Monday, June 20, 2011


Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

-- Stephen Colbert

In this week's Sift:

  • Propaganda Lesson: The Two-Step. If you have lots of time and resources, and you want to attack somebody, don't just smear them directly. Establish a stereotype first, and then attach it to them. So rather than talk about what Obama does, his enemies want to talk about what he is.
  • Already Refuted 97 Years Ago. Already in 1914, the economy was too complicated for the individual consumer to exercise the kind of judgment that the Republican health-care vision implies.
  • Wisconsin Update. The Wisconsin Supreme Court excused the legislature's unusual process by engaging in an unusual process of its own.
  • Short Notes. Past Supreme Court justices have resigned in disgrace for doing what Clarence Thomas does. Alabama outdoes Arizona's immigration law. The Pentagon as a model of left-wing social policy. A prominent climate-change denier faked his credentials. A young adult explains why his peers don't vote. And more.

Propaganda Lesson: The Two-Step

One of the axioms of 21st-century political campaigns is: If you're explaining, you're losing.

In other words: If the attack against you is simple, but the reason why it's unfair is complicated, then you're in trouble. Even if people listen to you long enough to understand your side of the story, you've lost valuable time that you could have spent spreading the vision of what you want to do when you get into office.

You saw lots of examples if you watched last Monday's Republican debate, but my favorite was Michele Bachmann's claim that "the Congressional Budget Office has said that Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs." The Washington Post's fact-checker explains:

In dry economic language, the CBO essentially said that some people who are now in the workforce because they need health insurance would decide to stop working because the health care law guaranteed they would have access to health care. (As an example, think of someone who is 63, a couple of years before retirement, who is still in a job only because he or she is waiting to get on Medicare at age 65.)

So the CBO's 800K has nothing to do with anybody getting fired or not finding a job. But it took a whole paragraph to explain why "Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs" is deceptive. Advantage Bachmann.

The two-step. Obamacare-kills-jobs is a fairly direct attack. But if you have the time and the resources, a sneakier way to take advantage of the explaining-is-losing effect is to build up your attack in layers. The two-step attack works like this: Over time, you turn vaguely-defined words into negative stereotypes. Then you attack by attaching the word to your opponent.

Example: Obama is a socialist.

Last summer, the Christian Science Monitor spent two on-line pages debunking that claim. I doubt it helped.

If, like the Monitor, you want to be rational about this, you notice that the full attack is actually a syllogism: "Obama is a socialist. Socialists are bad. Therefore Obama is bad." In order for the syllogism to be valid, the word socialist has to carry the same definition all the way through. So the article examines the evidence that Obama promotes some bad kind of socialism, and finds that he doesn't.

It explains, so it loses.

Worse, Obama himself can't dispute either step without seeming to concede the other: If he argues that he's not a socialist, he seems to concede that it's bad to be one. If he argues that socialists aren't bad, he seems to concede that he is one.

Either argument misses the real point, because socialist represents a stereotype, not a definition. The right-wing media has been heaping scorn upon socialist and socialism for decades, so that (at least for their audience) those words evoke Pavlovian responses in the glands rather than clear concepts in the mind. Obama is a socialist doesn't make factual claims about anything Barack Obama has ever said or done or believed. It simply says: "You know that Pavlovian response we've trained you to feel when you hear the word socialist? You should attach that feeling to Obama."

No parallel. No symmetry. Liberals are easily flustered by this kind of attack, because we have no experience with it. Attacks on President Bush, for example, usually stayed close to facts and actions: Bush ordered people tortured. He wiretapped Americans without warrants. He misled us about the reasons for invading Iraq.

Those are all statements about what Bush did, not what he is. Is-statements against Bush were usually shorthand that quickly led back to his actions. Charges that Bush is a criminal refer to specific actions that broke specific laws; it isn't just liberals throwing around a bad word. Ditto for liar or torturer. Even people who claimed that Bush was a fascist often produced a definition of fascism in fairly short order, and went about connecting his deeds with its requirements. (Keith Olbermann defined fascism as "the seamless mutuality of government and big business" and used it in response to Bush demanding immunity for law-breaking the telephone companies did on his behalf.)

Three steps. In the same way that Caesar's army spent peaceful intervals sharpening weapons and drilling troops, a modern propaganda machine spends the time between election campaigns sharpening its stereotypes and drilling its audience in their Pavlovian responses.

By now, there is even a three-step attack on Obama. The statement that he is something (anti-American, say), is backed not by references to specific statements or actions, but by generic summaries of the kind of thing he says or does: Obama "apologizes for America" -- a charge that is based on more-or-less nothing. (The WaPo fact-checker awarded four Pinocchios, their lowest rating: "The apology tour never happened." Nonetheless, when Mitt Romney titles his book No Apology, his target audience knows what he's contrasting himself against.)

The more steps you can put between your attack and the facts, the harder it is for anyone else to root it out of the mind of your audience once you get it established. If people believe that Obama is bad because he is anti-American because he apologizes for America, what facts will change their minds? They might have to concede that Obama doesn't apologize for America in this or that particular speech, but what about all the others? The generic summary floats above any particular events, and isn't contradicted when some event turns out not to have been like that.

