Democrats who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s often feel a certain subtle disquiet when talking to politically active Dems who came of age during or after the 1980’s. The latter generally accept the modern world of prepared “talking points”, “sound bites” and “message discipline” as the “new normal” of political activity. To them, the hyper-partisan ideological clash of dueling frames and completely incompatible alternate realities simply “is” what American politics is about.
But taking all this for granted inescapably entails accepting a profoundly cynical and manipulative view of how politics should be conducted – a view that rejects any attempt to try to be “fair” or “accurate” or “objective.” It is a world where politicians and media figures will publically unite behind statements they know to be patently dishonest in order to drive a few simple propositions through the media blizzard and implant them in the minds of the voters.
From the point of view of Democrats, the last two years have provided example after example of this profound cynicism and manipulation on the part of the Republican Party and Fox News.
• Repeated assertions that Obama is “socialist” when he was in fact proposing policies originally developed by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and endorsed at the time by leading Republicans.
• Repeated assertions that “tax cuts do not increase deficits” in utter and proud defiance of the laws of addition and subtraction.
• The near-maniacal repetition of the words “job-destroying” in front of any policy or action to be discredited as if robotic repetition was the same as the presentation of evidence.
• The presentation of over 100 individual TV segments on Fox News repeating the same 20 second videotape of two individuals at one polling place in 2008 as the “proof” that widespread voter intimidation actually occurs.
• The constant use of manipulative background visuals (heavy on American flags and bald eagles for positions that were favored) on Fox’s “news” programs, combined with talking points taken verbatim from Republican press releases flashed at the bottom of the TV screen.
When confronted with examples like these Republicans and conservatives have a simple reply: “both sides do it and Dems are even worse than we are.” Many conservatives quite genuinely and sincerely believe that the three major TV networks are just as biased and partisan as Fox News, that The New York Times is no more objective than The National Review and that Paul Krugman’s opinion on economic matters is not the slightest bit more informed and authoritative than Glen Beck’s.
In itself this is not surprising. People almost universally tend to perceive their own groups’ views as objective and the views of others as biased. Even in psychological lab experiments where groups are randomly divided into teams of “red” and “blue” and shown propositions where there is absolutely no objective “right” or “wrong” at all – simply two propositions or stimuli that are identical mirror-images of each other – a clear and powerful “my teams’ perspective is right, yours is biased” psychological effect quickly emerges. This is unfortunate, to be sure, but it is also certainly nothing new.
What is indeed new and profoundly disturbing, on the other hand, is that the traditional American ideals of honest debate and sincere discussion have themselves been substantially discarded. The goal of letting citizens hear a fair, unvarnished debate between advocates of competing ideas now only exists in a handful of debates between candidates during election years and has ceased to be an objective to be sought anywhere else in political life. Instead, in modern politics debate and discussion has increasingly come to resemble a clash between two cynical trial lawyers, each seeking to bully the witnesses, distort or suppress the evidence and bamboozle the jury.
Yet the abandonment of fair and genuine debate between equal advocates of opposing ideas is now asserted by Fox News to actually represent a new kind of “balance” or “fairness.” Despite Bill O’Reilly’s bullying of his guests and Glen Beck’s demonstrably false conspiracy narratives as well as the presentation of “experts” without credentials or “Democrats” whose last connection with the party is four or five decades old, Roger Ailes and other Fox News executives nonetheless quite seriously argue that their style of programming actually provides the audience with “the truth” because it acts as counterweight to the “liberal” media.
For Americans who entered politics during or after the Reagan era, this view that political “truth” can only be found by embracing one side or another of diametrically opposed partisan dichotomies seems inevitable and leads to the frequent view that Democrats have no choice but to “fight fire with fire.” For people who grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, on the other hand, this view is profoundly troubling.
Americans who went to school in the in 50s and 1960’s were taught that there were two fundamentally distinct modes of political life – Soviet “totalitarianism” and the “American way.” “Propaganda”, “brainwashing” and “thought-control” were three central pillars of totalitarian societies and the exact opposite of how things were done in America.
These three elements of totalitarianism were embodied in two vivid visual images:
The first was the mindless repetition of simple memorized slogans. In the 50’s and 60’s Americans saw numerous examples of Soviet spokesmen endlessly repeating clichés about the “peace-loving Soviet people” , “the unbreakable unity of the Soviet people and the Communist party” , “the complete eradication of crime and economic want in socialist society” and dozens of similar formulations. There were also utterly false claims – (a method that was generally known by its Nazi label “the big lie technique”). All Soviet dissenters were described as “American spies and provocateurs”, for example, and Soviet TV news shows baldly told their audience that all American workers lived in slums.
