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March 06, 2005

Propaganda

Digby:

And here is one liberal who doesn't believe that everything that comes out of the unregulated free market is good culturally. For instance, I think that right wing talk radio is the biggest cultural pollutant in our society. I can't conceive of anything more pernicious than hours and hours of eliminationist rhetoric, lies and propaganda being pumped into people's cars, offices and homes throughout the country. Somehow, I just can't get as worked up about fictional cable television shows that feature nudity and profanity when real live Americans spend the day listening to people talk about me in ways that sound an awful lot like they'd like to kill me.

That reminds me of something I've been meaning to talk about, namely, the effects of under-the-radar propaganda. Limbaugh's fans do not consider him the representation of the Republican party. In fact, every single one of my friends who listen to Rush are quick to tell me how non-doctrinaire, how willing to criticize the right, he is. It's part of his schtick, an honest guy telling it like it is. But that's just the thing, having his vile commentary beamed into your home and your car and your office day after day is going to leave you a raving right-winger at the very same time you think you're becoming independent. It'll effectively wed you to a party by shaping your ideology and the way you perceive politics. As David Neiwert wrote (in a post I can't seem to find), Rush and his ilk are some of the only folks on air in rural areas. So these farmers and laborers driving long distances for this or that really have nothing else to tune into on the AM. No wonder Democrats are getting stomped in rural areas! The whole dynamic reminds me of something I read in Which Side Are You On?:

We have lost our sense of what this old CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations, later to merge with the AFL, key in the development of organized labor] culture was like.We listen to old radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly, and think, "How simple and sweet people used to be." But then read the back issues of UMW Journal [United Mineworkers Journal]...It's pretty strong stuff. Crude, vulgar cartoons about Wall Street, the bosses, etc. It's the crudest, most vulgar propaganda you could ever see in the free world, and it was coming into people's houses, with their favorite radio shows, and apparently this was quite routine. My God, no wonder they were voting for Democrats. If you read the old Journals, you'll be surprised that's all they did.

You don't want to underestimate the number of people being shaped by this sort of under-the-radar propaganda. That's why, in the 40's, when Republicans finally recaptured Congress and the CIO was planning a massive organizing drive in the South, Taft-Hartley (the union-busting bill) became their primary concern. If the CIO had been allowed to become a dominant force in American life, they would have created a working class actively, implacably hostile to the Republican party. But my point here isn't a history lesson. Instead, it's that partisan affiliations are not made and remade every four years. In fact, they're only partially a product of above-the-board media, what with its anodyne portrayals of issues and its deadening lists of quotes. Firm polarization comes from continuing exposure to various forms of (what most would consider) vicious propaganda, whether its anti-boss labor literature or anti-liberal talk radio. It's not that you hear a single argument and click into your brand new political identity, but that the sustained presence of these forms of media begin to color your perception of their targets, robbing them of their humanity and building enough mistrust that no argument they make will sway you, as they're saddled with an a priori lack of credibility.

We are losing the war, there. We simply don't have outlets coloring the subconscious perceptions of voters. While Rush beams into 20 million ears and his cadre of imitators scream into a few million more, we're no longer sending out vicious labor literature, or indeed any sort of opinionated and consistent attack propaganda. That's a large part of the reason that our historical advantages in Party ID are dropping -- Republican affiliates are doing to us what Democratic proxies once did to them. True, blogs are stepping in here to further polarize their readers, and Democrats certainly have strength there, but we're basically an echo-chamber for preexisting partisans, not a converting ground for the previously apathetic. This is why I find it hard to get worked up over something stupid Peter Beinart or David Brook said in the New York Times -- that's not where it matters (though, to be clear, I wish they wouldn't say stupid things). The really important fights -- the ones aimed at converting people's guts rather than heads, go on beneath the surface, because the visceral tactics and arguments used would be considered entirely too vicious for polite society. And much more than in the mainstream media, that's where we're losing our votes.

Update: I was talking about this with a friend recently and he mentioned that John Judis's the Paradox of American Democracy covered much the same ground. Is that true? And should I read it?

-Ezra

March 6, 2005 in Media | Permalink

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Tracked on Mar 6, 2005 5:38:38 PM

Comments

Yes, you should definitely read The Paradox of American Democracy, but no, it's not about this. Judis' book is more about the crack-up of the elite consensus from WWII through the early 1970's, during which business and labor, aided by think tanks committed to sound empirical research and a strong network of voluntary civic associations (of the kind that Theda Skocpol has written about) came together in a general attempt to work for the "common good." Part of that effort--which arose in part out of anti-communism--was a general level of consensus on reform, a role for the public sector, respect and even championing of empirical social science, etc. However, starting in the 1960's, some sectors of business started to break from that consensus of support for using government for reform, for support of Citizens' Research Councils and respect for the Ford Foundation, and cooperation with labor. You saw the rise of Heritage, the various assaults on truth and even trust in empirical research as a policy tool like those propogated by the "polution is good for you" and "there's no such thing as global warming" operations, you saw the rise of K Street lobbyists, etc.

It's a great, great book, and tangentially I suppose you might say it's related to what you wrote, but only tangentially.

[BTW, "Which Side Are You On" is also a great book.]

