Contrived Chaos and States of Confusion

by Randall Amster, Common Dreams, February 24, 2017

There has been a lot of analysis suggesting that the executive-level politics we’re seeing play out right now are about incompetence or irrationality. The psychology of the President himself has been called into question, with bizarre public performances and blatant falsities being propagated, mirroring that of others in the Administration. To those accustomed to the presidency (irrespective of ideology) requiring certain levels of comportment, decency, and accountability, this moment can be dizzying and even terrifying.

To reach the conclusion that this is the product of ineptitude or insanity, however, would also require us to conclude that the past two years of campaigning and governing have been equally accidental or the result of someone being unhinged (not to mention the years spent on television). A far more plausible conclusion is that this actually is being done by design, in the sense that the immediate goal itself is to stimulate chaos to induce fear in some and admiration in others. Indeed, Dr. Allen Frances (who helped write the DSM) cautioned against following this red herring: “Trump represents a political challenge to the American democracy. To attribute this to his psychological quirks is to underestimate the danger.”

This is distinct from supposing that the contrived nature of the turmoil and ineptitude we seem to be experiencing is a kind of diversion or subterfuge meant to keep us from following the real moves being made or to throw us off the trail of potentially damaging storylines. It might be even simpler, in that chaos is the lifeblood of this Administration, the essential quality that animates their personalities and that has made them seemingly impervious to rational discourse, bad publicity, lampooning, or even fact-checking.

If chaos itself is both their method and goal, then the principal mistake they could make would be to seem reflective or repentant at any point. Instead, the premium is on being outrageous, unvarnished, off-the-cuff, impolitic, even shocking. In this view, the value is in appearing “unhinged,” taunting the media and others with ridiculous “alternative facts,” tweeting out misspelled rants at all hours of the day, asserting bald-faced lies, and acting in bizarre ways that give new meaning to the “bully” facet of the bully pulpit.

Taking it one step further, one can see the potential appeal of this modus operandi in some sectors—particularly those in the support base who are tired of politicians being all talk and no action. This contingent is more accustomed to the personality types found on “reality TV,” which is popular for a reason. The President not only garnered support through those channels, but did so by accentuating a persona that is natural in its brashness—and that doesn’t overestimate the refinement of the public.

Still, it leaves one to wonder where all of this may lead. Chaos for its own sake may be the order of the day, but surely there must be a long game at work in all this. Consider the posturing of an Administration whose support hinges on an intention to dismantle bureaucracies and “drain the swamp,” to roll in and restore that which has been lost through years of capitulating to career politicians who have sold out our values, jobs, and security. This has been the mantra for a long time now, as was noted back in 2015:

“And while it may seem like a lurching, chaotic campaign, Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate, according to a Washington Post review of the businessman’s speeches, interviews and thousands of tweets and retweets over the past six months. Trump delivers scores of promises, diatribes and insults at breakneck speed. He attacks a regular cast of villains including undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, his GOP rivals and the media. He keeps the narrative arc of each controversy alive with an endless stream of statements, an unwillingness to back down even when he has misstated the facts—and a string of attacks against those who criticize him. All the while, his supporters see a truth-talking problem solver unlike the traditional politicians who have let them down.”

That was written over a year ago, in an article titled: “It’s not chaos. It’s Trump’s campaign strategy.” The phrase “disciplined and methodical” stands out, as in sticking to the game plan and being calculated—further suggesting that all of this isn’t happening by accident or due to irrational behavior, but instead represents a form of contrived chaos. As such, Steve Bannon recently stated that the aim is nothing less than the ”deconstruction of the administrative state,” and previously had reportedly said that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down.”

Which brings us back to the question: to what end? The inducement of dizzying chaos may be a brilliant strategy and even a short-term goal in itself, but if it actually succeeds in bringing “everything crashing down,” then what? And who or what is the “everything” in that equation? We might surmise that this could mean “everything that potentially stands in the way of our agenda,” or perhaps simply that which is deemed superfluous or redundant in an attempt to streamline operations and consolidate power.

Following this arc, David Brooks recently characterized his fear about this Administration as “not that it’s incipient fascism, it’s that it’s anarchy.” Brooks is making a common mistake here in his conflation of anarchy with chaos, and moreover with his assessment of the Administration’s possible intentions. One clue is the nod to Lenin as a paragon of “destroying the state,” since what he replaced it with scarcely resembled anything like anarchism, instead moving toward an even more centralized apparatus. An even stronger prompt is Bannon’s description of the aim as implementing “an economic nationalist agenda.”

The contrast returns us to the question of what ensues in the emptiness created should the “chaos first” strategy succeed in crashing the system. History cautions that inducing such a vacuum by itself will more likely lead to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, fascism, or other similarly troubling variants. These repressive outcomes entail the replacement of the preexisting state with deeper forms of autocratic power (even when cloaked in populist rhetoric), often vested in an “inner party” circle or a single person.

Anarchism is actually the opposite of this. While the impetus to break down oppressive structures may be overlapping, it is equally the case that anarchism seeks to foster wider forms of participation in the process. As such, it is constructive in its attempt to “prefigure” this future through action in the present, seeking not primarily to create a vacuum (which could serve as an invitation to tyranny) as much as it strives to cultivate more egalitarian relationships and greater capacities for self-organization in the process.

As the German anarchist Gustav Landauer observed: “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another…. We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.” Landauer articulates a more evolutionary perspective that sometimes contrasts with anarchism’s revolutionary spirit, but the shared impetus is constructive.

At this juncture, the current Administration has not articulated a coherent worldview that provides any confidence that its penchant for destruction and chaos is anything other than an attempt to consolidate power. Indeed, the methods utilized (promulgating alternative facts, false populism, bullying and strong-arming, profiteering through governance, and the like) align much more closely with the hallmarks of despotic regimes, and bear no semblance to anarchism beyond a superficial equation with disarray.

