Posts Tagged ‘Rush Limbaugh’

The Winklevoss Twins of Getting Bin Laden

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Why are we listening to the Bush administration officials anyway? They didn’t get Bin Laden. They’re like the Winklevoss Twins of getting Bin Laden. If you were the guys who were going to kill Bin Laden, you would have killed Bin Laden!

-Jon Stewart on last night’s Daily Show.

When Bin Laden was killed, many of my more right-wing friends were oddly silent. Rather than the relief I and so many others felt, they seemed discomfited — not by the tactics or legality or potential consequences of the action, but by a cognitive dissonance as they tried to reconcile their visceral dislike of Obama as anti-American and perhaps even sympathetic to terrorists and their approval of his actions. Then Rush Limbaugh gave them the defense mechanism they needed — and suddenly it became glaringly obvious to them that Obama was taking too much credit for the operation, that he had used first person pronouns way too much in the speech. (Though the words of the speech don’t bear that out.)

But worse than Limbaugh’s attempts to insulate his audience from that uncomfortable feeling of challenging their preconceptions about Obama are the former Bush administration officials’ attempts to take credit for themselves, using this triumph of American military force and intelligence to justify their subversion of both.

As outrageous as it sound, the contemporaneous record reflects that the Bush administration prioritized Saddam over Bin Laden shortly after 9/11 and was unwilling to provide the boots on the ground or even drones urgently requested by the CIA and Special Forces tracking Bin Laden in the aftermath. The Bush administration was unwilling to provide the Pakistani army the air transport they claimed they needed to move troops to the border to secure it even as the Bush administration relieved relied upon and trusted the Pakistani army to secure their wild and lawless border to cut off Bin Laden’s escape. Worse still, the “intelligence” provided by illegal, tortured confessions in contradiction of America’s long military and intelligence history were used to justify the Bush administration’s belief that Saddam and Bin Laden were working together on a WMD attack on America — and later, this same intelligence sources under torture, provided the basis for shutting down the team focused on finding Bin Laden, as they pretended he was a mere figurehead. (A logical bit of information to make up if you wanted an interrogation to end and you couldn’t give them the actionable intelligence to find Bin Laden they wanted.) It was this last bit of intelligence which the former Bush administration officials claim credit for being used to find Bin Laden:

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

And later that same year, the CIA shut down its dedicated hunt for OBL.

Obama, upon taking office, did not do anything incredible. What he did do was to apply some common sense that the panic-stricken and Iraq-obsessed Bush administration had missed — he re-focused the national security apparatus on destroying Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. That’s why drone attacks began to increase when he became president. That’s part of the reason why he surged troops into Afghanistan. That’s why — as a candidate — Obama promised that he would go into Pakistan after Bin Laden even if the Pakistanis did not sanction the operation. (This bit of common sense caused Hillary Clinton and John McCain to slam him for his position.) That’s why the Bin Laden operation was so carefully planned for, with every possible scenario gamed out — from scenarios where the Special Forces needed to fight their way out of Pakistan to teams ready to interrogate him.

There was certainly a great deal of luck involved — and if the Bush administration had been presented with the same opportunity to get Bin Laden, I’m sure they would have taken it. But surely it is not a coincidence that the administration that had higher priorities than finding Bin Laden let him slip through their fingers several times while the administration that focused the mighty resources of the United States military and intelligence apparatus on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden found the opportunity that had failed to present itself for seven long years under Bush’s leadership.

Leadership matters. It’s a little too late to take credit now.

Lies and Facts About the “Ground Zero Mosque”

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

There has always been a strain in American politics of paranoia and intolerance grounded in the suspicion of people who are different from what we know, who seem to have a set of values we are not familiar with: beginning with the Masons, then the Catholics, Jewish bankers, Communists, gays, and now Muslims. A prominent  scholar, Richard Hofstadter, writing in the 1960s, explained these suspicions were fed by very similar conspiracy theories involving hidden agents of foreign powers insinuating themselves into American society while attempting to destroy it. These conspiracy theorists made their cases in similar ways, relying on in-depth citations to obscure tracts proving half-truths and outright falsehoods as well as the “confessions” of former members of the conspiracy. Yet the facts presented by these people were seen as ridiculous by those with personal knowledge of the targeted group, even as they were seen as plausible by those who were ignorant on the matter. Politicians and writers who knew better often attempted to use these suspicious ginned up by these false claims to further their own political ends.

Regarding Catholics, for example, Jesuit priests were said to be “prowling” the countryside “in every possible disguise”  including as puppeteers to propagandize children. Nuns were said to take a vow of obedience to perform any sexual act a priest would demand. The pope was said to have the power to command any Catholic to do his will. All of this was seen as part of a vast plot to overthrow American democracy and replace it with a vassal state of the Vatican. Questions were raised regarding the funding of Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Catholics or Catholicism could see how ridiculous this was: And yet, the Founding Fathers were casually anti-Catholic (or as they would call it anti-papist); and the best selling book of the pre-Civil War period next to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an anti-Catholic memoir called Awful Disclosures by a woman who claimed to have escaped from a life of sexual slavery in a nunnery.

It was due to these rumors fueled by and fueling anti-Catholic bigotry that priests in Manhattan were subject to arrest and no Catholic Church was allowed to be built until St. Peter’s, just a block from the World Trade Center, was, in the 1780s as Mayor Bloomberg explained. President Millard Fillmore used anti-Catholicism as a political tool and later attempted to run for office as a member of the vehemently anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. President U.S. Grant saw Catholic schools as unpatriotic and driven by “superstition, ambition and greed.” Anti-Catholicism was used against Alfred Smith’s opponents as he ran for president in 1928 and memorably against John F. Kennedy as the famous Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale declared in an essay for Newsweek, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.”

It is hard not to see the parallels between this anti-Catholic bigotry and the claims of the most ardent opponents of the Ground Zero Mosque who regard the billion Muslims in the world as members of a cult which funds a conspiracy of sleeper cells waiting and working to destroy American democracy from within.

While the hardcore Islamophobes are the ones who have fanned the suspicions of many otherwise sensible Americans, they have only gained credibility as political and opinion leaders who should know better attempt to use these suspicious for their own end. They seek to play on the ignorance of the American public. About the Cordoba House, they have lied and told half-truths repeatedly, when they should have known better.

In light of this, I present a list of claims checked and evaluated about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Claim #1: A Lie: Ground Zero Mosque.
People Who Should Know Better: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and almost every opponent who has commented on the matter.

