Sunday :: Jul 29, 2007

The GOP and YouTube: An Inflection Point in American Politics


by eriposte

You may have heard that some of the top contenders of the Republican Presidential nomination declined to participate in a CNN-hosted YouTube-based election debate. At face value, the reasons given by some of the campaigns were as transparently phony as the candidates themselves, but it is interesting that CNN seems to be calling their bluff. I wanted to comment on this incident because I believe it is a reflection of a historical inflection point in American politics.

To understand why, we need to go back to the era of Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Let's begin with these passages from David Brock in his seminal book The Republican Noise Machine (pages 29-30, bold text is my emphasis):

GOP efforts to stoke and harness this antagonism toward the media for political ends began in the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the first movement conservative to be nominated to the presidency and the first Republican to employ the so-called Southern Strategy of appealing to segregationists to win votes that Nixon, on the advice of Buchanan, would later use with much more success.
[...]
In the 1964 presidential race, Goldwater's glitter [in the media] wore off. As writer Rick Perlstein details in his Goldwater biography, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, that campaign opened up a political and cultural divide between the Democratic Party and much of the Republican Party on the one side, and on the other Goldwater and his reactionary supporters. The small band of Goldwater militants, who for years had felt alienated, unrepresented, and excluded from the political system, gamed the Republican presidential nominating contest for Goldwater by superior organization.
[...]
The people around Goldwater were more radical than their standard-bearer. They were both antiestablishment, and anticonservative. Historian Richard Hofstadter called them "pseudo-conservatives", a term borrowed from Theodore W. Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality. Rigid moral absolutists who expressed themselves in an apocalyptic style, "they have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the term," Hofstadter observed [30].

Barbara O'Brien quoted Hofstadter:

The pseudo conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.

That sure sounds familiar, doesn't it? Back to Brock (pages 30-33):

Once he was on the national stage, Goldwater's belligerently militaristic stance toward the Soviet Union; his loose talk about using atomic bombs and invading Cuba; his disdain for the United Nations; his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act; his advocacy of making Social Security voluntary; and his assault on the authority of the Supreme Court ("not necessarily" the law of the land) placed him well to the right of political opinion in both parties. Roundly condemned by his fellow Republicans for advocating "absurd" and "dangerous" national security policies and for exploiting "racist sentiments" in the South to win power, he gained endorsements from members of the John Birch Society, the National Gun Alliance, and the Ku Klux Klan. [...]

News organizations had a startling story to tell in covering Goldwater's campaign - the extreme positions he took; the racist gaffes (America's cities were crime-ridden "jungles"); the organized effort by renegade conservative activists to seize control of the GOP nominating process; the damning comments from the LBJ campaign and also from his fellow Republicans; the decision to reverse traditional GOP support for civil rights (on the legal advice of William H. Rehnquist and Robert Bork); the refusal of Goldwater delegates to credential black Republicans at their convention while spitting on them and calling them "niggers"; protesters comparisons of Goldwater to Hitler; and the sudden growth of pro-Goldwater right-wing movements, such as the John Birch Society, fueled by phantom fears of Communist and immigrant subversion [32]. [...]

Coincidentally, the three major network newscasts had won a sizable national audience just in time to magnify all of this in a way that shocked and frightened many Americans unprepared to see such extremism and paranoia - far outside the mainstream ideological consensus and normal experience - reflected in a national campaign.[...] Conservative activists of the Goldwater era felt victimized by this newly powerful medium, which was transforming politics into a contest of media techniques; so it became their long-term goal to reverse what they saw as the media forces arrayed against them.

[...]

On the eve of the GOP convention, Goldwater clashed publicly with CBS News and its anchor Walter Cronkite; Goldwater charged the network with distorting his words, saying, "I don't think these people should be allowed to broadcast." This fury spread onto the convention floor at San Francisco's Cow Palace, where the Goldwater delegates - the western anti-Communist conspirators, southern segregationists, and others whom Goldwater called "the Forgotten Americans" - flooded the place with lapel pins that said EASTERN LIBERAL PRESS [38].

As Brock points out in his must-read book, after Goldwater's defeat, the radicals on the Right began a decades-long and highly successful strategic assault on the media - via their noise machine - to make the media not only downplay and ignore their true colors, but also fabricate myths about the left and right in ways that benefited the right (sometimes also known as the Mark Halperin syndrome).

Here is the striking aspect of the above passages from Brock.

What Goldwater and his base were in 1964 - thoroughly outside the mainstream and seeking to take over the country - is reminiscent of today's GOP leadership and the extremist and radical portion of the GOP's base today. Today's GOP leadership is almost as extremist as Goldwater was, probably more so in some ways - and the radical/extremist element of their base is even more extremist than their leaders. They are also thoroughly outside the mainstream of America. The only reason that the broader public has not been aware of this for so long is because the long-time conservative-leaning traditional media - which is full of conservative-friendly talking-heads and propagandists - has been successfully brow-beaten in the preceding decades by the pseudo-con Republican establishment and noise machine.

