coverage. I would be uncertain too – to the extent that my argument is right, the problem lies less with reporters’ individual beliefs than with a set of informal norms and institutions that are going to be difficult to overturn. Today’s nonsensical claim that Barack Obama called Sarah Palin a ‘pig’ is a case in point. I imagine that most of the reporters covering this pseudo-story realize quite how ridiculous it is. But they’re still covering it.

{ 63 comments }

1

joel hanes 09.10.08 at 3:41 pm

Editors choose stories, reporters, treatments, narratives, layouts.
Publishers choose editors, and listen to the advertisers, who are the customers.
Boards of directors of large corporations choose publishers.
Other large corporations pay for most of it by purchasing advertising, which is the actual product that produces money.

Our news is nothing more than the packaging that advertising comes in, just marketing; and thus our news displays all the regard for truth, or any other ethical precept, for which marketing is so justly famous.

This is not news.

2

geo 09.10.08 at 4:12 pm

Don’t see how comment #1 can be improved upon for pithiness and elegance. For comprehensive documentation, see Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.

3

hjk 09.10.08 at 4:16 pm

this john dickerson column at slate (about “lipstick on a pig”) is an interesting example:

http://www.slate.com/id/2199738/

he’s fully aware of how the outrage from the mccain campaign is entirely fabricated, and criticizes them for it, but in a restrained/detached sort of way, which is then “balanced” with some criticism of obama (“should have known better…”). in the process, he perpetuates and legitimates the controversy.

4

Uncle Kvetch 09.10.08 at 4:48 pm

to the extent that my argument is right, the problem lies less with reporters’ individual beliefs than with a set of informal norms and institutions that are going to be difficult to overturn.

Mightn’t a teensy bit of the problem also lie with the fact that the most prominent and influential agenda-setters–i.e., the cable news “stars”–enjoy seven-figure incomes and hence might be predisposed to the party that best represents their class interests, their carefully crafted average-Joe personae notwithstanding?

5

Chris Bertram 09.10.08 at 5:15 pm

Well yes but ….

Though, of course, I’m hoping for an Obama landslide, I find it hard to get indignant about disingenously fabricated outrage at non-slurs from the McCain camp. After all, the infamous New Yorker cover prompted similarly artificial anger from the Democrats, even though we all knew (and they knew, and we know that they knew etc.) that the intention was satirical.

6

bianca steele 09.10.08 at 5:20 pm

(thanks to Bill Benzon for persistently pointing out the site) makes an especially good point. I’d guess there are plenty of journalists who would say, “Yeah, I put my profession first. But my editor takes orders from the publisher, who takes orders from the advertisers. And as a result, my editor is always on my case trying to get me to change what I write.” The reporters who think like that know exactly what’s expected of them and what they have to do to keep their editors off their backs. But they also often find a way to display integrity in their work.

As for why journalists only get mad when their own world doesn’t work the way they expected it to (as opposed to when the world they report on doesn’t work the way they say it’s working), is it possible they simply know a lot more about the philosophy of their own profession than about the world generally? I guess it’s a good thing for people to know about the philosophy of how their profession relates to the rest of the world, but maybe the message got distorted somewhere along the line.

7

bianca steele 09.10.08 at 5:23 pm

Sorry, the first sentence of the previous post should have read: <a href =”http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=575#comment-9108″ title=”A commenter on Language Log earlier today” (thanks to Bill Benzon for persistently pointing out the site) makes an especially good point.

(Has anyone ever mentioned that a preview feature would be nice?)

8

bianca steele 09.10.08 at 5:24 pm

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=575#comment-9108

Is there a prize for most tries needed to get it right?

9

e julius drivingstorm 09.10.08 at 5:35 pm

Before joel sends me off on another futile search for footage of Brian Williams’ self-reintroduction when he assumed the mantle as anchor, which iirc pretty much dead-on supports comment #1 (any help?), I wikied McLuhan and got sidetracked by portmanteaus. Shucks.

Anyway, when I was in grade school, propaganda was taught with negative connotations so I might learn to recognize it. Apparently some in my class were more interested in perfecting it.

10

J Thomas 09.10.08 at 5:51 pm

I once knew a girl who told me about visiting czechoslovakia in the old days. She went into a bar and saw some newspapers displayed on those bamboo things. She picked one up and noticed that everybody in the room was staring at her. It was all the official news and nobody ever looked at it in public, and she called attention to herself by acting against custom that way.

I think increasingly the US public is responding that way. The single comment I’ve heard the most about politics is “I just want it to be over.” They don’t like politics in the news. They know it’s biased. Everybody who has strong opinions believes the news is biased against them, but the people who expect it to be somehow fair are dwindling away.