Today we find ourselves at the horns of an ostensible conflict between “order” and “chaos,” with the apparatuses of the “deep state” seemingly at loggerheads with this Administration’s desire for “deconstruction.” Where it will lead is hard to say, and we still haven’t factored a third pole into the dynamic: the people, a large number of whom are awakened and mobilized right now. It is entirely possible that this era represents an opportunity for another framework to emerge, one that isn’t defined in either reactionary or stationary terms. Perhaps out of the confusion will ultimately emerge evolution.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

“They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing” Conservative Media’s Influence on the Republican Party

by Jackie Calmes, Harvard University – Kennedy School of Government – shorensteincenter.org, July 27, 2015 – Excerpt:  A new paper by Jackie Calmes, Joan Shorenstein Fellow (Spring 2015) and national correspondent for The New York Times, examines the increasing influence of conservative media on the Republican Party’s agenda. Calmes traces the history of conservative media, from its founding after World War II to the present-day proliferation of talk radio and Internet personalities. She finds that beyond the big names and outlets such as Limbaugh and Fox, smaller local personalities also exert significant influence over listeners and politicians.

This influence is troubling to leaders in the Republican Party, who Calmes interviewed extensively for the paper. She argues that today’s conservative media now shapes the agenda of the party, pushing it to the far right – at the expense of its ability to govern and pick presidential nominees.

Overview

…late January 2015… Representative Charlie Dent, a six-term Pennsylvanian and one of the few surviving Republican moderates… emerged from a private party caucus in January to share with reporters waiting outside the complaint he had made to colleagues behind closed doors…

It was a humiliating debut for a party that had promised in the 2014 midterm elections that Republicans would show the nation how well they could govern, if only voters would put them completely in charge of Congressthe leaders of the Republican Party do not fully control its agenda.a sign that Republicans would be able to perform the bigger, essential governing tasks that loomed…

That other forces were shaping Republicans’ agenda was likewise evident on a parallel track, as their party began the long process of picking a 2016 presidential nominee. Here, too, the immigration issue was front-and-center, and not in the way that the Republican leadership had called for in its unsparing autopsy of the party’s 2012 election losses. That earlier analysis, commissioned by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus…another litmus test in Republicans’ presidential race: the so-called Common Core education standards…. Common Core by 2013 had been redefined by hardline conservatives in media and activist groups as an attempted federal takeover of public school classrooms.

If leaders of the Republican Party are not setting its agenda, w If leaders of the Republican Party are not setting its agenda, who is?…

As many of them concede, it is conservative media – not just talk-show celebrities Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, but also lesser-known talkers like Steve Deace, and an expanding web of “news” sites and social media outlets with financial and ideological alliances with far-right anti-government, anti-establishment groups like Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. Once allied with but now increasingly hostile to the Republican hierarchy, conservative media is shaping the party’s agenda in ways that are impeding Republicans’ ability to govern and to win presidential elections. “These people, practically speaking, are preventing the Republican Party from governing, which means they’re really preventing it from becoming a presidential party as well,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party, and himself a Republican.

Twenty years ago, former radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh was mostly alone, though soon to be joined by Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel in playing to conservative audiences and validating their biases. Since then – to an extent unimagined as recently as Barack Obama’s election – the combination of the Internet and social media, broadcast deregulation and technological advances like live-streaming and on-demand audio and video “products” have allowed these new voices and scribblers to proliferate, empowering figures who boast of being more conservative than Fox and “El Rushbo” to shape Republican politics.

“It’s not just talk radio, but the blogosphere, the Internet – they’re all intertwined now… the chorus is loudest in opposition to those actions that are fundamental to governing: meeting basic fiscal deadlines for funding the government and allowing it to borrow. …: “It’s so easy these days to go out there and become an Internet celebrity by saying some things, and who cares if it’s true or makes any sense. It’s a new frontier: How far to the right can you get? And there’s no incentive to ever really bother with reality.” Or to compromise: “There’s no money, ratings or clicks in everyone going along to get along.”

Asked whether he could offer examples of legislative outcomes affected by conservative media, this Republican all but snapped, “Sure. All of ‘em.” Does he worry more broadly then about the small-d democratic process? “Yeah, absolutely. Because the loudest voices drown out the sensible ones and there’s no real space to have serious discussions.”[6]

“One of the realities here is that these people have always existed,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the center-right American Enterprise Institute and co-author with Thomas E. Mann of the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, about what the authors see as the radicalization of the Republican Party. “But they were at the fringes, the John Birch Society types. Now, because of social media and because you have a culture of extremism that is not culled out more generally, they can move into the mainstream and actually hijack a major party. And that’s what’s going on here.[7]

Those in the maligned Republican Party establishment …are left to wonder whether the Republican Party is capable of governing…

 Conservative media, having helped push the party so far to the anti-government, anti-compromise ideological right, attacks Republican leaders for taking the smallest step toward the moderate middle.

Establishment Republicans say they aspire to push their party closer to society’s political center – on immigration, gay rights, climate change and more – much as Democrats slowly moderated from a leftist party in the 1970s to a left-of-center one by the Clinton era, or as Britain’s Labor Party similarly shifted under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. In that, these Republicans agree with Mann and Ornstein, who wrote in a 2013 afterword to their book: “After losing five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, Democrats (thanks in large part to the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton) made a striking adjustment that put them in a position to nominate credible presidential candidates, develop center-left policies responsive to the interests of a majority of voters, and govern in a less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. Nothing would contribute more to strengthening American democracy than Republicans going through that same experience.”

