Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Grumpy Old People

A movement does not have its moment until it becomes the subject of scholarly work.  Bookshelves now sag with dated works on Baby Boomers, the "Me" generation, Generation X, and of course, any and every political movement that has cropped up from the agrarian revolution of the 1890s to Occupy Wall Street.  Onto this list two new books, The FOX Effect, by David Brock, Ari Raven-Havt and their colleagues at Media Matters and The Tea Party & The Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol and Ph.D. candidate Vanessa Williamson have arrived to examine right wing political activism in the United States and how FOX News in particular acts as a "house organ" for the modern Republican party. 

Of course, the existence of a "vast right wing conspiracy" is not a new idea, but what both books argue persuasively is that the media, and most particularly, FOX News, has erased the line between journalism and political activism and, under the imprimatur of "news," created a propaganda machine that serves as a message machine for the GOP.  The FOX Effect focuses primarily on Roger Ailes, who heads the FOX News channel and has deep roots in the Republican Party.  Ailes's name will be familiar to political junkies dating to the 1960s, when, as a young man, he helped mold Richard Nixon's 1968 Presidential campaign, spearheading ideas like the "town hall" event, but with the twist of packing the audience with sympathetic voters not necessarily representative of the electorate that supported his candidate.  Ailes went on to serve subsequent Republican Presidents and refined his techniques for media manipulation as the medium changed, seemingly staying one step ahead of his competition while being circumspect in his profile. 

As Brock and Rabin-Havt show, Ailes was able to fully realize his vision when Rupert Murdoch handed him the reins to FOX News. The rest, for anyone who has followed politics and the media for the last 15 years, is history.  The authors tread ground that will look familiar to those who follow this sort of thing - the Orwellian use of the "fair and balanced" tag line, the hiring and promotion of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and others, and the steady conservative influence of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, all marching in tight solidarity toward the objective of demeaning anything and everything vaguely smelling of big "D" Democratic policy and little "d" democracy.  Along the way, Brock and Rabin-Havt also illustrate the two-step FOX utilizes to pump up controversy that originates in the bowel of the "vast right wing conspiracy," elevating it into the national discourse, and, if others do not pick up on it, claiming "liberal" bias.  Of course, in many cases, like that of the "new" Black Panthers or USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, the facts end up being far less nefarious than FOX reports them to be, but that is of no consequence to Ailes and company.  Their objective is a steady stream of distortion to a viewership that studies have shown is the most misinformed of any that watches news programming. 

But FOX has gone a step further from merely cherry picking information to provide it a Republican slant.  In recent years, their advocacy has become more affirmative, erasing the line that traditionally stood between journalism and political activism.  FOX personalities have appeared at "Tea Party" rallies, assisted in fundraising (and contributed) to Republican candidates for political office and provided a friendly platform for the endless promotion of Tea Party events, particularly in 2009 and 2010.   In response, FOX falls back on the idea of a separation between its "news" personalities and "opinion" personalities, arguing that the latter do not present themselves as neutral arbiters, but the reality, as Brock and Rabin-Havt show, is a distinction without a difference.  "News" programs on FOX recite, almost word for word, the talking points generated by Republican operatives as gospel, so to suggest they are not part of the overall machinery that amplifies the conservative point of view is a chimera. 

Skocpol and Williamson look at the opposite end of the telescope by logging endless hours researching, interviewing and spending time with "the Tea Party," a phenomenon they rightly point out is not a monolith, but rather, a complex political organism not always in harmony with itself, but sharing a simple demographic - older, white people who generally have a dim view of immigrants, minorities and young people.  While the mainstream media mocks Tea Partiers as being ignorant (a sign reading "Keep Your Government Hands off My Medicare" is often cited to show Tea Partiers don't even know Medicare IS a government program), the authors point out that the Tea Party argument is a bit more nuanced (if idiotic).  That is, yes, they KNOW Medicare is a government "entitlement," but Tea Party supporters see it as THEIR entitlement - that is, they have worked, paid into, and "earned" the right to have Medicare and Social Security while the groups they disfavor (see above) are seen as being unworthy, either because they have not worked for it, or are crossing the border in hordes to access government services illegally.  

Along the way, the authors dovetail nicely with the impact FOX News has on political discourse discussed by Brock/Rabin-Havt.  For example, they cite reporting that was done suggesting the Tea Party was a movement of "moderates" and not conservative Republicans.  The "moderate" meme was launched off a poll that, when disaggregated based on its questions and other polls done at the time, shown to be unsupported, but that did not matter at the critical time that the reporting was done.  While the authors attribute fault across the media (as it should be), the cheerleaders on FOX and others within the right wing media were more than happy to fan the flames with the idea that "ordinary" Americans from across the political spectrum supported the Tea Party when in fact they did not. 

The book also discusses the fissure between grass roots Tea Party folks (yes, some do exist) and the corporate funders at the national level - the Koch Brothers, Freedom Works, Americans for Prosperity and others - who cleverly leveraged what legitimate local anger there might have been over the election of President Obama, the passage of health care reform and national debt and repackaged it into a "brand" called the Tea Party.  The authors point out that while some local groups accepted funds from national organizations and in return give the imprimatur of their support to those national groups, not every local Tea Party has fallen into the orbit of larger, nationally run groups.  

Indeed, what is interesting about The Tea Party & The Remaking of Republican Conservatism is the fact that the Tea Party is not so much a new phenomenon as a mutation of a small group of ultra-conservative Republicans whose philosophy found its moment, in, of all places, the rant of a CNBC journalist on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, not against the greed of bankers, but the purportedly "lazy" Americans looking to be bailed out of their underwater mortgages.  The general diffidence these folks feel toward the federal government became subsumed within larger societal forces that the financial crisis unleashed.  That this all took place when an urban, articulate, African-American with a "foreign" sounding name took office was the accelerant that fueled the fire.  

To me at least, the Tea Party is really just a 2.0 version of the right wing anger directed at Bill Clinton when he was President.  Ironically, it was David Brock, who, in the 1990s was an agitator for conservative causes, kept the Paula Jones story alive, which, through a daisy chain of events, resulted in Bill Clinton's impeachment.  Today, Brock has recanted his past and now trains his fire on his former masters, so it is a little surprising that there is not much in his book that makes a more affirmative link between generic "outrage" and a Democrat being in the White House.  Of course, some of the militant edge was taken off the Clinton rage as the economy boomed in the 1990s, and my guess is that were we to experience stronger job and economic growth if Obama is re-elected, some of the reflexive dislike Republicans have for him would also dissipate. 

As for the Tea Party, Skocpol and Williamson make a strong case that it will be a force in politics, though more likely at the local level, for some time to come because the demographics of this country will, in some way, reinforce it.  We, as a nation, are growing more ethnically diverse, but also have limited financial resources, which will only flow more substantially to the elderly as the country ages and Social Security and Medicare consume more of our budget.  It's not a coincidence that the "Ryan Budget" does not end Medicare as we know it until 2022.  The retired and near retirement are a powerful bloc who think they are entitled to the social safety net - if the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, it is of no moment to them. At the national level, Republicans are pruning moderates from the Senate and their House caucus, thanks to gerrymandering, excuse me, redistricting, has never been more conservative.  Whether they are merely paying lip service to Tea Party causes in the drive for power and control or will actually implement radical change if ever given the ability to do it will have significant ramifications for our country.

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