People don’t watch Fox news because they want to get news, they watch it because it agrees with their prejudices. They don’t really care whether Obama called Palin a pig, they just like to see McCain get his licks in.

Is there room for real news? There may be a market niche for it somewhere.

11

Rich Puchalsky 09.10.08 at 5:51 pm

I think that journalists will finally realize that McCain is vicious and mendacious just after the election, when he’s won. Then it will be not their fault, just like the Iraq War is supposedly not the fault of all the people who opposed it a couple of years after it started.

What #1 leaves out is that journalists are also generally personally stupid. I mean, who becomes a journalist? A writer who can’t write good fiction, and who isn’t smart enough to go into a technical field. Someone whose only skills are either writing to deadline or posturing in front of a camera. They are always fooled, in part, because they’re easy to fool.

12

Markup 09.10.08 at 6:40 pm

More than enough can [still] be said by the number of stations one can view “professional” wrestling on [does/can one include Bill O'Really here?]. It’s all about Show, something the D’s have yet to master or effectively counter.

3 in a row?

13

P O'Neill 09.10.08 at 7:38 pm

I think J Thomas makes a good point. Some of this culture war buffoonery is probably aimed not at the Fox News diehards who need a reason to watch Hannity each night, but at making the more apathetic mass of people even more apathetic about politics. As Karl Rove has surely said, if you get someone to stay at home on election day, he can’t have voted for the other guy. The trick of course is to get your voting segment out and keep the disillusioned middle at home as a good 2nd best to winning them to your side.

Possible institutional reform to correct this: compulsory voting. Now the mud-wrestling antics are annoying actual voters, who take it out at the ballot box.

14

politicalfootball 09.10.08 at 8:17 pm

Josh Marshall has a link to this Nagourney piece.

Contra Mr. Puchalsky, I think this is pretty creative stuff, and I bet Nagourney could make a lot of money doing something else. And contra Henry, who says …

I imagine that most of the reporters covering this pseudo-story realize quite how ridiculous it is.

… I get the feeling that Nagourney is sincere, at least in the sense that he doesn’t find himself or his work ridiculous.

15

Ben Alpers 09.10.08 at 8:40 pm

Another factor in the mix: the ease with which the media allows the leadership of the two major parties to collectively define the Overton Window.

Take the way the media rolled over and sold the Iraq War in 2002-2003: they felt justified in utterly ignoring the massive grassroots opposition to that war was largely because leading members of both parties ignored it.

16

Anderson 09.10.08 at 9:03 pm

Journalism is hard work.

Transcribing press releases as “news,” or sitting around discussing who called whom a pig, is easy.

Either way, you get paid. The latter may even boost your income.

17

Rich Puchalsky 09.10.08 at 10:00 pm

You are joking, aren’t you politicalfootball? Nagourney’s piece has priceless gems like:

“At that point, Mr. Obama paused for just a moment, no doubt imagining the whoops that were going up at the McCain headquarters where they were no doubt monitoring the speech,”

That works as a way of instantly selling the idea that Obama made a gaffe, but the fake mind-reading thing is anything but creative. And the “no doubt”, wow. I mean, if you’re going to imagine that people are doing things, why not just state it? I can imagine war fiction in which, say, “The sentry fell asleep on watch, making himself an easy target for the commando who no doubt was studying him from the bushes.”

But I think that you were probably being ironic, so, yeah.

18

Mike Otsuka 09.10.08 at 11:09 pm

“Reporters who try too strenuously to figure out whether or not these controversies have any actual basis get punished by being attacked both by the flacks and their own colleagues for not being neutral and being too political. They get denied future interviews, off the record briefings and so on. Reporters who play the game get rewarded with future information and opportunities.”

Democrats have the same opportunity as Republicans to play reporters in this way. So the problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t tell us why Nixonland tactics are deployed to a much greater extent by Republican rather than Democratic candidates and their political operatives.

19

jj2 09.10.08 at 11:18 pm

Q: What’s the difference between John McCain and George Bush?

A: McCain’s wearing the lipstick.

20

Witt 09.10.08 at 11:21 pm

it doesn’t tell us why Nixonland tactics are deployed to a much greater extent by Republican rather than Democratic candidates and their political operatives

Jay Rosen’s classic post on “Rollback” is still hands-down the finest explanation of the goals, the appeal, and the results of the current administration’s press policy as anything I’ve seen.

