Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Political Propaganda 101

A friend of mine got sucked in by the "Obama's not an American citizen" scam. I showed him how it couldn't be true. Then he asked me why so much smoke if there's no fire. I tried to give him a brief answer but it evolved into the following piece:

The underlying goal of a political party is to defeat the other side and either get back in power, or to stay in power.

Power enables a party to reward its patrons. The goal of the patrons is those rewards. The goal of the party is power and its cut of the take, distributed in various ways, from lunches and travel to unbelieveably lucrative jobs—usually for lobbying—on behalf of the patrons’ businesses, acquired after a politician retires from Congress or the Executive Branch.

Many of these reward paths aren’t spelled out in a memo (which could be leaked, after all). They’re just understood.

Often you have to betray your voters in order to reward your patrons. This is best accomplished by making your side so tribal—and so antagonistic to the other side—and so fearful of what will happen if the other side wins—that your side votes your way, betraying themselves and their loved ones, because you’ve convinced them that it’s that or the deep blue sea.

And people tend to be swayed by appearances. As long as your side looks and speaks like the epitome of your-side-ness, many won’t believe that you’re robbing them blind. Likewise, you need to make the other side look and speak unlike your base.

That was why, for example, the Republicans repeatedly ran ads showing John Kerry windsurfing, showing clips from when he was a young longhaired war protestor, showing him speaking in the Senate in long, convoluted senatorial sentences, showing his African wife acting all foreign. Bush, on the other hand, concealed his Harvard MBA by talking like bubba down the block—as if he’d grown up as a cowhand on a ranch (he bought his ranch after winning the presidency), instead of being the scion of an immensely wealthy, well-connected family..

Gaining or retaining power is best achieved by a multipronged, multilayered approach: tactically, you fire up your base, persuade the middle to lean your way, and make the other side depressed and confused, depressing their vote and their advocacy for their side. Strategically, you define every potential presidential candidate as untrustworthy and belonging to the Other Tribe—the one with bad morals, disrespect for everything good and pure, and on the take from Special Interests (well, neither side has to make that one up). Layered under that, on the Republican side, is a campaign that has been going on since FDR was president to make Americans distrust and dislike government; then this is tapped whenever the Democrats have a chance of reregulating any business the Republicans’ patrons own. Conversely, the Democrats have been trying to paint the Republicans as the Party of the Rich for the same length of time—defining G.O.P. as meaning Greed Over Principles.

Come time for the actual campaign—once each party is close to having a candidate---the following steps are applied:

First you have to fire up your base. Those are the people who will win primaries for you. Psychologically these people see the world in sharp divisions and bright colors. White hats, black hats.

Each side has a core constituency that will vote your way—if they vote. You don’t need to convince this group to vote your way. You just need to get them to the polls. They’ll go if they’re mad and/or scared. So you need to enrage/terrify them.

Outside that core constituency is a group that’s inclined to vote your way but who aren’t as tribal as the hardcore constituency. They will treat what you say more critically, and if you go too far with what’s used on the core group, you run the risk of turning them off or even driving them to the other side. So to fire up the core group with the real red-meat stuff that won’t hold up to close scrutiny, you make sure the wild stuff comes from “friends,” not your party, not officially.

This is the “clean hands” approach.

In America today, it’s a snap to set up superficially independent advocacy groups, directed and financed by the same special interests that contribute lavishly to the party. Then for the less-committed, the party fronts its own peeps, speaking more reasonably—or at least sounding more reasonable in terms of tone of voice and general deportment. Then they do the denial-affirmation dance. That is, they disavow any connection to the crazies saying the crazy thing (whatever it is). But then they go on to say that, however, maybe there’s fire where there’s smoke. Maybe responsible people should look into these claims. Maybe there’s some substance to them, somehow. Not really, of course. But…

So in this way the Party keeps its hands clean while continuing to stir the pot, while not alienating its own zealots, while at the same time sowing distrust and confusion about the other part to the less-passionate-middle and those in the other party who are susceptible to these sorts of manuverings.

Remember, in the world of politics, the parties are the outward manifestation of power, but the real power is often in the shadows, because its goals are so antithetical to yours that exposure does it no good. For the Left, it’s trade unions, organizations representing hyphenated groups (Latin-Americans, African-Americans, Catholic-Americans as far as illegal immigration is concerned, etc. For the Right it's the inversion of Socialism--those who believe business should control government--mainly the bulk of the wealthiest 1/2 of 1% of the country.

But what falsehoods should you peddle?

Answer: those that give concrete expression to your base’s deepest fears and anxieties—while at the same time giving the base plausible deniability that any of these concrete expressions are related to anything that’s indefensible in polite society.

