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April 4, 2007

The phony middle, and why we fall for it
Posted by Patrick at 08:09 AM * 98 comments

Amanda Marcotte, in an absolutely terrific post at Pandagon:

The great myth of American politics is that we’re all just soberly analyzing the facts and opinions and “deciding for ourselves”, which would mean that we don’t lose out a whole lot if the field of available opinion is limited by Beltway wisdom. Unfortunately, human nature just isn’t like that. In reality, people tend to use the opinions they’re hearing as a gauge of what is possible and then reject the “extremes” of the available range of opinion and put themselves in the middle. There’s simply not a lot of thought that goes into it. Conservatives grasp this fact very well, which is why Fox News puts a bunch of conservatives on and characterizes them as left-wing Democrats. Slowly but surely, they create the impression that very middle-of-the-road, boring liberal ideas are raving socialism—thus how I managed to hear this weekend from my dad how attempts to reduce carbon emissions through conservation and carbon offsets is actually a socialist plot to destroy life as we know it.

You can read more about this theory, which is called the Overton window theory, at Wikipedia. When Joe Klein went apeshit on Atrios, what was making him angry was the very idea that anyone with an opinion left of Pat Buchanan could have access to a public forum, which could inadvertantly reveal that hawkish, socially conservative advocates of unfettered capitalism were hardly liberals. Atrios and other bloggers are getting in the way of characterizing anyone who would tentatively agree with FDR’s politics as a Stalinist.

Why the Overton window works the way it does is that humans are stubbornly human creatures, and therefore pack animals. Humanizing a political stance is absolutely critical to helping warm people up to it.

I’ve been trying to make this point for years. For a lot of reasons, not all of them bad, most people don’t like feeling like they’re disconnecting themselves from the majority of their fellow human beings. Yes, you are a profile in courage and a paragon of intellectual integrity, but for most people, being perceived as an eccentric outlier is something to be feared. This isn’t fundamentally because most people are corrupt, it’s fundamentally because most people are social animals, and feeling connected with the pack is critical to our sense of well-being. This is why “moving the goalposts” works, even when those doing so barely bother to conceal it. Nancy Pelosi is a left-wing extremist. Joe Lieberman is a centrist. The mass of Americans don’t want us to withdraw from Iraq. Most Americans favor replacing Social Security with private accounts. There’s a serious scientific dispute over human-created climate change, and Michael Crichton is a moderate in that dispute. None of these things are true, and you know non-crazy people who believe them all. This is why. And it underlines a more important point: the truly damaging propagandists aren’t the frothing demagogues, the Sean Hannitys, the Rush Limbaughs, or the Glenn Becks. The real damage, the real work of maintaining the catastrophic status quo of our headlong rush toward the cliff, is done by the fake liberals, the Alan Colmeses, the Chris Matthewses, the Joe Kleins. Those are the ones who do the truly important work of defining what opinions—and most importantly, whose opinions—are and aren’t inside the legitimate, respectable range.
Comments on The phony middle, and why we fall for it:
#1 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 09:31 AM:

Why, it's like there was, I don't know, serious thought and deliberate intent to diguise the radical shift to the right that occured with Reagan's presidency and reform it it as a "sensible move back toward what was good." Add in the creation of think tanks and policy pundits by the right during the 80s to feed the need for talking heads, then roll-out of a propaganda machine minimally diguised as a "news channel" and you would get the impression it was highly organized.

I need to get a new tin hat, this one isn't working well anymore.

"I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks," as the Cowardly Lion so aptly put it.

#2 ::: Michael Bravo ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:04 AM:

Ever since I first stumbled onto the Overton window reference in a William Gibson blog entry ( - check July 21st), it keeps popping up with increasing frequency.

As to the conspiracy theories and general apophenia, it's not so much a real must to believe in them, but if you observe certain pattern to regularly emerge, especially in unrelated (at first glance) locations and circumstances, then there's a probability that some underwater activity is aligning itself along certain lattice, even if due to the completely stochastic reasons and not being "highly organized" per se.

#3 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:04 AM:

Meanwhile, across the aisle...

"...Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich would rank in the top three among GOP voter preferences in California -- right behind former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and second-place Arizona Sen. John McCain -- should he enter the 2008 presidential race, a new Field Poll shows..."

So says the SF Chronicle anyway. I'd love to have Newt win the primaries in 2008. Really. He'd be a great reminder to the People of what the GOP really is like.

#4 ::: Greg L Johnson ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:38 AM:

It isn't just the pundits and commentators who have aided in shifting the political discourse, there are plenty of people who call themselves democrats that have played right along. Check out Harold Ford's post, and the comments to it at TPM Cafe:

#5 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:39 AM:

This is why I have students who insist that anyone in America can choose a better school, that people born into poverty choose to remain in poverty, and that opportunities are equally available to anyone. Then they get upset when I point out that they're talking rubbish.

#6 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:44 AM:

#3 Serge, to paraphrase from the divine Mr. M(achiavelli), get your dirty work out of the way first. By the time the election hits most people consciously, Mr. Gingrich will be able to deflect all the bad stuff with a, "we've alreadfy dealt with that, it's old news." And all we'll have is the bright and shiny, kinder, gentler Newt to deal with.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:47 AM:

Steve @ 6... A kinder, gentler Newt? I can wrap my mind around that concept as easily as I would the idea of vegan zombies.

#8 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 11:09 AM:

#7 Serge, well, you know, I hear even Dick Cheney is starting to carry nickles around in his pockets with the advent of his grandchild. Even Hitler (whoops, there goes the argument, dang it, and I thought I gave us the "Nazi parrallels while discussing the right" for Lent) petted his dogs, sometimes, but only in a good mood.

#9 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 11:12 AM:

Steve @ 8... And the People, who have a problem with memory retention, might fall for it.

#10 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 11:20 AM:

Serge (7):
...vegan zombies.

#11 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 11:45 AM:

John Houghton @ 10... You had to make that joke, eh?

#12 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 11:55 AM:

Vegan zombies was actually my April Fool's Day contribution to the world this year. Only I had them saying "Brans".

#13 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 12:02 PM:

Tchem... Huh oh... Another bad zombie pun. I almost thought "What have I wrought?", but decided it'd be be more 'appropriate' to write "What have I rot?"

#14 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 12:09 PM:

Nicholas Capaldi makes this point as well in The Art of Deception: everyone likes to be in the Golden Mean and you should position yourself accordingly. "Conservative" is the golden mean between "reactionary" and "radical," and so on.

(As a vaguely relevant aside, if you have not read The Art of Deception you do yourself a great disservice. Capaldi at one time taught basic rhetoric and debate and discovered that his students really struggled to learn how to spot deceptive arguments. It occurred to him that if you teach people how to make a deceptive argument, they will easily spot the same thing in others. You can practically number the pages and cut-and-paste footnotes into your average wingnut's blog.)

#15 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 12:31 PM:

#13 Serge "What have I rot?"