The proposed Cordoba House is not located at Ground Zero. It is 2 blocks away located in a former Burlington Coat Factory which has been used as a prayer space by this imam for years. It has no view of Ground Zero. It is not “overlooking” the site. It is not “towering” over the site. A 13-story building in Lower Manhattan is typical. If you’re familiar with Lower Manhattan, you have some idea of how dense the neighborhood is and how distant each street feels from even the next street over given the narrow roads and cavernous buildings all around. To quibble for a moment though, the building proposed for Park 51 is not even a “mosque” but is modeled on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, whose rabbi is close with Imam Rauf and his wife, and includes a swimming pool, an interfaith center, a gym, as well as a prayer room.

The branding of the community center in Downtown Manhattan that would include a prayer room as the “Ground Zero Mosque” started with right-wing, Islamophobe blogger Pamela Geller (See footnote) and did not enter the national conversation due to opposition among those in the area it was being being built. Rather it became front page news after Sarah Palin tweeted for “Peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Claim  #2: A Lie: Opening date: September 11, 2011.
People Who Should Know Better: NY Post columnist Andrea PeyserPat Condell, along with many other blogs and commentators.

The Corboba House and its imam have both denied they ever planned on opening the mosque on September 11, 2011. In fact, that date would never have been feasible given that after all the necessary approvals were received, the project would take between 18 to 48 months to complete.

Update: A redditor, azdiscovery, sent me a link to an Associated Press story that may have served as the genesis of this claim in which Imam Rauf’s wife seems to have mentioned the possibility of a groundbreaking “later this year” (meaning September 11, 2010) on the tenth anniversary of September 11 (meaning September 11, 2011). Clearly some sort of an error regarding the date there. And the passage is not attributed as a quotation. But somehow, various opponents transformed this into an entirely false claim that the opening of the Cordoba House was scheduled for September 11, 2011 representing some sort of Islamic triumphalism.

Claim  #3: A Lie By Insinuation: Questions About Funding.
People Who Should Know Better: Republican candidate for NY Governor Rick Lazio; former NY Governor George Pataki; my own Congressman, Republican Pete King;
Glenn Beck.

Many opponents of the Cordoba House have prominently insisted they are just “asking questions” about who is funding the project. This tactic is often used by the conspiratorial-minded. 9/11 Truthers for example “often maintain they are simply ‘raising questions’.” Glenn Beck has made a career out of such questioning with this method being ably mocked by the satirical website that was created  ”to try and help examine the vicious rumour that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990,” but that asking the probing question: “Why won’t Glenn Beck deny these allegations?”

Other opponents have gone as far as to claim that Cordoba House has refused to reveal who was funding it while insinuating it was Hamas, Iran, Al Qaeda, etc. In fact, to date “the developers [have] raised so little money, there [is] nothing to investigate: the most recent government filings show the organization has about $18,000.” Park51 itself has stated: “We have not launched our fundraising campaign.” They further guaranteed, “We will hire security consultants to assist us in the process of reviewing potential financiers and philanthropists. We will refuse assistance from any persons or institutions who are flagged by our security consultants or any government agencies.” These “questions” raised by opponents are a cynical attempt to plant blatantly false information that will incite outrage in your average American. They call them questions while they are merely insinuations which they call questions because they have no evidence to back them up but want to plant the seeds of misinformation.

Claim  #4: A Lie: The Name Cordoba Was Chosen As Because It Is “A Symbol of Islamic Conquest.
People Who Should Know Better:
Newt Gingrich; though subsequently repeated by many blogs and commentators.

Beware those who claim to know the secret reasoning of their opponents. Newt Gingrich wrote, “It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.” (Newt apparently got his history lesson wrong in terms of the mosque at Cordoba’s significance in Islamic history.)

But more important: Imam Rauf himself explained that the caliphate in Cordoba represented, for “its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society on earth” in which all three Abrahamic religions coexisted. This was the traditional view of Cordoba, though some revisionist historians have disputed this interpretation – but this is clearly the camp in which Rauf allies himself.

Claim  #5: A Lie: Imam Rauf Is An Extremist and Terrorist Sympathizer.
People Who Should Know Better: Sarah Palin;
Newt Gingrich; Rick Lazio; as well as most other opponents of Cordoba House.

First, Imam Rauf is a Sufi Muslim. There are no known Sufi terrorists. There are three main branches to Islam: Shiites, Sunnis, and Sufis, divisions that are as deep and profound as the differences between Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and Catholics. The theological and historical distinctions are too much to cover here, but to paint in broad strokes: Bin Laden and Al Qaeda subscribe to the most extreme version of Sunnism, Wahabbism; Hamas is Sunni as well; most Iranians including Ahmadinejad are Shiite. If one claims Imam Rauf bears a portion of the collective responsibility for September 11, then one must likewise logically claim that evangelical Pastor Rick Warren bears a portion of the collective responsibility for the abuse of children by Catholic priests.

Second, Imam Rauf has explicitlyrepeatedlyand emphatically condemned terrorism as well as “Islamic triumphalism” and “Islamic militancy” and many other variations on this.

Third, both the Bush and Obama administrations have sent Imam Rauf abroad to promote the idea that America was not at war with Islam and indeed that America is the home to many Muslims.

Fourth, Imam Rauf has claimed that America is a better country to be a Muslim in than countries with many Muslims because he believes the American Constitution and system of governance protects the core values shared by the Abrahamic faiths.

Fifth, Imam Rauf has gone further in promoting interfaith dialogue. His Cordoba Initiative’s board of advisors includes a Jewish rabbi, a Hindu, and a former Catholic nunIn memorial to the most prominent Jewish victim of Al Qaeda, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf, according to former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Jeffrey Goldberg, placed his own life in danger to say:

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl.

And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different.

It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values.

In expressing this, Imam Rauf was restating an old Sufi idea that is considered heresy by Bin Ladin and his followers: “The great Sufi saints like the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi held that all existence and all religions were one, all manifestations of the same divine reality.” One Islamic scholar explained the role Sufis play in Islam:

In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do.

While you may disagree with Imam Rauf’s positions on Israel, Palestinians, the effect of America’s policies, to claim he is an “extremist” or a terrorist sympathizer or anything of the like is slander.

Claim  #6: A Lie: The Cordoba House Opposes the Plan of a Fox News Host to Build a Gay Bar Next Door.
People Who Should Know Better:
Fox News host Greg Gutfeld; Allahpundit, though each merely presumed opposition.

Actually the group tweeted in response: “You’re free to open whatever you like.” This is what I like to call tolerance and I would guess that many other religious institutions would not be similarly tolerant under the circumstances.

