What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto

By John Halpin, Guest Blogger and Ruy Teixeira, Guest Blogger on Mar 22, 2013

People often ask what, exactly, do progressives believe?  Over the past few years, we’ve worked with a great group called the American Values Projectrepresenting a cross section of leaders from think tanks, philanthropic organizations, and environmental, labor, youth, civil rights, and other progressive groups, to try to distill progressive beliefs and values into clear language in one digestible resource.

The result of this collective effort is called Progressive Thinking: A Synthesis of Progressive Values, Beliefs, and Positions The document is free and we encourage you to read, review, critique, and pass it around to others.  As the handbook states, the central progressive message is one of fairness and equality:

Our approach is simple to summarize and is built upon the ideas of generations of progressives from Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama:  everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his or her fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. As progressives, we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at a decent, fulfilling, and economically secure life.  We believe that everyone should do his or her fair share to build this life through education and hard work and through active participation in public life.   And we believe that everyone should play by the same set of rules with no special privileges for the well-connected or wealthy.

The book is divided into sections outlining the overall progressive story, foundational beliefs about government, the economy, and national security, and the application of this framework to contemporary issues.  It also includes a number of useful speeches and essays that show progressive values and beliefs in action throughout our nation’s history.

In terms of values, Progressive Thinking breaks down the four pillars of progressive thought as follows:

1. Freedom.  In terms of our political foundations, the most basic progressive value is freedom. This also happens to be one of the most contested values in American life.  Progressives have a two-part definition of freedom:  “freedom from” and “freedom to”.  First, we believe that all people should have freedom from undue interference by governments and others in carrying out their private affairs and personal beliefs.  This includes our rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion as well as the freedom to control our own bodies and personal lives.  Second, we believe that all people should have the freedom to lead a fulfilling and secure life supported by the basic foundations of economic security and opportunity.  This includes physical protections against bodily harm as well as adequate income, economic protections, health care and education, and other social provisions…

2.  Opportunity.  Complementing our commitment to human freedom is our belief in opportunity.  Like freedom, the concept of opportunity has two components:  one focuses on political equality and the other on economic and social arrangements that enhance our lives.  The first component of opportunity prohibits discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious faith or non-faith, or disability.  It also means embracing the diversity of American society by ensuring that all people have the chance to turn their talents and ambitions into a meaningful life, not just the rich and powerful or dominant racial and ethnic groups.  The second component of opportunity involves the conditions necessary for people to be secure and to move up in life—health care, education, a decent job, labor rights, a secure retirement…

3.  Responsibility.  Along with freedom and opportunity comes responsibility — personal responsibility and the responsibility we have to each other and to the common good.   Personal responsibility requires each of us to do our part to improve our own lives through hard work, education, and by acting with honesty and integrity.  Responsibility to others and to the common good requires a commitment to putting the public interest above the interests of a few and an understanding that strong families and communities are the foundation of a good society.  It means working to achieve greater social justice and economic conditions that benefit civil society broadly.  It demands an open and honest government and an engaged and participatory citizenry…

This requires public investments in things like transportation and trade, innovation, a skilled workforce, courts to protect patent rights and contract agreements, public safety and other measures that support the creation of wealth and help to make individual prosperity possible.  It also requires progressive taxation, meaning those who have and earn more should pay more to help support the investments in things like schools, transportation, and economic competitiveness necessary to advance the interests of all.

A key component of responsibility involves ecological and social sustainability.  This requires on-going stewardship of our land, water, air and natural resources, smart use of energy, and the responsible consumption of goods…

4.  Cooperation.  Rounding out these political values which are primarily directed at the rights, opportunities, and duties of individuals is the basic progressive value of cooperation.   Cooperation is the foundation of our most important social institutions including our families, our communities, and our civic and faith groups.  Freedom without cooperation leads to a divided society that cannot work together to achieve common goals and improve the lives of all.  Cooperation as a value requires that we try to be open-minded and empathetic toward others and that we are accountable for their well-being as they are accountable to us.  Progressives believe that if we blindly pursue our own needs and ignore those of others, our society will degenerate.

Successful families and communities cannot exist without cooperation.  We also value human interdependence on a larger scale and accept the importance of looking beyond our own needs to help others and find global solutions to global problems.

As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.


Speaking Out Is at the Heart of Being a Citizen

By George Lakoff, Reader Supported News, February 16, 2013

Political journalists have a job to do – to examine the SOTU’s long list of proposals. They are doing that job, many are doing it well, and I’ll leave it to them. Instead, I want to discuss what in the long run is a deeper question: How did the SOTU help to change public discourse? What is the change? And technically, how did it work?

The address was coherent. There was a single frame that fit together all the different ideas, from economics to the environment to education to gun safety to voting rights. The big change in public discourse was the establishment of that underlying frame, a frame that will, over the long haul, accommodate many more specific proposals.

Briefly, the speech worked via frame evocation. Not statement, evocation – the unconscious and automatic activation in the brains of listeners of a morally-based progressive frame that made sense of what the president said.

When a frame is repeatedly activated, it is strengthened. Obama’s progressive frame was strengthened not only in die-hard progressives, but also in partial progressives, those who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others – the so-called moderates, swing voters, independents, and centrists. As a result, 77 percent of listeners approved of the speech, 53 percent strongly positive and 24 percent somewhat positive, with only 22 percent negative. When that deep progressive frame is understood and accepted by a 77 percent margin, the president has begun to move America toward a progressive moral vision.

If progressives are going to maintain and build on the president’s change in public discourse so far, we need to understand just what that change has been and how he accomplished it.

It hasn’t happened all at once.

In 2008, candidate Obama made overt statements. He spoke overtly about empathy and the responsibility to act on it as the basis of democracy. He spoke about the need for an “ethic of excellence.” He spoke about the role of government to protect and empower everyone equally.

After using the word “empathy” in the Sotomayor nomination, he dropped it when conservatives confused it with sympathy and unfairness. But the idea didn’t disappear.

By the 2013 Inaugural Address, he directly quoted the Declaration and Lincoln, overtly linking patriotism and the essence of democracy to empathy, to Americans caring for one another and taking responsibility for one another as well as themselves. He spoke overtly about how private success depends on public provisions. He carried out these themes with examples. And he had pretty much stopped making the mistake of using conservative language, even to negate it. The change in public discourse became palpable.

The 2013 SOTU followed this evolution a crucial step further. Instead of stating the frames overly, he took them for granted and the nation understood. Public discourse had shifted; brains had changed. So much so that John Boehner looked shamed as he slumped, sulking in his chair, as if trying to disappear. Changed so much that Marco Rubio’s response was stale and defensive: the old language wasn’t working and Rubio kept talking in rising tones indicating uncertainty.

Here is how Obama got to 77 percent approval as an unapologetic progressive.

The president set his theme powerfully in the first few sentences – in about 30 seconds.

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that ‘the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress … It is my task,’ he said, ‘to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task of us all.’ Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. …

First, Obama recalled Kennedy – a strong, unapologetic liberal. “Partners” evokes working together, an implicit attack on conservative stonewalling, while “for progress” makes clear his progressive direction. “To improve it is the task of us all” evokes the progressive theme that we’re all in this together with the goal of improving the common good. “The grit and determination of the American people” again says we work together, while incorporating the “grit and determination” stereotype of Americans pulling themselves up by their bootstraps – overcoming a “grinding war” and “grueling recession.” He specifically and wisely did not pin the war and recession on the Bush era Republicans, as he reasonably could have. That would have divided Democrats from Republicans. Instead, he treated war and recession as if they were forces of nature that all Americans joined together to overcome. Then he moved on seamlessly to the “millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded,” which makes rewarding that work and determination “the task of us all.”

This turn in discourse started working last year. Empathy and social responsibility as central American values reappeared in spades in the 2012 campaign right after Mitt Romney made his 47 percent gaff, that 47 percent of Americans were not succeeding because they were not talking personal responsibility for their lives. This allowed Obama to reframe people out of work, sick, injured, or retired as hard working and responsible and very much part of the American ideal, evoking empathy for them from most other Americans. It allowed him to meld the hard working and struggling Americans with the hard working and just getting by Americans into a progressive stereotype of hard working Americans in general who need help to overcome external forces holding them back. It is a patriotic stereotype that joins economic opportunity with equality, freedom and civil rights: “if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

It is an all-American vision:

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

“Our unfinished task” refers to citizens – us – as ruling the government, not the reverse. “We” are making the government do what is right. To work “on behalf of the many, and not just the few.” And he takes from the progressive vision the heart of the conservative message. “We” require the government to encourage free enterprise, reward individual initiative, and provide opportunity for all. It is the reverse of the conservative view of the government ruling us. In a progressive democracy, the government is the instrument of the people, not the reverse.

In barely a minute, he provided a patriotic American progressive vision that seamlessly adapts the heart of the conservative message. Within this framework comes the list of policies, each presented with empathy for ideal Americans. In each case, we, the citizens who care about our fellow citizens, must make our imperfect government do the best it can for fellow Americans who do meet, or can with help meet, the American ideal.

With this setting of the frame, each item on the list of policies fits right in. We, the citizens, use the government to protect us and maximally enable us all to make use of individual initiative and free enterprise.

The fact that the policy list was both understood and approved of by 77 percent of those watching means that one-third of those who did not vote for the president have assimilated his American progressive moral vision.

The president’s list of economic policies was criticized by some as a lull – a dull, low energy section of the speech. But the list had a vital communicative function beyond the policies themselves. Each item on the list evoked, and thereby strengthened in the brains of most listeners, the all-American progressive vision of the first section of the speech. Besides, if you’re going to build to a smash finish, you have to build from a lull.