Still pickin' on Newt, eh?

Memory retention? I don't remember having a problem with memory retention.

#16 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 01:41 PM:

I seem to recall that Noam Chomsky pinned the tail on this particular donkey a couple of decades ago. It's precisely the mechanism described by him as key to the process of manufacturing consent (which is the purpose of this spurious triangulation -- exclude the views you disagree with from discourse and then depict a universe in which the poles defining your own view are the only valid ones).

There's a reason the right really don't want people to read Chomsky; buried in among the turgid prose there are some nuggets of true wisdom.

#17 ::: moe99 ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 01:51 PM:

Which is why NPR stands for "Nice Polite Republicans" and I'm not giving them a penny anymore.

#18 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 01:52 PM:

"...and you know non-crazy people who believe them all."

I seem to know a lot of "non-crazy" people who are nevertheless batshiznat fnorking stupid and/or irrational. (At this point, I'm dithering over 'and' vs. 'or' in that assessment.)

#19 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 02:05 PM:

And it underlines a more important point: the truly damaging propagandists aren’t the frothing demagogues, the Sean Hannitys, the Rush Limbaughs, or the Michael Becks. The real damage, the real work of maintaining the catastrophic status quo of our headlong rush toward the cliff, is done by the fake liberals, the Alan Colmeses, the Chris Matthewses, the Joe Kleins.

That's exactly wrong, Patrick. The theory of the Overton Window is that it is the vigorous promotion of ideas just outside the extreme end of what is acceptable that moves the window. Colmes, Matthews and Klein aren't moving the window, they are acquiescing to its having moved, and moving with it to keep their places at the pundits' table. When the Overton Window is moved to the right, it is indeed Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Beck, and their ilk who do the heavy lifting.

("Frothing demagogues" comes off as a bit elitist to my ear. The problem isn't that they appeal to the people, it is the poisonous values that they are selling to the people. There's nothing wrong with being a demagogue. Jim Hightower and Michael Moore are demagogues, too, and more power to them.)

#20 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 02:24 PM:

Oberlin once had a student organization called the Moderate Caucus. The eventually changed their name to the Campus Republicans.

#21 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 02:24 PM:

Okay, maybe it's because I don't get cable and have seen very little of these commentators, but I'm having a hard time seeing the problem in principle with folks like Matthews and Klein. Do they represent themselves as spokespeople for "the" liberal viewpoint? (That might be plausible in Colmes' case, since his main gig appears to be as the "counter" for Hannity. But it looks like Matthews' and Klein's main gigs are solo-- Matthews has his own show, and Klein writes various columns and books on his own.)

It's a big opinion space out there, as should be clear to anyone who spends significant time reading Internet discussions. I think there should be room for folks who are consietently well left of center, folks who are consistently well right of center, and folks who aren't consistently either.

(I count myself in the last set. I don't think that's mainly because I'm trying to triangulate; if that were the case, I'd be consistently "moderate". But in fact there are a number of issues where I'm well either left or right of "center". And I don't think I'm all that unusual in that respect.)

I suspect the more relevant target of criticism is not so much the "moderate" commentators themselves, but the networks and other forums that set the frame of commentators they will feature in the first place. There's no dishonor or dishonesty in arguing as a relatively conservative Democrat. The problem comes when a forum presents those commentators as the only kind of Democrats or "liberals" worth paying attention to.

#22 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 02:48 PM:

I'm not sure I know the name Michael Beck. My first guess is that it's a conflation of Glenn Beck and Michael Savage [shudder].

#23 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 02:57 PM:

I think the metaphor I would use for how these disparate players manipulate the Overton window is that guys like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and A Host Of Imitators are busy running an offensive game, dropping radical and even unthinkable ideas into play, while guys like Joe Klein, Chris Matthews and [oh man, I can't even write his name without laughing] Alan Colmes are busy running a defensive game, disparaging acceptable and even popular ideas to remove them from play. Whether one collection of players is more important to their team than the others is of little interest to me. They're all on the same side. Look for weaknesses in their strategy and exploit them— that's what I say.

#24 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:04 PM:

Overton Window tricks that I haaaate:

Whenever a pundit says, "I'm not a liberal or a conservative, I'm for common sense," you know they're even more likely to be partisan--they're just assuming that their partisan views are shared by Everyone With A Brain. And by saying that, they then get away with saying whatever they want to say and having it somehow count as a "moderate" position.

Related to that is this weird assumption that whatever is in the middle must be right and best, and "out of the mainstream" is an automatically bad thing. Racial equality was a radical idea once. What's wrong with the occasional radical idea?

#25 ::: Richard Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:11 PM:

Question: to what extent do pundits influence the average American voter? (My admittedly uninformed impression is that whether on the Left, Right, or Middle, pundits tend to preach to the converted.) Perhaps the goalposts are indeed being moved on the football field, but maybe most of us are in another stadium, watching a baseball game....

#26 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:14 PM:

#22: I meant Glenn Beck. Fixed; thanks.

#27 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:17 PM:

#25: "pundits tend to preach to the converted"

To the contrary, I think the main job of the modern major-media pundit is to make sure people who haven't yet formed an opinion know what the range of acceptable opinion is.

You can easily tell the pundits that don't play this game; they're the ones being tagged with the epithet "partisan." Whether or not their views accord with the platform of any actual party.

#28 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:28 PM:

I understand what Alan Bostick (#19) and j h woodyat (#23) are saying, but I respectfully disagree.

The Overton Window is an excellent description of part of what's going on, but only part. I don't think Joe Klein is someone of basically liberal inclinations who's been helplessly dragged along by rightward-tugging conservatives, or who's playing a "defensive game." To the contrary, I think the Joe Klein that actually exists is someone who's been profoundly corrupted by enjoying an extraordinary level of privilege and deference, and that he's every bit as much of an aggressive enforcer for the rotten status quo as any right-wing drive-time radio star. This is why I linked to that particular Atrios post with my final sentence--because I think what Atrios is getting at is as large a part of the truth as the "Overton Window" theory.

#29 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:39 PM:

To unify the metaphor a bit: We agree that Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, etc are pulling at the rightward edge of the window, to drag it further to the right. Klein and Colmes are at the leftward edge of the window. If they were "playing a defensive game" they'd be pulling leftward. They aren't -- they're pushing right.

If Klein were pulling left, he wouldn't be writing posts excluding big chunks of reasonable liberal argument from consideration. If Colmes were pulling left, he wouldn't be reassuring Fox viewers that liberals are all timid, rabbity milquetoasts.

(Actually, looking more closely at comment 23, I see that j h woodyat didn't mean what I first thought he meant by "running a defensive game". But we've already got a window metaphor going here; I want to kill off the football metaphor before we start Friedmanizing.)

#30 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:40 PM:

As to Alan's point about the word "demagogue," I do know its etymology, but in our era it doesn't mean simply a leader of (or from) the common people; rather, it means someone who achieves political power by appealing to our worse selves. The Wikipedia article on "demagogy" quotes Mencken's definition of a demagogue as "one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots." As a description of what the word means in actual modern use, that's pretty good.