No arms race. Usually, when an article points out something that conservatives do more effectively than liberals, the proposed solution is that we raise our game to compete. But propaganda is an area where we have to be very careful, because our goals are different than our opponents' goals. Propaganda can serve their goals in ways that it can't serve ours.

In the liberal vision, government is a means for the people to look out for their common and collective interests. We want government to succeed at that mission. In order for that to happen, democracy has to work. The political process needs to be trusted and trustworthy.

Conservatives -- at least the plutocrats who dominate the conservative movement today -- don't need that. They want government not to be trusted, so that billionaires and corporations will be free to do as they please. So anything that raises cynicism about the political process works to their advantage. When the public discourse devolves to our lies against their lies, they win.

Worse, they win when the public polarizes into camps that live in separate realities. Think about global warming. In order to get a cap-and-trade program passed, President Obama had to get a majority in the House and 60 senators to unite around a single plan. His opponents only needed to stop that from happening. Anything that raised fear and distrust worked to their advantage, because they were not trying to pass their own plan. They just needed to prevent the American people from using government to look out for their common interest.

Liberals win when the public lives in one reality, and has a transparent discourse about that reality that reaches some kind of consensus. Our best chance to achieve that is to stay connected to facts. Stephen Colbert noticed the right correlation, but got the causality backwards: Liberals need to have a reality bias.

So when it comes to propaganda, we don't need to raise our game. We need to raise the public's game, so that they are less easily fooled. We need to spend our between-campaigns intervals tearing down stereotypes and educating the public, both about reality and about how propaganda works.

If we wait until the last few weeks before an election to explain that, then we really will be losing.

Already Refuted 97 Years Ago

Several Sifts have led off with quotes from commentator Walter Lippmann, who could turn a phrase better than almost anybody else in the 20th century. Well, this longer quote from Drift and Mastery (1914) explains precisely what's wrong with the Republican Medicare-privatization plan -- and what's wrong with their whole vision of individuals negotiating their own health-care purchases:

In our intricate civilization the purchaser can't pit himself against the producer, for he lacks knowledge and power to make the bargain a fair one. By the time goods are ready for the ultimate consumer they have travelled hundreds of miles, passed through any number of wholesalers, jobbers, middlemen and what not. The simple act of buying has become a vast, impersonal thing which the ordinary man is quite incapable of performing without all sorts of organized aid. There are silly anarchists who talk as if such organization were a loss of freedom. They seem to imagine that they can "stand alone," and judge each thing for themselves. They might try it. They would find that the purchase of eggs was such a stupendous task that no time would be left over for the purchase of beer or the pursuit of those higher freedoms for which they are fighting.

The old commercial theorists had some inkling of these difficulties. They knew that the consumer could not possibly make each purchase a deliberate and intelligent act. So they said that if only business men were left to compete they would stumble over each other to supply the consumer with the most satisfactory goods. It is hardly necessary to point out how complete has been the collapse of that romantic theory. There are a hundred ways of competing, to produce the highest quality at the lowest cost proved to be the most troublesome and least rewarding form of competition.

Remember, Lippmann is talking about the "intricate civilization" of 1914. It was already too much for the individual consumer to handle.

Fast forward to 2011, and let's imagine the Republican ideal of individual health-care choice. People like my 89-year-old Dad would be deciding whether or not the cut-rate MRI shop on the edge of town is safe. (Or I'd be deciding for him from a thousand miles away.) If a profit-driven doctor recommends an expensive treatment, Dad would have to look at that suggestion as skeptically as he used to look at mechanics who wanted to replace his car's transmission. And yes, insurance companies would compete for his business -- with clever advertising, deceptive slogans, fast-talking telemarketers who call at all hours, and low-premium plans that seem to cover every illness except the ones you happen to get.

That's market competition as it really exists in America today -- not the Atlas-Shrugged fantasy of high-quality/low-cost competition.

Markets respond well when they have to satisfy well-informed consumers who have the time and ability to "make each purchase a deliberate and intelligent act". That's why I don't need a government inspector to check that McDonalds' french fries are crisp enough; I have all the information I need to make a good decision for myself. But how do I determine for myself whether the Filet-O-Fish sandwich contains mercury that will make me senile 15 years from now?

Unfortunately, a well-informed consumer is a corporation's worst-case scenario. If it can hide the relevant data, distract or confuse the buyer, and sell the sizzle instead of the steak, it will.

And if someday we arrive at their free-market health-care utopia, which side will the Republicans be on? Will they insist on strong consumer-protection regulations that force corporations to collect and reveal the information people need to make wise choices? I'm guessing not.

Wisconsin Update

This week we got another lesson on the consequences of elections: Back in April, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser won a close re-election that played out suspiciously, but apparently honestly. Tuesday he was the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision overturning a lower court's ruling that the legislature violated Wisconsin's open-meetings law when it passed Governor Walker's union-busting bill.