And it was a smash finish! Highlighting his gun safety legislation by introducing one after another of the people whose lives were shattered by well-reported gun violence. With each introduction came the reframe “They deserve a vote” over and over and over. He was chiding the Republicans not just for being against the gun safety legislation, but for being unwilling to even state their opposition in public, which a vote would require. The president is all too aware that, even in Republican districts, there is great support for gun safety reform, support that threatens conservative representatives. “They deserve a vote” is a call for moral accounting from conservative legislators. It is a call for empathy for the victims in a political form, a form that would reveal the heartlessness, the lack of Republican empathy for the victims. “They deserve a vote” shamed the Republicans in the House. As victim after victim stood up while the Republicans sat slumped and close-mouthed in their seats, shame fell on the Republicans.

And then it got worse for Republicans. Saving the most important for last – voting reform – President Obama introduced Desiline Victor, a 102-year spunky African American Florida woman who was told she would have to wait six hours to vote. She hung in there, exhausted but not defeated, for many hours and eventually voted. The room burst into raucous applause, putting to shame the Republicans who are adopting practices and passing laws to discourage voting by minority groups.

And with the applause still ringing, he introduced police officer Brian Murphy who held off armed attackers at the Sikh Temple in Minneapolis, taking twelve bullets and lying in a puddle of his blood while still protecting the Sikhs. When asked how he did it, he replied, “That’s just how we’re made.”

That gave the president a finale to end where he began.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

It was a finale that gave the lie to the conservative story of America, that democracy is an individual matter, that it gives each of us the liberty to seek his own interests and well-being without being responsible for anyone else or anyone else being responsible for him, from which it follows that the government should not be in the job of helping its citizens. Marco Rubio came right after and tried out this conservative anthem that has been so dominant since the Reagan years. It fell flat.

President Obama, in this speech, created what cognitive scientists call a “prototype” – an ideal American defined by a contemporary progressive vision that incorporates a progressive market with individual opportunity and initiative. It envisions an ideal citizenry that is in charge of the government, forcing the president and the Congress to do the right thing.

That is how the president has changed public discourse. He has changed it at the level that counts, the deepest level, the moral level. What can make that change persist? What will allow such an ideal citizenry to come into existence?

The president can’t do it. Congress can’t do it. Only we can as citizens, by adopting the president’s vision, thinking in his moral frames, and speaking out from that vision whenever possible. Speaking out is at the heart of being a citizen, speaking out is political action, and only if an overwhelming number of us speak out, and live out, this American vision, will the president and the Congress be forced to do what is best for all.

By all means, discuss the policies. Praise them when you like them, criticize them when they fall short. Don’t hold back. Talk in public. Write to others. But be sure to make clear the basic principles behind the policies.

And don’t use the language of the other side, even to negate it. Remember that if you say “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” people will think of an elephant.

Structure is important. Start with the general principles, move to policy details, finish with the general principles.


The Progressive Economic Narrative in Obama’s State of the Union

by Richard Kirsch,  Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute; author of ‘Fighting for Our Health’, 2/13/2013

Two years ago, frustrated by a conservative resurgence in the 2010 election, a group of progressive activists, economists, communicators, and pollsters came together to write a compelling story about our view of the economy (as Mike Lux relates). Our goal was to write a story that people could easily understand, based on our beliefs about how to create an economy that delivered broadly shared prosperity — a story that could stand up against the right’s familiar recipe of free markets, limited government, and rugged individualism. The core of the story we developed in our progressive economic narrative (PEN) was: “The middle class is the engine of our economy. We build a large, prosperous middle class by decisions we make together.”

So it was a milestone in our work to hear President Obama tell our story and use our language in his State of the Union address. The key line, delivered at the top of the speech and quoted in almost every news story, was “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.”

Taking another lesson from PEN, the president prefaced that quote with an explanation of what the economic problem is, focusing on how working families and the middle class have been crushed. In PEN we say, “American families are working harder and getting paid less, falling behind our parents’ generation. Too many Americans can’t find good jobs and too many jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. Big corporations have cut our wages and benefits and shipped our jobs overseas.” Here’s the president’s version:

But — we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of Americas economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

When it came to describing how we build this middle-class engine, the president again used the same ideas frame laid out in PEN: “We build a large and prosperous middle class through the decisions we make together; investing in our people, expanding opportunity and security, paving the way for business to innovate, and to do business in ways that create prosperity and economic security for Americans.” The president’s agenda was based on these same concepts:

Invest in people through education (starting at Pre-K), skills we need for today’s jobs, affordable health care, and a secure retirement.

Pave the way for businesses through research, infrastructure, and green energy.

Do business in ways that create prosperity, with a higher minimum wage and pay equity for women.

The president’s story contrasted sharply with Marco Rubio’s. Rubio also paid homage to the middle class, but he told the conservative tale:

This opportunity — to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life — it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business. And when they succeed, they hire more people, who in turn invest or spend the money they make, helping others start a business and create jobs. Presidents in both parties — from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan — have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity.

So the fight is joined. For too long, progressives have not taken on the conservative story with our own narrative. As a result, even when people agree with us on specific issues, they still hold fast to the right’s definition of how to move the economy forward. We have, with the simple tale told by the president and in the progressive economic narrative, a very different story, an economy driven by working families and the middle class, which we create by decisions we make together, with our government as the catalyst.

Our next task is to tell this same story over and over again in all of our communications. Repetition is key. People need to hear the story whenever we communicate on an economic issue. We give examples of how do to that on job quality, job creation, the federal fiscal mess, and health care at progressivenarrative.org.

President Obama left out one part of the progressive economic narrative in his speech. As we say in PEN, “Our political system has been captured by the rich and powerful and corrupted by big money in politics. The issue is not the size of the government, it’s who the government works for — powerful corporations and the richest few, or all of us. We have to take our democracy back to ensure that our economy will work for all of us. “

That’s a story that politicians are reluctant to tell. As always, we need to lead and the leaders will follow. It is up to us to build an America and economy that works for all us. Clearly describing our vision of how to do that is a crucial element of building power that progressives overlooked for too long. We’re much closer when the president tells that story to the nation. It’s up to us to keep telling it every day.


Why are “Wedge Issues” Essential to Republican Rule?



While they have the public and the media distracted with red hot emotional topics, they go off and make the wealthy wealthier, increase our national debt, dismantle the Constitution, and take away government social services. Wedge issues are a powerful distraction — and allow the right wing to accomplish their goals while the public is preoccupied with some trumped up emotional issue that the Busheviks could care less about… wedge issues are emotional in appeal. They bypass the cognitive function of the brain and go right to a subconscious emotional response. Name any Republican wedge issue from immigration, to abortion, to gay marriage, to flag burning… “the war on terrorism” … and you run head into an emotional, not a reasoned, hook…. Basically, the Republican “rule by emotional appeal” boils down to a big brother elitism whose message to Americans is simply this: “Don’t think. We’ll do the thinking for you. Just follow.”

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Why are “wedge issues” so important to the modern Republican Party?

First of all, wedge issues are emotional in appeal. They bypass the cognitive function of the brain and go right to a subconscious emotional response. Name any Republican wedge issue from immigration, to abortion, to gay marriage, to flag burning — not to mention the granddaddy of them all: “the war on terrorism” and FEAR — and you run head into an emotional, not a reasoned, hook.

In short, the Republicans are tremendously skilled at employing the art of the demagogue to get Americans — around half at any given time — to avoid reasoned discussion of public policy. They do this by appealing to emotional, instinctual reactions that are not processed through a thoughtful process. It’s called pressing a hot button.

Second of all, the Republicans use wedge issues to, essentially, pickpocket the American public and dismantle the American government.

While they have the public and the media distracted with red hot emotional topics, they go off and make the wealthy wealthier, increase our national debt, dismantle the Constitution, and take away government social services. Wedge issues are a powerful distraction — and allow the right wing to accomplish their goals while the public is preoccupied with some trumped up emotional issue that the Busheviks could care less about.

Finally, wedge issues are a tremendous fundraising tool for the right wing. In fact, the campaigns of right wing candidates were financed by the money generated by right wing wedge issue direct mail. Richard Viguerie was the guru who started the direct mail juggernaut for GOP candidates — and organizations — and he’s still going strong. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Rove came to the fore in Texas politics as a direct mail consultant.

In short, wedge issues that press the hot buttons of right wing donors sell big time. We heard Viguerie speak recently and he referred to “pre-sold” wedge issues. In essence, these are topics like “gay marriage,” “abortion,” and “war on terror” that you include in the first sentence of a GOP direct mail piece and you are guaranteed a good response because they have such visceral impact on Stepford GOP followers.

Progressives and Democrats have far fewer “pre-sold” appeals — except for the mention of Bush and Cheney — because progressives and Democrats think more before acting. That may sound snobbish, but it’s true from a direct mail perspective.

Basically, the Republican “rule by emotional appeal” boils down to a big brother elitism whose message to Americans is simply this: “Don’t think. We’ll do the thinking for you. Just follow.”


We must change – Uptown Neighborhood News, Jan 2013

Commentary by Phyllis Stenerson, Uptown Neighborhood News, January 2013

“We must change.”

President Barack Obama clearly and emphatically stated this at the December 16 prayer vigil for vic­tims of the shoot­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in New­town, Connecticut.

This public declaration was prompted by the tragic, senseless killing of 26 people, including 20 first-grade school children, with an assault rifle designed for combat on a battlefield. That this lethal weapon came to be fired at astonishing speed at innocent children in a classroom says volumes about our country’s misplaced priorities and broken political system.

Examining the history of the proliferation of guns, including those with no discernible civilian purpose, and the dismal failure of gun control initiatives, can serve as a case study for how things happen, and don’t happen, in the political/governmental process.

In a word – power.

The legislative, legal and regulative systems are absurdly complex enabling convoluted thinking and barely legal tactics to prevail by those who amass the power to get what they want. In this case power is wielded primarily by the National Rifle Association that is richly funded by all facets of the firearms industry from manufacturers to retailers like Walmart.

