The Cult of Personality 2: The Source of Polarization
Neiwert’s post goes on to argue that the intemperate language from the right-wing over the past 20 years has now reached a fever-pitch. He noticed the first signs of it not long after the SCOTUS selected Junior:
What I observed over time was that none of my conservative friends would seriously defend Bush v. Gore but would switch subjects or revert to a “get over it” kind of response. None would acknowledge that there were perfectly good, perhaps even patriotic, reasons not to get over it. None would acknowledge that, were the shoe on the other foot, they too would be seriously outraged — and I mean long-term outrage.
And so the feeling grew on my part that they neither were being honest nor being, at base, civil in its core sense. Maybe I was wrong to feel this way, I don’t know; but I felt it. I tried not to let it show, but it was there. And it was a wedge in our friendships.
He’s quite right: so blatant was the theft that there were only two possible responses for partisans: outrage that people they believed in would act this way, or denial. In overwhelming numbers, they chose denial. Why? Because, as Neiwert explains, the ground had been prepared in advance. They had been set up for that response.
For the past decade liberals have been increasingly subjected to a brand of conservative ridicule that has explicitly blamed them for every one of society’s ills, and it has come relentlessly and from every quarter of the increasingly politically dominant conservative sphere. Now that rhetoric is reaching a violent pitch — and if Oklahoma City should have taught us anything, it was the consequences of spreading this kind of hate. Much as conservatives like to argue that liberals are guilty of the same thing, there really is no parallel to this on the left, at least not since the early 1970s.
What relatively mild incivility that liberals now exhibit is comparatively minuscule in proportion and prominence. Liberals have in fact been, by comparison, the picture of civility, especially since Sept. 11. Remember all those Democratic votes for Bush’s war initiatives and the Patriot Act. Remember that there still has been no serious investigation of the causes of Sept. 11, in no small part because the White House has refused to cooperate — but also because neither Democrats nor moderate Republicans have collected the political will to get it done, and done right.
Too civil, perhaps. Neiwert’s argument is that 9/11 boosted right-wing rhetoric, already plenty nasty and getting nastier, to the level we see now:
It is in the last of these failures — painting dissent as treason — that the president, his administration and the accompanying pundits (or rather, the choir of sycophants) all have affected us all personally, and badly. Because that view has become the worldview of mainstream conservatives in all walks of life. It’s manifested itself not just in nationally prominent scenarios like the attacks on the Dixie Chicks and other entertainment folk, but in other smaller and lesser-known ways, too, like the way conservative officers are driving liberal soldiers out of the military. The clear message in these cases: Dissent is disloyalty.
Even conservatives who have dared dissent have been drummed out of “the movement.” The Stalinism inherent in this mindset was vividly on display, I thought, when longtime conservative Philip Gold of The Discovery Institute announced he was opposing an attack on Iraq — for reasons, I should note, that were almost identical to mine, and which I think have proven prescient — and he was promptly dropped from the Institute (which has, it must be noted, increasingly come under the influence of Christian Reconstructionist Howard Ahmanson in recent years). It should be noted, too, that Gold has been forced to reach the same conclusion as I: that “conservatism has grown, for lack of a better word, malign.”
Most of all, the prevalence of the “dissent is treason” meme has affected how ordinary people relate to each other, in profoundly negative ways.
I have heard all kinds of anecdotes about interpersonal alienation over Bush and his handling of the “war on terror.” Some of these involve family members, others longtime friendships. One can only imagine what scenes will erupt from the coming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons too. For myself, it is not profound, but noticeable: invitations to traditional camping and fishing trips not issued; letters ignored; cold and brusque treatment when we do get together. A decided lack of communication and a clear sense of rejection.
And it’s too plain why: I and my fellow “Saddam-loving” liberals are all traitors. They know, because Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and everyone else out there has told them so. Indeed, these right-wing “transmitters” have been pounding it into their heads for years now, and it’s reaching fruition.
While laying out the behaviour and its consequences clearly and eloquently, Neiwert doesn’t identify the source of this campaign. Maybe he doesn’t know it. Maybe he doesn’t even know it was a deliberate campaign, but it was.
After Goldwater ignited the sleeping core of True Republicans, they tried to attach themselves to Richard Nixon, whose credentials as an anti-Communist crusader with few scruples and an instinct for punching below the belt they found attractive. But Nixon, who had played dirty in every campaign for every office he’d ever sought and basically gotten away with it, got caught in ’72, though too late to prevent his winning re-election.