Claim #7: True: Imam Rauf Said: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened…[I]n the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

This is actually true. It is widely known that US funds given to the Pakistani secret service (ISI) during the Cold War were used to fund Muslim militants of various sects in their jihad against Soviet occupation. It was here that Osama Bin Laden got his start (as the September 11 Commission Report further explained.) This is what Imam Rauf’s wife has explained he was referring to.

Even when read in their broadest sense — as claiming that American policies helped cause September 11 — it also happens to be a widely held view. Glenn Beck said almost the same thing earlier this year which he is now condemning Imam Rauf for. So have numerous US intelligence and national security officialsThe September 11 Commission Report as well supported this widely accepted view (large pdf, pg. 379):

[Islamic Terrorism is] fed by grievances stressed by Bin Ladin and widely felt throughout the Muslim world – against the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel.

Whether one agrees or not, using such an opinion as proof that Imam Rauf is a terrorist sympathizer is ridiculous.

Claim  #8: True: There Are No Churches or Synagogues in Saudi Arabia.

This is actually true. Though why Newt Gingrich thinks it is wise for Americans to adopt Saudi views on freedom of religion is beyond me.

Claim  #9: A Lie: There Are No Other Mosques Near the Areas Attacked on September 11! There Is No Shinto Shrine Near Pearl Harbor! Lower Manhattan is Sacred Ground!
People Who Should Know Better:
Charles Krauthammer; Rush Limbaugh. Implicitly, Newt Gingrich; Minnesota Governor and 2012 presidential aspirant, Republican Tim Pawlenty.

The Pentagon, attacked on September 11, in fact has a room where Muslims hold services and has celebrated Ramadan and other Muslim holidays. There are also 2 overcrowded mosques (one founded in 1970 before the World Trade Center was finished, and the other in 1985) only a short distance from the proposed location of the Cordoba House in downtown Manhattan. There is in fact also a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor. (I’ve read there are 2, but not been able to locate the second one.)

Those who claim that Lower Manhattan is sacred ground have not raised any issues with the strip clubs (2 within 4 blocks of Ground Zero), the porn stores, the many, many bars, or the overflowing stands of September 11 merchandise all over the neighborhood.

Claim #10: A Lie: The “Ground Zero Mosque” Is Part of a War of Civilizations of Muslims Against America.
People Who Should Know Better: Newt Gingrich;
Andrew C. McCarthy.

There are only 2 groups of people who use this “War of Civilizations” rhetoric: far right-wingers such as Newt Gingrich and supporters of Al Qaeda. The Wall Street Journal reports that counter terrorist analysts have stated that the rhetoric of some opponents to the Cordoba House has served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.

Claim #11: A Lie: Imam Rauf Has Personal Connections to Terrorist-Sympathizers.
People Who Should Know Better: Stephen Schwartz; widely hinted at by those spreading Claim #5.

After weeks of attempting to find such connections, the right wing Weekly Standard ran a breathless article describing what they found: Imam Rauf’s wife’s uncle used to be a leader of a mosque whose website now links to an organization that some have claimed is linked to a political party in Pakistan which allegedly has links to terrorism. Fox News also connected Imam Rauf to Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who Rudy Giuliani famously refused to accept a donation from after September 11. Fox News neglected to mention that Prince Al-Waleed happens to also own 7% of Fox’s corporation, thus linking them even more closely to this purported extremist.

N. B. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has been an excellent source of actual fact-checking combined with humor throughout this controversy with clips about Fox News’s connections to Prince Al-Waleed, Newt Gingrich’s various claims, the guilt-by-association techniques used to tar Imam Rauf, and the idea of collective religious guilt.

Footnote: Christopher Hitchens has decried the use of the term Islamophobe because he feels it denigrates both those who point to the many injustices within majority Muslim countries justified by Islam, most especially the treatment of women. While I agree with Hitchens that the term is overused, it is appropriate in this instance.

Edit: Numbering corrected.

[Image by Joshua Treviño licensed under Creative Commons and adapted with permission of the author.]

The Victimhood Complex of the Right-Wing

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Andrew Breitbart, while claiming to be some sort of serious journalist, more closely resembles the papparazzi that hound celebrities. (And as he apparently regularly checks any blog references to himself: Hello Andrew, and welcome.)

The stories he has broken seem to place as much emphasis on the “reporter” as on the subject — most notably the pimp at ACORN — but today’s newest right-wing talking point (in video form) is similar:

More bothersome to me than this shallow and callow approach to news is what it reveals about the story of victimhood that seems to so excite the right-wing these days.

I remember a time when the right-wing thundered in righteous indignation over the subversive and un-American nature of claiming moral authority and material advantage by victimhood — the core of the conservative critiques of affirmative action, political correctness, hate crimes, the value of diversity, and welfare. They highlighted with glee any case where race-baiters, scammers, or any other purported victim claimed race, gender, or some other prejudicial factor without good cause. But that was the 1990s. By the 2000s, right-wingers had begun to adopt the tactics of those few authentic race-baiters as their own.

In 2008, Sarah Palin mastered this flip — flinging charges of sexism and misogyny against all of her critics as she winked and engaged in name-calling and gutter politics. She was a post-modern demagogue — and excited all the passions for and against her that demagogues rely on to gain power — but she explained away all criticisms of her as part of her victimhood, as a right-winger and a powerful woman. It was a brilliant move.

Marked by Sarah Palin’s rise, the right wing has constantly claimed victimhood: Michelle Bachman warned of concentration camps for conservatives; Rush Limbaugh claimed he was on the president’s enemies list; Glenn Beck declared that his words were so powerful, powerful people were attempting to silence him; Matt Drudge warned that the FCC was considering enacting a tax that he called, “a Drudge tax;” TownHall sent out emails claiming conservatives would be denied medical treatment under ObamaCare;  and of course, Sarah Palin herself has posited giant conspiracies against her, and positioned herself as the victim of her neighbors, bloggers in Alaska, her daughter’s one-time boyfriend, David Letterman, Katie Couric, Rahm Emanuel, and of course, the “lamestream media.”

Andrew Breitbart himself doesn’t seem to claim to be a victim. He happily engages in political war. But the news his sites promote are consistent with this culture of victimhood that has come to dominate the right-wing. There are few better examples than this video as discussions of policy or of politics are left behind in favor of a short video in which a right winger is shown as the victim of the left. Congressman Bod Etheridge’s reaction was no doubt inappropriate. But calling this an “assault” is such a glaringly obvious attempt to play the victim. It’s unclear how much the video was edited — but the facial blurring of the anonymous college student further adds to the obviousness of this attempt — but in typical Breitbart fashion, it has the potential to extend the story as the identity of the student is released in the coming days.

