© Josh Sager – December 2014
The modern right wing establishment has developed an extremely effective formula for partisan political success. They have deployed this formula—backed up by billions of dollars in corporate and interests group money—to great effect and the left has had no cohesive response.
There are the three ingredients in this formula: Simplicity, absolutism, and repetition.
Simplicity: When talking about policy, the right wing keeps the message short, extremely simple, and easy for the lay-person to grasp (ex. cutting taxes stimulates growth, regulation retards growth, etc.). It doesn’t matter if the right wing message is complete nonsense, because the people will remember the short sound bite and will likely lack an understanding of the nuanced and wonky refutation.
Absolutism: They make every issue black or white and tolerate no nuance (ex. no regulation on guns). This creates a stark contrast between the acceptable point of view and everything else, creating a strong political herd mentality that suppresses dissent. Additionally this absolutism ensures that the right wing position on any one issue is far more uniform than the corresponding position by the Democrats (who split their policy platform within their larger tent).
Repetition: When the right wing decides upon a course of action, they begin repeating the same talking points ad infinitum (ex. Benghazi)—every politician and pundit gets on the same page and they use their positions to create an echo chamber that magnifies the spread of their message. This repetition allows even patently ridiculous ideas to gain major traction because the media will cover the “debate” between the entire right wing, which has agreed on a lie, and everybody else.
Here is a basic example of this entire process playing out: After the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the right wing decided that the situation was a scandal that would permanently scar the Obama administration. Every politician and pundit in the right wing started talking about the attack and going through a consistent series of accusations (ex. Obama didn’t call the attack terrorism, the State Department was lying about the motivation for the attack, the Obama administration stopped the deployment of reinforcements, etc.). For months, every right winger to be on the public airwaves would mention the same talking points and accusations, leading media organizations to turn what should have been an unfortunate few days of news into a months-long saga through a quagmire of accusations that were quickly proven false.
In short, the right wing decides what it wants to achieve, creates easily quoted talking points to mobilize their base in that direction, and ensures that every person within their umbrella stays with that unified message; even if those talking points are completely unrealistic or easily debunked by basic reading of the facts they are repeated until the ill-informed American public have them imprinted on their brain. Because they stick together and have power in numbers, the media is hesitant to call them out and the public never realizes that they are being lied to (one politician spouting nonsense is easily mocked, but when half of the political establishment decides to spout that same nonsense, the media calls is a debate).
While this formula is very effective for mobilizing partisan support, it is also completely toxic to the creation of realistic policy. Reality is complex, filled with nuance, and rarely easy to reduce to bumper-sticker slogans. This means that a policy platform which is based around overly simplified slogans that everybody decides to get on board with rarely accounts for the complexity that is demanded by real life policy challenges.
From what I can see, progressives have declined to enact such a propaganda formula for several reasons.
First, progressives have tried to deal in good faith while pursuing their goals, and have tried to sway people with factual arguments rather than convincing lies. In effect, the progressives have focused on leading people to think like they do, while conservatives have adopted an “ends justify the means” mindset and have little compunction about using lies to lead people to their point of view.
Second, while progressives have to align unions, the poor, racial minorities, youths, women, and a whole host of diverse groups, the conservatives largely just have to align a largely-homogenous pool of older, white men behind their message. Because progressives rely on a much more diverse constituency it is far harder for them to achieve absolutism in their messaging.
Third, the mainstream media is a corporate entity that is far more accepting of conservative corporatism than leftist populism—even MSNBC, which is the “left” news station is more corporatist and Democratic apologist than progressive. This means that, even if they were to create a unified message tailored to trick low-information voters, it would be far harder for progressives to repeat those talking points than it is for conservatives. They would face more pushback from the punditry and would likely be called out by media outlets hoping to prove that they aren’t part of the “left-wing media.”
It is important for the left to understand this right wing formula, if only so we can make efforts to disrupt it when it inevitably happens in the future. If we can rapidly debunk the right wing talking points in the mainstream media before they become a meme, we may be able to limit the spread of such propaganda to the right wing echo chamber (Fox, Drudge, etc.), where they are preaching to the choir. This would require very rapid responses to nascent right wing talking points and for the left to coordinate unified responses across its diverse constituency—such a plan is likely only possible on some issues, where there are few conflicts within the left’s tent (ex. minimum wages, voting rights, etc.).