Financial power translates into political power that can be used to help elect Members of Congress who are friendly to their agenda and, perhaps more dangerously, to aggressively work against those who resist following in lockstep. Targeting and defeating, often humiliating, a few non–compliant representatives sends a powerful message. Intimidation is one of the key strategies used by the National Rifle Association, as well as many other special interest groups.

The gun lobby cites the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution to justify and legalize its demands:

The Second Amendment:  A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.

That’s all it says.

At the time this Amendment was adopted regular citizens had to be ready to defend the new nation. Rifles at the time were slow and clumsy. It is preposterous to claim the founders intended to legalize the right for any person to obtain, through purchase or theft, a weapon that can kill 26 people in a matter of minutes. This is not maintaining a well-regulated militia, it’s a breakdown in our civilization.

The tragedy in Newtown brings into sharp focus one major crisis – gun violence. The solutions to countless other critical national and international problems including climate change, childhood poverty and, closely related to this tragedy, adequate provision of mental health services are impeded by similar abuse of power in the political system. A disgusting, real aspect of our democratic system and one we must confront head-on.

At the prayer vigil in Newtown, President Obama went on talk about how our responsibility to our children must be our nation’s top priority. He said “this job of keep­ing our chil­dren safe and teach­ing them well is some­thing we can only do together, with the help of friends and neigh­bors, the help of a com­mu­nity and the help of a nation….We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this…”

Surely, we can and must do better than this in keeping our children safe as well as housed, fed and educated. That the United States of America is ranked among third world countries on these criteria shows how we are failing at this most critical responsibility.

Again, about power.

“I’ll use what­ever power this office holds to engage my fel­low cit­i­zens, from law enforce­ment, to men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, to par­ents and edu­ca­tors, in an effort aimed at pre­vent­ing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine,” said the President.

We individuals have enormous power if we take our responsibility as citizens seriously and organize to change America. The power of citizens working for the common good can overcome the power of money and special interests. Now is the time.

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

More commentary from various sources related to the nexus of culture, politics, religion, spiritualty and intellect can be found at www.ProgressiveValues.org.

Phyllis Stenerson is the previous Editor of the Uptown Neighborhood News and lives in the CARAG neighborhood.

How the Mainstream Press Bungled the Single Biggest Story of the 2012 Campaign

by Dan Froomkin, Huffington Post, 12/07/2012 – Contributing editor, Nieman Reports


… cov­er­age in 2012 was a par­tic­u­larly calami­tous fail­ure, almost entirely miss­ing the sin­gle biggest story of the race: Namely, the rad­i­cal right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Repub­li­can Party, both in terms of its agenda and its rela­tion­ship to the truth… Democ­rats were hardly inno­cent but…the Repub­li­can cam­paign was just far more over the top.”…[Mann and Orn­stein] dra­mat­i­cally rejected the stric­tures of false equiv­a­lency that bind so much of the capital’s media…The 2012 cam­paign …exposed how fab­u­lists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as tak­ing sides… if the story that you’re telling repeat­edly is that they’re all…equally to blame — then you’re really doing a dis­ser­vice to vot­ers, and not doing what jour­nal­ism is sup­posed to do…


…according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

Mann and Ornstein are two longtime centrist Washington fixtures who earlier this year dramatically rejected the strictures of false equivalency that bind so much of the capital’s media elite and publicly concluded that GOP leaders have become “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The 2012 campaign …also exposed how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as taking sides…

“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”

Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.

“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.

“If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they’ve got to know what’s going on,” Ornstein said. “And if the story that you’re telling repeatedly is that they’re all to blame — they’re all equally to blame — then you’re really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do.”

Ornstein said the media’s failure led him to conclude: “If you want to use a strategy of ‘I’m just going to lie all the time’, when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it.”…

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Post-mortems of contemporary election coverage typically include regrets about horserace journalism, he-said-she-said stenography, and the lack of enlightening stories about the issues.

But according to longtime political observers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, campaign coverage in 2012 was a particularly calamitous failure, almost entirely missing the single biggest story of the race: Namely, the radical right-wing, off-the-rails lurch of the Republican Party, both in terms of its agenda and its relationship to the truth.

Mann and Ornstein are two longtime centrist Washington fixtures who earlier this year dramatically rejected the strictures of false equivalency that bind so much of the capital’s media elite and publicly concluded that GOP leaders have become “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The 2012 campaign further proved their point, they both said in recent interviews. It also exposed how fabulists and liars can exploit the elite media’s fear of being seen as taking sides.

“The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties’ agendas and connections to facts and truth,” said Mann, who has spent nearly three decades as a congressional scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution.

“I saw some journalists struggling to avoid the trap of balance and I knew they were struggling with it — and with their editors,” said Mann. “But in general, I think overall it was a pretty disappointing performance.”

“I can’t recall a campaign where I’ve seen more lying going on — and it wasn’t symmetric,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who’s been tracking Congress with Mann since 1978. Democrats were hardly innocent, he said, “but it seemed pretty clear to me that the Republican campaign was just far more over the top.”

Lies from Republicans generally and standardbearer Mitt Romney in particular weren’t limited to the occasional TV ads, either; the party’s most central campaign principles — that federal spending doesn’t create jobs, that reducing taxes on the rich could create jobs and lower the deficit — willfully disregarded the truth.

“It’s the great unreported big story of American politics,” Ornstein said.

“If voters are going to be able to hold accountable political figures, they’ve got to know what’s going on,” Ornstein said. “And if the story that you’re telling repeatedly is that they’re all to blame — they’re all equally to blame — then you’re really doing a disservice to voters, and not doing what journalism is supposed to do.”

Ornstein said the media’s failure led him to conclude: “If you want to use a strategy of ‘I’m just going to lie all the time’, when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it.”

The Apostasy

Ornstein and Mann’s big coming out took place in late April, when the Washington Post‘s Outlook section published their essay Admit it. The Republicans are worse, adapted from their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, which went on sale a few days later.

Political journalists had no doubt heard similar arguments many times before, mostly from left wing bloggers. But this time the charge was coming from two of the most consistent purveyors of conventional wisdom in town, bipartisan to a fault.

And they were pretty harsh in their critique of the media. “Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views,” they wrote in the Post. “Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”

Initially, at least, Mann and Ornstein weren’t completely ignored. “We had really good reporters call us and say: ‘You’re absolutely right’,” Mann said. “They told us they used this as the basis for conversations in the newsroom.”

But those conversations went nowhere, Mann said.

“Their editors and producers, who felt they were looking out for the economic wellbeing of their news organizations, were also concerned about their professional standing and vulnerability to charges of partisan bias,” Mann said.

So most reporters just kept on with business as usual.

“They’re so timid,” Mann said.

Some reporters did better than others, Ornstein said, particularly crediting Jackie Calmes of the New York Times and David Rogers of Politico among a few others. “They grew a little bit more straightforward in what they do, and showed you can be a good, diligent unbiased reporter, report the facts, put it in context, and yet show what’s really going on,” he said.

Most reporters, however — including many widely admired for their intelligence and aggressive reporting — simply refused to blame one side more than the other. Mann said he was struck in conversations with journalists by how influenced they were by the heavily funded movement to promote a bipartisan consensus around deficit reduction and austerity. Such a bipartisan consensus doesn’t actually exist, Mann pointed out. But if you believe it does, than you can blame both parties for failing to reach it.

“The Peterson world, I think, has given journalists the material to keep doing what they’re doing,” Mann said of the vast network of think tanks and other influential Washington groups underwritten at least in part by Wall Street billionaire Peter Peterson.

Peterson’s vast spending has given rise to an environment of contempt among the Washington elites for anyone who doesn’t believe the government is dangerously overextended. And by that reckoning, the Democrats are therefore more out of touch with reality than Republicans, who at least pay the concept ample lip service.

How Fact-Checking Made Things Worse

Ornstein and Mann’s views on journalistic failure have not been widely shared by mainstream media critics, who have instead focused on the fact that the press, in its enthusiasm to see the presidential race decided by a nose, ignored solid polling data to the contrary and called it wrong until the very end.

To the extent that the issue of widespread prevarication has come up at all, many media critics identified the rise of fact-checking as the big new trend of the 2012 cycle.

But Mann and Ornstein said that in practice, the fact-checkers may have made things worse rather than better.

“We had these little flurries of fact-checking — which I found not worthless, but not a substitute for coherent, serious reporting — and most of the time it just got stuck in the back of a news organization’s output and there was no cost to a candidate of ignoring it,” Mann said.

And then there was this terrible irony: “Fact checkers almost seemed obliged to show some balance in their fact checking.”

“There was some damn good stuff done, and stuff that really did hold Romney to account,” Ornstein said. But no fact-checker intent on “appearing to be utterly straightforward, independent, and without an axe to grind, is going to actually do the job of saying that we’re going to cover 20 fact checks on one side, to three on the other.”

So, Ornstein concluded: “If you looked at where the scales should have been, and where they were, they were weighted. And they weren’t weighted for ideological bias. They were weighted to avoid being charged with ideological bias.”

It’s hard to exaggerate just how popular Mann and Ornstein were with the press before their apostasy. They were quite possibly the two most quotable men in Washington. They were the media cocktail party circuit’s most reliable walking talking points.

And now they are virtual pariahs.

“It’s awkward. I can no longer be a source in a news story in the Wall Street Journal or the Times or the Post because people now thing I’ve made the case for the Democrats and therefore I’ll have to be balanced with a Republican,” Mann said.

Neither Mann nor Ornstein have been guests on any of the main Sunday public affairs shows since their book came out. Nor has anyone else on those shows talked about the concerns they raised.

Ornstein is particularly infuriated that none of the supposed reader advocates at major newspapers have raised the issues they brought up. “What the fuck is an ombudsman doing if he’s not writing about this?” he asked.

Their phones are still ringing, they say — but not from inside the Beltway. “We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of attention, but much of that is due to the Internet and our original piece going viral,” Mann said. They were also featured on NPR.