#31 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 03:51 PM:

What Avram said (in #29): "Klein and Colmes are at the leftward edge of the window. If they were 'playing a defensive game' they'd be pulling leftward. They aren't--they're pushing right. If Klein were pulling left, he wouldn't be writing posts excluding big chunks of reasonable liberal argument from consideration."

As for the danger of Friedmanizing, I was comparing Blackberry models with my cab driver in Nogales when it struck me with the force of a mattress full of Communion wafers. The Middle East is the Kirby Silver Surfer, while Davos Man is one of Joltin' Jack's later New Gods! This explains everything, certainly why we wound up walking back from the maquiladora. Condi Rice is John Constantine, whereas Dick Cheney is just poor old Ben Grimm. If you carry a hammer while flying business class, you'll never see the changes transforming the entire posteconomic multiverse. Only when the Bush Administration learns to outsource its hidden transaction costs will we see a meeting of the Lexus, the olive tree, the Fascist octopus, the jackboot, the melting pot, and the great swan song that is Web 2.0. Underneath the Overton window, the world is well and truly flat. Mark my words.

#32 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:02 PM:

Richard Anderson @ 23

I think a more important question is: to what exent do these pundits affect the American political process? And I think the answer is: a large extent.

Consider that Bill Clinton by any objective view held (very) moderate Republican views, yet he presented himself as a liberal Democrat, while espousing positions that were centrist*. This was surely an intentional movement of the goalposts on his part, since it created a position seperate from all the other Democrats running in 1992, and leached some moderate Republicans away from a party that was headed right at near superluminal speed.

In other words, politicians will go where the vote-getting possibilities are best for them, and they'll drag the parties and the electorate along with them. This is in contrast to conspiracy theories: we don't need evil to explain things as long as greed and lust for power exist.

* All positions here are in terms of traditional American political stances, which are rather right of the center for European politics.

#33 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:03 PM:

Patrick, this is a very interesting post and quite thought-provoking. It made me think of Sam Harris's claim that "moderate" religious believers are more dangerous than actual extremists, because they make some level of belief (in what Harris insists is all mythology and nonsense) sound reasonable. At least, that's my memory of his argument. I literally threw the book out of my house when I realized that yes, he really was saying that it is morally acceptable to torture or even nuke people of faith because the Islamofascistas are out to get us. I believe that Harris would say that religious moderates and liberals are also moving the Overton Window without recognizing that they are doing it.

And I agree with what you say in #28 about Joe Klein and all his friends. He's a corrupt man who likes the status quo and has gotten used to having his ego fed by the right.

#34 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:04 PM:

Patrick, that was frighteningly spot-on.

#35 ::: Jon Sobel ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:09 PM:

Cheney can't be Ben Grimm. Ben Grimm is Jewish.

#36 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:20 PM:

If Patrick is disagreeing with me [in #28], then I don't see where. I'll concede that he's expressed his view more clearly than I have, but since I don't really see where my view disagrees with his…

#37 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:22 PM:

Avram: "I want to kill off the football metaphor"

I'm intrigued. What is this "football" you speak of? Is it a game?

#38 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:27 PM:

Charlie Stross @ 16

Yes, they don't want people to read Chomsky*, but they want to keep him around. In some senses he's set himself up as target and patsy for the right, because he believes in intellectual discourse, and the reasoned analysis of societal problems. This puts him at odds with the American consensus culture, which is anti-intellectual and praises faith and intuition over reason. So they can point to him and say, "See, there's the enemy of all that is good and right. Anything he says must be either wrong or a lie." And many people will believe it just because the man's an intellectual.

Which is not to say that Chomsky should do something different. There are people who will listen to him and benefit from his analyses. But he can't be a part of the mainstream in America, and he will be used as a foil by the right, because of who and what he is.

I could draw a parallel to other despised groups in America, and talk about how they've been marginalized, but I'm in an insufficiently foul mood. I'll just point out that one of the coups the right can pat itself on the back for is the split between leftist Jews and the black middle-class. That alliance was in part responsible for the effectiveness of the civil rights movement in America in the 1960's; the split has helped establish the (erroneous) consensus view that racism is a solved problem here.

* Not that they would anyhow. What's the number of books physically present in the average American household? I've seen 2 to 4 quoted. Any bets that any of those is going to be non-fiction, let alone requiring precisionist analytical thought?

#39 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:46 PM:

Colmes isn't a "liberal", or even a pundit. He's an actor, who has the well-paid role of playing the wimp in response to Sean Hannity's manly man.

Look, does one ever see Colmes outside of Foxworld? Anywhere?

#40 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 04:47 PM:

j h @ 37... Hey, I'm General Zod.

#41 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:08 PM:

Jon Sobel @ 35

Cheney can't be Ben Grimm. Ben Grimm is Jewish.

If Hollywood doesn't care who plays what, why should Washington? Please note that Buffy Summers, blond (Protestant?) defender of civilization was played by a nice Jewish girl, and that the Wiccan once-Jew Willow was played by a redhead of Irish descent. Roles are roles, actors are actors; be careful not to get them confused.

And if politicians aren't actors, who is?

#42 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:11 PM:

Serge @ 40

No, you're Sparticus.

#43 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:17 PM:

Spartacus, moi, Bruce? The only thing I have in common with Kirk Douglas is the chin dimple.

#44 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:37 PM:

#31 Patrick. Thankyousoverymuch.

As a result of reading that, my brain fell out and rolled under the desk, requiring me to get down and grope around for it among the computer cables and dust bunnies.

At least I wasn't eating or drinking at the time.

#45 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:45 PM:

I don't doubt for a moment that what PNH described is happening, and have long thought so in a more muddled form.

What I don't understand is how and why it works. How is it that the crazy rightists are the ones who control the direction the window moves in, and how do we get it back? Why are the Hannitys of the world given credence, when the Moores are treated like lying fools?

Surely it's not an unfixable problem, but how does it get fixed?

#46 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:45 PM:

j h, #36: Well, I was disagreeing that the fake-liberals are playing a "defensive game." I certainly agree with you that they're on the same team as everyone else in the party of privilege.

#47 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:49 PM:

ethan, #45: "How is it that the crazy rightists are the ones who control the direction the window moves in?"

Gosh, I dunno. You'd almost think that having the "crazy rightist" worldview be dominant is more convenient to the people who own most of the world's resources than, say, a world in which drive-time talk radio was dominated by sensible conversations about how to make the world more equitable and just.

Not that I'm suggesting that entrenched power tends to act to further entrench itself, since that would be, you know, some kind of wild-and-crazy CONSPIRACY THEORIZING. And we certainly can't have that.

#48 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:52 PM:

Condi Rice is John Constantine...

I couldn't help googling for Condoleeza Rice in a trenchcoat. Sorry.