Yet even though it is now Republicans who have lost the popular vote for president in five of the last six elections, party leaders lament that Democrats’ late 20th century model for moderating is inoperative for Republicans in this 21st century Internet age. The problem, as they see it: Conservative media, having helped push the party so far to the anti-government, anti-compromise ideological right, attacks Republican leaders for taking the smallest step toward the moderate middle. “In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Democrats weren’t dealing with a media that has become the way the conservative media has become,” which is “much more powerful than John Boehner and Mitch McConnell,” said Matthew Dowd, a strategist in George W. Bush’s campaigns. Democratic leaders “didn’t have to deal with a quote-unquote liberal media out there that was going to confront them every time they took a turn.”

“If you stray the slightest from the far right,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who continues to advise Republican congressional leaders, “you get hit by the conservative media.” David Price, a longtime Democratic congressman from North Carolina and a former political science professor, said, “One of the generalizations we all grew up with in political science is how candidates have to tend to the middle – that’s where the votes are. Republicans have changed that.” Weber, the former Republican congressman, complained that while elected representatives should reflect the views of their constituents, “the problem you have in the Republican Party is that people are adjusting farther than they really need to” – to avoid a primary challenge.

Conservative media indeed draws much of its power, Republicans say, from incumbents’ fear of a primary challenge. Not surprisingly, talk-show hosts and conservative pundits stoke that fear by inviting challengers to run against incumbents deemed too quick to compromise, and then encourage support for them, including financially…

Setting the agenda, however, is not the same as winning, whether in the congressional or presidential arenas…to provoke a confrontation in defense of what they see as conservative principles. And when the fight fails – well, that is Republican leaders’ fault for not fighting hard enough…

… while those in conservative media generally have not picked recent Republican nominees, they have defined the terms of debate. By backing the most conservative contenders and enforcing litmus tests, they have forced the ultimate nominee further right – weakening Romney and, before him, Senator John McCain among swing voters in the general election. Yet when the nominee loses, that is the fault of his campaign and the national party, in conservative media’s telling.

 “There’s not a platform in the Laura Ingraham-Sean Hannity wing of conservatism. There’s nothing that you can take to the country and hope to win the presidency on that they believe in…

As in recent quadrennials, conservative media is not united behind a candidate to favor, only the one to oppose: Jeb Bush… Bush himself has suggested, his candidacy will test whether a Republican can run without pandering to conservative media, and with mainly the November electorate in mind.

Media Pioneers of the Right: The “Responsible” and the “Kooks”

Conservative media as we know it evolved after World War II, though partisan newspapers were the norm from the dawn of the Republic through much of the 19th century. By the 20th century, however, journalism had evolved into an independent “fourth estate,” its practitioners aspiring generally to more objective standards in news coverage, even if most publishers were Republicans and reflected that bias in their political endorsements. When radio emerged in the 1920s, it was widely seen as a medium that could serve as a national town hall, airing programs exposing Americans to diverse points of view – a public service the government would try to enforce as part of its responsibility to regulate the limited airwaves. Stations had to meet a “public interest” standard and provide equal time for candidates and policy debates. “One of radio’s democratic promises was that it might help solve the problem of political ignorance and disengagement and consequent low voter turnout,” Roosevelt’s fireside chats  were exemplars of the new form of intimate, calm public address that radio had made possible.

Because established publishers, broadcasting networks and big advertisers largely avoided conservative voices as too controversial, the media figures on the right depended on the patronage of rich oilmen and industrialists…

Fewer than half of Americans had radios when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, but his rural electrification program spurred ownership. Eleanor Roosevelt also took early to radio. So did some of the Roosevelts’ political enemies, including populist Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana and the reactionary “radio priest” Father Charles E. Coughlin, who was something of a precursor of today’s conservative talkers. Still, educators and reformers clung to hopes that broadcasting would widely promote civic responsibility. Philosopher S.E. Frost, in a 1937 book Is American Radio Democratic? warned that if radio encouraged Americans to hold prejudices “not open to question or evaluation,” it would have failed to promote “intelligent action” in a democratic society. By the mid-1930s, each network had what were known as radio forums.

Many conservatives, however, saw radio programming, as well as newspapers and magazines, as uniformly left leaning, sympathetic to Roosevelt’s New Deal at home and interventionism abroad. After World War II, what media historian Nicole Hemmer calls the first generation of conservative media began taking shape to provide alternative views. These early magazines, book publishers, talk radio and TV programs were rarely financially stable. Because established publishers, broadcasting networks and big advertisers largely avoided conservative voices as too controversial, the media figures on the right depended on the patronage of rich oilmen and industrialists, including Fred Koch, the founder of Koch Industries whose sons Charles and David H. Koch decades later would be bankrolling the conservative movement to an extent the father could not have imagined. Through the 1970s, conservative media mainly operated on the periphery of a more moderate Republican Party, seeing its goal as educating and inspiring a conservative movement that would goad the party, and the country, rightward.

Hemmer, author of a book, Messengers of the Right: The Origins of Conservative Media, to be published in 2016, writes that in those pre-Reagan decades, “conservative media became the institutional and organizational nexus of the movement, transforming audiences into activists and activists into a reliable voting base.” These media “activists,” she adds, “established the idea of liberal media bias as a constitutive element of modern conservatism,” and turned like-minded Americans into consumers of such fare as William F. Buckley and William Rusher’s National Review magazine, rival Human Events, the books of Henry Regnery’s publishing house, and the weekly Manion Forum on radio and, for a time, TV.

Early conservative media figures included former New Deal Democrats and even former communists who were repelled by the size and power of the federal government that emerged from the Depression and war years. They were against international communism, America’s interventions abroad and the United Nations, and at home, against labor unions – all targets still, generally. Opposition to unions helped draw money from industry benefactors for the new media. (Yet then, as now, conservative media styled its anti-unionism not as a boon for big business but as a bid to free workers from labor bosses.)