Even when presented with clear visual evidence of the utter untruth of these claims, Soviet advocates would simply and mechanically repeat exactly the same clichés. In fact, more than anything else, it was the robotic, mindless quality of these word-for-word repetitions that made the thought of living in a totalitarian society seem a grotesque dystopian nightmare.
This view had wide currency in American culture of the 1950’s, from the cartoon characters of Boris and Natasha in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons to literally dozens of movie and TV satires featuring badly dressed Soviet agents with thick accents mindlessly reciting absurd clichés. These characters were inevitably clownish buffoons and the image of them blindly reciting memorized phrases made them appear as pathetically stupid puppets. For most Americans, the blind adherence to obvious lies and robotic repetition of propaganda clichés was the most vivid visual image they had of totalitarian thought control.
The second, equally if not more chilling visual image was of the enforced discipline of following a rigid “Party Line.” In both the Soviet Union and in communist parties around the world, when people tried to object to or resist the official view they were forced to publically recant and confess their “errors”. Called criticism and self-criticism sessions, dissenters had to submit to group pressure until they agreed that the party was right. Nonconformity was simply unacceptable. The result was what George Orwell termed “double-think” – everyone would publicly recite the clichés but then whisper their real thoughts in private.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s there were some scattered voices that argued that America needed to adopt quasi-totalitarian methods of thought control to prevent the growth of subversion in the U.S. but they were few and far between. It was widely and proudly asserted that our open minds and willingness to listen to both sides of arguments were precisely what made us completely different and profoundly superior to the Soviets. In the 1950’s and 1960’s it was virtually never argued that totalitarian methods of thought control would be acceptable as long as they were employed by “us” rather than “them”.
Central to this rejection was the influence of George Orwell’s 1984, a book every American high school student had to read. The core message of 1984, students were taught, was the fundamental moral equivalence between the evil of the totalitarianism practiced by the Nazis and the Soviet Union. The great lesson of WWII, it was explained, was that totalitarianism was evil regardless of the ideology behind it. Propaganda, brainwashing and thought control were inherently wrong and inherently totalitarian practices no matter who was doing the controlling. Big Brother was Big Brother regardless of whether he wore a swastika or a hammer and sickle.
For Americans in the 1950’s and 1960’s, still living with the vivid memories of the Nazi concentration camps and (particularly after 1957) increasingly presented with the facts about the full horror of the Soviet gulags, the grotesque reality of the moral equivalence between right and left wing totalitarianism was as viscerally real as the image of Osama Bin Laden gloating over the sight of people leaping from the windows of the world trade center is to Americans today.
In the 1980’s, however, the issue suddenly seemed to become moot. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev began the process of reform of the Soviet system and in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Soviet empire. Freedom had triumphed, it appeared, and the danger of totalitarian thought control left behind in the past.
Ironically, however, in those same two years two other less widely noted events also occurred. In 1985 FOX news began plans for “fourth network” to challenge ABC, NBC and CBS and in 1989 Rupert Murdoch launched a 24 hr news channel in Europe – Sky News — that was the beta test site for Fox News and the first network-wide template for Fox’s presentation of political “news” today. For the first time a major TV network systematically throughout its operations embraced the emerging political world of mechanically repeated “talking points”, the reduction of all issues to simplistic “sound-bites” and the use of relentless and rigid “message discipline”.
For Americans today, the slow emergence of these techniques over the last 30 years has made them seem gradual rather than dramatic departures from the past, but a U.S. Senator or TV news anchor of the 50’s or 1960’s who suddenly awakened in the modern world would be genuinely shocked and profoundly dismayed. Gradually our standards of political discourse have been profoundly degraded by methods that once would have been the subject of outrage.
Some will object, of course, that modern political methods really have absolutely nothing to do with the prior concerns about totalitarian techniques like the use of propaganda, brainwashing and thought control. Absolutely nothing at all. After all, things are completely different today.
Today, they will explain, the most important fact we have to remember is that the other guys are much, much worse than we are. We have to constantly remind ourselves that freedom itself is in mortal danger today and the stakes are too high not to use every means at our disposal to protect our way of life. We must never forget that “we” are the good guys and “they” are the bad guy and that all of the good people like us have to remain firmly united against the common enemy.
As long as we resolutely continue to remember these simple facts and refuse to be distracted by naysayers who criticize the firmness of our methods, they will conclude, there is nothing to worry about. Things will be just fine.