It doesn’t directly answer why Democrats haven’t picked up on this strategy, but it does illustrate how brazenly it was pioneered and implemented by the current administration, in contrast even to past Republican administrations.

21

bicycle Hussein paladin 09.10.08 at 11:30 pm

The link to Jay Rosen’s post on “Rollback” is broken. And CT’s 404 page is cute.

22

Witt 09.10.08 at 11:32 pm

Argh, sorry, trying Rollback link again.

I wish this site had preview.

23

Barry 09.10.08 at 11:42 pm

Rich Puchalsky 09.10.08 at 5:51 pm

” What #1 leaves out is that journalists are also generally personally stupid. I mean, who becomes a journalist? A writer who can’t write good fiction, and who isn’t smart enough to go into a technical field. Someone whose only skills are either writing to deadline or posturing in front of a camera. They are always fooled, in part, because they’re easy to fool.”

The day that elite MSM journalists are as easily fooled by the Democratic Party as by the GOP is the day that I’ll accept the ‘stupid’ theory. Until then it’s simpler that the (again, elites, and those who wish to join them) are in on the con.

24

Rich Puchalsky 09.10.08 at 11:58 pm

Democrats don’t use the same tactics because they’ve internalized a creepy, losers’ attitude that elections are about issues and being civil.

25

novakant 09.11.08 at 1:54 am

the infamous New Yorker cover prompted artificial anger from the Democrats, even though we all knew (and they knew, and we know that they knew etc.) that the intention was satirical.

You have an interesting way of summarizing a debate …

26

Matt Austern 09.11.08 at 1:56 am

That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the fact that this attitude has persisted for 40 years surely demands an explanation. You’d think that a losers’s attitude would eventually die out, if only because people who don’t share that attitude would eventually drive out people who do, and you’d think that 40 years (many election cycles, and a large fraction of a human lifetime) would be enough.

If losers’ attitude on the part of Democratic politicians is the explanation, there needs to be a further explanation: what has caused that attitude to persist? I’d think that part of the explanation would have to involve ways in which that losers’ attitude is a competitive advantage in some ways, perhaps in intra-party competition.

27

chris 09.11.08 at 3:20 am

We need to stop talking about “the media” and start talking about specific individuals, and then find out where they live, get in their face, and explain how full of shit they are. Then they’ll understand.

Now if only I didn’t live 3000 miles away.

28

Rich Puchalsky 09.11.08 at 4:24 am

“You’d think that a losers’s attitude would eventually die out”

People who go into politics because they actually want to do good don’t want to act like Atwater or Rove. Even technocrats who are into “good government” don’t want to. Plus that “persisted for 40 years” is suggestive; that brings us back to The Sixties, and Democrats have spent a whole lot of psychic energy trying to prove that they aren’t un-responsible, disreputable etc. etc. hippies.

There’s also a whole host of narcissistic independents who enable this attitude — the “Dearie me! The whole reason that I might vote Democratic is because am I displeased with our coarse public sphere; it they are going to act that way too I might as well vote Republican, because after all I expect it of them” types.

29

Martin Johnson 09.11.08 at 4:31 am

The problem is two-fold:

A.) Media consolidation and centralization has created an environment where almost all journalists who cover politics and public affairs are forced to live in New York or D.C., both of which distort their coverage. We don’t have a journalist like William Allen White, who was a national figure even though he never left Emporia, Kansas.

B). The electoral college gives outsize importance (both at the presidential level and in the Senate) to low-population, mostly rural states, which effectively disenfranchises cities, where a huge number of people live, because they are in safe red or blue states.

The political problem can be solved in part by eliminating the electoral college. At least then we wouldn’t have presidential elections that feel more like dueling fishbowls than an establishment of a national consensus. The media problem would be resolved by media outlets taking region seriously. Why can’t Joe Scarborough do his show from Florida? Why can’t Thomas Frank edit Harper’s from Kansas? With the Internet, this would be easy, and with blogging we already get many more voices. Television and newspapers need to follow.

30

Delicious Pundit 09.11.08 at 4:47 am

… in order to understand the persistence of Nixonland (which I take, as best as I understand Rick’s argument, to be a structuring of electoral politics around a perceived set of cultural controversies between a purportedly arrogant liberal elite, and a purportedly salt-of-the-earth culturally conservative ‘mainstream’) we need to look at the specific mechanisms through which this way of structuring politics has survived over the intervening thirty-odd years.

Forgive me, because I haven’t gotten to Nixonland yet, but how much attention is paid to the demand side — the end user of all this media being discussed? Is Nixonland style ressentiment considered to be a product like an SUV — something whose mostly bullshit claims people have been manipulated to enjoy — or is it a product like ice cream — something that it would be perfectly sensible for them to want more of?