There have been countless requests for speaking engagements. “We’re just selling a shitload of books,” said Mann. “There’ve been page-one stories in countries around the world.”

Domestically, however, Mann and Ornstein said they refuse to be “balanced” on TV shows by Republicans — because they are not anti Republican. The reason they wanted the press to expose what was really happening, they said, was to give voters a chance to respond in an appropriate way.

“The argument we’re making is that our politics will never really get better until the Republican Party gets back into the game, instead of playing a new one,” Mann said. “We want a strong, conservative Republican Party — but one with some connection with reality.”

Their critique came not out of ideology, they said, but out of their background as devoted process junkies and honest analysts, who finally realized that their vision of collegial governance wasn’t possible any more, and it was clear why.

Both see the rise of Tea Party influence on the GOP as a major turning point. For Mann, the moment of reckoning came in the summer of 2011. “What flipped me over was the debt ceiling hostage-taking,” Mann said. It was clear then that the Republicans would “do or say anything” to hurt Obama, even if it was overtly bad for the country and false to core Republican values.

“That and getting older. What do I give a shit about access,” he said.

“The fact is that one of the parties stopped being a conventional conservative party,” Mann said. “My own view is that what needed to happen is somehow the public had to take a two-by-four to the Republicans’ heads, knock them back to their senses, and allow conservative pragmatic voices to emerge,” he said.

Democrats won soundly in 2012 of course, so the two-by-four was administered. But because the media obfuscated what was going on, the message was not entirely clear — and certainly not to the Republican leadership.

Their Message Going Forward

Mann and Ornstein don’t get invited to talk to the leaders of news organizations anymore.

But if they were, again, here is what Mann would say: “First of all, I’d sympathize. I’d say I understand that you have the responsibility to use professional norms of accuracy and fairness and not let your own personal feelings get in the way.”

But, he would add: “You all have missed an incredibly important story in our politics that’s been developing over a period of time. You’ll slip it in here and there, you’ll bury it, but you really don’t confront it.”

Ornstein said his message would be this: “I understand your concerns about advertisers. I understand your concerns about being labeled as biased. But what are you there for? What’s the whole notion of a free press for if you’re not going to report without fear or favor and you’re not going to report what your reporters, after doing their due diligence, see as the truth?

“And if you don’t do that, then you can expect I think a growing drumbeat of criticism that you’re failing in your fundamental responsibility.

“Your job is to report the truth. And sometimes there are two sides to a story. Sometimes there are ten sides to a story. Sometimes there’s only one.

“Somebody has got to make an assessment of whether the two sides are being equally careless with their facts, or equally deliberate with their lies.”

Dan Froomkin is in the process of launching a new accountability journalism project. He is contributing editor of Nieman Reports, and the former senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. He wrote the White House Watch column for the Washington Post website from 2004 to 2009, and was editor of the site from 2000 to 2003. Dan welcomes your email and can be reached at froomkin@gmail.com.


Why sane bargaining looks strange

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Washington Post, December , 2012

An entirely new political narrative is taking shape before our eyes, yet many in Washington are still stuck in the old one.

President Obama’s victory blew up the framework created by the 2010 elections, which forced him to play defense. Now, he finally has room to move. That’s the only way to understand the ongoing budget talks.

This has several implications. First, why was anyone surprised that Obama’s initial offer to the Republicans was a compendium of what he’d actually prefer? We became so accustomed to Obama’s earlier habit of making preemptive concessions that the very idea he’d negotiate in a perfectly normal way amazed much of Washington. Rule No. 1 is that you shouldn’t start bargaining by giving stuff away when the other side has not even made concrete demands.

Second, Obama made clear that he will not allow the fiscal calendar to set his priorities. Past actions by Congress established this wacky set of deadlines requiring frenzied decision-making. This does not mean the deficit is the nation’s highest priority. It isn’t. Speeding up economic growth is the most important thing now.

Thus did Obama’s opening proposal call for measures to boost the recovery, including an infrastructure bank, a public-private partnership that ought to appeal to Republicans. And he was right to insist upon an extension of unemployment insurance and another year of the payroll tax holiday or some equivalent way to keep middle-class purchasing power up. Raising taxes on the wealthy won’t damage the economy. A sudden drop in the take-home pay of the vast majority of U.S. consumers would.

Third, House Republicans have, so far, been unwilling to assume any risk to get what they claim to want. They seem to hope a deal will be born by way of immaculate conception, with Obama taking ownership of all the hard stuff while they innocently look on.

Obama went that route in 2011 when he feared that Republicans would bring down the nation’s economic house by failing to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. This time, he doesn’t face that risk.

If we go past the so-called “fiscal cliff” deadlines and all the resulting budget cuts and tax increases come into force, the administration can minimize the damage. It can delay the implementation of new tax tables so billions of dollars are not suddenly sucked out of the economy. There is no law requiring that budget cuts be implemented upfront or spread equally across the year. Obama can publicly announce he is delaying any cuts, on the theory that Congress will eventually vitiate some of them. And he can make sure the bond markets know of his plans well in advance.

This is not pretty, and it’s not ideal. But the only way to keep the next four years from becoming another long exercise in gridlock and obstruction is for Obama to hang tough now. And he has every right to.

Republicans claim they are fighting for cuts in entitlement programs, particularly Medicare. Fine. Let them put their cuts on the table. So far, all we have are words. Obama has outlined $400 billion in savings from Medicare. If this isn’t enough, the GOP’s negotiators should tell us how to find more. And having individual Republicans toss out ideas is not the same as a detailed public counter-proposal.

Republicans also say tax reform can raise enough money so we can avoid rate increases on the wealthy. Fine. Let them put forward a comprehensive plan so we can judge it. Their problem is that tax reform can’t produce the revenue that’s needed, but let’s at least see what they have in mind.

Obama is criticized for making life difficult for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who has to bring around a rather right-wing caucus. Sorry, but demanding this sort of solicitude doesn’t fly anymore. Boehner rather brilliantly used the “I have to deal with this crazy uncle in the attic” gambit to extract a lot of concessions in 2011. Republicans walked away from the great deal Boehner won for them. The intervening election means they won’t get a similar gift this time. Obama has to win something for his own progressive supporters who rightly feel empowered by November’s results. Two can play the crazy-uncle game.

So a normal negotiation looks strange only because the past two years have been so utterly abnormal, driven by tea party extremism and an irrational hostility to Obama, a fundamentally moderate man who has already shown a willingness to offer more than his share of concessions. Boehner knows this, which is why everyone (especially Wall Street) should calm down.



Competition among memes in a world with limited attention

Scientific Reports, March 2012, by  L. Weng, A. Flammini, A. Vespignani, & F. Menczer

Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 335, doi:10.1038/srep00335

Received 19 September 2011, Accepted 08 March 2012, Published 29 March 2012

The wide adoption of social media has increased the competition among ideas for our finite attention. We employ a parsimonious agent-based model to study whether such a competition may affect the popularity of different memes, the diversity of information we are exposed to, and the fading of our collective interests for specific topics. Agents share messages on a social network but can only pay attention to a portion of the information they receive. In the emerging dynamics of information diffusion, a few memes go viral while most do not. The predictions of our model are consistent with empirical data from Twitter, a popular microblogging platform. Surprisingly, we can explain the massive heterogeneity in the popularity and persistence of memes as deriving from a combination of the competition for our limited attention and the structure of the social network, without the need to assume different intrinsic values among ideas.

Subject terms:


Information theory and computation

Statistical physics, thermodynamics and nonlinear dynamics

Theoretical physics

At a glance









Author information


Ideas have formidable potential to impact public opinion, culture, policy, and profit1. The advent of social media2 has lowered the cost of information production and broadcasting, boosting the potential reach of each idea or meme3. However, the abundance of information to which we are exposed through online social networks and other socio-technical systems is exceeding our capacity to consume it. Ideas must compete for our scarce individual and collective attention. As a result, the dynamic of information is driven more than ever before by the economy of attention, first theorized by Simon4. Yet the processes that drive popularity in our limited-attention world are still largely unexplored5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15.

The availability of data from online social media has recently created unprecedented opportunities to explore human and social phenomena on a global scale16, 17. In this context one of the most challenging problems is the study of the competition dynamics of ideas, information, knowledge, and rumors. Understanding this problem is crucial in a broad range of settings, from viral marketing to scientific discovery acceleration. Aspects of competition for limited attention have been studied through news, movies, and topics posted on blogs and social media10, 11, 13. The popularity of news decreases with the number of competing items that are simultaneously available8, 18, 19.

However, even in the simplified settings of social media platforms, it is hard to disentangle the effects of limited attention from many concurrent factors, such as the structure of the underlying social network7, 13, the activity of users and the size of their potential audience19, the different degrees of influence of information spreaders20, the intrinsic quality of the information they spread21, the persistence of topics22, 23, and homophily24. To compound these difficulties, social networks that host information diffusion processes are not closed systems; exogenous factors like exposure to traditional media and their reports of world events play important roles in the popularity and lifetime of specific topics10, 25. Another example of our limited attention is the cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships that we can sustain, as postulated by Dunbar26 and recently supported by analysis of Twitter data27.

We propose an agent-based model to study the role of the limited attention of individual users in the diffusion process, and in particular whether competition for our finite attention may affect meme popularity, diversity, and lifetime. Although competition among ideas has been implicitly assumed as a factor behind, e.g., the decay in interest toward news and movies28, 8, 10, to the best of our knowledge nobody has attempted to explicitly model the mechanisms of competition and how they shape the spread of information. In particular, we show that a simple model of competition on a social network, without any further assumptions about meme merit, user interests, or explicit exogenous factors, can account for the massive heterogeneity in meme popularity and persistence.








Author information


Here we outline a number of empirical findings that motivate both our question and the main assumptions behind our model. We then describe the proposed agent-based toy model of meme diffusion and compare its predictions with the empirical data. Finally we show that the social network structure and our finite attention are both key ingredients of the diffusion model, as their removal leads to results inconsistent with the empirical data.

