Thursday, April 22, 2010

All Mod Cons

Jonathan Chait notes that conservative talk radio and blogs are mostly ducking the banking bill.  He think it's because the issue is tricky to get right (no pun intended) for them:
You can see why the issue would pose problems for the right. First, it threatens the self-image they've developed over the last year as opponents of the government-business nexus. Second, it's difficult to work out a free market response...Either way, government has to get involved at some step in the process. It almost seems like conservatives can't choose which form of government intervention to accept, so many of them just aren't choosing.
I think this misunderstands the goals and incentives of what Ross Douthat has been dismissing as conservative "entertainment."  Chait, and I think most liberal bloggers, aren't entertainers, certainly not primarily so.  They are advocates for a particular type of politics and government.  As such, they are interested in public policy issues because they believe those issues are important to the well-being of the nation.  For entertainers, however, interest in an issue is going to be driven by the market, and the conservative market isn't apt to be interested in regulating (or not regulating) banks; it's interested in guns, and abortion, and religion, and various other hot-button issues.  Health care mapped pretty well onto those issues; financial regulation, much less so.  So it's not so much that there's no coherent position that conservatives could take; it's that the types of people who listen to Rush, watch Beck, and read NRO just aren't interested in this sort of thing.  And we're talking about entertainers who may not know much about public policy, but give every indication of knowing their audience extremely well.

The other side of this, however, and where Douthat's classification runs into trouble, is that on the conservative side the "entertainers" are far more prominent than anyone else, and certainly far more prominent than what he calls "the elite world of pundits and intellectuals."  In other words, what Rush and company talk about -- which is driven by what drives ratings and sells books -- then becomes the only thing that conservatives talk about.  Moreover, as far as anyone can tell, there's just a lot of money to be had by being a conservative entertainer, which creates strong pressures on talented conservatives to be more Levin than Manzi, more Coulter than Friedersdorf, more Beck than Larison.  And that leaves people such as Manzi or Larison or Bartlett or even Frum marginalized by people such as Lopez or McCarthy. 

So it's a bit disingenuous for Ross Douthat to say that Mark Levin's book is just entertainment.  He's correct...except that it's entertainment that's driving the party, entertainment that makes it hard for Republicans in Congress to acknowledge widely-understood facts about climate change, entertainment that drives the conservative conversation so that if there's no market, there's no conversation.  And that, rather than the more general unpopularity of their position, is why there's little conservative talk about the banking bill: there just aren't enough abortions, guns, and gays involved.


  1. I'm not sure this is right. The health-care hysteria wasn't really about abortions, gays and guns either. It was about "socialism" and "tyranny" and "government takeovers" and the Gadsden flag. Granted, for the right's constituents, these things may register mentally as abortions, gays and guns -- "the government that's taking over everything else is going to take my guns away too" -- but if so, that's because the right-wing media have drawn those connections for people in order to whip up hysteria.

    And if they can do that with a market-oriented health-insurance reform, I don't see any reason why they couldn't do something similar with banking regulations. If Rush were screaming every day about how this is the next step toward the socialist nightmare, if Beck were explaining that it's exactly the plan that Woodrow Wilson's apparatchiks mapped out in 1913, etc., I don't think they'd have much trouble whipping up hysteria in favor of the big banks. At least, they know very well how to try to do so if they choose to, so if they're not really trying on this one, then you still need something like Chait's explanation of why that would be.

  2. Well, not only is the Stupak amendment about abortion, but don't forget that death panels = abortion, too. Those aren't really stretches, either; they are really part of the actual debate about health care (even if death panels weren't in the bill) in a way that isn't true about banking reform. And the hot button stuff that sells isn't limited to those items...I'm just using shorthand for the idea that market considerations (of conservative entertainers) are a big part of what conservatives are going to talk about.

  3. As I recall, though, the various rallies against HCR weren't primarily anti-abortion rallies. I'm sure there were pro-lifers there, but the iconic images weren't pictures of fetuses, they were the signs that misspelled "socialism," compared Obama to Hitler, etc., and the senior citizens screaming about keeping government out of Medicare. I'm just saying that broad, vague, badly confused slogans like these can be leveled against anything -- certainly against any measure with "regulation" in the title.