Even if we were to choose the latter, there’s no excuse for journalists falling all over themselves in catering to it. I suspect there’s a lot of the -trying-to-guess-what-the-rubes-will-like in the media’s choices, along with survivor guilt that they, the elite media, got out of whatever soul-crushing future everyone else in their high school was unfortunate enough not to avoid.

31

Jim Harrison 09.11.08 at 5:22 am

I don’t think the hangover of the 60s would have lasted so long if America hadn’t entered a long period of economic stagnation in the 70s and after. Despite the psychic relief of Reagan’s “Morning in America” and a few years of genuine growth in the 90s, life is getting poorer and nastier in important ways; and people are quite aware of that fact despite the cooked economic statistics that tell them differently. In principle, people could respond to the challenge of the end of the significant growth by pulling together; but the country is also riven by an ethnic divide that goes beyond the old white/black split and makes cooperation difficult. Meanwhile, the old elites have realized that the game is no longer about the rising tide that lifts all ships. They’re playing musical chairs, and stoking a culture war fits in very well with that.

32

Roy Belmont 09.11.08 at 5:53 am

JThomas:People don’t watch Fox news because they want to get news, they watch it because it agrees with their prejudices.

That’s part of what they deliver at places like FOX, the illusion that it’s a simple commodity, slanted-or-not news, and you either want it or you don’t.
But it’s a whole environment. They’re delivering cues, confirmation, fellowship, identity…
It’s not that people turn to it to find agreement with their prejudices, they find their prejudices there to begin with.
People are being told what to think and what to feel. And how.

Almost as though they’re coming in blank from some other world, and need to assimilate, and FOXNews is giving them important lessons in contemporary culture and behavior norms.
FOX is a surrogate relative.

33

abb1 09.11.08 at 8:22 am

I don’t have any American TV here, so I don’t know how exactly this “lipstick on the pig” vaudeville is being played over there. I have to say though, I’m a bit surprised by it: people who pay attention to these things have gotta be so stupid that in the end all that gets stuck in their little brains will be “Sarah Palin” and “pig”. Why would you want that? What you want is “Sarah Palin” and “hero” (though the best is, of course, “Obama” and “Muslim”), not “Sarah Palin” and “pig”.

34

Zora 09.11.08 at 8:24 am

IMHO, the US culture wars feed on the resentment of those who didn’t do well in school, didn’t win the meritocratic race, find themselves in ill-paid boring jobs, and hate and reject the system that penalized them.

Obama’s story (bright boy makes it to Harvard by dint of hard work and perseverance) isn’t a recommendation; it just reminds ordinary folks of their “failure” to do the same. The ordinary folks might well identify with a rebellious kid who ended up at the bottom of his class (McCain) or a woman who bounced from college to college before ending up with a lackluster BA (Palin).

If you’re a winner in the meritocratic wars, of course you want another bright, competent winner running the country. That’s the way to get things done right!

If you’re a loser, you dislike those folks who look down at you because you’re “dumb.” Someone who claims to feel for you and represent your interests, someone who sneers at those snooty college professors, might get your vote — even if that person represents the inherited wealth that hires so many of the bright young meritocrats to do its work (because they’re often competent).

Of course, if you end up believing your own propaganda and hiring on the basis of ideology rather than competence, you’re going to get something like the Bush administration.

Note that I’ve put “dumb” and “failure” in quotes. The meritocracy can work as advertised, as its supporters believe it to work, but not always, perhaps not even most of the time. It’s often a thin dressing of ideology over class interests.

Am I stating the obvious? Political science/sociology isn’t my field. Feel free to recommend that I read XXX or YYY, as long as it isn’t written in impenetrable post-modernist jargon.

35

stostosto 09.11.08 at 9:10 am

Also, Clive Crook framed it like this the other day:

Polly Toynbee’s take in the Guardian:

They both seem to perceive a dilemma along the lines that in order to effectively advocate advancing the plight of ordinary people, the advocates themselves will become part of the elite. And not the income-based elite, but the education-based elite, which comes with in-built risks of intellectual ego-pride and lecturing tendencies.

For Nixon-land style resentment to work, it doesn’t matter how much condescending snobbery or elitism that may or may not reside in any given individual left-wing politician. It matters even less which particular policies s/he espouses. It’s enough that there’s a perceived wedge to be exploited: Obama edited the Harvard Law Review! His kids go to a private school! He writes books! He eats arugula! Ergo: He is not authentically one of you, he is insincere, he doesn’t really care about you, doesn’t share your values, he’ll just say anything to get elected, he is all about himself.