We validate our model with data from Twitter, a micro-blogging platform that allows many millions of people to broadcast short messages through social connections. Users can “follow” interesting people, by which a directed social network is formed. Posts (“tweets”) appear on the screen of followers. People can forward (“retweet”) selected posts from their screen to their followers. Furthermore, users often mark their posts with topic labels (“hashtags”). Let us use these tags as operational proxies to identify memes. A retweet carries a meme from user to user. As a meme spreads in this way, it forms a cascade or diffusion network such as those illustrated in Fig. 1. We collected a sample of retweets that include one or more hashtags, produced by Twitter users over a specific period of time (see details in Methods section). This provides us with a quantitative framework to study the competition for attention in the wild.

Figure 1: Visualizations of meme diffusion networks for different topics.

Nodes represent Twitter users, and directed edges represent retweeted posts that carry the meme. The brightness of a node indicates the activity (number of retweets) of a user, and the weight of an edge reflects the number of retweets between two users. (a) The #Japan meme shows how news about the March 2011 earthquake propagated. (b) The #GOP tag stands for the US Republican Party and as many political memes, displays a strong polarization between people with opposing views. Memes related to the “Arab Spring” and in particular the 2011 uprisings in (c) #Egypt and (d) #Syria display characteristic hub users and strong connections, respectively.

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Limited attention

We first explore the competition among memes. In particular, we test the hypothesis that the attention of a user is somewhat independent from the overall diversity of information discussed in a given period. Let us quantify the breadth of attention of a user through Shannon entropy S = −Σi f(i) log f(i) where f(i) is the proportion of tweets generated by the user about meme i. Given a user who has posted n messages, her entropy can be as small as 0, if all of her posts are about the same meme; or as large as log n if she has posted a message about each of n different memes. We can measure the diversity of the information available in the system analogously, defining f(i) as the proportion of tweets about meme i across all users. Note that these entropy-based measures are subject to the limits of our operational definition of a meme; finer or coarser definitions would yield different values.

In Fig. 2 we compare the daily values of the system entropy to the corresponding average user entropy. The key observation here is that a user’s breadth of attention remains essentially constant irrespective of system diversity. This is a clear indication that the diversity of memes to which a user can pay attention is bound. With the continuous injection of new memes, this indirectly suggests that memes survive at the expense of others. We explicitly assume this in the information diffusion model presented later.

Figure 2: Plot of daily system entropy (solid red line) and average user breadth of attention (dashed blue line).Days in our observation period are ranked from low to high system entropy, therefore the latter is monotonously increasing.

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User interests

It has been suggested that topical interests affect user behavior in social media29, 30. This is a potentially important ingredient in a model of meme diffusion, as an interesting meme may have a competitive advantage. Therefore we wish to explore whether user interests, as inferred from past behavior, are predictive of future behavior.

Let us consider every user in our dataset and any retweets they produce. When a user u emits a new retweet, we define her interests Iu as the set of all memes about which she has tweeted up to that moment. We also collect the set M0 of memes associated with the new retweet. The n most recent posts across all users prior to the new retweet are considered as a set of potential candidates that might have been retweeted, but were not. The corresponding sets of memes M1, M2, …, Mn are recorded (n = 10). We compute the similarity sim(M0, Iu), sim(M1, Iu), …, sim(Mn, Iu) between the user interests and the actual and candidate posts, and recover the conditional probability P(retweet(u, M)|sim(M, Iu)) that u retweets a post with memes M given the similarity between the memes and her user interests. We turn to the Maximum Information Path similarity measure31, 32 that considers shared memes but discounts the more common ones:


where x is a meme and f(x) the proportion of messages about x.

Fig. 3 shows that users are more likely to retweet memes about which they posted in the past (Pearson correlation coefficient ρ = 0.98). This suggests that memory is an important ingredient for a model of meme competition, and we explicitly take this aspect into account in the model presented below.

Figure 3: Relationship between the probability of retweeting a message and its similarity to the user interests, inferred from prior posting behavior.


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Empirical regularities

In Fig. 4 we observe several regularities in the empirical data. We first consider meme lifetime, defined as the maximum number of consecutive time units in which posts about the meme are observed; meme popularity, defined as the number of users per day who tweet about a meme, measured over a given time period; and user activity, defined as the number of messages per day posted by a user, measured over a time period. These three quantities all display long-tailed distributions (Fig. 4(a,b,c)). The excellent collapse of the curves demonstrates that the distributions are robust even if measured over different time units or observed over different periods of time. We further measure the breadth of user attention, defined earlier through the meme entropy. Although the entropy distribution is peaked, some users have broad attention while others are very focused (Fig. 4(d)). This distribution is also robust with respect to different periods of time.

Figure 4: Empirical regularities in Twitter data.   (click here for graphic illustration)


(a) Probability distribution of the lifetime of a meme using hours (red circles), days (blue squares), and weeks (green triangles) as time units. In the plot, units are converted into hours. Since the distributions are well approximated by a power law, we can align the curves by rescaling the y-axis by λ–α, where λ is the ratio of the time units (e.g., λ = 24 for rescaling days into hours) and α ≈ 2.5 is the exponent of the power law (via maximum likelihood estimation33). This demonstrates that the shape of the lifetime distribution is not an artifact of the time unit chosen to define the lifetime. (b) Complementary cumulative probability distribution of the popularity of a meme, measured by the total number of users per day who have used that meme. This and the following measures were performed daily (filled red circles), weekly (filled blue squares), and monthly (filled green triangles). (c) Complementary cumulative probability distribution of user activity, measured by the number of messages per day posted by a user. (d) Probability distribution of breadth of user attention (entropy), based on the memes tweeted by a user. Note that the larger the number of posts produced, the smaller the non-zero entropy values recorded for users who focus on a small set of memes. This explains why the distributions for longer periods of time extend further to the left.

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All of these empirical findings point to extremely heterogenous behaviors; some memes are extremely successful (popular and persistent), while the great majority die quickly. A small fraction of memes therefore account for the great majority of all posts. Likewise, a small fraction of users account for most of the traffic. These heterogeneities can in principle be attributed to a variety of causes. The broad distributions of meme popularity could result from a diversity in some intrinsic meme value, with “important” memes attracting more attention. Long-lived memes might be sustained exogenously by traditional media and real-world events. User activity and breadth of attention distributions could be a reflection of innate behavioral differences. What is, then, a minimal set of assumptions necessary to interpret this empirical data? One way to tackle this question is to start from a minimalist model of information spreading that assumes none of the above externalities. In particular we will explore to what extent the statistical features of memes and users can be accounted by the limited attention capacity of the users coupled with the heterogeneity of their social connections.

Model description

Our basic model assumes a frozen network of agents. An agent maintains a time-ordered list of posts, each about a specific meme. Multiple posts may be about the same meme. Users pay attention to these memes only. Asynchronously and with uniform probability, each agent can generate a post about a new meme or forward some of the posts from the list, transmitting the corresponding memes to neighboring agents. Neighbors in turn pay attention to a newly received meme by placing it at the top of their lists. To account for the empirical observation that past behavior affects what memes the user will spread in the future, we include a memory mechanism that allows agents to develop endogenous interests and focus. Finally, we model limited attention by allowing posts to survive in an agent’s list or memory only for a finite amount of time. When a post is forgotten, its associated meme become less represented. A meme is forgotten when the last post carrying that meme disappears from the user’s list or memory. Note that list and memory work like first-in-first-out rather than priority queues, as proposed in models of bursty human activity34. In the context of single-agent behavior, our memory mechanism is reminiscent of the classic Yule-Simon model∼\cite{yule-simon43, Cattuto3001200744}.

The retweet model we propose is illustrated in Fig. 5. Agents interact on a directed social network of friends/followers. Each user node is equipped with a screen where received memes are recorded, and a memory with records of posted memes. An edge from a friend to a follower indicates that the friend’s memes can be read on the follower’s screen (#x and #y in Fig. 5(a) appear on the screen in Fig. 5(b)). At each step, an agent is selected randomly to post memes to neighbors. The agent may post about a new meme with probability pn (#z in Fig. 5(b)). The posted meme immediately appears at the top of the memory. Otherwise, the agent reads posts about existing memes from the screen. Each post may attract the user’s attention with probability pr (the user pays attention to #x, #y in Fig. 5(c)). Then the agent either retweets the post (#x in Fig. 5(c)) with probability 1 − pm, or tweets about a meme chosen from memory (#v triggered by #y in Fig. 5(c)) with probability pm. Any post in memory has equal opportunities to be selected, therefore memes that appear more frequently in memory are more likely to be propagated (the memory has two posts about #v in Fig. 5(d)). To model limited user attention, both screen and memory have a finite capacity, which is the time in which a post remains in an agent’s screen or memory. For all agents, posts are removed after one time unit, which simulates a unit of real time, corresponding to Nu steps where Nu is the number of agents. If people use the system once weekly on average, the time unit corresponds to a week.

Figure 5: Illustration of the meme diffusion model.    (click here for graphic illustration)

Each user has a memory and a screen, both with limited size. (a) Memes are propagated along follower links. (b) The memes received by a user appear on the screen. With probability pn, the user posts a new meme, which is stored in memory. (c) Otherwise, with probability 1 – pn, the user scans the screen. Each meme x in the screen catches the user’s attention with probability pr. Then with probability pm a random meme from memory is triggered, or x is retweeted with probability 1 – pm. (d) All memes posted by the user are also stored in memory.

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Simulation results

The model has three parameters: pn regulates the amount of novelty that enters the system (number of cascades), pr determines the overall retweet activity (size of cascades), and pm accounts for individual focus (diversity of user interests). We estimated all three directly from the empirical data (see Methods).