The rhetoric of first-generation conservative media likewise echoes among the second generation and its audience, with alarms about lost freedoms, threats to liberty, betrayals of the Constitution and the Founders, and impending socialism. In 1961, both John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower were moved to condemn what they saw as the divisive, extremist talk of self-styled super-patriots. The liberal magazine The Nation in 1964 drew wide notice for an article on conservative radio entitled “Hate Clubs of the Air.” And with the civil rights era, liberal and mainstream media pointed out the overtly racist programming of some conservative broadcasters, mainly in the South. But it was the extremism of the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society that by 1965 provoked even some within conservative media to speak out in a bit of self-policing. Buckley and National Review led a break from the Birchites, despite the predictable loss of conservative subscribers and advertisers, for fear that well-educated, “responsible” intellectuals like themselves would be tarred by association with “kooks.” Buckley was “the face of respectable hard-right conservatism,” said historian Heather Hendershot, who is writing a book on his long-lived “Firing Line” television show. Syndicators of Buckley’s show promoted it in publicity material as “a bare-knuckled intellectual brawl” with liberals, Hendershot said, “but when you watch, you’re like, ‘This is very civil compared to a lot of the Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh kind of thing.’” Buckley wanted his show to be broadly appealing, “a gateway drug to conservatism,” Hendershot added, and he “showed a humor that’s often missing today.”

Making such distinctions between responsible and irresponsible in conservative media is all but unknown these days.., few conservatives and no Republicans seeking the 2012 presidential nomination criticized the talk-show king…Limbaugh, both in good times and bad, illustrated just how different the second generation of conservative media activists were from the first: they were profitable, popular, and powerful, wielding influence that reached far beyond the conservative movement.”

But another similarity unites the two media generations. From the 1950s on, media figures generally did not see the grassroots conservative movement, which they sought to tutor and lead, as synonymous with the Republican Party establishment. Then as now, there was tension. … With the second generation of media activists this preference for purity became more pronounced, especially as Republican politicians began to attune themselves to right-wing media as proxies for the party’s base.”

By the time Ronald Reagan won office, the first generation activists had “lost their primacy,” she says, as they were “short on both cash and credibility” after Watergate. Most who remained active did come to support Reagan. But as much as current conservative media deifies him, its nostalgia is at odds with the first generation’s often critical contemporaneous accounts of the Gipper’s political career: From the late sixties to the 1980 Republican nomination race that Reagan won, many in conservative media were troubled by his age and liberal parts of his California record. Once Reagan was president, many railed at his perceived transgressions. “And there were an awful lot of indiscretions that could be laid at Reagan’s door,” author Kabaservice said in an interview. “But because they believed he was one of them, that he basically had the interests of the conservative movement at heart, and because he was so telegenic and charismatic, they were willing to give him a pass. And nowadays they won’t give anybody a pass….

The Second Generation: Listeners, Clicks, Dollars…and Blood

The second generation of conservative media took root late in Reagan’s presidency, helped by the government’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine governing broadcasters in 1987 and by technological advances predating the Internet’s emergence, including toll-free national phone service allowing listeners nationwide to call in. Limbaugh, the former D.J. and college dropout, began airing his caustic conservatism nationally in 1988. Six years later, he would get some credit for Republicans’ takeover of Congress – the House for the first time in 40 years. Its grateful new majority made him an honorary member. Two years after that, Fox News debuted on Oct. 7, 1996. In 1998 came National Review Online, as a first-generation publication adapted to the Internet, and, in Hemmer’s words, “heralded a new era for conservative media activism, when the barriers to entry plummeted and innovation flourished.”

Erick Erickson, … one of the leading conservative voices on air and online –…captured best the contrast between the old and new generations by the mission statement for his RedState.com. In a twist of Buckley’s famous Eisenhower-era motto for National Review, the site declares, “RedState does not stand athwart history yelling stop. We yell ‘ready,’ ‘aim,’ and ‘fire,’ too.”

Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoman in the House Republican leadership and a former politics professor, said, “There’s a big difference between intellectual conservatism and what exists out there now. It’s much more populist in its orientation and much wider in its reach. This is not an elite opinion, a Bill Buckley sort of thing.” And in a nod to the new media’s greater profitability, Cole added, “While it’s conservative in its orientation, it’s a financially driven enterprise and market share matters. And playing to the prejudice of their audiences or reinforcing them – as opposed to engaging in enlightened and intellectual debate – is pretty widespread.” …..

On other issues as well – gay rights, insurance for contraceptives, climate change and budget policy, for examples – many Republican insiders say conservative media is on the wrong side of history, working with activist groups to hold the party to positions at odds with changing attitudes in society and, polls show, among a significant share of Republicans.National trends mean little to the majority of House Republicans, who represent constituents whose attitudes are shaped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, not by Lindsey Graham, Speaker John Boehner, or former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Understandably, they worry more about primary challenges than the opinions of the House Republican leaders, much less national Republican icons,” Mann and Ornstein wrote in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. The authors added, “The old conservative GOP has been transformed into a party beholden to ideological zealots.”

Whether conservative media is reflecting or driving opinion among hard-right Republicans comprising the party base, it has become increasingly antagonistic toward the Republican Party establishment in the 20 years since Limbaugh was made an honorary House Republican for his close party ties. Together, media figures and their audiences became disillusioned and angry in the Bush era, when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress for six years and presided over record spending and deficits, ineptitude from Iraq to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, corruption, recession and financial collapse and, in turn, federal bailouts of banks and big business. But Obama’s election gave all factions on the right a new foe to unite against. His policies, in turn, gave rise in 2009 to the Tea Party, a development that conservative media “helped to orchestrate” by advertising and attending party rallies, and trumpeting its message. “The challenge of spreading and germinating the Tea Party idea was surmounted with impressive ease because a major sector of the U.S. media today is openly partisan – including Fox News Channel, the right-wing ‘blogosphere,’ and a nationwide network of right-wing talk radio programs,” Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson wrote in their 2012 book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.