And it’s very effective.

36

stostosto 09.11.08 at 9:14 am

Something went wrong with that post. I meant to include this quote from the Toynbee piece I linked:

And I see I crossposted with Zora #34.

37

stostosto 09.11.08 at 9:15 am

[AUUUGH! Why didn't that work?!]

Toynbee quote:

“The only authentic politics is class self-interest. Only those on low incomes are entitled to speak up for themselves – which is convenient, since almost by definition, fewer low earners have access to political platforms. If they did, they’d earn political or journalistic salaries and get the same contempt for “hypocrisy” – unless they were Mahatma Gandhis who gave everything away, and publicly.”

38

stostosto 09.11.08 at 9:23 am

In some democratic countries for some periods, unions have worked as an effective arbiter of working class advancement. By providing a school for labour activists and politicians they produced an alternative elite that were visibly rooted with ordinary folks, anchored in their very own social institutions. But this went out with the education revolution of the sixties, I think – coinciding with the rise of Nixonland.

39

Barry 09.11.08 at 10:22 am

Henry, do you have a link to that panel’s discussions, and the replies?

Thanks

40

DC 09.11.08 at 11:19 am

‘The single comment I’ve heard the most about politics is “I just want it to be over.”’ (JThomas #10)

Yglesias touches on the whole issue and says that “turning politics into a senseless screaming match about bullshit is not an ideologically neutral development” – making politics as unattractive and trivial a spectacle as possible is, one might say, ‘objectively conservative’:

‘The contention of progressive political reform is that it’s possible to organize, educate, and mobilize sufficient quantities of people to overcome the power of the few and instead implement policies that benefit the many….a politics that’s dominated by bullshit and bullshit artists is, ultimately, not going to be conducive to progressive ends….’.

But my question is: does this mean that the lesson drawn by, e.g., Josh Marshall from the Kerry campaign (i.e. that its great mistake was to try and rise above swiftboating rather than get down and dirty fighting back) is dangerously misconceived?

Genuine question.

41

DC 09.11.08 at 11:20 am

42

Cranky Observer 09.11.08 at 12:11 pm

—– That’s kind of weird, isn’t it? I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the fact that this attitude has persisted for 40 years surely demands an explanation. You’d think that a losers’s attitude would eventually die out, if only because people who don’t share that attitude would eventually drive out people who do, and you’d think that 40 years (many election cycles, and a large fraction of a human lifetime) would be enough.

If losers’ attitude on the part of Democratic politicians is the explanation, there needs to be a further explanation: what has caused that attitude to persist? —–

As long as the core directors of the Democratic Party maintain 34 Senate seats, 1/3 + 1 House seats, and 10-15 governorships they are satisfied. That is enough to maintain their position of prestige and the flow of money and perks. It is also enough to maintain some moderate level of influence and a little power, with the prospect of getting the levers every few election cycles. They are happy and content; they see no need for the grubbing and scratching that those dirty smelly “lefty” party activists want to undertake.

Cranky

43

Tom Hurka 09.11.08 at 12:27 pm

The Clive Crook post at #35 (thanks stostosto) hits it on the head doesn’t it? And it’s illustrated by Henry’s remark about a “purportedly arrogant liberal elite vs. a purportedly salt-of-the-earth culturally conservative ‘mainstream.’” That in effect tells a large number of American voters: “You know your opinion of us liberals? It’s wrong — how can we be arrogant if we’re always right? — and you only believe it because you’re stupid dupes of the media. And you’re not really even conservative: you don’t know your own minds as well as we do.” What a fantastic strategy for winning elections! Insult the electorate and then expect them to vote for you.

44

Lex 09.11.08 at 12:31 pm

@43 define ‘stupid’? Is it in some way NOT related to ‘low educational achievement’? ‘Cos there’s an awful lot of the latter about…

The key problem of universal suffrage – getting stupid people not to make stupid choices, without getting them stupidly huffy about being stupid and deep down knowing it. Go on, tell me why I’m wrong.

45

Lex 09.11.08 at 12:33 pm

p.s. of course the Republicans think the electorate is stupid, too: that’s why they know they can yank their chains any time they need to with crap about God, guns and gays… What church does Karl Rove belong to, again?

46

Noni Mausa 09.11.08 at 1:45 pm

Rich Puchalsky said: I mean, who becomes a journalist? A writer who can’t write good fiction, and who isn’t smart enough to go into a technical field. Someone whose only skills are either writing to deadline or posturing in front of a camera. They are always fooled, in part, because they’re easy to fool.