This culture of victimhood is pernicious because it is self-reinforcing — and helps insulate the right-wing from adapting to political circumstances — and may even, in the worst of all worlds, lead to the Republican nomination of Sarah Palin for president.

A Unified Theory of Obama

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Last week, Politico’s John F. Harris wrote a story detailing 7 different stories “Obama doesn’t want told.” Its a misleading headline – as it is about anti-Obama memes that Republicans are trying to get the media to cover. Andrew Sullivan takes the set of Republican talking points offered as a news story, observing:

What strikes me about the attacks is how scattershot they are. The right wants to argue both that Obama is a mean-ass Chicago pol and a push-over… The inconsistencies are legion, because, I suspect, Obama’s enemies have yet to get a single, compelling narrative that rings true. They didn’t manage it in the campaign and they have not managed it since. He’s too big and interesting a figure to be caricatured that way. [my emphasis]

I think both Harris and Sullivan have missed something though – a single, compelling narrative that has been developing about Obama, and one that rings true to a significant subset of Americans. I call it the Unified Theory of Obama. It involves several, though not all, of these narratives listed by Harris. Charles Krauthammer wrote the best single synthesis of this theory in a cover piece for The Weekly Standard last month entitled “Decline is a Choice.” The piece was a brilliant example of “the Big Lie” which is plausible only after a leap of faith, but which because of its sheer audacity affects the entire political conversation. The core “insight” Krauthammer offered was that Obama’s liberalism is a deliberate attempt to undermine America’s power in the world both domestically and abroad. Postulating that the decline of American power is a choice, he suggests that Obama is deliberately choosing to make America decline in power.

You can see this narrative coming together if you listen to enough talk radio. See this interview with Rush Limbaughthis article by Charles Krauthammerthis speech, upon which the article was based; this interview with Krathammer; and this profile of Krauthammer in the National Review which oddly is behind a firewall unlike most of National Review‘s content.) You can see the narrative animating the statements of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, of Charles Krauthammer, of Sean Hannity, and of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (though these last two also have potential to go off script.)

The narrative goes like this:

This narrative is audacious. And it’s compelling. And it ties so many anti-Obama memes together. It goes well with the ominous music constantly playing on Sean Hannity’s television show. It goes well with the transformation of right wing politics and media into a form of entertainment in which news is presented as if it is the plot of a thriller.* This narrative explains why Obama is popular around the world. (“Europeans like to see the hegemon diminished, and Obama is the perfect man to do that.”) It provides an explanation (about the only plausible one) for why Republicans should be so adamant in their opposition to everything Obama proposes. It provides a storyline that can rally the base behind any alternative candidate. It taps into the inchoate sense that “something’s wrong.” It provides a scapegoat for the end of America’s unipolar moment. Those who feel they are “losing the America they knew” are also given a scapegoat. (“America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.”) It plays off of the foundation of anti-Obama attacks from the 2008 campaign – that he was somehow foreign, un-American, radical. The various factual inaccuracies in this narrative are unimportant – because it is fundamentally so at odds with reality that it requires a leap of faith to believe in the first place.

All of these pieces are directed only to the faithful. They aren’t meant for the general public. They are meant to keep the faithful in line. And despite the fact that Krauthammer has articulated this Unified Theory of Obama to the faithful, his columns have not pushed this rather extreme take on the President. Instead, Krauthammer chips away at Obama with smaller pieces attacking this and that, while for the sake of each column conceding that Obama might not be an anti-American radical intent on destroying the nation, as he tries to get the public to see this bigger picture one piece at a time.

This, I believe, is the narrative that the next Republican nominee will carry into the 2012 election in some form. I believe it will founder specifically because most Americans will balk at someone characterizing the president as anti-American. But Krauthammer and his allies have several years to try to figure out how to sell this message – how to convince a majority of Americans to accept it, or barring that how to rally the base using it while keeping it away from the rest of us. And The Weekly Standard has already determined the logical proponent of this Unified Theory of Obama, the logical response to Obama’s “new liberalism – someone to carry Republicans to victory in 2012 by leading a “new populist” movement:

Someone who will give voice to the millions who don’t want government aggrandizing the powerful; who don’t want government risking dangerous fiscal imbalances; who do want public policies that create the conditions for a general prosperity. Someone, in other words, who can play the same role in contemporary politics that Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan did in the past.

She lives in Alaska.

Edit: Two other “unified theories of Obama” that are more sympathetic can be found in Jonathan Chait’s description of Obama using civility and respect as political weapons and in Andrew Sullivan’s description of Obama as a Road Runner constantly inducing his opponents to overstep a la Wile E. Coyote.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

*Not my own idea. It’s from a piece in The New Republic from this November which I can’t find online. Update: The piece by Jason Zengerle is now online.

Limbaugh claims Obama is a radical leftist because he supports programs Republicans proposed a generation ago.

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Charles Krauthammer, and other right wingers have begun to converge on a unified theory of Obama – a systematic critique of who he is, what he stands for, and what he is trying to do. Part of this theory – one of the core themes being developed – is that Obama is the most far left American leader ever. Rush Limbaugh expresses this as well as anyone – and I’ve spliced together two clips from his interview this past Sunday with Fox News. (Full interview here.)

Let’s take two of these quotes out for a moment:

We’ve never seen such radical leadership at such a high level of power…

I don’t know of any Republican who would try to take over one sixth of the U.S. economy. I don’t know one Republican who would put forth this…this…irresponsible cap and trade bill. I don’t know one Republican who would actually do that.

To understand why this is such a bizarre thing to say you need to look at some history.  It illustrates what I mean when I call the Republican Party and the right wing – and much of our public debate as it attempts to find the middle ground between the right and left – unhinged. Take a minute to look at the history of the policy proposals regarding the two examples Limbaugh cites – health care and cap and trade.

Health Care

The plans moving through Congress now have an historical precedent in most of their aspects in the two serious Republican attempts to reform health care after LBJ’s introduction of Medicare and Medicaid – Richard Nixon’s health care proposal in 1974 and the Dole-Chafee bill in 1993. Between the two bills, they contained a technocratic institution to reign in health care spending by looking at medical practices – similar to the IMAC that Sarah Palin called a death panel (Richard Nixon’s proposal); an individual mandate, an extension of Medicaid eligibility (the Dole-Chafee plan); an end to insurance industry abuses – for example, banning people with preexisting conditions, subsidies or vouchers for individuals who couldn’t afford health insurance to purchase it, and the creation of a standard minimum level of benefits for health insurance plans (both plans.)

