The Right Wing Noise Machine

A thread on Majikthise about the American conservative political machine features a few excessive simplifications of the situation, some of which are due to me. Given that, I think it’s useful to explain how it all began, why Bush-style conservatism is different from Goldwater-style conservatism, and how the right-wing political machine doesn’t quite interlock, at least not by design.

In the 1960s, American conservatism was at its nadir. It had defined itself based on opposition to the civil rights movement, which was winning another battle every day. Goldwater lost by a landslide; Nixon was a fairly liberal President on domestic issues. Milton Friedman was a fringe economist, and the political mainstream was very Keynesian.

Some of the trends that allowed American conservatism to resurge since then had nothing to do with a political machine. It’s important to get those out of the way before discussing the actions of people like Scaife, Reagan, and Graham. First, the onset of inflation and then stagflation in the 1970s catapulted Friedman to the mainstream. Even after the US and Britain abandoned monetarism for good, they were never as Keynesian as before, and the unemployment levels that used to get governments booted are now considered very low.

Second, between 1965 and 1980, American liberalism self-destructed. Movements need some positive vision to succeed; 1960s liberals had the civil rights movement and the Great Society, but by the 1970s, both were passé and had given way to race riots and lackluster economic growth. The Vietnam War killed Cold War liberalism, and the only alternatives on the left, McGovern and Carter, produced a spectacular electoral defeat and an unsolved hostage crisis respectively.

And third, the Western academia radicalized. In Continental Europe, the entire philosophy department became a postmodern hornet’s nest. In the English-speaking world, continental philosophers took over the English department and spread to most social sciences, including the new disciplines of ____ studies. Later it would provide conservatives with the ability to tar even the natural sciences by association whenever they said something that justified liberal policies.

If Scaife had started aggressively funding thinktanks in the 1950s, he may not have gotten anywhere. In the 1950s and 1960s, he’d have been the rapidly eroding mainstream. But in the 1970s and 80s, he was the fresh face, and his thinktanks could rail against welfare, cultural liberalism, feminism, and antiracism with impunity. Stagflation, the self-destruction of American liberalism, and the radicalization of the academia provided him with a political vacuum to get into.

In the thread on Majikthise, several people mention the importance of preaching to the choir. In the rise of the American conservative movement, this meant literally preaching to large congregations, which eventually became megachurches. But it’s not exactly true that fundamentalist clerics preached to the choir. What they did was tell the choir to donate money and vote Republican, just like the unions tell their members to give money and vote Democratic.

I don’t want to turn this into a treatise about the rise of the religious right, so I’ll just note that the part that’s relevant to the right wing political machine is prosperity theology. That itself had a lot to do with the fact that the US was in a Cold War against an enemy that was both economically left-wing and secular. This was nothing less than a right-wing radical fusion of libertarian economics, whose main proponents were often anti-fundamentalist, and reactionary social policy, whose main proponents were often economically left-wing.

At the same time, Evangelists started mimicking the same organizing tactics of the radical left, based on the assumption that if they’d worked for Martin Luther King, they’d work for conservatives. Consciousness raising groups became housegroups and Bible study groups; civil rights organizations became religious organizations; shrill magazines calling the media capitalist became shrill magazines calling the media liberal. Clerics like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell preached the exact same mix of political activity, personal purity, and general self-righteousness that the left was already infamous for.

By and large, those tactics were failures. They’ve been tried many times in many different struggles; the only time they’ve succeeded was in the Southern civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. Even MLK’s own attempt to expand to anti-poverty activism in Chicago resulted in failure. If all Evangelicals had had was their self-segregating Bible study groups, they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.

Fortunately for them, the Rupert Murdoch media empire started aggressively expanding in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Murdoch was conservative enough to use his British media outlets to help orchestrate a coup d’état in Australia against the ruling Labor Party, whose Prime Minister was forced to call for untimely elections, which he lost. In 1973 he made his first American acquisition, and by 1976 he had acquired the New York Post. Each newspaper and television station he acquired became a coordinated conservative machine.

Media ownership was legally limited by a variety of mechanisms. The rapidly growing conservative machine opposed them, presumably due to both ideology and the desire to increase its political capital. The FCC did away with the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and Reagan vetoed a bill that would restore it. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act removed caps on media control, enabling the conservative Clear Channel to control many more stations than before.

In 1970, the mainstream media was all the average citizen could access. There were partisan magazines, but nobody took them seriously, and a conservative who quoted a John Birch Society pamphlet would’ve been ridiculed. But by 2000, there was a parallel conservative media that could reach almost as many people, and that could plausibly convince viewers that the mainstream media was liberal. That alone could shift the center to the right, by pegging what had been the center as the left.

But in fact, that development did not come alone. The conservative media empires used the radical rightist organizations – the aforementioned megachurches and Bible study groups – to convince the mainstream that the radical right was to be taken seriously. That suddenly gave the right additional leverage over the mainstream media, moving it to the right.