    But it seems to me there's an empirical point to be investigated here (not that I intend to do it): What ARE Rush, Beck, et. al. carrying on about at the moment, if not financial reform? Maybe they're just distracted by some other issue. Or maybe they're resting up and gathering their energies in preparation for going full-blast on immigration when that issue comes up again.

  4. To second Jefferson Smith to a degree: isn't fury at the banks a visceral issue across the political spectrum? Why isn't the Luntz-McConnell line -- the Dems are propping up the banks, enabling future bailouts -- taking off in the screamosphere? Recall all those Republicans who voted against TARP: couldn't they now take a tough love line? We won't regulate the banks but we won't bail them out? Of course that would be insane as policy, a gateway to a major Depression, but when has that ever stopped the wingnuts?

  5. I'll second Jefferson Smith. Palin said "death panels" only after the "socialism" line of argument had prevented Democrats from wrapping up HCR before the August recess.

    The remarkable (almost admirable) thing about the right-wing noise machine is that it's made large numbers of people interested in all sorts of dry political issues. Yes, it does so using emotion-based distortions, but still, politics in general is entertainment for a segment of the right that's much, much larger than the comparable segment of the left. That's why Fox's ratings are several times higher than MSNBC's and why lefty talk radio has been clobbered by right-wing radio. I wish our side could figure out how to make political anger a fascinating leisure activity for an audience of a comparable size.

  6. I think there's a difference between something that polls well and something that will sell books & get ratings. But I suppose we need more evidence...we need my brother or Weigel, someone who really knows what sells, to weigh in (if there's anyone on the academic side who studies such things, I'm not aware of it).

  7. OK, here's the deal. Sometimes it takes a while for the conservative marketplace to figure out how to market a "product." For instance, health care reform was not a money-maker at all during the spring of 2009; they all flailed around with different approaches, but none of them stuck. Finally Dick Morris came up with the idea that expanding coverage to everybody will cause a massive shortage in medical providers, inevitably forcing rationing of services, meaning that bureaucrats would decide that old people should just die. The religious right -- which, I kid you not, still makes big, big money off Terri Schiavo -- jumped all over this, which is how Sarah Palin came to coin "death panels," and everything clicked. (Then, once the marketplace was focussed on hating health care reform, it was easy to keep stoking that with new reasons, from socialism to the Nebraska compromise or whatever.)

    The conservative marketplace has been focussed on marketing this financial reform thing for only a very short time. (Yes, you would think they'd always be preparing next season's schedule, but they really don't work that way.) So they've been flailing around a bit for a marketing angle. And it's not easy, because we're coming off of the greatest abuse of Presidential and congressional power in the history of the Republic (health care reform, in case you didn't know), so it's hard to drum up much interest by claiming that this will -- oh, just to make something up out of Scott Brown's head -- cost 25,000 Massachusetts insurance-industry jobs. It's like trying to get people to watch the Pro Bowl a week after the Super Bowl.

    If the marketplace has time (before immigration reform puts everything else on the back burner), I suspect they'll find a message. I think the attempt at the link below -- from the great toe-sucker again -- shows promise: The bill hands the President massive new authority/power over the nation's financial institutions, and we know that he will use that power for all kinds of Chicago-style evil. (Morris didn't think of it yet, but I'm sure Michelle Malkin will figure out that there must be a czar involved.)

  8. The religious right -- which, I kid you not, still makes big, big money off Terri Schiavo -- jumped all over this, which is how Sarah Palin came to coin "death panels," and everything clicked.

    That's not how I remember "death panels," which I recall was sexed-up Besey McCaughey.

    And it seems to me that the right just fit health care into the Beck/Santelli "government takeover"/"socialist"/"redistribution"/"taxed enough already" narrative, and that that took off right away. But that's just my recollection.

  9. Steve M. is spot-on - Betsey McCaughey did provide the basis for death panels by smearing Ezekiel Emanuel in two summer op-eds, one in the NY Post (July 24)and one in the WSJ (8/27, Michelle Bachmann gave a speech in the House on Aug. 7 that was a straight crib of the McCaughey Post piece; Palin's "deal panel" Facebook post referenced this speech and was posted the same day.