Those who developed the base model that of health care reform now – used these models as the base onto which they grafted a health insurance exchange and a public option. They combined market forces with decentralized decision-making – the exchange on which private companies would offer health insurance – with a more top-down centralized approach – the public option which would compete with the private companies. Clearly, though the plan is distinctly liberal, it was developed by people who have a deep appreciation for some of the central conservative critiques of government planning and New Deal/Great Society-style liberalism. The plan is also clever politically – as a great majority of the American people, in their wisdom, see great value in having a choice between public option and a private one. Michael F. Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute accidentally justified the rationale behind this popular sentiment:

Any payment system creates perverse incentives…which is why we need competition between different payment systems to temper the excesses of each.

Unlike the Dole-Chafee bill which sought to undermine the current system with the hope that something else would develop, the plans working through Congress now are more conservative as they seek to preserve the status quo while introducing an alternative model that people could opt into if it works.

You wonder how far to the right the Republican Party Rush imagines is if he claims he doesn’t know any Republican who would propose anything like this.

How about Mitt Romney, Bob Dole (who incidentally endorsed a version of the bill currently moving forward), Richard Nixon?

The one thing that makes this plan distinctly liberal is the public option. Yet, if anyone believes that after dropping it, the Republicans would support a health care bill, they haven’t been paying attention.

(For more on the similarities on health care, see this post from yesterday.)

Cap and Trade

On climate change, the story is even more dramatic.

Cap and trade started out as a hair-brained scheme to solve the problem of acid rain thought up by a Reagan administration lawyer, C. Boyden Gray. Environmentalists and liberals hated the idea. They saw it as a license to pollute, a “morally bankrupt” “license to kill,” or more reasonably as a “scheme for polluters to buy their way our of fixing the problem.” They preferred the more “command-and-control” approach of top-down regulation. Regulators resisted the idea – as it forced them to surrender “regulatory power to the marketplace.” Industry opposed it, claiming it “was going to shut the economy down.”

But George H. W. Bush thought that free market principles could realign the incentives to fix this problem – and he wanted to placate the Canadians who were bearing the brunt of the acid rain.

So he pushed through a cap and trade scheme to eliminate acid rain over these strong objections. It beat all expectations. Eventually environmentalists came around and industry continued to thrive. This Republican success on solving a major environmental issue without top-down regulation made cap and trade a popular, bipartisan idea. Eventually, Bill Clinton saw it as a way to tackle global warming. But as a significant minority of Republicans continued to question whether or not global warming was real and whether or not it was man-made (along with every other scientifically moot question that industries raised) any possible deal was postponed. Still, as late as 2008, the Senate had strong bipartisan support for a cap and trade program – with Joe Lieberman and John McCain taking the lead. Now McCain is a major opponent of the cap and trade legislation, complaining about the lack of support for nuclear reactors in the bill as a reason to oppose it. This when as late as a year ago, he reiterated his statements of the past eight years in saying that global warming demanded “urgent attention” – that we must “act quickly” to “dramatically reduce our carbon emissions” with a “cap-and-trade” program.

As I said regarding health care, if anyone thinks that McCain will come around to support this legislation that is so similar to what he supported as essential a year ago if the Democrats just tossed some more money into nuclear energy, then you haven’t been paying attention. McCain will likely start calling it a “power grab” and a “government takeover” of the world, echoing Cheney and Krauthammer by the time the bill is up for a vote.

Conclusion

In both cases, Republicans proposed ideas based on core conservative principles – on a respect for the free market, on avoiding rapid change, on avoiding top-down regulation. And now Democrats led by Barack Obama have taken up these proposals – amending them somewhat to take into account liberal ideas such as a distrust of large corporations and a concern for community goods – hoping to pass bipartisan legislation.

What they are met with instead is screams of “Socialism!” and “Government takeover!” and “Unprecedented!” “Attacks on liberty!” and “Why do you hate America?”

Our Unhinged Debate on Health Care Reform

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Or, Large Majorities of Americans Support the Specific Reforms Obama Is Proposing, But the Debate Going On Now Has Confused Them Into Opposing It

Andrew Sullivan provides a pretty good summary of the policy questions at stake in the health care debate – slightly modified by me to make it a list:

  1. Should we demand that insurance companies provide policies to anyone regardless of pre-existing conditions?
  2. Should we help the working poor buy that insurance with subsidies?
  3. Are competitive exchanges for health insurance a good or bad thing?
  4. Would a public option or a co-op help bring down healthcare costs?
  5. Does it make sense for the government to study the effectiveness of various treatments as a guide for doctors?

These are the basic questions Democrats are trying to answer. The only real presumption Democrats made in creating these policies is that the government can be effective. The proposals on the table now are modest – tinkering even – in which market mechanisms, government regulation, and a government plan together are designed with three goals:

  • to provide more security and choice to those Americans already covered by banning abusive insurance company practices and allowing individuals to buy insurance on a health care exchange;
  • to institute certain incentives that will hold down the growth of health care costs – using market mechanisms in the Health Insurance Exchange, spreading information with the Independent Medical Advisory Committee, and with the public option;
  • to cover the 47 million Americans without health insurance (whose use of health care, which we already provide as a matter of right, creates a de facto $1,100 tax on each individual).

The various bills under consideration are so long and complicated because they attempt to make slight adjustments to the system we have – and to remain true to Obama’s promise that if you like your health insurance you can keep it.  They prohibit certain practices by insurance companies, they set up a Health Insurance Exchange, they may or may not allow citizens to choose a publicly run health care plan, they subsidize individuals who currently cannot afford insurance, they set up committees to study best practices. What they certainly do not do is attempt radical change.

This isn’t about the free market versus communism, or radicalism versus moderation. The anger at Obama’s health care reforms has little to do with what he or other Democrats are proposing. There are those with reasoned objections. But the Republican Party has instead embraced and encouraged the inchoate rage of people frustrated with the direction our country is headed, with the various moral dilemmas George W. Bush left for his successors, with the massive failure of the markets that caused our current recession, with the failures of the visceral politics and policies of George W. Bush. On Slate’s Political Gabfest today, this exchange captured pretty well the essense of the hyperbolic debate going on now:

DAN GROSS: In college, we had the primal scream where at a point in time people would open their windows and just yell randomly. It was done to relieve stress but you weren’t yelling a set of statements about how your workload was too high. You were simply yelling. And it strikes me…that the things they are yelling are not the reasoned case for doing health care reform in a different way. They’re saying things like, “Let’s take our country back!” or “Lies, lies, and socialism, communism, fascism.”

JOHN DICKERSON: Yea – it is a sort of Tourette’s of the political…

I want to repeat that there are reasoned cases to make against the various policies Obama is proposing – but aside from an odd blog post by a libertarian economist every now and then, I don’t see them made. Instead, we get the approach Jon Stewart described: “You know, the individual mandate is going to hurt small businesses by…aw, fuck it: YOU’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!”

