Category Archives: Random Blogging

Even A Stopped Clock…

On Wednesday morning, the GOP is very likely to strip Liz Cheney of her House leadership position.

I detested Dick Cheney, and I have no warmer feelings for his daughter. She has routinely staked out “conservative” positions that I oppose–as one pundit recently opined, she is one of the House members who have been most protective of the wealthy, most willing to sacrifice the environment, and most willing to ignore injustice. Just this last year, she’s voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, against the Paycheck Fairness Act, against an expansion of background checks, and against the American Dream Act.

Evidently, she also voted against removing Marjorie Taylor Greene from committees.

Judging by those votes, Cheney would seem to be a perfect representation of today’s Republican orthodoxy. So why are her equally regressive GOP colleagues seemingly out for her blood? Because–despite her track record of really extreme partisanship– she has refused to participate in “the Big Lie.”

As she wrote in The Washington Post,

Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this….

The question before us now is whether we will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have. I have worked overseas in nations where changes in leadership come only with violence, where democracy takes hold only until the next violent upheaval. America is exceptional because our constitutional system guards against that. At the heart of our republic is a commitment to the peaceful transfer of power among political rivals in accordance with law. President Ronald Reagan described this as our American “miracle.”

Many years ago, when I was still a Republican, I predicted a schism between what we then called the “country club” members of the GOP and the fundamentalist Christians who were increasingly becoming the party’s foot soldiers. I was wrong. In the intervening years, pro-business “country club” voters separated into two groups–those whose desire for favorable regulatory and tax treatment overcame any moral qualms continued to vote Republican, while those repelled by the party’s increasing focus on culture war simply left. They became independents or joined the Democrats.

The division that threatens to take the GOP the way of the Whigs ends up being between the few Republicans who still live in the real world, and those who live in Trumpland.

Liz Cheney and her rapidly diminishing ilk still believe that the GOP is a party espousing their version of conservative principles, and that fidelity to those principles should be the standard on which they are judged. They are living in the past. In the 2020 election, the GOP didn’t even bother to produce a platform. In place of policy debates, the party falls back on a racism that is hardly masked by the repetition of tired slogans about “socialism” and “cancel culture.” Rather than any measured response to Biden’s agenda, GOP figures engage in diatribes about Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss.

Today’s GOP is the party of Marjorie Taylor Green, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Lauren Boebert–a pathetic mix of venal and crazy. In that environment, even someone as ideologically unattractive as Liz Cheney looks good.

As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

 

The Crux Of The Problem

I was reading an article about Substack–the digital platform that has increasingly recruited media personnel to write newsletters for which recipients pay. (The only one I receive is the free version of Heather Cox Richardson’s.) The article considered Substack’s claim to be the “future of journalism.”

If that claim intrigues you, you should click through and read the whole article, which was interesting. But it was the very last sentence that grabbed me, because it is, in my opinion, the crux of the problem–“the problem” being America’s deep and growing polarization.

How do we create a shared sense of reality in a media landscape comprised mostly of individual writers and their loyal followers?

As regular readers of this blog know, for several years, I taught a university course in Media and Public Affairs, and I was fond of complaining that every time I taught that course, our constantly-morphing media environment required a new preparation.  It isn’t simply “a media landscape comprised of individual writers and their followers”–it is a dramatically fragmented media landscape that includes not just those individuals (with their individual and contending “takes” on the news of the day) but literally hundreds of media news sites focused upon different aspects of human activity, and doing so through a lens of different partisan and ideological commitments.

As I used to tell my students, this is truly uncharted territory. When printed-on-paper newspapers and three television networks served communities, residents of those communities at least occupied the same news environment. Good or bad, right or wrong, the local newspaper provided the only reporting most of us saw. Even if some people picked up the paper only to look for sports scores or wedding announcements or whatever, they had to browse past the same headlines that their friends and neighbors were seeing. 

People in a given city or town thus occupied the same general reality.