    Here's a nugget from the NY Post article that lit the fuse (

    Emanuel, however, believes that "communitarianism" should guide decisions on who gets care. He says medical care should be reserved for the non-disabled, not given to those "who are irreversibly prevented from being or becoming participating citizens . . . An obvious example is not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia" (Hastings Center Report, Nov.-Dec. '96).

    Translation: Don't give much care to a grandmother with Parkinson's or a child with cerebral palsy.

    And heeere's Sarah, 7/7/09:

    The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

    Health care by definition involves life and death decisions. Human rights and human dignity must be at the center of any health care discussion.

    Rep. Michele Bachmann highlighted the Orwellian thinking of the president’s health care advisor, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the brother of the White House chief of staff, in a floor speech to the House of Representatives. I commend her for being a voice for the most precious members of our society, our children and our seniors.

    Bachmann's speech (video, 5 min) is here:

    McCaughey's Post article is a shameless cut-and-paste of Emanuel and Blumenthal. Alas, like any good smear artist, she did find one troubling germ in Ezekiel's voluminous writings, which I looked at in some detail back in Aug. 08, here:

  10. Great discussion. David B.'s explanation that the right is still "flailing around" in search of a "marketing angle" makes a lot of sense (the Pro Bowl metaphor is good too), and I am much in ASP's debt for the phrase "screamosphere," which I intend to use as often as possible from now on. Thanks, folks!

  11. I don't think that guns, abortions and gays is the only thing that drives conservative 'screamosphere' talk. Taxes, government-is-the-problem-not-the-solution etc. are also huge topics.

    So to me, the problem you identify -- why not much screamosphere talk about financial reform -- isn't necessarily caused by a lack of the gun-god-gays angle. Instead I agree with JS and David B. that it's caused by a lack of a 'marketing angle'.

    Financial reform is 'sploding heads on the right because a) the voters absolutely want something done about this bullshit (e.g. bailouts, bonuses and systemic risk that benefits a few while impoverishing many), but b) the ONLY solution -- government-directed reform, is c) the opposite of the ideology that's been peddled by the Right for decades.

    It's a pickle for them, so they are ignoring it in the hopes it somehow goes away.

  12. To add briefly to my above comment (and to shamelessly steal marketing babble) -- the rubber of right wing talkers' ideology has met the road of reality. There is no way to spin government-is-the-problem in the financial debate -- not because there is no government malfeasance to point to as a factor in the economic crisis, but rather because government intervention is the only actual solution on the table. Conservative gasbags have no way of explaining that, given the hole they have dug themselves after decades of binary, statism-vs-liberty blathering.

    To stretch your football analogy -- and this addendum past the length I originally promised -- it's similar to the NFL having major player disciplinary problems (Roethlisberger, Pacman Jones, etc). Sure, the governors of the league are at fault for allowing the problem to fester and grow ... but, perhaps counterintuitively, they are also the only ones in a position to actually fix the problem.

    But the Right has spent years convincing people that the government BY DEFINITION cannot ever fix any problem -- in markets or any other sphere -- so now they simply cannot figure out any kind of angle on financial reform that doesn't damage them considerably.

  13. On the death panel timeline: Dick Morris's book ("Catastrophe") came out in June '09, with a full chapter on the health-care reform issue focussing almost entirely on the inevitability of rationing. From that chapter: "[Rationing] decisions, of course, will be made not by your doctor or nurse but by bureaucrats--people who've never met you but who will literally determine whether you live or die."

    I'm not saying he originated the thought, but that book came out at #1 NYT in June (and of course Morris was pushing the idea on Hannity at the same time), and as ASP says, Palin/McCaughey/Bachmann started publicly pushing (and getting traction with) the death panel argument the next month. Not a coincidence.

    Of course, also not a coincidence that the issue gained traction around the time the Senate bill came out of committee in mid-July.

    But if you'll recall, health care reform was not a big traction issue on the right in the spring, even though it was very much in the news. The April Tea Parties , for example were about stimulus money, debt, mortgage bailouts, GM, and so on; note that health care was not even mentioned in this FOXNews roundup of the events:

  14. Ah, thanks for the Morris piece of the puzzle, David S. I guess the death panel meme "success" had many fathers (and mothers).


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