The gist of the ruling, as I understand it, is not that the legislature followed the law, but that it is not up to the judiciary to say whether it did or not. It is a "separation of powers" issue, in which the legislature's "failure to follow such procedural rules amounts to an implied ad hoc repeal of such rules."

The dissenting judges found that the Court itself was engaging in an unusual process. Ordinarily, a court hears a case either originally or as an appeal from some other court, using the factual record established by the original court. In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did something in between: It granted itself original jurisdiction on a case that had already been heard by a lower court, and then made its own findings-of-fact without gathering any new evidence beyond what was in the lower court's record.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson minced no words in her dissent:

The order and Justice Prosser's concurrence are based on errors of fact and law. They inappropriately use this court's original jurisdiction, make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties' arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891.

Other than that, it was all good.

Wisconsin public employee unions are now filing a suit in federal court, but I've got my doubts that it will go anywhere.

The other theater of action in Wisconsin is the recall elections of nine senators -- six Republicans and three Democrats. Here also, the Republicans are engaging in an unusual process: They have filed dummy Democratic challengers to force a Democratic primary and delay the recall elections from July 19 to sometime in mid-August.

FDL comments:

I’m a little surprised a registered Republican and a Republican county official can just run in a Democratic primary, but those are the rules in Wisconsin, apparently.

And there apparently is no concern about good government or right-and-wrong. Whatever you can get away with is what you should do.

Short Notes

ThinkProgress points out that the current ethical controversy around Clarence Thomas -- namely, that he and his wife get expensive favors from a rich guy whose companies sometimes have an interest in cases before the Supreme Court -- is pretty much identical to a scandal that caused LBJ-appointee Justice Abe Fortas to resign in the 1960s.

One of Thomas’ benefactors has even filed briefs in his Court since giving Thomas a $15,000 gift, and Thomas has not recused himself from each of these cases.

No one seriously expects Thomas to resign.

When I graduated from Michigan State in 1978, some congressman gave a commencement speech about farm policy. So how come another Big Ten school, Northwestern, just got Stephen Colbert?

Salon's Steve Kornacki:

If nothing else, Monday's Republican presidential debate made those commentators who have been touting Michele Bachmann as a serious threat to win the GOP presidential nomination look like prophets.

That would be me. Like me, Kornacki is not predicting that Bachmann will get the nomination, just that she'll come a lot closer than the conventional wisdom suggests.

I think even Kornacki underestimates Bachmann, though, by comparing her to past religious-right candidates like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. Pat and Mike were religious candidates first, and sometimes gave the impression that they were making up their other positions on the fly. (Huck in particular raised fears among Club-for-Growth types that he might turn into a Sermon-on-the-Mount liberal if he took office.) But Bachmann sounds completely authentic rallying a Tea Party crowd on taxes and spending.

New evidence that life is not fair: Even in his mug shots, John Edwards looks better than I do.

Nicholas Kristof finds at least one American organization that embodies liberal principles like racial diversity, social mobility, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, educational opportunity, and keeping a lid on income inequality: the military.

But as we as a country grope for new directions in a difficult economic environment, the tendency has been to move toward a corporatist model that sees investments in people as woolly-minded sentimentalism or as unaffordable luxuries. That’s not the only model out there. So as the United States armed forces try to pull Iraqi and Afghan societies into the 21st century, maybe they could do the same for America’s.

When it passed its famous anti-immigrant law SB 1070 last year, Arizona made its bid to be America's most racist state. But Alabama is not giving up the crown without a fight.

Salon lists some of the Arabic words that are staples of anti-Muslim rhetoric, how they're used, and what they mean to people who actually know Islam or Arabic.

There's a fine line between making something illegal and putting so many restrictions on it that it becomes impractical. AlterNet's Amanda Marcotte examines 10 States Where Abortion Is Virtually Illegal for Some Women.

Last week I pointed out that the NYT had published an op-ed denouncing clean energy by someone from a Koch front-group. Mike Casey gives more details:

I’m not even expecting that the Times actually demand a factual grounding for the opinion pieces it runs. That seems to have gone out of style awhile ago. … But Bryce got away with something much more preventable: pretending he’s some sort of intellectually honest thinker when his organization has ties to dirty energy money that no one bothered to note.

And then he makes a good suggestion:

Why not have a standard for all opinion pages for papers over a certain basic level of readership requiring opinion page submission finalists to disclose financial conflicts, direct or indirect, on the subject on which they have written? … it might inject just a little bit of honesty into what is now an all-too-frequent stream of enabled propaganda.

Why don't young people vote? I don't know, let's ask one.

The biggest climate-change denier in the Minnesota Senate turns out to have been lying about having any scientific background at all.


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Collette said...

Lack of engagement with the issues is essentially the reason people of other ages don't vote also, if you look at the research. Another thing happening with college kids is they go to school outside their hometown and even their state, often, in a place with new issues that they also do not feel like permanent residents of. When they do get political, they often attach to either university politics or national politics with enthusiasm.

Collette said...

You don't have to look much farther than this ad to see why some people don't engage with politics (called the most racist/sexist ad in history):