Uncertainty, fear and the media

Barry Ritholtz asked a compelling question this morning:

Why has the economic crisis deepened America’s conservative drift? The trend towards the hard right is most pronounced in the least well off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states.

The assumption underlying Ritholtz’s question – that conservative policies benefit the wealthy more than the poor – points to only one of the interesting contradictions at work. These include the fact that these same regions are both very conservative religiously yet have (on average) the highest rates of teen pregnancy and divorce; are ideologically opposed to taxes but on general take more from the federal government at the state level than they pay in tax revenues; consistently vote against their own economic interests; and even while drawing on government benefits that are necessary for their family’s survival, resent government and believe strongly that even raising taxes on the wealthy would be profoundly wrong.

David Cay Johnston wrote a fascinating post during the 2010 budget negotiations that captured the up-is-down dynamic well:

On the surface, what’s going on with tax policy in Washington right now seems crazy. A Democratic president whose enemies call him a socialist makes a deal with Republicans that sells out both his party and the very tax promises that won him the election, while Republicans leaders who say that debt is our overwhelming domestic problem insist on borrowing tens of billions of dollars to give tax savings to the richest among us. The polls, at the same time, show the public overwhelmingly favors ending tax cuts for high earners.

What we are witnessing, however, is much more profound than political, economic, or fiscal insanity. And it goes much deeper than disputes over whether extending temporary tax cuts for two years and long-term jobless benefits for 13 months is politically or economically smart. Those are mere manifestations of a much more pervasive problem.

America is in the grip of a full-blown societal panic. Crazy, irrational, contradictory ideas about tax policy are just the most obvious symptom.

Johnston goes on to point out that these circumstances create the need for answers, whatever the source:

Because no one knows quite what to do when the old ways stop working, panic sets in, replacing reason. Crazy responses spread until an idea or a leader emerges, a new way to make sense of the change. The new leader is often the one who persuades people that it is better to live by new rules.

Johnston’s point is about the age-old desire for a messianic leader, but I think the phenomenon is just as true in broader terms – people in a panic want to be told what to think, regardless of how individualistically they perceive themselves. These conditions are ripe for exploitation by an unfettered media that can act to crystallize uncertainty and panic into redirected anger and resentment, preferably directed away from those who most benefit from the current arrangement (a particularly malignant form of the uncertainty absorption I discussed earlier). I would argue that the bizarre contradictions we’re seeing are a direct manifestation of exactly this sort of pattern on the right.

Jane Mayer has a fascinating piece in this week’s New Yorker that shines a light on the process at work. Her article focuses on Larry McCarthy, the creator of the infamous Willie Horton ad that sank Dukakis in his run against George H.W. Bush, and an increasingly central player in the post-Citizens United world of heavily funded attack ads. Mayer describes both the ratchet effect the Horton ad set in motion, as well as McCarthy’s template for amygdala politics:

McCarthy’s ad was condemned at the time, by Democrats and Republicans, for exceeding the boundaries of civility. And it raised unsettling new questions about possibly unlawful coördination between an official campaign and an outside political group. In retrospect, the spot was not an aberration; both in its tone and in its murky origins, it created a blueprint for the future.

McCarthy has rarely spoken publicly about the ad. But in a sworn deposition, given in 1991 to the Federal Election Commission, he theorized that there were two subjects guaranteed to move voters: the economy and crime. “People, they take crime real seriously,” he explained. He later told a reporter that when he first saw Horton’s mug shot he said to himself, “God, this guy’s ugly.” He added, “This is every suburban mother’s greatest fear.”

Anyone interested in what is coming down the pike this fall should read the entire piece, but I was particularly interested in a broader point Mayer touched on. As she notes, McCarthy worked for Roger Ailes (later of Fox News) in the 1980s when Ailes was a political operative, with Ailes acting as his mentor. The relationship between the two during the first Bush campaign is only one example of a general pattern of increasing integration between campaigns and PACs, as well as an even more dangerous set of linkages between campaigns and the media, a pattern that seems to have reached a maximum level of toxicity with the advent of blogs. Add the anonymity and opacity of Super-PACS and you have a recipe for incredibly effective fear-mongering.

Representative Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, fared worse. He was targeted by another McCarthy client, Americans for Job Security, a group that was founded, in 1997, with a million-dollar donation from the American Insurance Association. Public Citizen, the liberal reform group, filed a complaint with the F.E.C., calling it “a sham front group that would be better called Corporations Influencing Elections.” The F.E.C., deadlocked, took no action, but in Alaska state regulators forced the group to pay a twenty-thousand-dollar fine for operating as a corporate front that had “no purpose other than to cover various money trails.”

In the summer of 2010, Etheridge, like Braley, found himself the victim of a video ambush. He was walking on Capitol Hill when two young men in suits approached him. One thrust a camera in his face and the other, holding a microphone, asked him whether he supported the “Obama agenda.” Taken aback, Etheridge demanded, “Who are you?” As Etheridge asked the question five times without getting an answer, he pushed the camera away and gripped his inquisitor.

Finally, the interviewer stammered, “I’m just a student, sir.”

“From?” Etheridge asked.

“The streets,” the interviewer answered.

Within days, a video of the confrontation, edited to make Etheridge seem unhinged, was posted on Andrew Breitbart’s conservative Web site, Big Government, under the headline “CONGRESSMAN ATTACKS STUDENT.” It went viral. Soon afterward, McCarthy inserted the video into an ad, called “Who Are You?,” in which people purporting to be from Etheridge’s district answered, “We’re your constituents,” and then accused Etheridge—inaccurately—of wanting to cut Medicare. It’s unclear who paid for the ad. Americans for Job Security avoids disclosing its funders by registering as a nonprofit trade association devoted to promoting “pro-paycheck” issues. It calls its revenue “membership dues,” and claims not to spend money on influencing elections. But, according to WRAL-TV news, in Raleigh, among the “pro-paycheck” projects its members paid for in 2010 was a three-hundred-and-sixty-thousand-dollar ad buy against Etheridge.

Etheridge narrowly lost the 2010 election to a nurse running with the support of Sarah Palin. The next day, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had previously denied a role, acknowledged that it was behind the ambush video. It’s unclear how the video made its way into McCarthy’s attack ad, but the committee is one of his clients.

And this only speaks to advertising. Throw in hours of talk radio daily, plus endless looping coverage of these “scandals” by Fox News, and the contradictions I discussed above are not only understandable but seemingly inevitable.

Slight copy edits 18 Feb

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