Posted by: DHinMI | Mar 6, 2005 3:14:46 PM

Well, second guessing myself, the "assault on truth" aspect of Judis' thesis applies to what you're talking about in that Rush would have had a harder time getting material in 1966 than he does now, when research "proving" the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth could be produced by some whoring PhD if it was needed by some corporation or trade association.

Posted by: DHinMI | Mar 6, 2005 3:17:39 PM

Ezra,

An article you might be interested in that covers some of the points you're talking about is Sears and Valentino "Politics Matters: Political Events as Catalysts for Pre-adult Socialization." American Political Science Review 91 (1997)

They don't talk about different types of politically important information and socialization as you do, but their experiment deals with how adolescents become identified with politics. Their data comes from children and families in Wisconsin in 1980, and whilst the children were willing to express political opinions at the early stage of the survey (about ten months before the 1980 election), those opinions were not what the authors call 'attitudes' because they were uninformed and unchrystalized. However, by the month before the election the children's opinions had become 'attitudes' by the authors' measure, and more importantly, those attitudes were still prevalent in the survey that took place a year after the election.

Thus, the model that would come from that study is that every four years the Presidential election, with symbols, issues, and cleavages particular to that year, socializes a new cohort of adolescents who go forth into their political lives with those same attitudes. It's not the obvious presidential debates, say, that bring about the socialization, but all the ferment that characterizes an election year.

That's consistent with your ideas that below-the-radar transmission of attitudes pertains very importantly to voting. Presumably a horde of current adolescents think that Democrats are the party of wusses. I wouldn't be surprised.

Posted by: Marshall | Mar 6, 2005 4:13:59 PM

Ezra,

has nothing to do with talk radio, but Blumenthal's Rise of The Counterestablishment hits upon the same point.

I must say I take issue with one point and will raise another,

First, people like Brooks and/or the WSJ editorial page or the Weekly Standard are incredibly influential. Look, a misconception made by prestigious institution, even when not initially read by a large audience -- say, the Standard's overreliance on leaks from Doug Feith on the AlQueda-Saddam relationship -- is endlessly repeated on right wing talk radio and, more importantly, is given more credence precisely because it isn't Rush or Hannity talking, it is the supposedly prestigious WSJ or supposedly prestigious Weekly Standard.

Second, how does one fight this? We could take the position that one counters factual errors and smears by creating outlets that create our own. Thus far, we haven't (even AAR, which is supposed to be the "counterweight" to right-wing talk radio, has to me a surprising amount of informative and illuminating guests that occasionally stray from liberal orthodoxy). Will our side, after being thwarted by quite the agitprop machine, decide that the only way to fight it is adoping the same tactics?

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Mar 6, 2005 7:41:00 PM

I don't know, Ezra. Contra his publicity, Rush Limbaugh doesn't have that many people listening to him. He likes to throw around the "25 million a week" number, but that's an Arbitron shell game. Bear in mind, Arbitron counts listeners per each instance in which they listen to the radio for a 5 minute period. If you listen once a day, each day of the week, you are 5 listeners. By yourself. Listen twice a day for 5 minutes each, 5 days a week...you're 10 listeners!

At any given time, he may have a million listeners. That's a lot, granted...but he's not the omnipresent voice that liberals seem to think he is. (and, admittedly, that HE likes to say he is)

He's influential, no doubt. But I really don't think he's the mountain that he's been made up to be.

Posted by: Jon Henke | Mar 6, 2005 7:52:43 PM

Ezra, I think this is an enormously important point, and the only departure for the beginning of a new left-wing politics in the US. I don't think, as Chris suggests, that this has anything to do with distortion or lies, but more with a sort of coloring of one's world view as you've set out. Rush could have a significant effect without lying, for example. The point is that you have these vast institutions determining what's important to people, what they'll emphasize, and that further turn the social into the political. If you listen to Rush, you'll talk about him with your friends, and the same thing's true of Fox News. It becomes the ground of a social environment through which all other relations and facts are discerned. Now, this goes beyond radio, into Church, pre-college education, and much of the workplace. Blogs can't counter this, which is why a union revival is so important, as you point out. I think if we want a real left-wing rise though, we need to start envisioning alternate forms of this though, beyond the union, church, blogs, etc.

Posted by: trouscaillon | Mar 6, 2005 8:08:13 PM

I dunno guys. It seems sometimes that society has changed the same way that tribes became nations, businesses became empires. We're in a new world where monopolism and multinational supercorps are all over. Where are we going with the old ideas that government provided a secure base for individual initiative and small business ? Someone has to remember that you have to appeal to the interests of the constituancy. Just trying to throw out a reminder here.

Posted by: opit | Mar 6, 2005 9:17:59 PM

http://dneiwert.blogspot.com/2004_11_14_dneiwert_archive.html
Is the Neiwert post you wanted.


-- "When you commit a gun crime, your family pays the price."

Posted by: Marion Delgado | Mar 7, 2005 1:21:04 AM

Curiously, I wrote a long post based on that same David Neiwert post, just yesterday. There must be something in the air. Great Minds think in the same gutter, or something like that. My post is:

http://johnmckay.blogspot.com/2005/03/rush-limbaugh-and-yugoslavization-of.html

Posted by: John J. McKay | Mar 7, 2005 1:46:35 PM

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Posted by: JEROGatch | Sep 3, 2006 3:12:09 AM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 15, 2007 5:40:46 AM

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