The social network underlying the meme diffusion process is a critical component of the model. To obtain a network of manageable size while preserving the structure of the actual social network, we sampled a directed graph with 105 nodes from the Twitter follower network (details in Methods). The nodes correspond to a subset of the users who generated the posts in our empirical data. To evaluate the predictions of our model, we compare them with empirical data that includes only the retweets of the same subset of users. To study the role played by the network structure in the meme diffusion process, we also simulated the model on a random Erdös-Rényi (ER) network with the same number of nodes and edges. As shown in Fig. 6, the model captures the main features of the empirical distributions of meme lifetime and popularity, user activity, and breadth of user attention. The comparison with the corresponding distributions generated using the ER network shows that in general, the heterogeneity of the observed quantities is greatly reduced when memes spread on a random network. This is not unexpected. Consider for example meme popularity (Fig. 6(b)); the real social network has a broad (scale free, not shown) distribution of degree, with a consistent number of hub users who have a large number of followers. Memes spread by these users are likely to achieve greater popularity. This does not happen in the ER network where the degree distribution is narrow (Poissonian). The difference observed in the distribution of breadth of user attention, for both low and high entropy values (Fig. 6(d)), may be explained by the heterogeneity in the number of friends. Users with few friends may have low breadth of attention while those with many friends are exposed to many memes and thus may exhibit greater entropy.

To study the role played by the network structure in the meme diffusion process, we simulate the model on the sampled follower network (solid black line) and a random network (dashed red line). Both networks have 105 nodes and about 3 × 106 edges. (a) The definition of lifetime uses the week as time unit. (b,c,d) Meme popularity, user activity, and user entropy data are based on weekly measures.

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The second key ingredient of our model is the competition among memes for limited user attention. To evaluate the role of such a competition on the meme diffusion process, we simulated variations of the model with stronger or weaker competition. This was accomplished by tuning the length tw of the time window in which posts are retained in an agent’s screen or memory. A shorter time window (tw < 1) leads to less attention and thus increased competition, while a longer time window (tw > 1) allows for attention to more memes and thus less competition. As we can observe in Fig. 7, stronger competition (tw = 0.1) fails to reproduce the large observed number of long-lived memes (Fig. 7(a)). Weaker competition (tw = 5), on the other hand, cannot generate extremely popular memes (Fig. 7(b)) nor extremely active users (Fig. 7(c)).

Figure 7: Evaluation of model by comparison of simulations with empirical data (same panels and symbols as in Fig. 4).

To study the role of meme competition, we simulate the model on the sampled follower network with different levels of competition; posts are removed from screen and memory after tw time units. We compare the standard model (tw = 1, solid black line) against versions with less competition (tw = 5, dot-dashed magenta line) and more competition (tw = 0.1, dashed red line). (a) The definition of lifetime uses the week as time unit. (b,c,d) Meme popularity, user activity, and user entropy data are based on weekly measures.

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We also simulated our model without user interests, by setting pm = 0. The most noticeable difference in this case is the lack of highly focused individuals. Users have no memory of their past behavior, and can only pay attention to memes from their friends. As a result, the model fails to account for low entropy individuals (not shown but similar to the random network case in Fig. 6(d)).








Author information


The present findings demonstrate that the combination of social network structure and competition for finite user attention is a sufficient condition for the emergence of broad diversity in meme popularity, lifetime, and user activity. This is a remarkable result: one can account for the often-reported long-tailed distributions of topic popularity and lifetime7, 12, 14, 29 without having to assume exogenous factors such as intrinsic meme appeal, user influence, or external events. The only source of heterogeneity in our model is the social network; users differ in their audience size but not in the quality of their messages.

Our model is inspired by the long tradition that represents information spreading as an epidemic process, where infection is passed along the edges of the underlying social network35, 36, 37, 7, 28, 12.

In the context of social media, several authors explored the temporal evolution of popularity. Wu and Huberman8 studied the decay in news popularity. They showed that temporal patterns of collective attention are well described by a multiplicative process with a single novelty factor. While the decay in popularity is attributed to competition for attention, the underlying mechanism is not modeled explicitly. Crane and Sornette10 introduced a model to describe the exogenous and endogenous bursts of attention toward a video, by combining an epidemic spreading process with a forgetting mechanism. Hogg and Lerman38 proposed a stochastic model to predict the popularity of a news story via the intrinsic interest of the story and the rates at which users find it directly and through friends. These models describe the popularity of a single piece of information, and are therefore unsuitable to capture the competition for our collective attention among multiple simultaneous information epidemics. Although recent epidemiological models have started considering the simultaneous spread of competing strains39, 40, our framework is the first attempt to deal with a virtually unbounded number of new “epidemics” that are continuously injected into the system. A closer analogy to our approach is perhaps provided by neutral models of ecosystems, where individuals (posts) belonging to different species (memes) produce offspring in an environment (our collective attention) that can sustain only a limited number of individuals. At every generation, individuals belonging to new species enter the ecosystem while as many individuals die as needed to maintain the sustainability threshold41.

Since Simon’s seminal paper4, the economy of attention has been an enormously popular notion, yet it has always been assumed implicitly and never put to the test. Our model provides a first attempt to focus explicitly on mechanisms of competition, and to evaluate the quantitative effects of making attention more scarce or abundant.

Our results do not constitute a proof that exogenous features, like intrinsic values of memes, play no role in determining their popularity. However we have shown that at the statistical level it is not necessary to invoke external explanations for the observed global dynamics of memes. This appears as an arresting conclusion that makes information epidemics quite different from the basic modeling and conceptual framework of biological epidemics. While the intrinsic features of viruses and their adaptation to hosts are extremely relevant in determining the winning strains, in the information world the limited time and attention of human behavior are sufficient to generate a complex information landscape and define a wide range of different meme spreading patterns. This calls for a major revision of many concepts commonly used in the modeling and characterization of meme diffusion and opens the path to different frameworks for the analysis of competition among ideas and strategies for the optimization/suppression of their spread.








Author information


The data analyzed in this paper was obtained through Twitter’s public APIs. We collected more than 120 millions retweets from October 2010 to January 2011, involving 12.5 million distinct users and 1.3 million hashtags. Each post contains information about who generated and who retweeted it. As expected in a social network, the follower graph has scale-free degree distributions.

Due to the size of the empirical follower network, we sampled a manageable subset for our simulations. The sampling procedure was a random walk with occasional restarts from random locations (teleportation factor 0.15). Though no sampling method is perfect, the modified random walk is efficient in terms of API queries and reproduces the salient topological features of the sampled network42. The sampled network has 105 nodes and about 3×106 edges. The empirical retweets generated by the users in the sample display trends similar to those from the entire dataset, therefore we expect the model predictions to be consistent not only with the sample but also with the full dataset.

The parameter pn characterizes the probability of tweeting about a new meme. To estimate this parameter from the empirical data, we examine whether each hashtag has been observed in previous time units (weeks). The proportion of posts with new hashtags is approximately 0.45 ± 0.05. We thus set pn = 0.45 for all the simulations. For each simulation — standard model, model with underlying random network, and models with strong and weak competition — the parameter pr is tuned to capture the average number of posted memes per user per unit time (Table 1). Finally, the parameter pm represents the proportion of all memes tweeted by an individual that match the content of the memory. To estimate it from the empirical data, we compare each hashtag with those produced by a user in the previous time unit (week). Using the average value across all users (0.4 ± 0.01) we set pm = 0.4.


The Death of Self-Interest Fundamentalism

by Joe Brewer, Cognitive Policy Works,   April 27, 2010

Self-interest fundamentalism was the economic religion of the 20th Century.  We are now in the midst of an economic reformation on par with the Enlightenment as we enter the new millennium.

Have you noticed that a lot of people seem to think that appeals to self-interest lead to a moral and just society?

No, I’m not merely talking about economists.  Self-interest evangelicals have been spreading the good news for decades in public policy programs, political science departments, and financial institutions too.  Converts can be found in environmental organizations that tell us we’ll save on our energy bills if only we change those light bulbs.  And blind zealots run polling companies that deploy the doctrine of self-oriented rationalism when they tell us that the preferences of individuals exist in a meaningful way to be measured – with nary an inkling that the way polls are conducted might influence how people respond.

Is self-interest fundamentalism dying?  Cracks are certainly spreading through its foundations, as I’ll discuss in a moment.  The more important questions we need to grapple with are whether it should die away and, if so, with what should we replace it? Consider your answers to these questions.  I’ll share some of mine below.

Yes, rationalist fundamentalism still has a stranglehold on society.  It’s meteoric rise to dominance goes all the way back to the nuclear arms race that poured truckloads of cash from public coffers into defense contractor piggy banks through the “game” of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War.  We saw it clearly during the Vietnam War when “body counts’ laid the foundation for an entire generation of video game players to score points by killing more enemies – never mind that we were slaughtering innumerable civilians.

And, of course, it was only a matter of time before schools fell under the knife of test-based bookkeeping to “hold students accountable” to rationalist ideals of performance measurement – at the expense of actual learning.  A web of trans-national organizations have come into existence – the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank being the best known – that push the ideology of self-interest into the center stage of world affairs.

Theory of Self-Interest: A Creation Story

How could an impoverished model of human-as-self-focused-calculating-machine have ever come into being?  A common myth is that self-interest theories rose out of behavioral studies conducted by psychologists.  A nice bedtime story perhaps, but it isn’t true.  Would you believe me if I told you the behavioral model underlying the global economy came, not from the human sciences, but from mathematics?

Back in the 1940′s and 50′s, a research center was created to explore fundamental issues of concern to the Air Force.  This Research ANd Development institute was aptly named the RAND Corporation.  Within the high security walls of this military think tank, mathematicians developed abstract principles for nuclear strategy during the Cold War.  In the midst of this particular, historically contingent environment – and motivated by concerns of defense contractors in the air combat arena – the notion of self-interested rational action was born.  Proof positive that the most bizarre stories are found in the non-fiction section of your local library.

(If you’d like to read the full story, check out S.M. Amadae’s Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism.)