Love you too, Rich.

I’ve trained and worked in the field, and can say that the first week of classes it became painfully evident that there WAS no real story, there were multiple possible stories among which we must choose. We knew that we were taking a fistful of flowers and were expected to arrange them in a pleasing and representative way. Thank God most stories are covered by many reporters, because a single reporter gets 300-500 words (almost never more than 700) to tell what he knows. The interested reader needs to go to several sources to build up a 3-D image. This is the main reason media conglomeration serves the reader badly.

Mike Otsuka: Reporters who try too strenuously to figure out whether or not these controversies have any actual basis get punished by being attacked both by the flacks and their own colleagues for not being neutral and being too political. They get denied future interviews, off the record briefings and so on. Reporters who play the game get rewarded with future information and opportunities.

And I don’t know how to work around this. One possibility at press conferences is to have a single press ‘droid to ask the questions, all questions typed in anonymously by the various media and spoken by voice actors, and all answers shared among them, to prevent presidential shunning of specific outlets and reporters. I would also add a citizens ‘droid to ask questions presented by voters.

Questions not answered, or not responsively answered, would be collected and become news items in themselves.

That such a bizarre approach might be necessary tells us a lot about the good will of this administration.

Noni

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Rich Puchalsky 09.11.08 at 1:59 pm

Noni Mausa: “One possibility at press conferences is to have a single press ‘droid to ask the questions [...]“

Now that’s funny. I criticize journalists as being not-too-bright people whose only skills involve recirculating pap, and the person who takes umbrage suggests that press droids might do well. Because real journalists are just too frightened to confront those nasty politicians and would get no support from other journalists if they did.

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Henry 09.11.08 at 2:00 pm

Barry – I am writing up the panel at the moment, in the few hours that I have given travails of beginning of semester and three week old infant.

Tom Hurka – perhaps I should just leave you to battle with the opponent in your head (the one who ever-so-conveniently claims that liberals are always right and that everyone who disagrees with him is stupid), but you’re usually an intelligent commenter, so I won’t. This particular way of constructing politics as a battle between condescending liberal elites and ‘genuine’ conservative Americans is a _historical cultural construct._ There is surely some truth to the claim that liberals sometimes condescend to conservatives, just as there is some truth to the claim that conservatives are often prone to claim that liberals (let alone socialists) are traitorous non-Americans . But there isn’t any necessary reason why the Nixonland axis in particular should be presumptively the defining axis of American politics. Nor is there some _a priori_ reason why the condescension of liberals is necessarily more politically valent than, say, the condescension of conservatives such as Barbara Bush and Jonah Goldberg towards the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. That the Nixonland axis (rather than any of the other possible axes) is the one that dominates is in large part the result of specifically political processes in the 1960s and early 1970s (read the background lit on this – even if you still disagree with it you can at least sharpen your disagreement to the specifics). And the implication of this axis that regular Americans are white God-fearing small towners, and that others (black folks, Hispanics, people with funny names and strange religions) are somehow less American is out of date, offensive, and deeply problematic in its implications for how political debates are constructed in this country.

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Barry 09.11.08 at 2:33 pm

48 Henry 09.11.08 at 2:00 pm
“Barry – I am writing up the panel at the moment, in the few hours that I have given travails of beginning of semester and three week old infant.”

No problem; I can’t complain that you have copious free time.

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Lex 09.11.08 at 3:20 pm

“this axis that regular Americans are white God-fearing small towners” may be [indeed, indubitably is] “out of date, offensive, and deeply problematic”, but until millions of people can be persuaded to stop believing it, it isn’t going to go away by calling it so, is it?

I amend my earlier statement of the problem: getting stupid [racist] people not to make stupid [racist] choices, without getting them stupidly huffy about being stupid [and racist] and deep down knowing [and loving] it…

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bianca steele 09.11.08 at 4:18 pm

It’s interesting that what Clive Crook perceives as the traits of “Americans” that “liberal elites” don’t like or don’t appreciate corresponds so closely to the traits of “Americans” that “English people” tend not to like — flag-waving patriotism and overt religiosity are two that spring to mind. (He doesn’t use the word “Americans” in his column but does slip and use it in a follow-up blog post.) And it’s interesting that Tom Hurka interprets Crook’s column as saying “we liberals look down on you,” rather than as saying “the Democrats look down on the rest of the country and that’s why we Republicans are going to win the race.”