That’s what we’re dealing with: cynical manipulation of an inchoate public anger by entrenched interests and the primal screams of a minority of people frustrated with the direction of the country – both of whom are trying to scare the majority into indecision and intimidate the Democrats into submission. Then there are the many – some of whom are wary of action on health care right now; some of whom are concerned about government spending;  some of whom support reform, but aren’t clear on the issues; some of whom are frustrated with Obama’s moderation. Very little of the public debate has to do with the issues addressed above. Instead, we have anonymous lies spread by email, we have right-wing organizations claiming that “Obamacare=Gov’t Funded Abortion and Euthanasia,” we have Sarah Palin claiming Obama would make her son go before an evil “death panel,” we have Senator Jim DeMinto comparing America under Obama to Germany under Hitler, we have people on the streets and in town halls  and on the radio claiming that Obama is instituting Nazi policies, we have protestors deliberately trying to shut down debate (pdf) and silence those in favor of reform. And I’m not cherry-picking the most egregious examples here – these are the tactics used by mainstream opponents of health care reform.

The response and the debate going on now is unfortunately unhinged from reality and has very little to do with any bill being considered. Americans started out in favor of Obama’s health care proposals – expressing support for both him and the policies he had campaigned on. Polling shows they still support the policies: 72% of Americans are in favor of the public option; 74% of Americans believe that health insurance companies should not be allowed to exclude those with pre-existing conditions; 71% of Americans believe that the fact that 47 million Americans are uninsured is a “very serious” problem, with 49% willing to accept higher taxes to cover these individuals. When Obama’s plan was described in neutral terms, 56% of Americans still supported it today (with 38% opposed). But as Obama and Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats all raised concerns about deficit spending and soaring health care costs, many in the public became wary of increased spending. And as Republicans and entrenched interests began to spread rumors of the health care reforms being proposed, Obama’s support dropped.

But now this debate has broken out into the open – and amid  all the accusations of Nazi policies and “death panels” and rationing and socialism! and “killing Granny” the American public can see what is really going on. Republicans will soon learn the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s aphorism:

You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Health Care Reform To Stimulate the Entrepreneurship

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal editorial page makes the same argument many Obama critics have been making – beginning with Rush Limbaugh who attempted to blame the financial collapse on the fear markets had at the prospect of an Obama victory in the 2008 election to the present, as Gigot attempts to blame any lingering effects of this financial collapse – and its economic aftereffects – on fear of “the Obama agenda.”

But neither Gigot nor Limbaugh nor any other right-wingers seem to give any consideration to those drags on risk-taking that our current status quo creates.

Gigot apparently thinks that raising taxes on a handful of powerful individuals has a greater effect on reducing risk-taking than the prospect of global warming, than the lack of a health care safety net has on potential entrepreneurs.

The difference between Gigot and myself is that Gigot is concerned that this handful of powerful people will be less likely to take risks with their vast sums of money – along with a dozen or so major corporations having less ability to generate major profits by externalizing costs for pollution and health care to the society at large. If a corporation has to pay for the damage it causes, then it is – by Gigot’s standards – less free. This is true only in the sense that a tyrant is less free than an ordinary citizen because he is no longer able to impose his way upon others.

If one wants to stimulate the economy by encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurship, there are few better ways to do it than to pass some sort of health care reform that makes it cheaper and more available outside of large employers. As Daniel Gross, financial columnist for Newsweek and Slate, explains:

An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.

I say this as a former small business owner and entrepreneur myself. One of my biggest concerns in working outside of an established business was that I was not able to get my health care through my job – which meant astronomical monthly premiums for a service I did not use – but which I could not be sure I would not badly need.

Gigot and other right-wingers are not focused on small business and entrepreneurs – although they does invoke them as a fig leaf for political reasons. If they were they could see the advantage of a public health care option. Instead of defending the free market, Gigot and other right-wingers seek to defend a corrupt status quo in which decisions are made by a princely few rather than being made in the competition and varied decision-making bodies of a free market. Health care reform – if done right, with a public option – will remove a major obstacle to individuals taking their own risks, starting their own businesses; it will be a small step to diversifying decision-making and creating a more free market.

Gigot – by taking the dogmatic position he does – proves he is not serious about protecting the free market; he is only interested in protecting the interests of his cronies among the monied elite.

Theories of the Financial Crisis: The Government Did It!

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

The first person out of the box promoting the idea that the current financial crisis was actually caused by the government (specifically Democrats in the government – and even more specifically Barack Obama) was Rush Limbaugh. On the day Lehman fell (this crisis’s equivalent of September 11), Rush Limbaugh was already trying to exploit it for partisan gain – claiming “Capitalism Isn’t the Problem: Government Caused This Crisis.” On this date of crisis, Limbaugh had already unveiled in a near-complete form what was to become the Republican party’s position on the crisis. He embraced positions that had previously been associated with the Austrian School of Economics – but without much of the ideological baggage they had with them. He only embraced as much of them as was politically convenient – and he applied them only so far as they made Democrats look bad. He also began blaming Barney Frank for this crisis – something which many other right-wingers picked up on. Though I for one find it hard to see how this person who was a member of a Congressional minority had so much power to influence the entire economy and cause this severe crisis and the causal chain has never been made clear. At least to me.

Within a few days of the near-collapse of the financial system – with the crisis still causing panic – Limbaugh was already trying out names he could use to brand the crisis – from the “Democrat-Caused Financial Crisis” to the “Obama Recession.” None of them quite caught on as most people with common sense found it hard to blame Barack Obama for a crisis that occurred before he had won the presidency. But the right faithfully repeated this meme. (It has often seemed to me that Rush Limbaugh – with his vast influence via memes and love of pranks – is a forerunner of and competitor to 4chan.)

I need to say two things going into this: (1) for my analysis, I am merely standing on the shoulders of economists more knowledgeable than I – when it comes to economics especially, I am – clearly – just an interested amateur; and (2) I came to this issue biased against this theory of the financial crisis – although not with my mind closed to it. The best expression of why I started out biased against this idea is probably the analogy Tyler Cowen used while debunking it. Cowen invoked the legal principle of the “thin skull” - in which someone at fault is considered responsible for all the damage caused by their actions, even if a person without a thin skull would not have been seriously hurt by such damages. For example, if you were responsible for a car accident and the other party was injured seriously as they had a thin skull which was damaged much more than a normal skull when it banged into the side window, you would be responsible for even the extraordinary damages resulting from that individual’s medical condition. Cowen explains that those seeking to blame the government for the business cycle and/or the current economic crisis:

…are postulating a very thin skull for markets and then blaming government for the disaster which results from government’s glancing blow to that skull.