The same phenomenon played out on a national scale. Edward R. Murrow and his two counterparts delivered much the same information to a majority of Americans via the evening news on television, and a few “national” magazines and newspapers–notably the New York Times and the Washington Post–homogenized the national news.

Those days are long gone.

One of the books I urged my media and policy students to read was The Filter Bubble.It was an early analysis of the most challenging effect of the online media environment–our new ability to “shop” for news that feeds our preconceptions, and to construct a “bubble” within which we are comfortable. (As I used to tell my students, if you want to believe that the aliens really did land in Roswell, I can find you five internet sites offering pictures of the aliens…)

The angry souls who want to believe that the election was stolen and Donald Trump really won can find sites that reinforce that fantasy. People susceptible to conspiracy theories can  find “evidence” that Hillary Clinton is abusing and eating small children in the (non-existent) basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, or confirmation that those California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers. Whatever the deficits of newspapers “back in the day”–and those deficits were very real–this sort of “reporting” was relegated to widely-scorned rags like the National Enquirer that graced supermarket checkout counters. (My favorite headline: Osama and Saddam’s Gay Wedding.)

When the digital counterparts of those scandal sheets are visually indistinguishable from credible sites, not to mention easily and privately accessed (your neighbor isn’t watching you purchase the Enquirer as you check out), is it any wonder that the very human trait of confirmation bias leads us to occupy different–and incommensurate–realities?

And if that’s where we are– if Americans currently reside in dramatically different realities– how will we ever be able to talk to each other?

Red Meat

By this time, most Americans who follow the news–or, in the alternative, Fox– have encountered the great meat hoax. It will undoubtedly go into the history books next to those non-existent “death panels” that Republicans insisted were part of the Affordable Care Act.

In case you’ve been vacationing under a rock somewhere, here’s the short version. When President Biden announced his climate plans, a garbage story from the routinely garbage-y Daily Mail somehow conflated those plans with a 2020 research study that was totally unconnected. The study had considered various methods of combatting climate change, and identified a drastic reduction in meat consumption as good for the environment.

Many pundits, including Paul Krugman, reported on that article, and on what happened next.

Among other things [the Daily Mail] took the most extreme scenario from a University of Michigan study of how reduced meat consumption could affect greenhouse gas emissions — a study released in January 2020 that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Biden plans. The Daily Mail also used a deceptive graphic to make it seem as if this was an actual administration proposal.

American right-wing pundits and politicians then ran with it. Did they actually believe the nonsense they were spouting? Well, Kudlow’s apparent belief that beer is made with meat is arguably a point in his favor, an indication that he’s genuinely clueless rather than merely cynical.

The reference to Kudlow (I vote for clueless) was a response to his laughable assertion (on Fox, of course) that Biden would soon have Americans drinking beer made from plants. (As one wag asked, “What’s next? Fruit based orange juice?”)  Twitter and Facebook users wondered what Kudlow thought beer is currently made from.

What’s clear, however, is that neither Kudlow nor other Republicans touting an imaginary war on meat saw any need to check out their story, felt any concern that their audience — Fox News viewers, Republican voters — would find the claim that Joe Biden is coming for their red meat implausible.

Krugman has an answer to the question why Republicans don’t bother to fact-check: he suggests that facts are incompatible with the GOP’s goal to define Democrats as “woke feminist vegetarians who don’t share the values of Real Americans.” He cites the right’s constant yammering about “cancel culture” and persistent demonization of Democratic women of color, along with the continual portrayal of Biden– a white male senior citizen–as nothing but a passive puppet.

Right-wing media are pushing this narrative nonstop. According to a Morning Consult poll last month, more Republicans said they’d heard “a lot” about the move to withdraw some Dr. Seuss books than said the same about Biden’s huge Covid-19 relief bill.

Talk about your alternate realities! (Along the same lines, Tucker Carlson recently told Fox viewers that they should “report” parents of children wearing masks, because making your child wear a mask equates to child abuse.)