So the birth place of modern market fundamentalism, in the guise of “rational choice theory”, was the military think tank that gave us the disastrous arms race.  Untested and theoretical, it quickly spread throughout the highest levels of government during the tenure of Robert McNamara at the Department of Defense, then whipped through the economics departments of many prominent universities, spurred the creation of public policy analysis as a “scientific” field, and undergirded today’s global institutions of economic governance.

But things are starting to change.

Looking Forward: 21st Century Institutions

The first experimental studies of rational choice theory by behavioral scientists, principally Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showed that a foundational premise of the theory was wrong.  (As a technical side point, they showed that preferences can be reversed by merely framing a question differently.)  The “prospect theory” that arose through these experiments became the bedrock of a new field – behavioral economics – that has grown in prominence since its birth in the 1970′s.

Throughout the subsequent decades, researchers found more damning evidence against self-interest.  Paul Slovic and his collaborators at Decision Research have systematically explored how risk perception influences our decisions in many ways that fly in the face of rational choice theory.  Human beings depend on emotional cues to make decisions.  And many of these cues are associative rather than based on inferences – thus they do not fit the paradigm of rationality presumed by rational choice theory.  In fact, human beings cannot manage risk – especially in the highly complex social situations we often find ourselves in – when regions of our brains that process emotional information are damaged.  Antonio Damasio sealed this argument in his 1994 book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.

A new view of human reason is on the rise in academia.  Unlike its predecessor, the new paradigm is profoundly based in the workings of our bodies.  This “embodiment” view incorporates insights from computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, and robotics.  Its adherents include people like Gilles Fauconnier, Raymond GibbsMark Johnson, George Lakoff, Eleanor Rosch, Mark Turner, and Drew Westen.

Arising with this new view is a profound shift in how we understand human thought and behavior.  Just as the institutions of yesteryear grew out of the old paradigm, research in the cognitive sciences beckons us to think differently about the institutions of tomorrow.

This is where I do my work.

I’ve seen how methods like cost-benefit analysis fail utterly when applied to environmental challenges.  Future costs are weighed against current gains in a false choice between short-term profit seeking and long-term sustainability. I’ve also watched as public policies built on outdated performance measures undermine that which they are meant to improve.  A key example is the educational paradigm that gave us No Child Left Behind – high-stakes testing – which flies in the face of what our teachers know about real learning.  Any effort to treat moral pursuits – like making the world safe for future generations or educating a child – will demand broader measures of success than numbers alone can describe.

In a previous article, I described some things we’ll need our institutions to do in the 21st Century:

In a world based on this new perspective, things work very differently:

  • Citizens recognize fear-inducing news reports intended to inflate manufactured risks and hide awareness of genuine threats, thereby reducing the effectiveness of these manipulative tactics.
  • Journalists understand the consequences of how facts are presented and beliefs are promoted in the structure of news reporting, resulting in coverage that enhances—rather than erodes—the democratic process.
  • Policy-makers abandon contrived and faulty presumptions about “economic rational actors” and instead craft solutions to societal challenges that improve the lives of real people through deeper insights into the human condition, culminating in robust policies that stand the test of time.
  • Advocates articulate clear and compelling calls to action that resonate deeply with the values of the citizenry, thereby promoting greater civic engagement and community empowerment.

What’s more, we’ll need to build a new foundation for our economic institutions.  A recent example shows that the old approach is inadequate.  Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, two Nobel prize winning economists, led a commission to improve upon the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) when measuring economic well-being.  They spent most of the 79 pages of their personal reflections describing a long history of criticisms that show GDP to be grossly inadequate.  Yet, very little of substance was offered to take its place.

What does it mean that a group of leading economists don’t know how to measure economic progress?  In the words of Sen, when talking about the limits of rational choice theory:

It seems easy to accept that rationality involves many features that cannot be summarized in terms of some straightforward formula, such as binary consistency.  But this recognition does not immediately lead to alternative characterizations that might be regarded as satisfactory, even though the inadequacies of the traditional assumptions of rational behavior standardly used in economic theory have become hard to deny.

This tells us that many economists recognize the limitations of rational choice, but they don’t have ready-made alternatives.  Yet the old tools are well-known and ready for use so they pick them up again and again.  They are looking for something better, but haven’t found it yet.

I’d like to offer that the alternatives are starting to emerge in the unexpected corner of academia where researchers study the human mind.  New tools cannot be found so long as the old paradigm of human nature remains.  My colleagues and I are in the process of developing these new tools.  What does our paradigm look like?  Here are the key features:

  • Human beings are profoundly social. We are wired for empathy and we learn how to act in the world through interactions with other human beings and the natural world;
  • Human reason is embodied. We think and act through the interplay of brain, body, and environment.  Emotions are vital to effective decision-making.  And our understandings are shaped by the contexts we operate in;
  • Human thought is evaluative. We interpret the world through core values, our sense of identity, and conceptual models for how we believe the world works.  There’s no such thing as “an objective world” when dealing with social and political issues because we a co-creators of the realities we experience.

Each of these features tells us something about how a human-based economy should work.  It should recognize the value of community in our dealings with one another.  It should be designed around our biological needs for survival in a world where things like potable water and fossil fuels are becoming limited and the planetary climate system has been disrupted in a manner that threatens us all.  And it should acknowledge that interpretations of human well-being are perpetually contested by competing perspectives.

Yes, it is time to let self-interest fundamentalism go the way of monarchy and feudalism.  It may not go silently into the night, but the end is nigh.  Pretty soon we will have laid the foundation for a sustainable future – both ecologically and financially.  In order to do so, we’ll have to acknowledge how human beings actually are instead of how theorists engaged in military strategy presumed us to be 60 years ago.

This is a huge undertaking.  It won’t be completed overnight.  Nor will it be the sole effort of a few visionary thinkers.  But it must start somewhere.  My suggestion is that you’ll see it starting to take shape at the boundary between cognitive science and the world of expert practitioners at all levels of governance.

Look there and you’ll probably find me too.


Ron Paul’s Farewell Speech in Congress Lays Bare His Hatred for “Pure Democracy,” and Love of Oligarchy

Consortium News [1] / By Robert Parry [2] November 28, 2012  |

Rep. Ron Paul, an icon to the libertarian Right and to some on the anti-war Left, gave a farewell address to Congress that expressed his neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution and his anti-historical view of the supposedly good old days of laissez-faire capitalism.

In a near-hour-long rambling speech [3] on Nov. 14, Paul also revealed himself to be an opponent of “pure democracy” because government by the people and for the people tends to infringe on the “liberty” of businessmen who, in Paul’s ideal world, should be allowed to do pretty much whatever they want to the less privileged.

In Paul’s version of history, the United States lost its way at the advent of the Progressive Era about a century ago. “The majority of Americans and many government officials agreed that sacrificing some liberty was necessary to carry out what some claimed to be ‘progressive’ ideas,” said the 77-year-old Texas Republican. “Pure democracy became acceptable.”

Before then, everything was working just fine, in Paul’s view. But the reality was anything but wonderful for the vast majority of Americans. A century ago, women were denied the vote by law and many non-white males were denied the vote in practice. Uppity blacks were frequently lynched.

The surviving Native Americans were confined to oppressive reservations at the end of a long process of genocide. Conditions weren’t much better for the white working class. Many factory workers toiled 12-hour days and six-day weeks in very dangerous conditions, and union organizers were targeted for reprisals and sometimes death.

For small businessmen, life was treacherous, too, with the big monopolistic trusts overcharging for key services and with periodic panics on Wall Street rippling out across the country in bank failures, bankruptcies and foreclosures.

Meanwhile, obscenely rich Robber Barons, like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, personally controlled much of the nation’s economy and manipulated the political process through bribery. They were the ones who owned the real “liberty.”

It took the Great Depression and its mass suffering to finally convince most Americans “that sacrificing some liberty was necessary,” in Paul’s curious phrasing, for them to gain a living wage, a measure of security and a little respect.

So, under President Franklin Roosevelt, laws were changed to shield working Americans from the worst predations of the super-rich. Labor standards were enacted; unions were protected; regulations were imposed on Wall Street; and the nation’s banks were made more secure to protect the savings of depositors.

Many social injustices also were addressed during Ron Paul’s dreaded last century. Women got the vote and their position in the country gradually improved, as it did for blacks and other minorities with the belated enforcement of the equal rights provisions of the 14th Amendment and passage of civil rights legislation.

The reforms from the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the post-World War II era also contributed to a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, making the United States a richer and stronger country. The reforms, initiated by the federal government, essentially created the Great American Middle Class.

Paul’s Complaint

But in Paul’s view, the reformers should have left things the way they were – and he blames the reforms for today’s problems, although how exactly they’re connected is not made clear.

Paul said: “Some complain that my arguments make no sense, since great wealth and the standard of living improved for many Americans over the last 100 years, even with these new policies. But the damage to the market economy, and the currency, has been insidious and steady.

“It took a long time to consume our wealth, destroy the currency and undermine productivity and get our financial obligations to a point of no return. Confidence sometimes lasts longer than deserved. Most of our wealth today depends on debt.

“The wealth that we enjoyed and seemed to be endless, allowed concern for the principle of a free society to be neglected. As long as most people believed the material abundance would last forever, worrying about protecting a competitive productive economy and individual liberty seemed unnecessary.”

But Paul’s blaming “progressive” reforms of the last century for the nation’s current economic mess lacks any logic, more a rhetorical trick than a rational argument, a sophistry that holds that because one thing happened and then some bad things happened, the first thing must have caused the other things.

The reality is much different. Without Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the direction of America’s capitalist system was toward disaster, not prosperity. Plus, the only meaningful “liberty” was that of a small number of oligarchs looting the nation’s wealth. (It would make more sense to blame the current debt problem on the overreach of U.S. imperialism, the rush to “free trade,” the unwise relaxing of economic regulations, and massive tax cuts for the rich.)