It’s important to remember and to understand what happened next because it is the fuel that feeds the fire under True Republicans and their determination to turn back the clock and destroy liberalism once and for all. But not just liberalism — moderate Republicanism as well, for it was not the liberals who nailed Nixon’s coffin lid down, it was Republican moderates who would not countenance his undemocratic, un-Constitutional actions, specifically and most crucially, Howard Baker.
Nixon’s use of the CIA to affect the break-ins of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to find damaging material they could use to stop his publication of the Pentagon Papers and of the Watergate Hotel offices of the Democratic National Committee were meant to be covered, should they ever become known, by the twin moated-castle-keeps of National Security and Plausible Deniability. Both these protective mechanisms, however, broke down under intense scrutiny by the nation’s press, particularly the Washington Post. As the cover-up unravelled fed by daily revelations in the press that brought the story closer and closer to the very top, Nixonian partisans, most of them radical right-wing conservatives, grew increasingly angry at the furor over what they considered “trivial” incidents.
But that anger was as nothing compared to the anger they felt when moderate Republicans joined liberals in decrying Nixon’s Consitutional abuses. They felt betrayed, stabbed in the back by their own people. At first Baker’s repeated questions–“What did the President know? and when did he know it?”–promised cover, the protection of Plausible Deniability: if the President didn’t know what his aides were doing, he was off the hook. What they failed to see until it was too late was that the questions were a two-edged sword: if the President did know, then he was quite firmly on the hook–a hook Baker had fashioned.
As the evidence mounted up that Nixon was directly involved (and involved early on), as Dean testified against his boss and the WH tapes were first discovered and then played on national television, the defection of the moderate Republicans that True Republicans had put in place, they thought, as a matter of expediency grew to epidemic proportions, a rout. Baker’s questions had become the criteria by which Nixon’s guilt had to be judged, and the verdict was becoming inescapable.
What liberals saw as the unmasking of a high crime, Nixonian conservatives saw as a vendetta by the “Eastern Liberal Establishment” that had never liked Nixon and was panting to take him down on any pretext. Where liberals saw a profoundly anti-democratic President willing to trash the Constitution for the petty purpose of furthering his own career, conservatives saw what they called the political “assassination” and “crucifixion” of a great statesman and towering presence in American history for a single, unacceptable reason: that he was a conservative anti-Communist. They never forgave Baker or the other Republican moderates (who were the ones who went to see Nixon and convinced him to resign) for joining the “liberal establishment” and betraying their President. They never took the charges against Nixon seriously and didn’t see how anyone else could, especially other Republicans, unless they were hellbent on finding an excuse to destroy a political adversary and didn’t much care how flimsy that excuse was.
Sound familiar? Liberals — and other ordinary folk — with no sense of their own history have been asking for a decade the question, “Why do conservatives have such a hatred of Bill Clinton?” It seemed way out of line, what with Clinton pushing a center-right agenda. Why should they hate somebody who was supporting some of their own policies and even making them law when conservatives had been unable to do so (in the same way that Nixon could go to Communist China when no liberal could)?
The answer is simple enough but it lies in the past: Clinton was their worst nightmare: a Rooseveltian coalition-builder who stole their issues and was threatening to forge a series of new Democratic alliances that could keep them out of power for another 50 years. He couldn’t be allowed to succeed. If he did, the progress True Republicans had made under the witless but attractive conservative icon Ronald Reagan would vanish like morning fog. But even better, taking Clinton down would avenge the “liberal witch-hunt” that had, in their view, destroyed Nixon. True Republicans like revenge for wrongs real or imagined. They never forgive and they never forget. Clinton was payback.
The destruction of the Clinton Presidency wasn’t by any means an improvised affair. After Nixon was forced to resign, hard-right True Republicans were determined to see that what happened to him could never happen again — at least, not to a Republican — and they began a series of meetings and conferences to devise a strategy. At the center of the plotting were conservative think-tanks like The Heritage Foundation and The American Enterprise Institute, whose ultra-conservative members had already begun to lay out the elements that would be needed for them to prevail.
Item 1 on the agenda was an attack on the “liberal” press that had been so instrumental in Nixon’s downfall. The press had to be neutralized, taken out of the equation. How to do it? Easy, said the lawyers of the HF: when a witness’ testimony can’t be disproved in court, you attack the witness directly. You cast doubt on his credibility, expose the dirty linen in his personal life, characterize his professional life as incompetent or corrupt, connect him to questionable activities and unappetizing associates, interpret everything he has ever done in the worst possible light and force him to defend himself against charges irrelevant to his testimony. Muddy the waters but keep the charges simple enough that the jury won’t have to think too much to understand them. And the beauty of it was that the witness wasn’t on trial so you didn’t have to prove any charge you made; all you had to do was “suggest” strongly enough to put doubts in the minds of the jury. Spiro Agnew had had some success — though it was brief — in keeping the press away from reporting his construction swindles using this tactic, famously labeling the press “nattering nabobs of negativism”. What they needed was to do that, only more, bigger.
