Understanding Their Perspective, and Thus Their Agenda

Jay Rosen of New York University recently listed the things he spends “most time puzzling about these days”. Here are his top two, although I’ve reversed the order, because one of them describes the world as most Republicans see it, a perspective that helps generate their warped political agenda:

        1) The Republican Party is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled . . . minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military. 

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainstream media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives. 

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. 

Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three. A counter-majoritarian [political party] thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures. 

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias. 

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the [journalistic] playbook about that.

        2) We have a two-party system and one of the two is [against democracy].

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the Big Lie that [somebody else] actually won

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that [the loser] won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership. 

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. 

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do . . . 

Unquote.

A thought occurred to me after reading Prof. Rosen’s post, so I left a comment:

It seems that the two biggest purveyors of right-wing propaganda and disinformation in the US are Fox News (the Murdochs) and Facebook (Zuckerberg). Do we have to accept the present behavior of these two institutions — actually, the behavior of these individuals — as facts of nature or are there practical ways to reduce their negative influence? Ways to address the problem have been suggested, but maybe there needs to be a more organized, targeted approach.

What do you do to sociopathic billionaires in order to get them to cease and desist? I don’t know, but that’s why people tried to assassinate Hitler.

If Only Silly Talk Fixed America’s Infrastructure

What’s known as Biden’s “infrastructure bill” is actually called “The American Jobs Plan”. There’s an 11,000 word summary at the White House site. These are the opening paragraphs from what would print out as twenty, single-spaced pages:

While the American Rescue Plan [the Covid relief bill] is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were. This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.

The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure. After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling. Our electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic outages. Too many lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet and to quality housing. The past year has led to job losses and threatened economic security, eroding more than 30 years of progress in women’s labor force participation. It has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure. And, our nation is falling behind its biggest competitors on research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and training. It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.

Instead of a debate about the details, we’re getting a stupid argument about the word “infrastructure”. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post discusses:

Republicans are still road-testing their attacks on the giant infrastructure bill Democrats are assembling, and while some are predictable (It would be disastrous to raise taxes on corporations!), their most frequent one is not only weak; it also shows how disconnected the debate in Washington can sometimes get from the things that actually affect people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the news media are giving them a big hand.

If this past weekend you tuned into the Sunday shows, where the conventional wisdom is lovingly shaped and admired, you would have seen the same theme replayed over and over about the infrastructure bill:

  • “This $2 trillion ask, only about 5 percent of the funding goes to infrastructure,” Margaret Brennan of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” asked Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Can you honestly call this a focus on building roads and bridges?” [Mr. Waldman lists three more examples from NBC, ABC and Fox, but one is painful enough.]

First, let’s be clear that the “only 5 percent” counts as “real infrastructure” talking point is utterly bogus. It defines infrastructure as only roads and bridges, leaving out railroads, water and sewer systems, the electrical grid, broadband, housing and any number of other things that you probably think of when you hear the word.

The idea that only roads and bridges are infrastructure is like saying, “You said your house needed work, but the floors and walls seem fine. Why bother fixing the leaking pipes and the broken roof and the electrical system that shorts out? That’s not really the core of the house, which as we all know is floors and walls and nothing else.”

But the more important question is: Why in the world would it possibly matter what definition of “infrastructure” we use?

Imagine it’s a few years from now. This bill has passed and as a result, the crumbling bridge in your town has been replaced and the roads have been resurfaced — no more banging your car over all those potholes. In addition, there’s a new senior center in town with all kinds of facilities and services, operated by a skilled staff making a living wage.

Do you think your neighbors will say, “I like the bridge and the roads, but the senior center? Sure, my mother-in-law loves her fitness class there, and they helped her solve that Medicare problem she had, but it just doesn’t seem like ‘infrastructure’ to me.”

Of course not, because that’s not what people care about. They want to know that government did worthwhile things with their tax dollars, whatever category you might put each line-item into.

Now it’s true that Democrats have indeed thought broadly about what to put in this bill, including things that are not installed by burly men in hardhats but that they believe are important. Republicans may find some of those things — like building housing, or improving care for the elderly and disabled, or promoting electric vehicles — not to be worthwhile. Which is fine.

But if that’s what Republicans think, they should explain why we shouldn’t actually build more housing, and we shouldn’t fund care for the elderly, and we shouldn’t promote electric vehicles. Just saying “That doesn’t sound like ‘infrastructure’ to me” is not an argument. This isn’t the Merriam-Webster editorial board; it’s the U.S. government.

So what if instead of asking Is this really infrastructure? about the various provisions in this bill, we ask Is this a good thing?

You can apply that standard to both road repairs and increased spending on elder care. Is this something important and worthwhile? Will funding it in the way that is proposed accomplish the goals we set out? Will it improve life for Americans?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then we should probably do it.

There may well be provisions in the initial proposal that don’t meet that test. But I want to hear Republicans explain why they think we shouldn’t invest in elder care or electric vehicle charging stations. Maybe their arguments are so well-informed and persuasive that we’ll say, “You know what, they’re right — Democrats should take that out of the bill.” I doubt it, but it’s always possible.

That’s how policy debate is supposed to work: We argue about which problems need addressing, then we argue about which solutions to deploy. If it all works out, the legislation that gets passed reflects the outcome of that deliberation, with the unworthy ideas jettisoned and the worthy ideas becoming law. But arguing about the definition of words such as “infrastructure” gets us precisely nowhere.

Yet because one of the parties is repeating this talking point, journalists feel that to be “tough” they have to use it to frame their questioning of the other party. The result is that we miss what’s really important.

Unquote.

Calling talk show hosts “journalists” is an insult to journalism. “Talking heads” would be more accurate. “Overpaid talking heads” to be more precise. We can hope, however, that talking about semantics will serve to educate the public, the politicians and even some talking heads.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia “Democrat”, says he can’t support putting the corporate tax rate back at 28%. Playing the sensible statesman for the folks back home, he thinks 25% would be all right. In a way, it’s good that he’s got so much power at the moment, providing the last vote for Democratic initiatives. It shows that Biden is trying to make progressive changes. If the president was being more conservative, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would be the 50th vote. So we’ll continue to hear Manchin’s pronouncements. He must love all the attention.

Twitter Banning Him May Be More Important Than We Thought

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post thinks we haven’t yet realized how important it is that Twitter banned the creep. That’s because journalists and others who dominate the national conversation use Twitter a lot:

The silence is remarkable.

For all that’s happening — President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the threat of right-wing violence, the coronavirus death toll approaching 400,000 — the loudest voice in American life for the past five years has been reduced to a whisper. President Txxxx is not on Twitter.

On Jan. 8, Twitter’s leadership finally decided that it had had enough of Txxxx using the platform to spread lies and incite violence and barred him from the service. According to a new Post/ABC News poll, 58 percent of the public supported the move (though that includes 91 percent of Democrats and only 16 percent of Republicans).

But the magnitude of that decision still hasn’t been fully appreciated. The fact that this one social media company decided to shut down this one account might have completely reshaped American politics for the coming few years.

Until 10 days ago, nearly everyone assumed that Txxxx would be in a unique place for a defeated ex-president, retaining a hold on his party’s base that would make him the axis around which the Republican world revolved.

His opinions would shape the party’s approach to Biden’s presidency. He would make or break Republican officeholders, depending on their loyalty to him. Everyone within the party — especially those who want to run for president themselves in 2024 — would have to grovel before him, just as they have for so long. The GOP would still be Txxxx’s party, in nearly every sense.

But not anymore.

As much as we’ve talked about Txxxx’s tweets for all these years, if anything we might have underestimated how central Twitter was to his power. Without it — especially as an ex-president — he’ll be like Samson without his hair, all his strength taken from him.

Twitter was so important to Txxxx, according to Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the . . . University of North Carolina, because of a few critical features of the platform itself and who uses it.

First, “Twitter is the space for political and media elites,” McGregor told me. Facebook has many more users, but journalists are on Twitter constantly, which means that when Txxxx spoke there, he was speaking to them.

So even if Facebook lets Txxxx back on (it, too, banned him, but so far only through the inauguration), that won’t give him the ability to send a missive and then sit back as one news organization after another runs stories about it, multiplying its effects. “Whatever he said on Twitter ended up on the news,” McGregor said. According to research McGregor conducted . . ., when President Barack Obama tweeted during his second term, 3 percent of the time the tweet would find its way into a news story. The figure for Txxxx’s tweets during his term was 65 percent.

Second, the platform provided him a place to speak uncontested. He could say whatever he wanted without being challenged, at least in the moment.

Third, his Twitter presence enabled him to constantly reinforce an affinity between himself and his supporters by speaking to them not only about politics but also about plenty of other topics.

Txxxx connected with them “because he was so genuinely himself, for better and for worse, on Twitter,” McGregor told me. They identified with his opinions about everything, whether it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the merits of KFC or the latest celebrity scandal.

“That’s the reason influencers of all stripes are successful, because of that sense of intimacy” that social media can create, McGregor said. [Twitter] allowed people to make that connection between him and themselves” as they responded to the news together.

When he’s not president, Txxxx will have means of speaking to the public — he can call in to “Fox & Friends,” for instance — but he won’t be surrounded by reporters waiting to write down his every word, so he’ll have to work harder to get the attention of the press. Without Twitter, he won’t be able to speak to his people on an hourly basis, maintaining that affinity and crowding out the other Republicans who might compete for their affection.

He could go to some upstart conservative social media platform, like Gab or Parler (if it gets restored). But those don’t have the mainstream legitimacy he craves, and reporters aren’t on them, so their reach is much more limited.

That means that when new events occur, Txxxx won’t be able to make himself the core of the story. He won’t be able to constantly remind Republicans that they need to fear him. While many of his supporters will remain loyal, others will drift away, not turning against him but just no longer thinking about him every day.

That will create a vacuum into which other Republicans can move as they position themselves for 2024, not because they’re such Twitter ninjas themselves, but because space will have been created for something more like a normal, non-Txxxx presidential nominating contest.

There are profound questions about the role social media now plays in our political process. I agree both with those who argue that Twitter banning Txxxx was long overdue (his account was the single most important nexus of misinformation on the entire platform) and that it’s deeply troubling that a private company has this much power.

But, for now, it does. And so one company’s decision to finally say no to a president who used it to inject poison into the American political bloodstream for years has remade the future of the Republican Party, and perhaps the whole country.

Txxxx will still play a role in his party and in our politics; we won’t shake off this horrific presidency so easily. But that blissful quiet, as we no longer have him shouting in our ears every day? We could get used to that.

Is It a Political “Lord of the Flies”?

We human beings like explanations for strange phenomena. The way one of our political parties has become incredibly extreme is one of those strange phenomena that cry out for an explanation. I’m sure there is no single, simple reason, but Prof. Paul Krugman gives it a shot:

There have always been people like Dxxxx Txxxx: self-centered, self-aggrandizing, believing that the rules apply only to the little people and that what happens to the little people doesn’t matter.

The modern [Republican Party], however, isn’t like anything we’ve seen before, at least in American history. If there’s anyone who wasn’t already persuaded that one of our two major political parties has become an enemy, not just of democracy, but of truth, events since the election should have ended their doubts.

It’s not just that a majority of House Republicans and many Republican senators are backing Txxxx’s efforts to overturn his election loss, even though there is no evidence of fraud or widespread irregularities. Look at the way David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are campaigning in the Senate runoffs in Georgia.

They aren’t running on issues, or even on real aspects of their opponents’ personal history. Instead they’re claiming, with no basis in fact, that their opponents are Marxists or “involved in child abuse”. That is, the campaigns to retain Republican control of the Senate are based on lies.

On Sunday Mitt Romney excoriated Ted Cruz and other congressional Republicans’ attempts to undo the presidential election, asking, “Has ambition so eclipsed principle?” But what principle does Romney think the [Grand Old Party] has stood for in recent years? It’s hard to see anything underlying recent Republican behavior beyond the pursuit of power by any means available.

So how did we get here? What happened to the Republican Party?

It didn’t start with Txxxx. On the contrary, the party’s degradation has been obvious, for those willing to see it, for many years.

Way back in 2003 I wrote that Republicans had become a radical force hostile to America as it is, potentially aiming for a one-party state in which “elections are only a formality.” In 2012 Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein warned that the G.O.P. was “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts” and “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

If you’re surprised by the eagerness of many in the party to overturn an election based on specious claims of fraud, you weren’t paying attention.

But what is driving the Republican descent into darkness?

Is it a populist backlash against elites? It’s true that there’s resentment over a changing economy that has boosted highly educated metropolitan areas at the expense of rural and small-town America; Txxxx received 46 percent of the vote, but the counties he won represented only 29 percent of America’s economic output. There’s also a lot of white backlash over the nation’s growing racial diversity.

The past two months have, however, been an object lesson in the extent to which “grass roots” anger is actually being orchestrated from the top. If a large part of the Republican base believes, groundlessly, that the election was stolen, it’s because that’s what leading figures in the party have been saying. Now politicians are citing widespread skepticism about the election results as a reason to reject the outcome — but they themselves conjured that skepticism out of thin air.

And what’s striking if you look into the background of the politicians stoking resentment against elites is how privileged many of them are. Josh Hawley, the first senator to declare that he would object to certification of the election results, rails against elites but is himself a graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School. Cruz, now leading the effort, has degrees from Princeton and Harvard.

. . . These aren’t people who have been mistreated by the system. So why are they so eager to bring the system down?

I don’t think it’s just cynical calculation, a matter of playing to the base. As I said, the base is in large part taking its cues from the party elite. And the craziness of that elite doesn’t seem to be purely an act.

My best guess is that we’re looking at a party that has gone feral — that has been cut off from the rest of society.

People have compared the modern G.O.P. to organized crime or a cult, but to me, Republicans look more like the lost boys in “Lord of the Flies.” They don’t get news from the outside world, because they get their information from partisan sources that simply don’t report inconvenient facts. They don’t face adult supervision, because in a polarized political environment there are few competitive races.

So they’re increasingly inward-looking, engaged in ever more outlandish efforts to demonstrate their loyalty to the tribe. Their partisanship isn’t about issues, although the party remains committed to cutting taxes on the rich and punishing the poor; it’s about asserting the dominance of the in-group and punishing outsiders.

The big question is how long America as we know it can survive in the face of this malevolent tribalism.

The current attempt to undo the presidential election won’t succeed, but it has gone on far longer and attracted much more support than almost anyone predicted. And unless something happens to break the grip of anti-democratic, anti-truth forces on the G.O.P., one day they will succeed in killing the American experiment.

Unquote.

Krugman offers two explanations: (1) Republicans are living in a closed, right-wing information loop and (2) most Republican politicians never face serious electoral competition from the left — they fear competition from radical Republicans who are even further to the right. Maybe reason (1) is the explanation for reason (2)? It’s only because of the closed information loop that members of the party move further and further to the right.

But why is there this closed information loop? My guess is that Republicans hate the reality of contemporary America so much — uppity women, uppity Blacks, immigrants from Latin America, professional people who tell them uncomfortable truths, a society and a culture that become less traditional every day — that they much prefer news and information that isn’t based in reality. If you can’t stand the reality of the modern world, avoid it as much as possible. People like Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh (and Mark Zuckerberg) then come along and see how much money they can make propagating a right-wing fantasy world millions prefer to live in. The result is a vicious circle. The fantastic media feeds the masses and the masses demand media that’s ever more fantastic. Down and down the spiral goes and it still hasn’t hit bottom.