#49 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 05:52 PM:

How is it that the crazy rightists are the ones who control the direction the window moves in?

"Freedom of the press is for the man who owns one."

Or, what Patrick said.

#50 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 06:57 PM:

"How is it that the crazy rightists are the ones who control the direction the window moves in, and how do we get it back?"

At this time, they have Fox News and the bully pulpit of the Presidency, as well as a free hand in Iraq--I think that is the basic answer, though one can go into more detail.

"This isn’t fundamentally because most people are corrupt, it’s fundamentally because most people are social animals, and feeling connected with the pack is critical to our sense of well-being."

I would suggest "feeling ourselves members of the tribe," rather; social apes have tribes, canines have packs.

#51 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 07:10 PM:

Bruce Cohen at #32 Consider that Bill Clinton by any objective view held (very) moderate Republican views, yet he presented himself as a liberal Democrat, while espousing positions that were centrist

I don't recall Clinton generally presenting HIMSELF as a liberal Democrat. The GOP portrayed him as such, but Clinton usually portrayed himself as a centrist Democrat.

#52 ::: Richard Anderson ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 07:48 PM:

I suspect Clinton won the Presidency, twice, through force of (likable) personality in combination with a strongly centrist image. Simply put, he had more personal appeal that Bush Senior and Bob Dole. My hypothesis is that pundits have no significant effect on presidential races, perhaps even no significant effect on any race that requires much public scrutiny. We tend to vote for people whose values, perspectives, and personalities we feel comfortable with, and who seem competent for the position. Everything else being equal, I'll bet on the charmer to win. Which, unfortunately, is why Shrub is still in the White House.

#53 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 10:22 PM:

I guess I'm having trouble phrasing my question. I know that entrenched power supports itself and so forth, as people have responded to my question, but...

I don't know. I guess this is one of those things that, when I try to confront it, even just in my mind, I'm overwhelmed with powerlessness. There has to be an effective way to combat this crap, and I just don't know what it is. Maybe there isn't one.

#54 ::: Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2007, 11:11 PM:

I guess I'm having trouble phrasing my question. I know that entrenched power supports itself and so forth, as people have responded to my question, but...

Just as a reminder, the criminal Sun Myung Moon has spent, by his own account, over $100 million dollars a year for the past twenty-five years on a single right-wing propaganda organ, The Washington Times. Air America has not yet lost as much in all of its years of operation combined as that Times loses every quarter.

The monied interests can afford to pour money into megaphones in the expectation that they will be heard.

#55 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 12:05 AM:

Jon Sobel @35, Cheney is only metaphorically Ben Grimm. Literally, Cheney is Metallo, the Man with the Kryptonite Heart. (Rove is Lex Luthor, and Dubya Bizarro. Teresa and I worked this all out back in '00 or '01.)

#56 ::: Euan H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 12:08 AM:

[Long time lurker here, decloaking temporarily]

@ PNH, #45

I agree that entrenched power acts to further its own interests. If it doesn't, then in short order it ceases to be entrenched (society red in tooth and claw, and all that), but I don't think you need to invoke a conspiracy theory as such.

It's just that humans are addicted to social hierarchies. Those at the top want to stay on top and so act in such a way to perpetuate that state of affairs. 'Conspiracy theory' to me implies something more organized and self-aware.

@ Ethan, #45

" How is it that the crazy rightists are the ones who control the direction the window moves in? "

Because they've been much better at discourse framing than the left are. (And what's above, of course.)

Frex, 'tax relief' => taxes are oppressive and people need to be relieved from them => taxes are bad. Also, 'tax burden'.

Another example: look at the way 'patriotism' got twisted round to mean 'supporting the government'.

If the Left was more effective at this, I don't think you'd have seen so much of the rightward drift as there's been.


#57 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 01:13 AM:

Bush? Charmer independent of the media? I don't buy it. Not just because watching the debates live here in NZ, Bush came across as a much the worse candidate, on an Oxford Union, ``there are two steps that must be taken (wait till I think of them)'' basis.

But, also, because you don't get to be a Senator unless you're a good politician, and that includes at the charm level.

However, none of this matters, because most Americans never meet the candidates personally. Most Americans probably don't watch any unedited footage of either candidate.

``Charm'' really does derive from the media's representation of the candidates.

#58 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 02:08 AM:

Patrick: I was disagreeing that the fake-liberals are playing a "defensive game."

Hmmm. I still don't think we are in disagreement on the substance, but I know better than to argue with an editor about word-choice. Point conceded.

#59 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 02:58 AM:

j h woodyatt, #58: Here's how I read your original comment. The frothing demagogues and the whining jackals are playing for the same team, but they're using different, and to some extent opposing, tactics.

The demagogues are moving the "right" end of the discourse by spewing atrocities until they no longer seem like atrocities -- until repeated exposure has numbed people to the actual implications of those positions and arguments.

The jackals are moving the "left" end of the discourse by repainting positions and arguments which were formerly perceived as acceptable into atrocities -- making people afraid to express those positions any more. (This is helped along considerably by the increasing lawlessness of the wingnuts at the grassroots level, where the concept of "the law doesn't apply to me if I'm obeying God's law" has taken strong hold, and casual violence against "goddamn libruls" is reframed as "being God's warrior".)

So IMO, you and Patrick are both right. He's right because characterizing the jackals' actions as "defensive" is a misnomer, but you're right because it's not precisely the same as what the demagogues are doing. More like opposite sides of the same coin, though, than offense vs. defense.

#60 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 07:37 AM:

For over a decade, I've been using the benchmark that Clinton is to the *right* of Nixon on a wide range of issues (environment, China, trade, wiretaps, etc.) as an illustration of how far the "political spectrum" has been moved. (tip o' the hat to #32)
It has cost billions of dollars and taken over forty years, but the investment and persistence have paid off handsomely. (#45 - That's how and why it works.)

I do have one terminological problem. The "vast right-wing conspiracy" is a matter of documented record -- but it's not really secret. You can find out if you look. So what's the word for something which is in every way a conspiracy except for not being secret?

#61 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 07:39 AM:

#38 "Which is not to say that Chomsky should do something different."

Well, the first thing he should do different is to stop pretending the Arab invasion of Palestine in 1948 never happened, but that's WAY off topic . . .

#62 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 08:54 AM:

So what's the word for something which is in every way a conspiracy except for not being secret?

In theory you can conspire without it being secret.

Also: You can only see it now since it has already happened. Before it happened, it would have sounded like a nutbar conspiracy theory.

Actual suggestions: Plot? Still has connotations of secrecy. Scheme might be an appropriate word.

#63 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 10:35 AM:

#46 PNH: I still don't understand your disagreement with woodyatt. Offensive and defensive are terms that describe two facets of the same strategy. Defensive players try to deny points to the opposing team, which seems like a pretty good description of what Klein and his ilk do: tagging valid and convincing arguments as "radical" and therefore irresponsible to even mention. "Playing a defensive game" doesn't mean "helplessly dragged along," it means actively pulling the left-most edge rightwards. j h woodyatt was only disagreeing with you insofar as s/he was arguing that the radical right "offensive line" was as dangerous as the faux-liberal "defensive line." I'd agree--the faux-liberals are more disingenuous by far, but not really more damaging.