One commenter on this blog opined that the real pandemic in this country isn’t COVID; it’s insanity. Purveyors of snark clearly agree. As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune wrote (after emphasizing that neither Biden nor his administration had suggested a plan to reduce or limit the consumption of red meat):

But because the Daily Mail, a chronically wrong British tabloid, connected the Michigan study to Biden’s climate plan, America’s right-wing media ecosystem erupted over the weekend in a perverse display of meat-rage. It was a veritable beef freak out. Baseless burger bollocks.

Fox News, the network where facts go to die, ran a graphic featuring a double cheeseburger under the titles “Up In Your Grill” and “Biden’s Climate Requirements.” The graphic’s burger-adjacent text included the lines: “CUT 90% OF RED MEAT FROM DIET”; “MAX 4 LBS PER YEAR”; and “ONE BURGER PER MONTH.”

An equally accurate graphic would read: “REINCARNATED RONALD REAGAN LOCATES AND BEFRIENDS BIG FOOT, PAIR EXPECTED TO DEFEAT COMMUNISM.”

We can laugh at Larry Kudlow’s apparent ignorance about the origin of beer and we can shake our heads over the GOP’s increasing distance from sanity, but the willingness of partisans to believe and spread utter nonsense is frightening. It’s true that a significant percentage of Americans has always been credulous–think of those who panicked listening to Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds–but we have never before had a major political party  composed in large part of credulous citizens willing to believe “leaders” who routinely manufacture “red meat”–or attacks on red meat–for their consumption.

A disloyal opposition is dangerous.

 

 

Triggering Introspection

One of my favorite columnists is Charles Blow of the New York Times. I appreciate his writing for two seemingly contradictory reasons: as a Black male, he provides this White female with insights from a perspective that is alien to my own experience; on the other hand, he frequently reinforces perceptions and insights common to those of us who spend some time thinking about the human condition generally.

A recent column fell into that second category, and I hope readers will indulge me in a bit of (non-political) Sunday philosophizing.

Blow was pondering what he called the “second phase of adulthood,” which begins, in his estimation, when one’s children graduate from high school or college and leave home. (By that calculation, perhaps those of us who have watched our grandchildren leave the nest are in our third or even fourth “phase of adulthood.”)

No matter how we calculate the phases of our lives, death becomes an inescapable intrusion. As Blow notes, parents decline and die, we lose friends and relatives, and those losses change us.

This seemingly sudden intrusion of death into your life changes you. At least it is changing me. It reminds me that life is terribly fragile and short, that we are all just passing through this plane, ever so briefly. And that has impressed upon me how important it is to live boldly, bravely and openly, to embrace every part of me and celebrate it, to say and write the important things: the truth and my truth.

Blow enumerates some of the changes he is making in his “second phase”–as he says, he’s started to manage his regrets, to forgive himself for foolish mistakes and poor choices, and “to remember that we are all just human beings stumbling through this life, trying to figure it out, falling down and getting back up along the way.”

He also recognizes the need to adjust our goals and expectations. In his case, he says “When I am gone, and people remember my name, I want some of them to smile.” (That seems do-able. In my case, I’ve gone from early dreams of writing the great American novel to wanting to die with my own teeth…a more achievable goal that I regularly share with my dentist.)

I think this particular column touched me because my husband and I are in the midst of one of those inflection points we all face. We’re downsizing–we’ve sold our home, and are packing and discarding, preparing to leave flights of stairs that have become harder to climb, and tasks of home ownership that have become more onerous as we age, and we are moving into an apartment that’s all on one floor, where management will be responsible for maintenance.

Transitions of this sort–common to all of us as we age–tend to prompt introspection. Where has life taken us? How do we want to spend the years remaining? What hard-won insights, wisdom or support do we have to offer our friends and families as they confront those same questions?

Those very universal questions seem more poignant, somehow, in our very polarized country–perhaps because there seem to be so many of our countrymen who refuse to ask them, so many unhappy people unwilling to see the shared humanity of neighbors who look or worship or vote differently, so many unwilling to consider the possibility that their way might not be the only way.