I’m also amazed at the skill many media people have in pegging people’s politics on the evidence of a few minutes of cocktail party chat. (The skill seems to have rubbed off on blog commenters too.) E.g., “I hate those liberals, they are so boring at parties and so arrogant, they always think they know better than me and they keep arguing even after I tell them they’re wrong,” etc. Or, “Sorry, Clive, you’ll just have to put up with these fireworks for an hour or so, you know how these people like that stuff.” Or, maybe, “I hate those liberal feminists (like Elizabeth Genovese) who say that there’s something wrong with American society and we should be less individualistic and less ‘consumerist‘.”

Before Henry’s post and the comments to it, I had never heard anyone actually say that Americans are divided into (a very few) “liberals” and (overwhelmingly many) “real Americans” — clearly, neither did the commenter who attacked me for jokingly putting it forward — and I’m surprised anyone has claimed the belief as their own, or even claimed empirical evidence for its being the belief of some identifiable group out there. Would it be possible to tell who has claimed they believe it, or claimed they believe others believe it?

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Bruce Baugh 09.11.08 at 4:24 pm

I wonder how much the question might be better framed looking back past the ’60s to the opposition to the New Deal and the reforms before it. My impression is that there’s a fairly strong continuity of participants there, particularly when it comes to those providing the funding. And if we start with the robber barons and their associates, then an answer to “How did they take back so much of what was taken from them, and more?” might very well start with their success at projection. They go their sundry resources deployed to sell the public on the idea that liberals have the qualities of the robber barons themselves.

I also very strongly agree that the success of the idea that all politics is just sordid and dirty has been a huge help in their effort.

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Uncle Kvetch 09.11.08 at 4:49 pm

As long as the core directors of the Democratic Party maintain 34 Senate seats, 1/3 + 1 House seats, and 10-15 governorships they are satisfied. That is enough to maintain their position of prestige and the flow of money and perks. It is also enough to maintain some moderate level of influence and a little power, with the prospect of getting the levers every few election cycles. They are happy and content; they see no need for the grubbing and scratching that those dirty smelly “lefty” party activists want to undertake.

Bingo. Thanks for that, CO.

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Roy Belmont 09.11.08 at 5:18 pm

#44-50:
The key problem of universal suffrage – getting stupid people not to make stupid choices, without getting them stupidly huffy about being stupid…
or even the amended
…getting stupid [racist] people not to make stupid [racist] choices…
does leave out the somewhat more pressing problem of plutocrats kind of co-opting the whole suffrage thing. If not from the get, from way back.
Lots of common-sense folks out there with not so high test scores feeling just as beleaguered as you. Surrounded by what you’re thinking of as stupid-heads, but what they’re thinking of as just plain wrong-heads.

The real enemy of democracy isn’t dumbness, it’s selfishness. A character flaw sadly now fixed at the center of the cultural genome, pandemic across all boundaries, and intensifying as things work steadily bleakward.

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c.l. ball 09.11.08 at 5:36 pm

I’m don’t think the reporter-flack back-stroking is the mechanism in the neutered neutrality of “controversy” coverage. Three other mechanisms are at play. First is the supply-demand imbalance of “news.” Campaigns provide little, and journalists need more. Candidate’s stump speeches rarely alter and new policy statements are rare and usually anodyne. The “controversies” are the only campaign statements that change from day to day. The barbs and ripostes make for easy quote–counter-quote stories, especially for TV & radio.

Second, there is the fear of being scooped. If one outlet will report the “news,” the others feel the need to do so as well. If major national outlets ignore it, minor national or local outlets will carry it, and make the majors look out-of-touch. Back in ’92 w/ Clinton’s Gennifer Flowers affair, the national networks chose to ignore the tabloid story, but local affiliates reported it, and soon the majors were playing catch-up. Conference calls are used to make this by-pass possible; local reporters can call in rather than have to travel with a campaign or be located in the HQ city.

Third, the controversies are not about facts but about pseudo-facts — the “lipstick” comment, the Ferraro “lucky” comment, the Kerry “study hard” and other charges are chosen because they are spin-able and not easily refuted. NPR has harped on Palin’s bridge-to-nowhere mis-representations because they are verifiable in ways that intent is not.

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J Thomas 09.11.08 at 6:21 pm

First is the supply-demand imbalance of “news.” Campaigns provide little, and journalists need more. Candidate’s stump speeches rarely alter and new policy statements are rare and usually anodyne. The “controversies” are the only campaign statements that change from day to day.

That’s important! It used to be, politicians could travel around and give the same speeches everywhere (tailored a bit for particular locations) and the new audiences would appreciate it. Now they need to provide more.