#45 ethan: "What I don't understand is how and why it works. How is it that the crazy rightists are the ones who control the direction the window moves in, and how do we get it back? Why are the Hannitys of the world given credence, when the Moores are treated like lying fools?"

They figured out how to game the system. Ever heard the phrase the Right Wing Echo Chamber? If people make decisions by averaging together everything they hear, you can manipulate people's opinions just by altering the mix of what people hear. You don't need to control everything; you just need to control enough to skew the final mix. They learned to do this by enforcing rigid discipline and strict message control. If you say it loud enough, often enough, and in exactly the same way, eventually it starts to sound normal.

As long as the other person keeps playing by the rules, you can get away with a lot, and they did. Fortunately, liberals are finally starting to figure out what is going on and fight back, both by cranking up our own rhetoric and by calling them on their blatant media manipulation.

They also showed no shame at promoting beliefs that are patently insane simply for the purposes of shifting things rightwards. If someone on the TV says that killing gay people is okay, and the other guy says it's not, surely banning gay marriage is a reasonable compromise? It's like sponsoring communist insurgents in order to get universal health care on the national agenda. Of course, once you let crazy people like that out, then they use the same strategy themselves, and so on, and suddenly Pat Buchanan is a voice of reason and sanity.

#64 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 12:59 PM:

On this issue, a couple of chaps named Marx and Engels had this to say:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an “eternal law.” (The German Ideology)

The thing is, those ideas can be challenged, and have been challenged. What better thing to do than to channel the challenge into impotence by defining it as outside the mainstream and thus, by definition, insane?

#65 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 01:20 PM:

Heresiarch (63): I think I've figured out where the confusion is coming from. jhwoodyat was saying that Klein et al were playing the defensive game *for the team that's moving the discourse to the right*. PNH was misunderstanding him/her to mean that Klein was playing the defensive game for the left.

Or have I misunderstood someone?

#66 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 02:09 PM:

This is an interesting topic. I think it's easy to get caught up in the notion of right wing or left wing bias of the media, and miss the really essential thing: On each issue, there is a range of acceptable viewpoints, and likewise, there is a range of acceptable issues. These change over time. The media (particularly TV news, fictional TV shows, and the front pages of newspapers and magazines, I think) largely define that range.

I don't think this is mostly done by pundits, though. It's done by what is and is not reported, and how, on national TV news and newspapers, especially on the front page. It's done to a large extent by what's shown regularly on major TV networks and popular mainstream movies. (Did George Bush or Alan Dershowitz convince most Americans that torture was okay when done by the good guys? Or was that from TV and movies?)

The mere existence of a pundit or two willing to speak the unspeakable doesn't move the unspeakable into acceptable public discourse. There's something bigger, having to do, I think, with how the rest of the opinion sources react to the unspeakable, and with what opinions Americans will mostly accept. Some prominent voices have been calling for Bush's resignation or impeachment for some time now, and yet that's not on the table as a serious issue, and everyone knows it. There are well-spoken, coherent white supremacist types out there, with websites and magazines and the rest, but they're not in the mainstream, and again, everyone knows it.

People with public voices that stray outside this range lose influence, and are ridiculed, and that doesn't seem to have much to do with whether they're right or wrong, well-thought-out or obviously nuts. Think of the Jerry Fallwell/Pat Robertson comments post 9/11. (The 9/11 attacks were apparently God's punishment on us for our failure to be a Christian nation.) Think of Bill Maher's comments, which got about as much denunciation. (He said it took more personal courage to fly an airliner into a building than to push a button that launches a cruise missile.)

It's also important to notice that moving the range of acceptable viewpoints and topics is done by the left, as well as the right. For example, gay marriage simply wasn't in that range in 1985--you would never have managed to have a national debate on that issue then.

I suspect a lot of the power to do this has to do with the fact that most people don't think about political, moral, economic, scientific, etc., issues at any depth. It's just not that interesting to most people, in the same way I can't remember which sports teams are winning or which celebrity is sleeping with which other celebrity this week. Instead, there's a small set of positions on each issue allowed for in conventional wisdom, which is absorbed by most people who aren't inclined to think more deeply about them. People outside that range are obviously stupid, or nuts, or evil, or maybe all three at once.

And there's pretty clearly a whole art for manipulating this, and it's pretty clearly not under any one small group's control. Issues come up that powerful interest groups wish would not, and positions become acceptable that they fight against. The White House wasn't able to prevent immigration becoming an issue in the last few years, though it's a coalition-splitting issue for them. Similarly, it hasn't managed to keep opposition to the war from being an acceptable position for the last couple years. (But at the beginning of the war, those voices were simply not heard on mainstream TV, at least not in any way that made them part of the acceptable range of discourse. I wonder why.)

#67 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 02:14 PM:

Keir #57:

How many people do you suppose watch presidential debates to decide which person to vote for?

One of the more interesting exercises for the next couple years is to watch some of the debates, and then watch the major network news coverage. Hmmm, odd how those excerpts paint a certain image of the debate, quite different from what you might have gotten from it. Something similar happens with the state of the union speech and the opposing party's response.

Anyway, Bush's charm, such as it is, doesn't mainly come from his verbal quickness.

#68 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 03:17 PM:

Mary Aileen, #65: I think you're right. Anyway, I thought I subsequently made it clear that I don't have any really huge disagreement with j h woodyat, but if not, well, let me make that clear.

#69 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 04:13 PM:

Michael I @ 51
I don't recall Clinton generally presenting HIMSELF as a liberal Democrat. The GOP portrayed him as such, but Clinton usually portrayed himself as a centrist Democrat.

Oh, he was good at the flimflam. He called himself a centrist in public speeches, so he could snag the moderate Republican vote, but he was careful to associate himself with civil rights leaders and other representatives of the liberal past. And his admiration (and imitation) of John Kennedy was no secret.

#70 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 04:23 PM:

Ethan@53: "There has to be an effective way to combat this crap, and I just don't know what it is. Maybe there isn't one."

It seems to me that the way we are "combating" it, if you can call it that, has been to wait until its internal contradictions make themselves felt, and then push. In other words, the right wing has now had their shot at power. They've failed miserably in every goal, their claimed goals have shown themselves to be false, and their true goals have been revealed as repugnant. And now, obviously, is the time to push back, as the left is doing. It is, however, important to us now, to see that the radicals do not leave us with a disaster by, for instance, embroiling us in a global war, as an invasion of Iran seems likely to bring on.

#71 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 04:26 PM:

Neil in Chicago @ 61

I agree with your offtopic remark. To get back ontopic, though, I'm not really talking about the content of his rhetoric but about the word and phrase choices. Chomsky is from the tradition of the Intellectual Left, and most of the terms and phrases of rhetoric he uses have therefore been branded BadSpeak by the pundiots (sic) of the right.