Learned Hand famously said “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” If there is one “marker” of maturity, one insight that comes with second–or third– phase adulthood, I think that recognition might be it.

I think Charles Blow would agree. Happy Sunday….

Money Money Money…

When Howard Dean first demonstrated an ability to fundraise over the Internet, I was thrilled. I saw all those small donations displacing the influence of the “fat cats” upon whom political figures had long depended. As time has passed–and as I have noted in recent posts–it appeared that my enthusiasm was premature. Successful candidates who had previously granted access to lobbyists and big donors now pander to the ideologically rigid, nuance-free extremes of their parties’ bases.

Back when I ran for Congress, the conventional political wisdom about fundraising saw political contributions not just as a way to pay for expensive television and direct mail efforts, but as an indicator of support. People who could raise respectable amounts–especially if those contributions came in early in the campaign–were seen to be more viable than candidates who struggled to raise money.

As we all know, some things have changed. Television and direct mail are far less important than less-expensive social media communications, for example. Other things haven’t: the importance of name recognition (the reason “celebrity” candidates with little or no government experience have a head start), and the still-potent belief that raising lots of money means the candidate has lots of grass-roots support.

And that brings me to an interesting story from ProPublica, about how Josh Hawley and Marjorie Taylor Green “juiced” their numbers using tactics that gave them the ability to claim grassroots support, and–not so incidentally– made shadowy consultants rich.

Two of the leading Republican firebrands in Congress touted big fundraising hauls as a show of grassroots support for their high-profile stands against accepting the 2020 election results.

But new financial disclosures show that Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., relied on an email marketing vendor that takes as much as 80 cents on the dollar. That means their headline-grabbing numbers were more the product of expensively soliciting hardcore Republicans than an organic groundswell of far-reaching support.

Both Hawley and Greene touted their big totals as evidence of widespread support for their extreme positions. Pro Publica’s reporters begged to differ, pointing out that both had paid unusually high sums to rent a fundraising list from a company called LGM Consulting Group, which charges as much as 80% of the funds generated through its list.

LGM appears to be the consultant of choice for crazy candidates–the company fundraises for Lauren Boebert, among other far-right “stars” and in 2020, the firm’s clients included then-Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who lost the Georgia Senate primary; Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old congressman from North Carolina who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally; and Laura Loomer, a far-right internet personality who calls herself a “proud Islamophobe” and lost a run for a Florida congressional seat.

As the report notes, the rise of email fundraising has proved irresistible to several less-than-scrupulous marketing consultants, and has facilitated their ability to profit handsomely.

Hawley’s and Greene’s list rentals show how politicians can pad their fundraising figures — if they’re willing to pay for it. There’s scant evidence that fundraising success represents broad popular support for a politician outside the narrow slice of Americans who make political contributions, and many of the people on the rented mailing lists may not have been constituents of Hawley’s or Greene’s. Still, the money is real, and the perception of fundraising star power is its own kind of success in Washington….

Political professionals have gotten more sophisticated about efficiently converting online outrage into campaign cash. At the same time, candidates who court controversy may increasingly rely on rage-fueled online fundraising as more traditional donors freeze them out. In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Hawley lost the support of some big donors, and major companies such as AT&T and Honeywell pledged to withhold donations from lawmakers who objected to the Electoral College vote.

“The news cycle that emerges out of controversial behavior by a candidate is like a strong gust of wind, and these mechanisms like list-building are the equivalent of sails,” said Eric Wilson, a digital strategist who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “For candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley, who have largely been shunned by traditional corporate donors who are frequently the mainstays for elected officials, especially in off years, they have no choice but to pursue grassroots fundraising. And in order for that to work, they have to continue to make more noise. It is a feedback loop in that regard.”

There doesn’t seem to be an answer to the multiple dilemmas posed by money in politics…..