Thus you can’t oppose a candidate because he’s a she, or not white, or too smart, or not a Christian (or perhaps a Jew). But that’s no problem. If he’s a she you accuse her of being tough/combative—implicitly a ball-buster. If he isn’t white you accuse him of being foreign—of only pretending to have American values/heritage. If he’s smart you accuse him of having foreign ideas, of looking down on ordinary people (this can work even if the person comes from low-to-middle class circumstances and the opponent is filthy rich, as long as you manipulate appearances appropriately). If he’s a Christian you can accuse him of being a bad Christian, liking a controversial Christian pastor, or being Christian in a way that’s different from familiar white Christianity.

In each case you must be very, very careful to never say what you want them to think. You just link what the opponent actually is to something that sounds plausible that gets them to think what you want them to think.

For example, a majority of Republicans came to believe Saddam Hussein pretty much planned 9/11 and provided logistical support for it. Bush never said this. But every time he mentioned 9/11 or Bin Ladin he then mentioned Saddam Hussein. It was artful. Then when he was accused of claiming Saddam did 9/11, he could honestly say “I never said so.” Which is true. But he knew that what he did say would make his followers think that. So he wasn’t a liar. He was a deceiver. That’s better, right?

Of course there are a multitude of tricks I haven’t mentioned here, but which both sides use to make you think Good Things about what they want you to agree with and Bad Things about what they want you to oppose.

For example, during his election campaign Obama said we have to grant illegal immigrants some sort of amnesty because it would be logistically impossible—and unkind—to round up and deport so many millions of people. This is what’s known as a False Choice Fallacy. He never mentioned the simple fact that if we change the way we do things so they can’t make a living here, they’ll go home the same way they came—on their own hook. Whether you advocate for or against illegal immigration, you should recognize that this was a patently false and misleading argument.

There’s also sarcasm, which both sides use constantly. For example, Sean Hannity, part of the right wing noise machine, commonly refers to Obama as The Anointed One. The propagandists who give Hannity his talking points use this to make Obama’s popularity seem like a bad thing, and his supporters like dazzled dopes.

And of course the campaign goes on after the election, because there’s always the next election, and even if the president isn’t up for reelection, a good chunk of Congress is.

So even though Obama’s citizenship will never be challenged successfully in court, the birther campaign serves to delegitimize him and allows those who don’t like his race, his foreign father, or that father’s religion, to attack Obama’s race, foreignness and not-religion without having to do any of those things explicitly. Again, plausible deniability. So the Republican Noise Machine will flog this issue on the down low as long as they can, using the AIDS virus model that worked so with with the Swift Boat Campaign.

The great thing about being on the Republican side of this is that there’s always money to finance the innumerable right wing radio stations and the TV network and the push polling (fake polling designed to plant rumors) and the whisper campaigns and the astroturf organizing. Sometimes the Democrats have to scramble for funds. And though most journalists are registered Democrats, their livelihood depends on chasing scandal, so they’ll gallop off after anything that promises juicy headlines. Clinton’s peccadilloes got spread all over the mainstream media, leading to his very testy relationship with the press that was supposedly in the tank for him. Most reporters like Obama but that didn’t stop them from running after everything the Republican Noise Machine put out there.

There’s also the art of omission. You ignore something you'd said previously was crucial. Thus when it was Clinton vs. Bush I, character was why you should vote for a president, because Clinton was a womanizer and Bush I was a loyal family man. Obama is a loyal family man, while McCain cheated on his first wife flagrantly, then dumped her after she was crippled in a car accident. Plus, Obama's and his wife and children are America’s darlings. They did take a whack at Michelle, calling her an Angry Black Woman, but she blew that one into bits on the campaign trail. So in that campaign, character--at least of the family variety--no longer mattered a bit. The issue just vanished.

Normally you attack the other guy’s strengths as well as his weaknesses, if you can find a cleavage line to drive a wedge into. Thus Kerry’s war record, which was vulnerable because Kerry is such a stiff, and because so many old veterans loathed him because of his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, which they’ve revised in their memories so they can think we were winning but were forced to lose by the Democrats. Kerry played into that unintentionally. With Clinton his home life was vulnerable mostly because of his womanizing, but also because Hillary is smart—which lots of men find threatening—and his daughter was homely (ironic, since she’s gorgeous now). So they attacked his whole family, though only the most hardcore took the bait about his daughter’s ugliness (Rush Limbaugh being the best example).

But another feature of propaganda campaigns is that you try lots of stuff and see what sticks. As long as the attempts don’t come from party officials you can always dislaim them if they don’t work.

I hope all this answers your question as to why the birther business has been pursued to diligently.

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