Because the Marching Morons have succeeded in their campaign to set the terms of discourse, everything Chomsky says is immediately dismissed by anyone who didn't agree with him before he started talking. What he could do about this is reframe the discourse by using terms that are as yet neutral, and dragging them over to his side. I don't think he'll be willing to do that; he would see it as a perversion of the process of discourse.

#72 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 04:30 PM:

Neil Willcox @ 62

So what's the word for something which is in every way a conspiracy except for not being secret?

How about "oligarchy"? Or "plutocracy"? Face it, we're not really talking about conspirators; they've already got what they conspired for. Now they're rulers.

#73 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 04:36 PM:

Fragano @ 64

The thing is, those ideas can be challenged, and have been challenged. What better thing to do than to channel the challenge into impotence by defining it as outside the mainstream and thus, by definition, insane?

The Soviets took this one step further: many dissenters were arrested, but rather than sentencing them to prison or the gulag, the state decided they must be mentally disturbed if they could not adjust to the "consensus" society, so they were put into asylums. Of course there was no definite term, and no guarantee that some doctor wouldn't run experiments on the effects of electroshock or anti-psychotic drugs on dissidence.

I'm surprised that the current administration hasn't used this tactic; it's so much less work to use the hospitals than the prisons to hold your enemies: there's no need to change the laws or fight with Congress. And doctors are cheap compared to Senators.

#74 ::: Robert ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 04:58 PM:

I think it would be amusing if somebody were to go some TV debate with Ann Coulter and either (1) ignore both Coulter and the host but explain to the audience that the host, his producers, and network think the audience is stupid or (2) ignore Coulter and continually ask the host why he thinks Coulter should be on TV. In either case, the debater should be prepared to document that Coulter is a known liar who advocates the mass murder of babies in Oklahoma. In the second case, one might suggest the only appropriate venue on TV for Coulter is Dr. Phil, where she can get the help she so obviously needs.

What sort of ratings would something like that get? Is that frame-breaking?

#75 ::: jennie ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 05:35 PM:

I was at lunch with my dad yesterday, and it got me to thinking how our socio-political environment shapes our view of what is "sensible."

Dad is a small-c conservative, who voted Conservative in the last election, and has probably voted Liberal, but thinks the New Democrats are a buncha bleeding-heart academics who are all in the pockets of the labour unions and want to tax and spend.

A former small-business owner, currently self-employed, middle-class, no higher-education to speak of, and either second- or third-generation Canadian, Dad doesn't like Chinese people, gay people, religious people of any sort, brown people, immigrants, or people on social assistance; however, he'd never refuse to do business with someone of another race or ethnicity, and, in the context of business, he'd invite them golfing. He'll just be a jerk behind their backs, and be upbraided by his kids.

I don't agree with my dad on a lot of issues. He thinks I'm a bleeding heart radical feminist queer-friendly socialist with no idea about how things work in the Real World.


Dad's also a firm believer in socialized health care, education, and child care. He thinks it's insane that someone can wind up thousands of dollars in debt as a result of illness, and wonders how young people are ever supposed to get ahead in their careers and lives if they have to take whatever job has the best health insurance for fear of a rogue kidney infection or ovarian cyst bankrupting them. He finds it shameful that young people are starting their careers with thousands of dollars of debt acquired getting the credentials they need to get in the door. He thinks the war in Iraq is arrogant folly waged at the hands of insane liars, and that Canada should be the heck out of Afghanistan. He doesn't believe in military spending before social spending, but thinks that if we're going to send people to fight we damn' well owe them the best equipment they can get.

Dad, and my stepmom, (heck, my entire family) would characterize themselves as moderates. By my standards, they're simply uninformed, lazy thinkers, parroting what the mainstream news media tell them. Which makes me rather thankful that our Overton window is much closer to the sensible part of the field.

#76 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 05:41 PM:

Bush's charm doesn't come from Bush at all. It's all added in post-production and by people talking about how charming Bush is until the audience starts to believe them (the Asch effect).

As for the punditocracy, I think Amanda put her finger on it with this:
It seems to me that the other reason that people are a little unwilling to state that bloggers offer direct competition to the punditocracy is that we haven’t “paid our dues”. The career path of a traditional pundit is to be a journalist, learn the ropes, get into the system, and then start opinionating. It seems unfair to have people just start a blog and start having influence without paying those dues. I can see how this makes people flinch some and therefore look to “citizen journalism” to legitimize blogging, but they shouldn’t. Dues-paying is precisely the reason that a lot of mainstream pundits are so conservative and insular and scared to proffer opinions that could damage their social standing in political circles. In a democracy, the everyday person aspect of blogging is critical.
Or in short, bloggers are suspect because they don't have a personal stake in maintaining the status quo. People who have managed to climb to the top of the heap are pretty much always going to want to keep the heap as tall as it is or even a bit taller. (Especially if there's ideological filtering on the way up.)

It's the prospect of blogs to be a true meritocracy - where someone who writes well can grab a big audience without the imprimatur of a publisher - that is so scary to the fake meritocracy.

And the ability to present your idea in its own context, without the framing talking heads discussing how radical and unpopular and extremist it is, threatens to break the Overton window altogether and allow ideas to be judged by their own logic and coherence. Naturally this is a dire threat to the professional goalpost-movers.

#77 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 05:43 PM:

Bruce Cohen #73: Doctors may be cheap, but hospitals aren't. They'd have to build some new loony bins first, since most were scrapped back in the seventies.

I suspect, though, that it is a lack of the appropriate imagination that has prevented this from happening. The Bushies like disappearing people into secret prisons, it's more manly.

#78 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 07:28 PM:

Fragano @ 77

Hospitals are plenty cheap if you run them the way the Bushites have been running Walter Reed. You can cut building maintenance, building code compliance, orderly staff, and transportation almost completely out. And hey, who's going to want to spend on frills like heating for dissident crazies?

You know, that "manly" remark isn't a joke. If you apply that to almost everything those jerks have done, it explains a lot. What we need now is the "President's Analyst." I'd love to see Shrub's reaction to James Coburn.

#79 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 10:36 PM:

Bruce Cohen #78: That's a truly frightening thought.

The 'manly' remark was only half in jest. The Bushies seem obsessed with a model of masculinity (and projecting America as masculine) that they seem to have got from watching one too many John Wayne films.

#80 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2007, 11:19 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 78... I'd love to see Shrub's reaction to James Coburn.

Me too, especially since, to the very end, Coburn was an unrepentant Democrat.

#81 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2007, 07:30 AM:

#70 Randolph Fritz: "It seems to me that the way we are "combating" it, if you can call it that, has been to wait until its internal contradictions make themselves felt, and then push."