Tea Party voters in the midterm elections of 2010 made House Republicans a majority again… Congressional Republicans were repeatedly unable to fulfill their promises – over-promises, many concede – to stop Obama on health care, immigration and federal spending. Republicans were stymied not only by Obama’s veto and congressional Democrats’ united opposition, but by their own divisions, now exacerbated by the influx of uncompromising Tea Party lawmakers allied with conservative media and well-heeled activist groups who loathed establishment Republicans…

Establishment Republicans…claim to believe in smaller, limited government. Yet they vote repeatedly for omnibus spending bills, for continuing resolutions and debt ceiling increases….

…in 1995 as part of the Republican revolution led by soon-to-be Speaker Gingrich, Limbaugh’s radio punditry helpfully complemented his own campaign. But 20 years later, this Republican had a different view, reflecting the expansion of conservative media and its changed relationship with the party. “Conservative media is playing a larger and larger role, just by the mere fact that Fox is the number-one cable network and there are no liberal folks that appear on the channel for the most part. That tells you that it is driving a lot of folks to the right and it’s keeping them there,” he said. “What’s happened over the years is that you’ve seen guys like Limbaugh and Hannity and others get away from really espousing a philosophy to being salespeople. And they’re trying to generate enough revenue to justify the big salaries they’re making, in my mind,” and along the way, “making things up.”

The problem that this media pressure creates for governance has been most evident among House Republicans… so many people are going for the niche, for the red meat, and there are all these outlets where you can do that. It’s playing to the base, but the base doesn’t live in reality. And that’s the problem: It’s taken the party in a really self-destructive direction.”

Conservative media’s impact used to be relatively slow to gel, and limited. But now constituents’ reactions are often immediate, and media-generated backlashes are commonplace. Who came first to these hardline, no-compromise stands – conservative media or their audiences? They just feed off each other” in “a pact from hell,” the Senate aide said. “In a way we’re our own worst enemies, not the Democrats. It’s the conservative media pushing us to take these positions, these extremist positions. And of course there are those who are more than willing to take them because it gets them press. It’s a vicious cycle: The shows want ratings – they’re a business. The members want publicity. So it’s just this unholy alliance.”

“Conservative-Industrial Complex” – Might on the Right

… From the mid-1980s to the turn of this century, “talk radio was the way to get these people.” But as typical radio audiences are aging, new technology “has lessened the impact of talk radio and increased the impact of digital…

“It’s become more of a conservative media syndicate where the properties are integrated across all the different mediums,…more than just RedState now. You have Daily Signal, you have Townhall, there’s HotAir – a whole host of digital properties where these conversations are had.”

As a result, Madden said, “Increasingly, the shape of the party’s platforms and priorities comes from outside of Washington and is no longer delivered as a prescription from the top down, but instead created from the bottom up.” Yet for candidates, Madden said, “It’s important to resist the allure that conservative media provides – where the rhetoric of your campaign is centered upon this clash of civilizations, like ‘Us-versus-them’ – and instead make a case for how you represent your party, and also represent your party’s ability to win over independents and some Democrats.”[54]

But that balance between courting the base and maintaining broader appeal is a hard one to pull off, as Madden’s former bosses Romney and Boehner have found – especially as an expanded conservative media has become ideologically and financially entwined with the network of no-compromise advocacy groups financed by the Kochs and other right-wing patrons. Together, media and activist groups are part of “this conservative-industrial complex that has risen up….

Financial ties to conservative groups and investors have become significant for some media… While conservative broadcasting in the age of Limbaugh and Fox New has been far more profitable than the first-generation pioneers ever dreamed of, radio revenues and ratings have dipped considerably in recent years. Industry sources cite changing demographics and new technology as factors, as well as fallout from controversies that otherwise are the talkers’ stock in trade.

“The audience is slowly declining” for broadcasters…Smart phones have literally changed the game. People can now get access to whatever they want whenever they want it.” While that has allowed broadcasters to expand their reach through so-called audio products, “radio as a whole has still not really figured out how to monetize the off-air stuff, the streaming and the podcasting.”

…Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin – their ratings are all terrible in the big markets.” In the smaller markets and mostly rural states that are home to mostly older and white populations – that is, the Republican Party’s base – radio is still popular and talk-show hosts, both local and nationally syndicated, are ubiquitous. …

Even before the Fluke storm [2012] , some syndicated radio hosts were taking sponsorship dollars from Tea Party-affiliated groups, including FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Patriots and the Senate Conservatives Fund. That cemented the collaboration of media and advocacy groups in opposing the Republican leadership, and in demanding an ideologically pure agenda and discouraging compromise. … The talkers in turn promote the groups, their positions on issues and their favored candidates – candidates who often have been Tea Party challengers to Republican incumbents or, in open-seat races, to the establishment’s preferred candidates. they like to put down markers – that House Republican leaders should demand ‘X’ and they should stand firm, they should demand repeal of Obamacare. And if you notice, every time they do that, they send out an email to their list and they’ve got a big ‘donate’ button. They have found that they can stir up the grassroots and, most importantly, raise money off the idea that if only Republican leaders stood firm and chose to fight, they could win.” … it’s just about ratings and money.”