So, 4 years from now the presidential candidates should have something new to present to the reporters, every few days. Something actually new would be better than silly sound bites.

So for example we could have a Democratic candidate on gun control:

“We know now that gun control doesn’t actually reduce crime much, though it has some effect on the small number of gun accidents. And gun ownership doesn’t reduce crime much. We need some other way to reduce crime than those.

“But OK, people in some cities want more gun control, and people in other cities and noncities don’t. We should let people get what they want in both cases. Sometimes people want stupid things. We can disagree about which choices are stupid, but if a city or other place has a policy you hate about firearms, you can put up with it or else don’t go there. Maybe they’ll see reason in time. Let localities do what they want. If a whole state wants to make a policy I guess that might be OK too.”

Or a Democratic candidate on abortion:

“We already know how to transfer a fetus from one mother to another up to X days after the pregnancy has started. So let’s deal with that. When a woman doesn’t want to carry her baby and it’s younger than X days, we can find a volunteer who does want it and do the transfer.

“Now about the costs, doesn’t it make sense that the original mother should pay half the cost if she can? And the rest of it can be paid by anybody who wants that baby to live and is willing to put his money where his mouth is.

“And let’s do research to extend those X days as far forward as we can. That way the costs of keeping babies alive don’t fall only on mothers who might not be able to afford it at all. They can be paid by everybody who cares.”

Maybe there are better positions to take. But every time you come up with something new you get the attention away from whatever stupid pet tricks the other side tries.

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Martin James 09.11.08 at 6:32 pm

The major irony to the Nixonland ordering of discourse is that it converted Nixonland(California) from Republican to Democrat.

I think the Nixonland ordering has persisted because both parties have benefited. The R’s had the short run gain of presidential victories and capturing the South. The D’s have steadily turned the non-southern urban areas uniformly democrat.

The game is up congressionally for the R’s and its nearly up for Republican presidential politics also.

We know how Nixonland will die, it will die from the Machete blow of Hispanic demographics. Nixonland will have to shed some of its Nativist, Sexist and Racist tropes.

What I find interesting is how ineffective Californian and Western Democrats have been in offering a national and presidential politics to change the terms of discourse. In the House and Senate we have Pelosi and Reid – Western Democrats and what is their brand? What is the identity? Who is their mythic leader of stature?

The national candidates Obama and Clinton seem to be a curious mix of diversity, fame and the traditional anti-Nixonland union and identity politics.

What is the face of Authority in the democrat brand? Putting the racism and class warfare aside, and concentrating on the America-First side of the equation, who or what for the democrats can fill the bad-ass role that the American masses (as others before them) have wanted in a leader?

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Markup 09.11.08 at 6:54 pm

“Western Democrats and what is their brand? What is the identity? Who is their mythic leader of stature??”

When criminals in this world appear,
And break the laws that they should fear,
And frighten all who see or hear,
The cry goes up both far and near for
Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

If only…

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Martin James 09.11.08 at 7:11 pm

Amazing. I’m always saying..

” When Polly’s in trouble, I am not slow,
So it’s hip! hip! hip! and away I go”

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J 09.11.08 at 9:00 pm

Henry, are you posting the audio or just the transcript of this fascinating-sounding panel?

61

Nur al-Cubicle 09.11.08 at 9:08 pm

Nixonland => Building a bridge to 1858.

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Josh R. 09.11.08 at 10:39 pm

A question or set of questions:

Doesn’t Nixonism (“a structuring of electoral politics around a perceived set of cultural controversies between a purportedly arrogant liberal elite, and a purportedly salt-of-the-earth culturally conservative ‘mainstream’”) exist within and operate as an extension of a longer lived theme of cultural resentment that stretches at the very least to Andrew Jackson and likely even further to the Revolutionary era? Perhaps it did not previously achieve a totality of tactical focus as it does now, but hasn’t the elite vs. non elite (whether it as farmers vs. the monied interest during the Progressive/Populist era or rural versus urban during, well, all of American history) been with us for much longer than Nixon? Or were those earlier threads as much economic as cultural? If yes, then the particular reasons for the most recent outbreak of this crap will be like singular notes within a symphony: very interesting but ultimately only meaningful within the context of the structure itself. What is it about nascent American political culture that lead to this recurring political theme?

As a side note, of perhaps some value is this selection from Hunter Thompson’s obituary of Richard Nixon:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism–which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

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Bill Harshaw 09.12.08 at 6:03 pm

The most obvious way the cultural elite, as embodied in elite universities and colleges, injures the rest of the population is through their children. After all, for every person who becomes a Harvard graduate there are several who know the feel of rejection.

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