But “How?” was the question. It would take forever to replace enough of the liberal reporters and editors in the nation’s newspapers to make a difference. Not necessarily, came the reply. The reporters and editors may be overwhelmingly liberal, but the owners are not. Forge alliances with them, convince them that their papers aren’t “fair” to conservatives, that they’re overbalanced with too many liberals, that conservative voices are stifled. Urge them to provide more “balance” by hiring conservative commentators. Let the liberal reporters report the news, but let the conservative commentators interpret it.
It was a good strategy but it needed a lot of repetition to succeed with the public. It needed a drumbeat that was always the same and never stopped. It needed constancy and consistency. It needed to be treated like Madison Avenue treated the selling of a product: ads all day every day, all playing variations on the same theme until it was part of the air the consumer breathed. And so the echo chamber of the Mighty Wurlitzer was born.
The first real test of this strategy came, oddly enough, not in the 1980 campaign but in the early years of Reagan’s presidency when he made statement after statement that was untrue, everything from the bogus anecdote of the “Welfare Queen” to the bogus science of “trees pollute”. When reporters called him on statements clearly disconnected from reality, conservative pundits responded that the “biased liberal press” was picking on him over simple, unimportant mis-statements, that the “biased liberal press” was unfair and out of control, that the “liberal press was biased” against any and all conservatives and that the “bias of the liberal press” made them untrustworthy.
By 1984, it seemed impossible to say the word “press” without prefacing it with the phrase “biased liberal”, and the tactic of the meme was born. Without proof — with the proof in fact going in the other direction — the echo chamber had, by simple but pervasive repetition, convinced the American public, a public that only 10 years before had been celebrating the press as the last bastion of truth and the only institution left that could keep politicians honest, that that press was actually full of prejudiced liars and liberal partisans twisting the truth to advance a hidden agenda. It wasn’t a fancy or complicated tactic. It was as simple as the most primitive kinds of brainwashing techniques, and it worked like a charm.
Confronted with the spectacle of Reagan’s appealing “everybody’s grandfather” character being “unfairly” bashed by a “biased liberal press” before he’d even done anything, the American public reacted by bashing the press. Letters poured in excoriating the papers who were “picking on” Reagan, there were boycotts, sales slumped, and talk radio emerged as the antidote for all that “biased liberal” poison. At first driven by a preponderance of conservative Libertarians (Alan Berg was an anomaly, almost unique in the business), talk radio was soon the almost exclusive province of far-right conservatives, for whom it was tailor-made. The more outraged — and outrageous — they were, the more fun they were to listen to.
When Rush Limbaugh first appeared in the late 80’s, even liberals listened to him, tuning in just to hear what crazy thing he’d say next. Nobody then took Rush very seriously; he was treated like the entertainer he always insisted he was. At the time, I was the only one I knew who thought Rush and his Dittoheads represented a real threat to the political discourse of this country, and even progressives who disliked Rush insisted that I was over-reacting.
But I had been watching, and I could see the elements of the overall strategy being put into place. The press had blinked at the fierce reaction to their reporting of Reagan’s constant gaffes and had stopped reporting them; newspapers were backing away from reporting any story critical of an extremely popular Presidential Image; more people were getting their “news” exclusively from television, soaking up pap carefully edited so as not to offend as if it were the real thing; talk radio was pounding away at the same conservative themes day after day after week after week, their screeners making sure that callers opposed to the conservative line never got on the air to express that opposition; and conservative media owners were enlarging their empires and exerting more control over the daily content of their news departments at the same time that they were cutting staffs and salaries to, in one fell swoop, increase their profits and decrease opposition to their new policies in the press room.
It wasn’t a pretty picture. It was frightening. I was watching the destruction of a diverse press and its replacement by a dumbed-down press corps chasing sexy but meaningless stories for the sake of the bottom line and endlessly parroting the views and beliefs of its owners without much regard for little things like truth or the public good or its role as a check-and-balance on political skulduggery. The Fourth Estate was being gutted, turned into a vat of irrelevant, toothless mush right before our eyes, and nobody seemed to notice, let alone care.
The travesties of the press orgies around OJ, Brittany Spears, Laci Peterson, et al didn’t happen by accident.
to be continued….