Political scientists also have noticed this alliance of media and advocacy groups…. Richard Meagher of Randolph-Macon College wrote in an article in New Political Science in December 2012, “The ‘Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy’: Media and Conservative Networks,” Conservative talk radio, print publications, television networks, and internet sites have numerous connections, both direct and indirect, with the think tanks, advocacy organizations, academic research centers, and foundations that develop and promote the Right’s policy agenda.”[62]

However frustrated Republican leaders are by this piling on from the far right, they have little choice but to pay heed: Media and advocacy groups together reach what political scientists like to call “attentive voters” – the ones who actually vote, as well as volunteer, donate and influence others. …Attentive voters tend to have strong opinions, are more likely to contact elected officials about pending legislation, and are more willing to withdraw their support for legislators who deviate from their preferences.”

…Fox News shapes members’ beliefs about constituent preferences, whether by merely altering the media landscape that members rely upon to assess voter sentiments or by actually motivating attentive constituents.”

… it’s made it very difficult for them to make the compromises that are necessary in the American system of government, where you’ve got institutions that have a lot of veto players.” Feehery, the longtime Republican strategist, put it simply: “They intimidate members of Congress.”

 

Messengers of the Left: Liberal Media Doesn’t Compare

Nielsen puts America’s news/talk radio audience in 2015 at 50 million. … of those for which a political slant was evident, 84 percent were conservative and just over 10 percent were progressive..

… left-wing media do not come near conservative media in terms of the number of outlets, size of audience and political influence… Pressure on Democratic politicians like him, Price said, comes less from left-leaning media than from liberal advocacy organizations like labor unions, environmental groups and women’s and minority rights organizations.

The explanation for conservative media’s relative success comes down to audience: The right has one, and the left not so much, partly owing to the news-consuming habits of conservative Americans that formed over decades. MSNBC’s audience is a fraction of Fox’s. …

“Conservative talk radio just reaches so many more people…The hosts are very good at rallying the base and fomenting feelings of antipathy toward government…The right always owned talk radio. The left failed at that… Conservative media – and the habit of consuming conservative media that is so central to conservative political identity – have been something that has a half-century of history. And liberals don’t have that same history. To the extent that liberalism has a base, it doesn’t come out of media, it comes out of organizations – like labor unions, or groups like MoveOn….

Whatever the relative balance of partisan media, Americans in the Internet age can choose from more sources than ever before for their news and analysis, and from across the political spectrum. Scholars are left to puzzle over what those choices mean for the nation’s political agenda, partisanship and election outcomes. “When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust…

More than any other group, Pew found, many “consistent conservatives” cited a single source for their information about government and politics: 47 percent named Fox News. These consistent conservatives…88 percent of them expressed trust in Fox…Consistent liberals,” by contrast, consume a varied mix of media and trust more sources, Pew reported. But 81 percent said they distrust Fox News – nearly the mirror image of conservatives who said the opposite.

Pew argued that the findings are significant, and troublesome, despite the fact that consistently conservative and liberal Americans together account for only about 20 percent of the public. The ideologues, Pew said, “have a greater impact on the political process than do those with more mixed ideological views. They are the most likely to vote, donate to campaigns and participate directly in politics.”[76]

Setting the Agenda: “Ugly” Debut of the Republican Congress

In years past when a party captured control of Congress – Republicans in 1994, say, or Democrats in 2006 – its majorities arrived for the January opening with an immediate agenda of at least a few popular legislative items that could be enacted quickly, demonstrating the party’s unity and governing acumen. In 2015, Republicans broke with that practice, and demonstrated the opposite. And the talkers and scribblers in conservative media, local and national, were central players in the drama – not at Republican leaders’ invitation, as Limbaugh had been in 1995, but instead arrayed against them, egging on the hardliners among both lawmakers and their constituents, and in turn forcing less militant Republicans to fall in line as the safest course….

the anger has built with each disappointment. “Of course” the Republican leaders over-promised on immigration, just as on Obamacare… “I always felt that the major goal the day after the election last November should have been to lower expectations because, really, there was this sort of notion that somehow they were running Washington, which is nuts. It’s not true.”

…. You can’t reason with people. And so you get politicians and candidates who know what the radio host wants to hear and they give it to him. It’s that simple…coarse locker-room talk so common in male-dominated talk radio, even from evangelical Christians like himself…..

Facebook has evolved into a significant conduit for conservative media figures to communicate with their audiences and to spur them to actions like contacting their representatives in Congress… Fox and throughout the ardently pro-Israel conservative media condemned negotiations with Iran by six nations, including the United States, that were intended to prevent it from making nuclear arms…

there’s a group of people out there for whom everything is immediate. It isn’t necessarily verified as being true; there’s a lot of opinion stated as fact…

… many in that media – in their zeal for audience share – willfully ignore the realities of a legislative process designed by the Founders to require deliberation, checks and balances, and compromise…They don’t give a damn about governing…

Setting the Agenda: Common Core, from Bipartisan to Litmus Test

Public education, from elementary school through college, has long been a priority issue for conservatives and conservative media, begging as it does the fundamental question of how big a role government – and in particular the federal government – should have in Americans’ lives…

“This idea of liberal control of education, whether it’s at the primary school level or the university level, has always been one of those central hot-button issues” for conservative media and the conservative movement more broadly, said Hemmer, the historian, in an interview. “It’s about control of family, control of home, local control, brain-washing. It hits all of the right buttons.”… Among the earliest media foes was Glenn Beck, who warned apocalyptically in March 2013, “If you don’t stop it, American history is over as you know it.” As is often true with such political controversies, even those caught in the middle are hard-pressed to discern which came first – opposition from conservative media or agitation from grassroots groups in the states, like home-schoolers in this case. But the two, media and activists, seemed to go hand-in-hand ….Common Core, along with “religious liberty,” “captures so much of people’s passion level …

Common Core,…And now there is actual evidence of the phrase’s toxicity in the face of the repeated criticism in conservative mediaa broad consensus remains with respect to national standards, despite the fact that public debate over the Common Core has begun to polarize the public along partisan lines.” …

..Refusal to answer will be taken as surrender. Generic talking points answers will be taken as negotiating the terms of surrender. Only specifics will do when your very way of life is at stake

Diagnosis: “Epistemic Closure” – “Untethered from Reality”?