And it has been a pretty terrible way of fighting back. I've no problem with using political jujitsu and letting them expose themselves as insane and untrustworthy, but I'd prefer to do it before they cripple the government, trample on the constitution, and imbroil the nation in a massively expensive foreign war. They need to be stopped before they get the power to fuck things up this bad.

Instead, Democrats have been letting the Republicans grab power, fuck everything up, and then leave Democrats to pick up the mess. Repeat ad nauseum. To effectively take on the Republicans, we need to confront them before they get into power, which is something that I think the internet (blogger) revolution has been remarkably successful at.

#82 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2007, 09:04 AM:

ethan @ 53: I don't know. I guess this is one of those things that, when I try to confront it, even just in my mind, I'm overwhelmed with powerlessness. There has to be an effective way to combat this crap, and I just don't know what it is. Maybe there isn't one.

The oligarchy has, over the past couple of generations especially, poured effort and resources into convincing us we're powerless and what we do can't make a difference.

That, right there, tells me we're not and we can.

#83 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2007, 09:32 AM:

#76 Chris:

I don't think there's any way you "break the window," that's just saying that there would be no political positions which were unthinkable. The blogosphere probably ends up including all kinds of unthinkable stuff, but that's not the only constraint on opinion, or on what ideas get labeled as nuts.

The big win with the blogosphere is that it doesn't have a choke-point. While all the big TV networks/studios and big newspapers were possible to influence in various ways, it's probably harder to do that with blogs, because of their number. But political talk doesn't move the window as much, I don't think, as the broader media--TV shows, books, movies. Stuff like YouTube and the iPod is going to make a much bigger end-run around the current gatekeepers possible in the near future.

The truly revolutionary aspect of blogs is the ability to read serious discussions about technical issues from the technical experts themselves, rather than have it filtered through what the reporter could understand, what the editor wanted to see reported, and what wouldn't upset the advertisers too much.

#84 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2007, 09:41 AM:

Is it possible that the creation of lots of right-wing think tanks is a really critical step in winning elections through strategy, perhaps analogous to having a general staff in a military organization?

#85 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2007, 09:54 AM:

There are orders of magnitude more competent research and analysis done on this website that the US taxpayer is getting bilked for for those "studies" from bigoted fanatic masquerading-as-think-thinks like Elaine Donnelly (whose credentials I have yet to see pass any credibility test for "research" that isn't of the sort that makes data or invents data or "processes" data to fit the desired preset conclusions.... I have never seen anything providing any credentials about her that show ANY legitimate training in e.g. the scientific method at an accredited institution with courses of study that have legitimacy and credibility, or background of having -been- in the military... her claim to Authority is pure unadulterated temerity and self-promotion and promotion by Phyllis Schlafly... she and her institution have not one shred of creditibility for claiming expertise in anything but deceit and obfuscation and bigotry.

Perhaps Making Light should get an additional name as the "Center for [something or other]." There is more legimate and credible analysis done here, than Donnelly's so-called Center for Military Readiness will ever produce, not matter how much taxpayer dollars get squanderer on contracts for her screed-masquerading-as-research.

#86 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: April 06, 2007, 11:24 PM:

Among many points:

1) Coburn was a deadly martial artist, trained by Bruce himself. With any luck, he'd have snapped W like a twig. But a re-make of that film would be ... interesting.

2) I've long described this whole thing as a social parallel of Zeno's paradox - where you can move halfway to your destination with every step, but can never get there. With every statement, the far right moves another step to the right, and then complains that those on 'the left' are not close enough to the center, which moves further to the right with every social transaction.

As far as I can tell, what the MSM calls "the center" is (if you plot linearly, which is almost always a mistake in the social sciences) about 85% along the line from left to right. This puts "the far left" at about 70%, and the *real* center so far left the pundits (and their rulers) never even see it.

But that's just how I see it.

#87 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2007, 02:45 AM:

#84 albatross: I think the proliferation of think tanks was fundamental to the right-wing takeover. They are such a convenient source of talking heads that they pretty quickly dominated the talk-show circuit, and do to this day.

There's a considerable gulf between detailed, academic analysis and TV-ready talking points. If you want the public to have any idea what is going on, however, you've got to bridge that gap somehow. This is what think tanks do, and it's long past time for Democrats to have some of their own, producing sane talking points.

#88 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2007, 12:45 PM:

Part of the problem with the "left, right, center" model is that it has too few dimensions.

An experiment I would like to try, if I had the resources: Assemble a questionnaire of a hundred or so questions on various political issues, and give it to a few thousand (hopefully representative) people. Instead of imposing prearranged ideological axes, look at what patterns emerge *from the data* that can (partially) explain the 100-dimensional variation in terms of fewer dimensions. (This is likely to be computationally expensive because of the large number of variables involved - the whole point is to avoid making a priori assumptions about which questions can be lumped together.) Chart the difference in predictive power between a 10, 9, 8... dimensional model. *Then* look at the specific questions involved in each dimension and try to figure out what the dimensions represent in ordinary political terminology.

Some people use a two-dimensional model, which is of course better than a one-dimensional model. But I think the ability to *measure* how much power you lose going from, say, 5 dimensions to 4 would be interesting.

Of course, the more dimensions you acknowledge, the harder it is to find someone who's in the middle of *all* of them. All the "centrists" whose views are *flattened* onto the middle of the limited-dimension spectrum would find that their differences were quite visible in multiple dimensions.

#89 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2007, 01:05 PM:

#88 Chris:

You're basically talking about principal components analysis. Basically, the goal there is to look at a bunch of possibly related variables, and come up with the simplest possible description of how they're related--like some variable distinguishes between issues a,b,c, and d, because they're all related. (Go look at the Wikipedia entry for a better description!)

I would bet someone in the political science world has done this. I wonder where we'd look for information on this. I've read comments from political scientists that the liberal/conservative spectrum comes up in one form or another in most societies, though the specific issues can be pretty different. (For example, Pim Fortyn, the Dutch anti-immigrant right-winger who was assassinated a few years back, was an openly gay sociology professor.)

#90 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2007, 01:14 PM:

#97 Heresiarch:

Yeah, I think this served at least a couple different purposes:

a. Support some real intellectual muscle for analysis of problems from a right-wing perspective.

b. Produce a steady crop of pundits and opinion writers.

Sometimes, these are the same people wearing different hats. For example, Thomas Sowell's columns are standard punduitry from a guy who's a lot smarter than the average pundit, but is definitely carrying water for the Republicans. But his books have some really interesting and deep analysis of important things, from the history of migration and assimilation to the way people and organizations make decisions.

You need both of these, right? If you ever want to use your ideas to rule, you'd better have some idea what you're going to do. And while the visible columnists and pundits are easy to see and complain about, I suspect a lot of the disaster of the last few years' foreign policy is due to those "deep thinkers" walking off a cliff in the way of intellectuals blinded by their beautiful ideology.