A surprising amount of the debate over what caused the current crisis centers around the causes of and solutions to the Great Depression. The reason for this is not because there is widespread disagreement about this among historians or economists – but because the Republican party has embraced recent revisionist histories to make their case against the current intervention. The traditional understanding – between Keynesian and members of the Chicago School is that the Great Depression was made worse by the application of variations of this “thin skull” theory – as Herbert Hoover heeded advice to do little or nothing to combat the financial crisis – preferring to allow the market to fix itself. As Paul Krugman describes (from a 1998 Slate column):

The hangover theory can do real harm. Liquidationist views played an important role in the spread of the Great Depression—with Austrian theorists such as Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter strenuously arguing, in the very depths of that depression, against any attempt to restore “sham” prosperity by expanding credit and the money supply.

But Amity Shlaes authored a recent history of the Great Depression to dispute this traditional understanding which had made her a hero of Republicans everywhere who have begun to cite her book more often than the Bible – almost. Shlaes passes herself off as an intellectual, but seems to be as partisan as Paul Krugman on his worst days. And her understanding of economics is quite shallow compared to the Nobel prize winner’s. Jonathan Chait in The New Republic took on Shlaes book – pointing out the holes in Shlaes revisions – how she attempted to blame liberalism for causing the crisis despite the fact that liberals had been out of power for the eight years before the depression started – and for the first three years after. She manages to pull this off by claiming that Herbert Hoover was a secret liberal interventionist – and blames Hoover’s meager attempts to stop starvation for undermining the recovery that her ideology maintains was imminent. Shlaes also fails to account for how we finally got out. As Chait explains:

[T]he classic right-wing critique fails to explain how the economy recovered at all. In one of his columns touting Shlaes, George Will observed that “the war, not the New Deal, defeated the Depression.” Why, though, did the war defeat the Depression? Because it entailed a massive expansion of government spending. The Republicans who have been endlessly making the anti-stimulus case seem not to realize that, if you believe that the war ended the Depression, then you are a Keynesian.

James Glassman’s influential arguments (in some circles) against any stimulus plan seem to have been inspired mainly by Shlaes’s flawed history.

Today’s crisis appeared at first glance (to most economists and us less enlightened citizens) to have been caused not by government interference but by private bankers controlling vast sums of money taking dumb risks with little government oversight. In time, other factors have come to the forefront, but this basic explanation seems right. Yet right-wingers and the Republican party continue to insist that government intervention was the cause – often out of what they see as a political necessity.

But on the other hand, there are some who seem to have less of a partisan interest in blaming the government for this crisis – and have embraced the Austrian School of Economics out of conviction rather than temporary partisan gain. Ron Paul, for example, blames both Democrats and Republicans for causing this mess. He seems to accept this “thin skull” logic and he has become an influential proponent of the Austrian school of economic thought. This school had its heyday in the 1920s as a result of Hayek, Mises, and others grappling with the issues of that time and perhaps most importantly discovering the business cycle. But this theory was largely abandoned as many saw it as responsible for worsening the Great Depression – as during the first years of the crisis, portions of the Austrian School’s prescriptions were tried. The theory was largely developed before the invention of central banks and while currency was still on the gold standard – but it had important insights in its time. Contemporary proponents such as Ron Paul tend to blame the changes to the financial system created to manage the boom-and-bust business cycle for causing the boom-and-bust business cycle. Yet this cycle has been part of capitalism since it’s inception – and has been managed since Great Depression by central banks and others using Keynesian theory and its successors relatively successfully. 

The appeal of this Austrian School of though though – aside from the partisan appeal for Republicans who are allowed to blame everything on liberals – is a moral one. It functions as a kind of religion-like palliative, telling a comforting story of sin and redemption. The Austrian business cycle tells of a recurring morality tale in which virtue is corrupted, until the sin of easy credit leads to the fall of the system. Then, the Market cleanses the world and virtue is restored to it’s proper place. The proper role of the economist in this is to act as a kind of priest – urging the people to stay true to this belief system in the face of adversity – to keep their faith that eventually the god of the Market will make everything better.

This fits well with the religious right of the Republican party – and perhaps this is why despite the theory’s rejection by most mainstream economists as outdated, it is gaining adherents among the Republican party, including the “rising star” Michelle Bachman.

[Image licensed under Creative Commons courtesy of elandru.]

Jim Cramer Jumps the Shark

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Isn’t that what Jim Cramer does on every show, you might ask? That’s a fair point.

But what if Jim Cramer has now decided that he will dedicate himself to defeating Barack Obama’s agenda, declared himself to be on the “White House enemies list;” and that what he is doing now is what he has done all along – to “fight to help viewers and readers make and preserve capital.” That’s what I call jumping the shark. Bad investment advice is what Cramer does entertainingly. But this sense of self-grandiousity – and his seeming demand to be taken seriously instead of as a ridiculous figure. That’s too much.

The self-puffery is evident as Cramer insists he is on a “White House enemies list” (his source is the noted Democratic party insider Rush Limbaugh). Cramer thinks he is on this “list” because made an outrageous comment about White House policy being designed to destroy wealth and kill kittens, and when questioned about it, the White House press secretary pointed out that Mr. Cramer’s advice on how to create wealth wasn’t what the White House was looking for.

Cramer claims he has spent his career helping viewers and readers “preserve” their capital  - and that his advice now to oppose Obama is just a continuance of that. So for a moment, let’s look at the fate of those who would have followed Cramer’s advice in the past. The Consumerist points out that if one had followed Jim Cramer’s stock-picking advice since 2000, you would have been better served by flipping a coin – as Jim Cramer’s advice is slightly worse than a coin toss.

This is also the guy who publicly advised his viewers on October 31, 2008 2007, just before the beginning of this stock market slide:

You should be buying things and accept that they are overvalued, but accept that they’re going to keep going higher. I know that sounds irresponsible, but that’s how you make the money. Right now, up is down, left is right, peace is war. [my emphasis]

Eric Tyson supplements this by describing some of Cramer’s more recent investment advice:

  • Bear Stearns. Cramer recommended buying this stock on 8/17/07 at $118.20 per share. He lost 95 percent on this one – selling at just under $6 per share on 3/20/08.
  • Morgan Stanley. Cramer recommended buying this stock on 9/15/06 at $70.95 per share. Its recently been trading in the mid-teens.
  • Lehman Brothers. Cramer recommended this stock on 10/17/05 at $55.18 per share. On 9/5/08 with the stock trading at $16 per share, on CNBC, Cramer selected Lehman as a “screaming buy” and said things couldn’t get any worse for the company. The stock now trades at less than $1 per share for more than a 99 percent loss for Cramer.
  • Merrill Lynch. Cramer recommended buying this stock on 9/19/05 at $60.17 per share and sold it on 9/12/08 for $17.05 per share for a 72 percent loss…

(And, by the way, Cramer recommended buying financial services giant AIG on 11/7/05 at $66.34 per share and the stock currently trades around $2 per share for a 97 percent loss.)