In her coming history of conservative media, Hemmer writes, “In the 1950s, conservative media outlets were neither numerous nor powerful enough to create an entirely alternate media ecosystemfor like-minded Americans.[125] Sixty years later, apparently they are. And the Republican Party is grappling with the implications.

… the expansion and success of conservative media had created a closed information circle harmful to conservatism. Conservatives, he said, could pick from so many sources to buttress their biases that they could dismiss as false any contrary information from outside that circle. He called this “epistemic closure,” borrowing from a term in philosophy (and perhaps ensuring that the highfalutin phrase did not catch on beyond the intelligentsia). For many conservatives, “Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross-promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines and of course, Fox News,” Sanchez wrote in the first of several online essays.  “Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.”

As a matter of practical politics some establishment Republicans worry that the party is left talking to itself, in effect, and consequently failing to reach some independents and persuadable Democrats.

conservative media’s logic had become “worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately… “This closed media world is not allowing conservatives to see the world as it is… David Frum, formerly a speechwriter for George W. Bush, also has written of conservatives’ “alternative knowledge system,” saying in one instance, “We used to say, ‘You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.’ Now we are all entitled to our own facts and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.” Even comedians have noted the phenomenon. Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” – now blessed by Merriam-Webster – to describe gut-level, fact-free political statements of the sort he uttered as the conservative blowhard character he played on cable TV.

As Pew has found, the most conservative Americans consume conservative media almost exclusively and distrust the rest, while other Americans generally trust and select a variety of sources…

The unanimity among establishment Republicans – many of them conservatives by the definition of anyone but purists – that rightwing media has become a big problem for the party, and their readiness to talk about it, was something of a surprise to this reporter of three decades’ experience in Washington…You have to have national leaders emerge that are willing to have a confrontation, a real confrontation,” …Conservative media is poised to fight back….Ronald Reagan would be subject to the same skepticism that you’re seeing today.”……..

Full text at http://shorensteincenter.org/conservative-media-influence-on-republican-party-jackie-calmes/

The shutdown of good governance

By Fred Hiatt, Washington Post,  October , 2013

Excerpt

…the government seems unable to do its job. The shutdown can be blamed on the reckless, irresponsible miscalculations of congressional Republicans. But the shutdown is only the most extreme example of government’s failure to solve solvable problems: to fix Social Security, pass a budget, reform immigration laws. What gives?

One theory is bad luck

another… leaders of the previous generation were the aberration: Men (mostly) whose world views were formed in World War II and the Cold War understood the nature of existential threats and were willing to put aside partisan interest for the nation’s good. Today’s partisanship is just a return to normal.

But maybe even larger trends are at work. Here are a few possible culprits:

Slow growth and inequality

The great fracturing – we seem to live in two separate countries whose inhabitants lack the empathy or even the language to understand each other.

Immigration and the end of a white majority – By 2043, whites will no longer be in the majority.

Inadequate political institutions…In an increasingly self-serving redistricting process, politicians choose their voters instead of the other way around and insulate themselves from challenges by all but the extremes. The frantic money chase drives good people out of politics.

The contrast between the country’s relative advantages and its Washington dysfunction is frustrating, but maybe that, too, is part of the problem: In an apparently benign environment, when foreign enemies again seem distant and unthreatening, nothing scares the politicians toward compromise. They manufacture one ginned-up crisis after another, but the deadlines fail to provide the hoped-for jolt toward progress — even when, as now, millions of blameless Americans suffer for politicians’ failings.

Will it take a crisis not of their creating to change the dynamic? Let’s hope not.

Full text

If a country proves unable to govern itself, you expect to find a historical explanation. A plague, maybe, or chronic drought, or the rise of a hostile power on its borders.

None of those applies in the present case. To the contrary, by many measures the United States, long blessed, should be entering a new golden age. Who would have predicted 10 years ago that the United States would become, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the world’s No. 1 energy power — producing more oil and gas combined than Russia or Saudi Arabia? While most developed nations, from Japan to Italy to Russia, don’t have enough young people, U.S. population trends are relatively benign thanks to immigration and a stable birth rate.

Yet the government seems unable to do its job. The shutdown can be blamed on the reckless, irresponsible miscalculations of congressional Republicans. But the shutdown is only the most extreme example of government’s failure to solve solvable problems: to fix Social Security, pass a budget, reform immigration laws. What gives?

One theory is bad luck: Some analysts suggest that John Boehner, Harry Reid and Barack Obama are a collection of unusually weak leaders, or leaders especially ill-matched in temperament.

A variation on that theme holds that leaders of the previous generation were the aberration: Men (mostly) whose world views were formed in World War II and the Cold War understood the nature of existential threats and were willing to put aside partisan interest for the nation’s good. Today’s partisanship is just a return to normal.

But maybe even larger trends are at work. Here are a few possible culprits:

Slow growth and inequality. As my colleague Robert Samuelson recently wrote, after World War II Americans became accustomed to 3 percent annual growth, which allowed for a cheerful spreading of the wealth. Now 2 percent may be the new normal, in part because the United States, though its population is younger than that of many countries, still will have more retirees per active worker than in the past.

The growth we do manage is being shared less equally, thanks largely to technology and globalization. The possible result: nastier politics as classes and generations fight over a slower-growing pie.

The great fracturing. Then-Sen. Barack Obama electrified the nation in 2004 with his Democratic convention speech insisting there was no Red America or Blue America. Since then, the divisions have only become more marked. From guns to gay marriage to Obamacare, we seem to live in two separate countries whose inhabitants lack the empathy or even the language to understand each other.