#91 ::: Clark E. Myers ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2007, 02:35 PM:


See Dr. Pournelle's U. of Washington (Puget Sound) dissertation in which he pretty effectively argues that all meaningful combinations of preferences can be placed on a plain (perhaps like Arrow ignoring irrelevant alternatives) so that every individual's preference combination can be given by x,y coordinates. So a single axis is not sufficient but given the nature of a plain only one additional axis is necessary for x,y or x',y' or x",y" coordinates so pick your own x,y lines.

There is a vastly simplified popular article, extracted by Dr. Pournelle, with examples from Dr. Pournelle's own choice of system in the Baen free library - see also Wikipedia and all the usual suspects but notice that Wikipedia and some other secondary references dismiss the intellectual content by shooting the messenger. Dr. Pournelle has suggested changes from his own perspective to Wikipedia and of course been shot down. Ample references in the original and in the follow-on discussion.

The modern foundation of current thinking about preferences along a single axis - specifically including a strong discussion of double peaked preferences much as we see today - is Duncan Black. Black's ideas are not limited but his best work was pre-computer analysis and so I think simplified beyond his thinking for class-room use.

Arguably it is because we see double peaked rather than bell shaped preferences that we see triangulation such a hot meta-topic with and about the Clintons et. al..

I'll be sure to refer those who speak of common sense rules they wish to impose on my own pet issues to this discussion.

#92 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2007, 04:59 AM:

#90 albatross: "I suspect a lot of the disaster of the last few years' foreign policy is due to those "deep thinkers" walking off a cliff in the way of intellectuals blinded by their beautiful ideology."

I think that most of them walked off that ideological cliff blinded by nothing other than a big fat stack of cash. I doubt that very many of those "what global warming?" scientists adopted their position purely based on their sober analysis of the literature. I imagine they ended up over there because of their a priori assumptions about the nature of the universe, but once there, I'll bet the lure of cash pulled them ever right-wards. It's that Upton Sinclair quote: "It is impossible to convince a man of anything, if his job depends on believing the opposite," or something along those lines.

#93 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2007, 04:43 PM:

Heresiarch #92:

I really didn't follow the neocons' empire-building ideas until they blinded everyone with any power in the Executive branch (all two of them) and led us into a disaster, so I don't really know the history. It seems like there was a huge post-cold-war financial and bureacratic incentive to find something for our soldiers and expensive military equipment to be doing. I would be surprised if thinkers who somehow saw dragons out there that needed slaying didn't get some money from some of those folks. But I thought we were gearing up to make the Chinese into the enemy, rather than the Arabs/Muslims. (The Chinese at least make a credible opponent, unlike the Muslim world.)

The more interesting part of your comment, to me, involves the need to stick to your position once it becomes a major source of power, prestige, and money. This is generically true--if your funding all depends on continuing to find evidence that global warming has nothing to do with CO2 emissions, or alternatively if it depends on continuing to find evidence that human CO2 emissions are the main factor in global warming, then it becomes really hard to respond to evidence that contradicts what you've been claiming so far. I don't quite know what a good solution to this is, other than to make sure something like tenure continues to exist for some researchers, so at least they won't lose their job and house if they change their position on an issue that draws a lot of funding. Ideally, researchers would have a salary fixed entirely independent of future positions they took. That would eliminate some of the pressure to stick to funding-friendly viewpoints, and also some of the ability of powerful people to punish you for straying outside the window of acceptable ideas.

Think tanks have the potential to support a lot of independent thought, and indeed, that was one stated purpose of many conservative think tanks. But there's a real problem, because if you're paid to support a certain range of positions, you can't ever change your position in certain directions or you won't have a job anymore. I've read stories of this happening at some right wing think tanks, and I assume that for every clear-cut case of someone getting fired for saying the wrong stuff, there are many cases of quiet self-censorship or quiet decisions to change employers.

I think similar pressures operate at some government agencies, and more effectively in the large media organizations. Some views aren't acceptable, and if you express them, you won't have your job anymore. Many other views, while not death-penalty-worthy, are at least career-retarding. Maybe you won't lose your job, but if you go around saying some stuff, you don't get promoted, don't get put into the public eye much, etc.

#94 ::: Alethea ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2007, 10:05 AM:

How happy I am to have stumbled on this productive discussion! In particular (aside from the original post), I was drawn to the point made by Chris #88 which seemed to be the theory behind the observation made by Jennie #75: there IS more than one dimension to political thinking.

So far, the axis (or axes) haven't been named. Couldn't we less powerful non-pundits define and impose the name for at least the second dimension? I would try to keep it simple for all of us lazy thinkers out there and not jump to five dimensions just yet.

But perhaps we can get across the idea of plotting positions on a "right-left" axis versus an "individual-social" axis. Thus, a certain number of libertarians I know might have the coordinates "left-highly individual" and Jennie's dad (and others) might have a slightly "right-social" bent. And I'd be "left-social". Although here in France, I'm considered "right-slightly individualist".

#95 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2007, 01:13 PM:

I'd call this a "length scale" problem.

I feel smug; I've been telling people for years that the Democratic Party's stronges defect is the lack of a Communist or Socialist party of which anyone is afraid. Without one, the Democratic Party becomes, rightly or wrongly, the left end of the scale---whereas even the proto-fascist crypto-racist pseudo-theocratic members of the Republican Party have prominent non-d spokespeople in the high-audience media.

Of course, when you have three or more dimensions, McKelvey's Theorem comes into play, and so (if I remember the explanation given of iut to me a little while back) there's the possibility of shifting preferences from any point in the continuum to any other, given control of the pairs of choices allowed...

#96 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2007, 04:48 PM:

Uggh; sorry:

Bruce and Fragano: I believe there was at least one case of a military person in Iraq's expressing strong doubts about the mission and ending up back in the States (good) with a Haldol I.V. in his arm (not so good).

The whole question of fringe opinions is complicated by the fact that some people on the fringe act...well...fringy, that is in ways near-guarantied to turn- or tick-off members of the mainstream. This may stem from a realistic assessment of their actual prospects (if you've no hope of being liked, you won't try to be likable), a barely-buried desire to _stay_ on the fringe (to stay pure, to avoid reality-testing, to avoid responsibility, to be confirmed in your conviction by its unpopularity), or from some literal or figurative Autism Spectrum disorder (spoken as someone who works out expectable human emotions by hand). And though I'm firm in support of the right to act in unpopular ways, I pity those who so act and then resent being unpopular, or those who act crazily and resent being called "crazy".

Also, many people who hold them also seem to have fringe standards of argument or of proof---ad hominem (or maybe ad genera[decl?]) retorts of the form "That's an invalid argument because you're <whatever>, and the standard and method of proof on which you're insisting is simply a construct of a <whatever>-dominated [society|system|sky-diving club].

#97 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 10:45 PM:

I'm skeptical of the two dimensions. I'm an anarcho-communist witch. The "witch" part puts me in a different part of the crowd than most anarchists when it comes to dealing with the sacred. But it doesn't put me anywhere near Pat Robertson.

#98 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: July 19, 2011, 11:00 PM:

Patrick @ 31: A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

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