Given his history, it’s a bit rich of Jim Cramer to claim his career has been about “preserving” anything other than his own entertaining presence. If he meant to dedicate his life to “preserving the wealth of his viewers and readers,” clearly he’s been quite a miserable failure. In terms of sheer lunacy, on the other hand, he’s still got it.

But I, for one, am grateful the White House isn’t following the Jim Cramer guide to wealth creation. And for those of you that are – I might advise you invest in a solid coin to flip, as it would apparently serve you better.

Don’t Be Idiots: Stop Talking About the Fairness Doctrine

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

I didn’t think the Democrats were stupid enough to start talking about reimposing the Fairness Doctrine. But I was wrong.

For those not up-to-date with the Fairness Doctrine controversy, it goes back to the late 1960s when the FCC began to push radio and television stations to air material about controversial matters including some consideration for both sides of the issue.1 The justification for this government interference was that with a very limited amount of media channels available, and with the airwaves owned by the public and merely licensed to the media companies profiting from them, this was a reasonable request and a necessary one in order to encourage an informed citizenry. By the late 1960s, the powerful corporate forces in the right-wing movement had begun to bankroll a conservative movement at this point – giving enormous amounts of money to create advocacy groups, think tanks, magazines, and other means of pushing conservative messages. One of their goals was to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine – and in 1987 they succeeded. At right about this time with no more obligation to be fair or present both sides of controversial issues, right-wing talk radio took off. Simon Rosenberg publicized this sequence of events – and Steve Rendall at Commons Dreams gives an overview of the liberal take on this history which is worth a read. Since then, conservative talk radio has mobilized the conservative movement – and perpetuated quite a few lies and distrortions. 

In this context, you can see why some Democrats want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  After all, if Steve Marlsburg, nemises of this blog, can use the public airwaves to talk for two hours about how Barack Obama is evil and no good people can support him and go on and on supporting this with one lie after another distortion, wouldn’t everyone benefit from a bit of the other side getting a word in edgewise? And if a handful of media titans control almost all of the media, the concentration of power in their hands ensures that opinions they agree with are aired – and oftentimes, that opinions they disagree strongly with are not aired. 

In this context, Bill Clinton mused about reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on a liberal radio show; Democratic Senator Stanbow wants hearings on something like a Fairness Standard; Senator Tom Harken was quoted on another liberal talk radio show saying, “We gotta get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again;” and a number of other Senators and Congressman have similarly suggested something be done to restore “fairness” to the radio.2 Barack Obama though made it clear during his campaign that he did not support this – and reiterated his opposition again after he took office.

And with good reason: reimposing the Fairness Doctrine might sound like a decent idea given the above history. But there are some major reasons not to:

  1. It won’t accomplish much. Cable and broadcast television shows already give alternative views on controversial issues. They might present one side much better than the other (think Hannity and Colmes) but they give the other side a platform as well. Listeners to conservative talk radio today choose to listen to right-wing nutjobs who don’t try to balance their opinion with facts over more serious sources of news. They have other options if they want them.
  2. It would endanger the important goal of net neutrality. Conservatives are already calling net neutrality a “Fairness Doctrine for the internet.” This is a ridiculous claim – but it will gain some credence if those who support net neutrality also support the Fairness Doctrine. The right continues to push this meme [pdf] and has been having some success in polarizing the support for net neutrality, picking off those right-wingers who are most gullible. As I wrote earlier about this campaign to link these two very different policy ideas
  3. [T]his propaganda campaign [to link net neutrality and the Fairness Doctrine] does not seem directed to the public at large, but at conservative activists. The Fairness Doctrine is not something that gets the blood of the average American boiling. But it does evoke a Pavlovian response among conservative activists and right-wing radio listeners. And although these groups are not large enough to force their way, they are large enough to derail the political conversation and make it harder to enact this obvious policy.

  4. It would also endanger other goals such as breaking up media monopolies. In terms of other issues, Rush Limbaugh in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed began to lump in rules about “local content” and “diversity of ownership” as the Fairness Doctrine by other means. Rush Limbaugh here is clearly carrying water for Clear Channel Communications who recently gave him a $400 million contract and who would be threatened by rules regarding local content and diversity of ownership as they already own such a large portion of America’s radio stations. Byron York followed Limbaugh’s lead repeating the same talking points in a recent column.
  5. It will provoke a backlash. Right now, aside from the musings of a few prominent liberals and impassioned editorials from liberal talk radio hosts themselves, there is no serious effort to push this idea forward. Liberal ideas are out there – on newspaper editorial pages, on political opinion shows, and most of all on the web. The people most excited by the revival of the Fairness Doctrine are the conservative talk radio hosts and the right-wing movement they lead. I follow this matter closely – reading most articles published on it – and almost every article I read is from some conservative publication or blog hyping the threat to free speech and all that is good and holy that is the Fairness Doctrine. Which is why the Heritage Foundation has this piece of trash written by Rory Cooper insisting that the White House is “rushing” to the Fairness Doctrine – despite the aforementioned opposition by the White House. (A propaganda outlet such as Heritage has not patience for such “subtlties” as facts.) Which is why Senator Inhofe is promoting the view that the Fairness Doctrine as yet another assault on the Christians. Which is why Bryon York recently penned a column linking the Fairness Doctrine to breaking up media monopolies as assaults on “media freedom.” Which is why the World News Daily has distorted Senator Sherrod Brown’s comments to claim he supports the Fairness Doctrine. Which is why Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the talking heads can’t shut up about it. This is a fight the right wants – and for good reason. It plays into the liberal stereotypes conservatives promote – especially the idea of a nanny-state attempt to control free speech. It makes the right look important; it makes the Democrats look petty; if the right loses, they will be able to claim the mantle of victimhood that conservatives seem to relish as much as any other group. 
  1. The Fairness Doctrine was actually created earlier, but it was not incorporated into FCC guidelines until the late 1960s. []
  2. It’s worth noting that all of these more recent comments were made by politicians on liberal talk radio – and only after being prompted by their hosts. []