In fact, as we read Brock's narrative, it is hard not to notice how the GOP leadership and their pseudo-con base today could have easily been the subjects of Brock's discussion.

  • Authoritarian? Check, check.
  • Moral absolutists (albeit without any real moral fiber or conscience)? Check.
  • Express themselves in an apocalyptic style? Check, check.
  • Belligerently militaristic towards enemies - real and fabricated? Check.
  • Indulging in loose talk about invading other countries and genocidally exterminating their peoples? Check, check, check.
  • Disdain or hatred for the United Nations? Check, check.
  • Deep disdain for civil rights and generous use of racist entreaties? Check.
  • Racially tinged anti-immigrant (and anti-Muslim, in today's climate) sentiment? Check, check.
  • Strongly supportive of Social Security privatization? Check.
  • Frequent denunciations of a mythical "liberal" media? Check.
  • BONUS: The pseudo-con base of today's GOP leads the ranks of chickenhawks and commonly calls for the execution or persecution of their political enemies, whom they routinely conflate with America's true enemies.

In my opinion, we should assess the seeming discomfort that GOP politicians and their propagandists in the media have with internet video in light of this historical perspective. A video-friendly internet presents the biggest threat to the GOP's sometimes hidden and often overt extremism and radicalism. For example, the GOP can't control the proliferation of progressive websites that chronicle their extremism and is therefore reduced to attacking bloggers and their supporters (after all, there is no media or corporation to attack when a website is owned by an individual). When corporations manifest themselves through sponsorships or ads, they become the target of fraudulent and vile attacks focused on the blogs. Some of you may feel depressed at these attacks - but these acts of desperation from the Right are leading indicators that the pseudo-cons are experiencing a weakening power structure. Hence, it is important to ramp up and fight back aggressively rather than ignore these attacks.

George Allen's "macaca" moment was just an internet video version of Goldwater's television moments in 1964. No wonder, GOP politicians were provided a list of rules by the NRSC to avoid "macaca" moments. This latest incident - Republican politicians like Giuliani and Romney running away from internet media like the complete sissies they are - is but a symptom of the underlying dynamic I have discussed here. I believe these YouTube-style debates involve two risks for today's GOP politicians - the possible exposure of the widespread, outside-the-mainstream extremist sentiments among their pseudo-con base on national TV (sentiments that the politicians may feel forced to distance themselves from, reluctantly, during the debates) and the inevitable mainstreaming of internet TV (which the GOP has little control over) as a credible alternative medium, via their involuntary endorsement. These risks could reverse decades of systematic efforts to conceal and whitewash the real nature of GOP extremism - an extremism that has been proudly imbibed by the leading lights of today's Republican party. As the shift to the internet becomes more pronounced, the risk that moderate or liberal Republicans (and independents) will get more exposed to the extremism of the GOP - and then bolt the party - becomes higher every passing day.

Matt Stoller at Open Left, appears to have taken away a different message from this YouTube incident:

The reason for this is relatively simple.  The Republican base is relatively old and living off of the military industrial economy. 
[...]
The Republicans are in a different economy.  It's the protected exurban, agribusiness, resource extractive, medical, construction, and militarized sector that concentrates the Republican voting base.  Resource prices are high, medical inflation is high, and military spending is high, so that's good for these people.  They like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they sell the bullets and logistical software.  Typically, these people are older and established, and they watch cable TV, religious programming, and use direct mail.

Democrats and Independents are everything else.  They see the war as a disaster, health care costs as high, and gas prices as ridiculous.  Young people, single women, and economically vulnerable and/or unstable are forming the voting base of the Democratic Party.  And these are the people that use the internet.

That's why the GOP isn't eager to do the Youtube debate.  Because they will get crushed.

There is an element of truth in Matt's observation, but I think he is missing the broader point. Rank-and-file Republicans may have entirely different motivations for adopting or not adopting the internet, in comparison to their politicians. GOP politicians are afraid of legitimizing this new medium because of what America will eventually see about them and their base through this medium - over which they exert little control. Having long had significant control over the messaging about the GOP in the traditional media, the internet and internet based multi-media is a serious threat to them. As networking technologies mature further and as we get to 10 Gigabit Ethernet and beyond in the next decade, traditional TV will become less and less important compared to internet TV. The latter will not necessarily provide the GOP the same power structure that traditional TV networks provide them today - a limited set of networks that are populated with GOP-friendly talking heads or propagandists and which are owned by a few large corporations that the GOP has had great success in controlling. In fact, I believe that the GOP political structure's resistance to net neutrality and Government supported broadband expansion is a clear manifestation of their fear of loss of power.

That's why I believe we are at a key inflection point in American politics. Granted, the transformation that is occurring will not be without it challenges for progressives and it will probably take a decade or two to make a significant dent in the GOP's current power structure. But positive change is happening and it will help progressives and Democrats more than it will help conservatives and Republicans.

P.S. I would love to hear what Rick Perlstein himself has to say on this. Unlike me, he is an expert on Republican politics and history.

eriposte :: 9:01 AM :: Comments (22) :: Digg It!