As Americans increasingly choose to live among those with whom they agree politically, in what author Bill Bishop called “the big sort,” technology and other factors loosen the ties that bound us into one nation. Other than the occasional, and fleeting, YouTube video, there is no cable television channel or Internet site that we experience in common. Political parties that transcended region have been purged of dissenters and overshadowed by single-focus interest groups.

Immigration and the end of a white majority. “The Mexican migration, and the similarly large migration of others from the rest of Latin America, has in just one generation reshaped the nation,” Michael Barone recently wrote. In 1970 there were fewer than 1 million Mexican-born people in the country; today they number more than 12 million, and with their children comprise about 10 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, for the first time, racial and ethnic minorities — if that’s still the right word — make up about half of the under-5 population. By 2043, whites will no longer be in the majority. The country seems to have handled the surge in immigration more peaceably than it greeted past waves of newcomers. But the shifts may be causing political shockwaves whose connections to the demographic changes aren’t immediately obvious.

Inadequate political institutions. There’s the affront posed to the principle of one man, one vote by the U.S. Senate, where 600,000 Wyoming residents have as much say as 38 million Californians. In an increasingly self-serving redistricting process, politicians choose their voters instead of the other way around and insulate themselves from challenges by all but the extremes. The frantic money chase drives good people out of politics.

The contrast between the country’s relative advantages and its Washington dysfunction is frustrating, but maybe that, too, is part of the problem: In an apparently benign environment, when foreign enemies again seem distant and unthreatening, nothing scares the politicians toward compromise. They manufacture one ginned-up crisis after another, but the deadlines fail to provide the hoped-for jolt toward progress — even when, as now, millions of blameless Americans suffer for politicians’ failings.

Will it take a crisis not of their creating to change the dynamic? Let’s hope not.

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fred-hiatt-the-shutdown-of-good-governance/2013/10/06/329f9c1a-2d0b-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

Robert Gates on the GOP’s Breakdown and Failure at “The Basic Functions of Government” By Steve Benen

Washington Monthly, October 15, 2011

Excerpt
 
Robert Gates, a respected elder statesman of the political establishment, recently delivered some provocative remarks on the health, of lack thereof, of the American political system. Brian Beutler had a good item on this the other day, noting the increasing frequency with which prominent voices, not prone to hyperbole or alarmism, are raising awkward questions.
The GOP’s hyper-partisan turn after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 meant 112th Congress was destined to test the limits of dysfunctional governance. But it also happened to coincide with a moment in history when the country needed the government to do better than the bare minimum. Instead, it’s done less. And that’s shaken people who’ve spent their careers steering the ship of state.
“I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system — and it is no longer a joking matter,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an audience two weeks ago at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he received the Liberty Medal for national service. “It appears that as a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance.”

Full text

 Robert Gates, a respected elder statesman of the political establishment, recently delivered some provocative remarks on the health, of lack thereof, of the American political system. Brian Beutler had a good item on this the other day, noting the increasing frequency with which prominent voices, not prone to hyperbole or alarmism, are raising awkward questions. 

The GOP’s hyper-partisan turn after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 meant 112th Congress was destined to test the limits of dysfunctional governance. But it also happened to coincide with a moment in history when the country needed the government to do better than the bare minimum. Instead, it’s done less. And that’s shaken people who’ve spent their careers steering the ship of state.

 

“I do believe that we are now in uncharted waters when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system — and it is no longer a joking matter,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told an audience two weeks ago at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he received the Liberty Medal for national service. “It appears that as a result of several long-building, polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing the country. Thus, I am more concerned than I have ever been about the state of American governance.”

 

James Fallows noted the same remarks, emphasizing Gates’ demeanor. “I specifically recognize how carefully he has always chosen his public words,” Fallows wrote. “For such a person to say plainly that the American government has lost its basic ability to function, and that he is more concerned than he has ever been about this issue is … well, it’s worth more notice than it’s received so far.”

 

I often think of a column E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote a while back, in which he asked, “Can a nation remain a superpower if its internal politics are incorrigibly stupid?”

 

I’m a chronic optimist about America. But we are letting stupid politics, irrational ideas on fiscal policy and an antiquated political structure undermine our power.

 

We need a new conservatism in our country that is worthy of the name. We need liberals willing to speak out on the threat our daft politics poses to our influence in the world. We need moderates who do more than stick their fingers in the wind to calculate the halfway point between two political poles.

 

And, yes, we need to reform a Senate that has become an embarrassment to our democratic claims.

 

And, I’d argue, we need well-intentioned Republicans who care about the national interest to realize something has gone fundamentally wrong with their party, and to work to help bring back.

 

Dionne wrote that column, by the way, in July 2010. There’s ample evidence conditions have deteriorated since and the incorrigible stupidity is more pronounced. Some have even begun suggesting it’s part of a larger effort on the part of the radicalized right to deliberately undermine confidence in America’s public institutions and create conditions in which voters give up on government altogether.

 

If the public considers this unacceptable, they’re going to have to say so.

 

This week, in the midst of a jobs crisis and intense public demand for congressional action, killed a credible jobs bill for no apparent reason. Most Americans support the American Jobs Act’s provisions; it enjoys strong support from economists; it includes ideas from both parties; and the CBO found it will even lower the deficit over the next decade.

 

And despite all of this, literally every Republican in the Senate — including the alleged “moderates” — not only rejected the popular jobs bill, they refused to even let the chamber vote on it at all. This happened, at least in part, because GOP officials didn’t want to “give [Obama] a win.”

As Gates put it, “It is no longer a joking matter.” 

 © 2011 All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews//