By the end of the Twentieth Century, conservative political and economic thought had become the reigning worldview in the United States. In the days of Lyndon Johnson about three-quarters of Americans trusted government. By the 1990s, only one quarter did; many of the rest thought it was the source of their problems. Some maintain that US political opinion has usually been clustered in the center-right, but by 2006, it was decidedly so. There were more than two conservatives for every self-identified liberal, and almost a majority of Americans thought the Democrats were too liberal. British Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb once observed, “There is no such thing as spontaneous public opinion. It all has to be manufactured...” Conventional wisdom is a massive asset in political warfare. It cannot be completely shaped without “the participation of the media and the political establishment.” Republicans built their own media, and began to dominate the political establishment after 1995.
Republican strategists fully understood all this and, over three decades, succeeded in selling their policies to a majority of Americans. Liberals gave conservatives a huge opening to repackage and resell their ideas when they concluded that it was pointless to pursue arguments about ideology. At the Yale University commencement in 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced that “practical management of a modern economy” had trumped the “grand warfare of rival ideologies.” Speaking for Democrats, he seemed to be saying that if economic growth continued, there was no reason to pursue and refine ideological arguments. He was echoing Daniel Bell who had written about the end of ideology. Conservatives entered this ideological void, and with well-crafted arguments and “propelled by cascades of cash,” captured much of the ideological battlefield and “succeeded brilliantly.”
Advanced communications techniques were pioneered in the American advertising world and relied upon appeals to elemental emotions and messages and slogans that were endlessly repeated. Joseph Goebbels, The German master propagandist, claimed that he sold his party’s policies using American advertising techniques. The Republicans are far better financed than the Democrats, but a key to their success is deployment of advanced communications theory.
For thirty years, they have used “framing,” a structural approach to building concepts through continual repetition. It means that their spokesmen deliver the same message in the same words, when it comes to the central part of a message. In selecting words, they carefully neutralize concerns voters might have and make the weakness of their proposals sound like strong points. For example “The Clean Skies Act” actually stripped away many regulations that made air cleaner and reduced carbon content. “The Healthy Forests Act” actually threatens the environment by giving loggers the green light to cut down virgin trees on public lands they previously were forbidden to touch. Framing takes time, but continual repetition eventually works, building these frames into our psychological structures. If a nominee for the Supreme Court says enough times he has no worldview, we come to believe it even though everyone has some kind of worldview. “Deep framing” is the process of assigning an array of emotions to a word so that hearing that word instantly brings up the desired worldview. For example, the word “liberal” has processed in this way and evokes revulsion, fear, and contempt for so-called educated elitists. Another example is the term “liberal media.” This concept has been so effectively framed that people are given licenses to simply ignore any factual matter coming from the media that they do not want to consider.
The two greatest Republican accomplishments in framing were in redefining “liberal” to mean people who have a great variety of serious character defects. Equally important has been their ability to appropriate or co-opt the language of moral values so completely that many people who admit that Democratic policies are best for their economic well-being still vote Republican.
On the other hand, Democrats have yet to learn the simplest lessons about symbol manipulation and repetition.. Rhetoric is the “art of persuasion in the cause of victory,” and excellence in this art “ can too easily erode one’s devotion to truth” on the part of speakers and listeners alike. As Senator Ben Nelson lamented in 2005, the Democratic Party had been defined as wanting to “ban the Bible, burn the flag, promote same-sex marriage, rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance, and take away everybody’s guns and half a dozen other things that are typically to the left of most Americans.” More importantly, the Republican information machine has been very successful at “fundamentally misrepresenting the nature of its policy objectives.” Polling data consistently demonstrates that large majorities of Americans do not like most Republican policies, but the party’s propagandists have succeeded in masking their goals and selling policies as commodities that they are not. Some think this is the key to Republican success, rather than playing on the false consciousness generated by the cultural wars. The truth probably involves both.
Voters made angry and fearful by exploitation of cultural issues are not likely to see though the misrepresentation of economic policies that are likely to harm them. The same messaging machine, which includes a very healthy and assertive conservative press, has developed numerous effective ploys to intimidate the mainstream press into “me-too conformity.” Over time, mainstream journalists have learned “that their careers will be better served if they tilt right and avoid getting stuck with the ‘liberal’ label.” There is no doubt that the right is expert at intimidating the traditional press, but it is also possible that the press is sharply attuned to market forces and realizes that the conventional wisdom veers fairly far to the right.
Expertise in Framing the Message
Academicians and political theorists have repeatedly insisted that the success of democracy depends upon “omnicompetent” citizens who were well informed about public affairs. Unfortunately, there are few of these very desirable people. Bryan Caplan has shown that most people in democracies do not invest time in becoming politically informed or thinking about how public questions affect their life situations. Only half of Americans even know that each state has two senators and that a senator’s term is six years. Voters, he admits, have political views , but they are basically prejudices and ad hoc attitudes. Democracies falter and fail because people are persuaded to what those results through clever manipulation of their emotions and perceptions. Public opinion has come to be based on often-false images and mental maps that people have of the world around them. They make decisions in a “pseudo-environment” shaped by necessarily simplistic media reporting and by deliberate and very effective efforts to shape public opinion.
Marketing is most effective when it is “narrow casting” by focusing on hot button issues and arousing fear or anger. Assertions like “They will take your guns” “They will ban Bibles,” or “They will fund abortion” are certain to move voters. Marketing techniques created “post-factual,” “post-rational politics,” in which facts and reason were not the most important factors in influencing decisions. Stony Brook University scientist Charles Taber noted, “The Enlightenment model of dispassionate reason as the duty of citizenship is empirically bankrupt.” A neuroscientist would note that the problem is that the connections from the emotions to the cognitive systems of the mind are far stronger than visa versa. Those who know this and know how to manipulate the emotions are going to be successful in politics.
Because impressions created by marketers were all important, it was difficult to sell specific policies or positions. Candidates and political parties and cultural issues could be manipulated to enhance the appearances of both. Presidential politics became a branding exercise, in which the party and candidate were marketed like products. The images of candidates and parties were recreated in the manner of commercial brands with brand myths and histories. Like physical products they were founded in language and marketing claims. The way people feel about things is based on how they are named and described. The key to branding was continual repetition of the same themes. When dealing with clear non-sequiturs, it was necessary to go more slowly, be louder, and continue with the repetitions.
Democrats attempted to deploy these techniques, but they understood them imperfectly and would continue to focus too much on propositional arguments Republicans have developed remarkable expertise in messaging, while Democrats barely deserve the title neophyte. Republicans pioneered in applying marketing techniques to politics and assured the long-term effectiveness of their approach by building their own media machine which created and reinforced a purely artificial ideological world for a growing body of deeply committed supporters. Over time, much of the mainstream media came to cooperate by seldom challenging the output of this awesome propaganda machine.
Republican theorists and publicists had mastered the new discipline called “cognitive science,” which enabled them partly to decipher people’s mental maps. They learned that a great number of Americans thought in terms of Strict Father morality. For them, every human being was equipped with knowledge of absolute rights and wrong, and humans built character and virtue by self-discipline in overcoming their natural moral weakness. Basically, humans must be stimulated by rewards and punishments to conform to the universal moral order. The lack of personal character was at the root of societal problems, not the social and economic explanations offered by social scientists. It is a morality that prescribes strong medicines: stern punishments for illegal immigrants, long prison sentences, and even the death sentence.
Many adherents of this outlook go so far as to turn a blind eye to the torture of suspected terrorist detainees and might even believe orphanages are preferable for children of single mothers. Key elements of this outlook uphold the rights of a father to lead, provide for, and protect his family. Protecting gun ownership is seen as very important because the gun is the symbol of a father’s right to take care of the family. This emphasis on protecting the family against morally weak, evildoers also explains why these people believe it is nearly impossible to spend too much on the military. It is also important to protect the rich from unfair taxation and regulation because they are the ideal citizens, proving that the system works and provides role models for all others. This explains why the 1992 Republican National Convention went wild when Dan Quayle asked, “Why should the best people be punished?” People who oppose this moral vision must be evil, especially homosexuals, who threaten the leadership role of the father. These people lack the moral strength to resist their base impulses.
The conservative moral vision is a natural moral order that is more or less reflected in the nature of things as they are. Hence, men were expected to lead women. Many still believe that whites were destined to lead whites and that Christians were placed over Jews. This outlook is not complex, and political arguments are easily framed in these terms. On the other hand, liberals believe in nurturing family morality. They place more emphasis on reason and science and are more issue-oriented. They distrust framing most political questions in moral terms, and their sense of morality is more nuanced. All this means that it is far more difficult for liberals to frame their positions in terms that believers in strict father morality can understand. Fortunately, many people’s outlooks blend the two approaches to morality, but the conservatives have a great advantage in being able easily to tap into their beliefs in strict family morality.
Informed by the writings of Richard Hofstadter, historians have long understood the connection between this sort of moral reasoning and right-wing populism. But there has been a tendency to believe that outbursts of right-wing populism are intense and relatively short. However, a conservative information network has been able to build upon right-wing populism that began in the late 1970s and has gathered momentum for more than two decades. The success of this effort was partly due to using conservative churches as Republican political clubhouses. Revisiting Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression might explain why the current right-wing populism has had considerable longevity. Lorenz did not talk about strong father vs. nurturing morality, but his idealists vs. realists are quite similar. The idealists believe in higher causes and a universal moral system, and they somehow believe that accepting biological evolution or seeing scientific explanations for human behavior that they lose some freedom. To the extent that they lack freedom, they prefer to trust a higher being and natural law. It is even better to trust a benevolent ruler than scientific explanations or those that rely entirely on reason. Frequently they discard natural, scientific explanations for those that are awe-inspiring. When traditional cultural values and norms appear to be threatened, these “idealists” venerate them even more and become their zealous defenders. Reason has a way of curbing humans’s aggressive instincts, but the idealists are less curbed by reason and are more likely to become zealots and militant enthusiasts.
Lorenz adds that as trusters of simple universal truths, “idealists” are perennial optimists. Even if their circumstances are deteriorating, they believe that by adhering to traditional values things are sure to get better; they will go down with the ship. The most important point is that when a society’s culture and welfare is threatened, the number of embattled idealists will continue at the same level or even grow. This appears to have happened. Since the 1960s, many have believed that American culture has been under attack. After September 11, 2001 the welfare and well being of America seemed to be clearly under attack, and many Americans found it increasingly necessary to place more trust in the executive branch of government and even surrender to it important civil liberties.
This outlook can be linked to what Hannah Arendt and Studs Terkel have written about banality. The idealist is prone toward the trivial, trite, and relatively meaningless. He or she is comfortable with the conventional wisdom spewed by the conservative elite and is not likely to accept unpleasant realities or complex arguments. The outlook is an addition to banality and “lack of serious thought that leads to fascism.”
In 2003, Republicans controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress, in large part because they had persuaded enough voters to forsake the political outlook of the New Deal and embrace the new conservatism. Moreover, “New Democrats,” a significant Democratic faction, had adopted many of the views of the neoliberals, either out of conviction or the calculation that it was necessary to stand a chance of being elected. After almost three decades of very effective propagandizing, they had practically banished from the public arena the idea that the health of the economy depended upon maintenance of a regulatory structure formulated during the New Deal. Conservatives had managed to persuade people that discussions of economic policy must focus on how to get more money in the hands of the wealthy and great corporations. This belief became political orthodoxy and shaped discussions of labor policy, the environment, and how much could be done to assist the poor and helpless. Over time, conservatives have succeeded in projecting their constructs of various social questions in a manner that has framed the thinking process of a great number of people on these matters. A public mood was created that became more and more receptive to conservative views.
Much depended upon very effective packaging of the conservative product, but often astonishingly liberal ineptitude was important. The process of contextualizing and defining social problems represents a great part of the political debate, and Republican conservatives were to demonstrate time and again mastery of the process. Without this process of reconstructing social reality, the world would be “represented as a jumble of random and chaotic events” with no contexts to make them meaningful. When Republicans defended President Bush’s decision to spy on telephone conversations without warrant, they put it simply as looking at telephone calls initiated by Al Qaeda, even though it was not consistent with how the monitoring work in practice. It was restated so many times that it seemed non-threatening to most Americans, and Congress, in the summer of 2007, even extended the administration’s power to monitor international telephone and e-mail traffic that passed through the United States. Warrantless monitoring was legalized for any communication originating outside the United States and directed to a U.S. citizen. There were no provisions for accountability or monitoring the program. The likelihood that the techniques employed would sweep in many domestic calls did not appear to be a problem, and even sixteen Democratic Senators joined in supporting the legislation.
When Samuel Alito was introduced as President Bush’s nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a brilliant marketing plan was used. It was all about his parent’s immigrant origins and his and their pursuit of the American Dream. His arch-conservative views on many issues never registered with the public. As Frank Rich wrote, “The selling of Samuel Alito is a perfect illustration of how our world works...he’d be presented as a humble exemplar of American values too mainstream to be labeled ‘out of the mainstream’ by his opponents. The conservative information network continually worked effectively at framing questions in their terms and building patterns of cognition and interpretation of social experience that would underpin Republican arguments in the political debate. Over time, a form of conservative group-think emerged, building a disposition to simply to screen out most information that contradicted t he conclusions this mindset promoted. Liberals lacked anything that would approximate this network of information generators.
Roger Ailes demonstrated near genius in marketing the “New” Richard Nixon in 1968. Michael Deaver, Reagan’s communications’ wizard, demonstrated similar skills and excelled at arranging superb photo-ops for Ronald Reagan. In recent years, the most effective practitioner of framing political messages has been Republican pollster Frank Luntz. His basic message was a” compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” Under his guidance, Republicans learned how to use warm phrases that score well with focus groups and to apply them in whatever way seemed useful. During the debate over the younger Bush’s plans to change social security, they began using the term “privatization,” then switched to “private accounts” and finally to “personal accounts.” Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro call the language built on polling and focus groups “crafted talk.” More often than not, it is designed to conceal and deceive rather than to inform.
Words became something to be used rather than as signifier of actual situations of facts. During the discussion of “bird flu,” administration spokesmen learned that it was effective to state with mild irritation that the US was the first government to begin stockpiling an antiviral drug, when the fact was it was among last in the industrialized world to do so. When a cabinet officer delivered this misinformation on CNN, there was no one to question his facts. Earlier, Vice President Cheney calmly told CBS’s Face the Nation that his energy plan was almost completely consistent with the Sierra Club’s plan and that his plan offered absolutely no subsidies to the gas and oil industry.
According to traditional conservative thinkers, conservatism should be more an outlook and approach, and the very “negation of ideology.” Nevertheless, what came to be considered conservatism by the 1980s had all the hallmarks of an ideology. It was more anchored in theoretical propositions than in pragmatic considerations and concrete realities, but adherents clung to it with a fervor and even ferocity that only ideology and religion seem to inspire. Coupled with this ideology was a critique of liberalism that, like the ideology, took on the dimensions of religious belief. Long after a case could no longer be made for claiming Republicans were fiscal conservatives while Democrats were spenders, these claims were ritualistically repeated in election campaigns and conservative pundits. Selling this ideology and the critique of liberalism was an awesome accomplishment, and laid the foundation for the political order of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries.
Even far right political thought, which had been on the “borderlines of conservatism” in the early 1970s, had moved to the center by the Reagan years and was slowly inching its way into mainstream political thought. Indeed, through the Reagan administration, the New Right and its neoliberal allies were setting the terms of public debate. . A little more than a decade later, the George W. Bush administration was locking their views into law as national policy.
These developments could not have occurred had the conservatives not mastered the art of persuasion. Liberals, on the other hand, often appear to use approaches that overlook the importance of cultural factors and the need for a coherent, simple message. In fashioning a majority ideology, the conservatives had been able to incorporate elements that speak to the longings of most people. A successful conservative ideology also needs to manipulate popular longing for social solidarity and community in a way that disguises and legitimizes exploitation and social domination. Portraying liberals as members of an elite who have contempt for common people and traditional culture successfully did this.
Sherman has written African American Baseball: A brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.
- Sherman De Brosse
- Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!