Besides his reactionary fondness for the Gilded Age, Paul also embraces an anti-historical attitude toward the Founding Era. He claimed that the Constitution failed not only because of the 20th Century’s shift toward “pure democracy” but because of a loss of moral virtue among the populace.

“Our Constitution, which was intended to limit government power and abuse, has failed,” Paul said. “The Founders warned that a free society depends on a virtuous and moral people. The current crisis reflects that their concerns were justified.”

However, there’s no compelling evidence that people were more moral in 1787 or in 1912 than they are today. Indeed, one could argue that many slave-owning Founders were far less moral than Americans are now, a time when tolerance of racial, gender and other differences is much greater.

And as for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pious morality of the Robber Barons included the cruel exploitation of their workers, the flaunting of obscene wealth amid widespread poverty, and the routine bribery of politicians. How that measures up to moral superiority is a mystery.

In his speech, Paul declared that “a society that boos or ridicules the Golden Rule is not a moral society,” but many of the Founders and the Robber Barons did not follow the Golden Rule either. They inflicted on others great pain and suffering that they would not want for themselves.

Misreading the Constitution

Paul’s historical incoherence extends to what the Framers were doing with the Constitution. He argues that they were seeking “to limit government” in 1787 when they drafted the Constitution. But that was not their primary intent. The Framers were creating a strong and vibrant central government to replace the weak and ineffective one that existed under the Articles of Confederation.

Of course, by definition, all constitutions set limits on the power of governments. That’s what constitutions do and the U.S. Constitution is no exception. However, if the Framers wanted a weak central government and strong states’ rights, they would not have scrapped the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787. The Articles made the states “independent” and “sovereign” and left the federal government as a supplicant.

The key point, which Paul and other right-wingers seek to obscure about the Constitution, is that it granted broad powers to the central government along with the mandate to address the nation’s “general Welfare.”

The key Framers of the Constitution, particularly George Washington and James Madison, were pragmatists who understood that a strong and effective central government was necessary to protect the independence of a large and sprawling nation. For that reason, they recognized that the Articles had been a failure, preventing the 13 states from functioning as a cohesive nation. Indeed, the Articles didn’t even recognize the United States as a government, but rather as a “league of friendship.”

General Washington, in particular, hated the Articles because they had left his Continental Army begging individual states for supplies during the Revolutionary War. And after the hard-won independence, Washington saw European powers exploiting the divisions among the states and regions to whittle away that independence.

The whole American enterprise was threatened by the principle of states’ rights because national coordination was made almost impossible. It was that recognition which led Madison, with Washington’s firm support, to seek first to amend the Articles and ultimately to throw them out.

When Madison was trying to get Virginia’s endorsement of an amendment to give the federal government power to regulate commerce, Washington wrote: “the proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure.

“We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.” [For more on this background, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative [4].]

On to Philadelphia

After Madison was stymied on his commerce proposal in the Virginia legislature, he and Washington turned their attention to a convention that was technically supposed to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation but, in secrecy, chose to dump them entirely.

When the convention convened in Philadelphia in spring 1787, it was significant that on the first day of substantive debate, there was Madison’s idea of the federal government regulating commerce.

As the Constitution took shape – and the Convention spelled out the sweeping “enumerated powers” to be granted to Congress – Madison’s Commerce Clause was near the top, right after the power to tax, to pay debts, to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare,” and to borrow money – and even above the power to declare war. Yes, the Right’s despised Commerce Clause, which was the legal basis for many reforms of the 20th Century, was among the “enumerated powers” in Article 1, Section 8.

And gone was language from the Articles of Confederation that had declared the states “sovereign” and “independent.” Under the Constitution, federal law was supreme and the laws of the states could be stricken down by the federal courts.

Immediately, the supporters of the old system recognized what had happened. As dissidents from the Pennsylvania delegation wrote: “We dissent … because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government.”

A movement of Anti-Federalists arose, led by the likes of Patrick Henry, to defeat the Constitution. They organized strong opposition in the states’ ratifying conventions of 1788 but ultimately lost, after winning the concession from Madison to enact of Bill of Rights during the first Congress.

The inclusion of the Tenth Amendment, which reserves for the states and the people powers that the Constitution does not give to the federal government, is the primary hook upon which the modern Right hangs its tri-corner hat of anti-federal ideology.

But the amendment was essentially a sop to the Anti-Federalists with little real meaning because the Constitution had already granted broad powers to the federal government and stripped the states of their earlier dominance.

Remaking Madison

The Right’s “scholars” also make much of a few quotes from Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 45, in which he sought to play down how radical a transformation, from state to federal power, he had engineered in the Constitution. Rather than view this essay in context, the Right seizes on Madison’s rhetorical attempts to deflect the alarmist Anti-Federalist attacks by claiming that some of the Constitution’s federal powers were already in the Articles of Confederation, albeit in a far weaker form.

In Federalist Paper No. 45, entitled “The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered,” Madison wrote: “If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS.” Today’s Right also trumpets Madison’s summation, that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

But it should be obvious that Madison is finessing his opposition. Whether or not some shadow of these federal powers existed in the Articles of Confederation, they were dramatically enhanced by the Constitution. In No. 45, Madison even plays down his prized Commerce Clause, acknowledging that “The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.”

However, in Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison made clear how useful the Commerce Clause could be as he envisioned national construction projects.

“[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements,” Madison wrote. “Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.

“The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.”

Founding Pragmatism

The Framers also understood that the country would not remain locked in a late 18th Century world. Though they could not anticipate all the changes that would arise over more than two centuries, they incorporated broad powers in the Constitution so the country through its elected representatives could adapt to those times.

The true genius of the Framers was their pragmatism, both for good and ill, in the cause of protecting American independence and unity. On the for-ill side, many representatives in Philadelphia recognized the evils of slavery but accepted a compromise allowing the states to count African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress.

On the for-good side, the Framers recognized that the American system could not work without a strong central government with the power to enforce national standards, so they created one. They transferred national sovereignty from the 13 “independent” states to “We the people.” And they gave the central government the authority to provide for the “general Welfare.”

Yet, the fight over America’s founding principles didn’t end with the Constitution’s ratification in 1788. Faced with a growing emancipation movement – and losing ground to the industrial North – the Southern slave states challenged the power of the federal government to impose its laws on the states. President Andrew Jackson fought back against Southern “nullification” of federal law in 1832 and the issue of federal supremacy was fought out in blood during the Civil War from 1861-65.

Even after the Civil War, powerful regional and economic forces resisted the imposition of federal law, whether intended to benefit freed slaves or to regulate industry. In the latter third of the 19th Century, as Jim Crow laws turned blacks into second-class citizens, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan created industrial monopolies that rode roughshod over working-class Americans.

For different reasons, the South’s agrarian oligarchs and the North’s industrial oligarchs wanted the federal government to stay out of their affairs – and they largely succeeded by wielding immense political power until the 20th Century.

Then, in the face of widespread abuses, President Theodore Roosevelt went after the “trusts,” President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression with the New Deal, and post-World War II presidents and federal courts began the process of overturning racial segregation.

The Right’s Emergence

In reaction to those changes – federal regulation of the economy and rejection of overt racial discrimination –the modern American Right emerged as a sometimes uneasy coalition between the “free-marketeers” and the neo-Confederates, sharing a mutual hatred of modern liberalism.

Those two groups also drew in other constituencies harboring resentments against liberals, such as the Christian Right – angered over Supreme Court prohibitions on compulsory prayers in public schools and abortion rights for women – and war hawks, drawn from the ranks of military contractors and neoconservative ideologues.

These right-wing movements recognized the importance of propaganda and thus – in the 1970s – began investing heavily in an infrastructure of think tanks and ideological media that would develop supportive narratives and disseminate those storylines to the American people.

It was especially important to convince Americans that the New Deal and federal interference in “states’ rights” were a violation of the Founders’ core principles. Thus, the Right could pretend that it was standing up for the U.S. Constitution and the Left was out of step with American “liberty.”

So, right-wing “scholars” transformed the purpose of the Constitutional Convention and recreated James Madison in particular. Under the Right’s revisionist history, the Constitution was drafted to constrain the power of the federal government and to ensure the supremacy of states’ rights. A few Madison quotes were cherry-picked from the Federalist Papers and the significance of the Tenth Amendment was exaggerated.

The success of the pseudo-history can’t be overstated. From the Tea Party, which arose in angry determination to “take back our country” from the first African-American president, to the hip libertarians who turned the quirky Ron Paul into a cult figure, there was a certainty that they were channeling the true vision of the American Founders.

A large segment of the American Left also embraced Ron Paul because his ideology included a rejection of imperial military adventures and a disdain for government intrusion into personal lives (although he is a devout “right-to-lifer” who would deny women the right to have an abortion).

Paul’s mix of libertarianism and anti-imperialism has proven especially attractive to young white men. He is viewed by some as a principled prophet, predicting chaos because the nation has deviated from the supposed path of “liberty.”

However, as his farewell address revealed, his ideology is a jumble of anti-historical claims and emotional appeals. For instance, he posed unserious questions like “Why can’t Americans decide which type of light bulbs they can buy?” – apparently oblivious to the need for energy conservation and the threat of global warming.

In the end, Ron Paul comes across as little more than a political crank whose few good ideas are overwhelmed by his neo-Confederate thinking and his sophistry about the inherent value of free-market economics.

See more stories tagged with:

ron paul [5],

liberatarian [6],

farewell address [7],

laissez-faire capitalism [8],

confederate [9]

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/ron-pauls-farewell-speech-congress-lays-bare-his-hatred-pure-democracy-and-love

[1] http://www.consortiumnews.com
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/robert-parry
[3] http://www.campaignforliberty.org/national-blog/transcript-of-farewell-address/
[4] http://www.neckdeepbook.com/
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/ron-paul
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/liberatarian
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/farewell-address
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/laissez-faire-capitalism
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/confederate
[10] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B