The American mainstream media (as well as the BBC) lives by the doctrine of neutrality. As one journalist said, when reporting on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he’d invariably get hate mail from pro-Israelis who called him a terrorist sympathizer and from pro-Palestinians who called him an occupation apologist; his job, he said, was to make sure the two piles of hate mail were roughly the same size. Whereas previously there wasn’t much of an organized left or an organized right to artificially inflate the size of the hate mail pile, the various conservative outlets that sprang in the 1970s and 80s could mount astroturf campaigns that misled journalists to think the center was to the right of what most people actually believed.

Finally, several rich conservatives started to donate large amounts of money to thinktanks, whose purpose was to produce biased research. A 1969 riot at Cornell frightened John M. Olin enough that he started infusing cash into conservative thinktanks, the idea being to use the money to promote the free market system. There’s hardly a conservative polemicist missing from Wikipedia‘s list of individual grant recipients: Dinesh D’Souza, Samuel Huntington, Charles Murray, John Lott, Harvey Mansfield, William Bennett. Richard Mellon Scaife, the Coors Brewing Company, and the Bradley Foundation later joined Olin in aggressively funding right-wing thinktanks.

The way the machine currently operates is that the thinktanks start by producing shoddy research. Republican lawmakers and the conservative media empire then use that research to rebut serious academic research, with the help of decades of assaults on the academia for its association with ____ studies departments. The use of AEI-produced research in mainstream political discourse then elevates the AEI’s stature, enabling it produce even more shoddy studies. Meanwhile, megachurches preach voting Republican, causing fundamentalists whose ideological ancestors supported Bryan 100 years ago to support prosperity theology.

Although it seems to all fall in place, it wasn’t built that way by design. When Olin started funding his thinktanks, he didn’t expect to have a Murdoch media empire popularize them till they were on a par with academic research in the public’s mind. Conversely, Murdoch didn’t buy the New York Post in order to popularize pseudo-academic studies; he was and remains a tabloid mogul at heart, and his deposition of the Australian Labor government was achieved via innuendo.

Not surprisingly, a lot of modern (i.e. Bush-style) conservative planks are based on political realities rather than a Goldwaterian ideology. The fusion of libertarianism, big business conservatism, fundamentalism, and later neoconservatism, necessitated taking positions that appear contradictory, such as claiming to support the sanctity of the family and then opposing any pro-family welfare policies of the form that has helped France achieve the highest adult fertility rate in the developed world outside Israel (the US has a higher overall fertility rate, but only because of its higher teen pregnancy rate).

Some people, chiefly Lakoff, have tried explaining those discrepancies by constructing overall narratives, in this case the strict father metaphor. But fundamentalists before 1960 had no trouble supporting pro-family welfare policies, and even now American conservatives employ strict father language in few speeches. The thinktanks use pure libertarian, neoconservative, or fundamentalist language; the politicians mix and match based on idiosyncratic needs, whence Bush and Brownback’s use of the nurturant-parent word “compassionate.”

This marriage of convenience provides a partial explanation for why Bush has failed to decrease the size of government, or for why the Republicans have largely abandoned states-rights rhetoric. The only government spending all four constituent groups – libertarians, big business, the religious right, and neoconservatives – agree on reducing is welfare. But welfare costs surprisingly little; guaranteeing every American family an income at at least the poverty level would cost $200 billion a year. The most expensive parts of the social safety net are old age pensions and health insurance, both of which are politically untouchable. The AEI has realized it and begun attacking the “entitlement state,” but it’s realized it too late; the movement I’m describing in this post peaked around 2004 and has been in decline ever since, mostly due to Bush’s wanton incompetence.

Bush’s incompetence also provides another conundrum that viewing American conservatism as a piecemeal movement resolves. In its rush to dismantle government programs, the conservative movement found that passing the requisite bills through Congress was political suicide. The path of least resistance passed through running large deficits, which would necessitate spending cuts, and appointing like-minded individuals to head regulatory agencies so that they wouldn’t provide inconvenient advice.

The former method, starve-the-beast conservatism, failed. Tax cuts tend to correlate with spending increases, because they enshrine a worldview wherein fiscal responsibility is optional and unpopular tax increases or spending cuts are shunned. And as Paul Krugman explains, appointing people who don’t believe in a regulatory agency’s missions to head it is always a disaster. None of the important figures in American conservatism, not even Grover Norquist, intended for Katrina to happen, but their political zeal helped exacerbate it.

6 Responses to The Right Wing Noise Machine

  1. Excellent post Alon, and you are quite correct. The Right Wing Noise Machine was not entirely the product of design but contingency. Progressivism had lost it’s way spectacularly in the 1970’s and began a rather meteroic decline, which opened several opportunities for right wingers who were considered fringe figures. The best example is hardcore laissez-faire economics, which were pretty fringe prior to stagflation and then suddenly ascendant, with Ronald Coase, Gary Becker, James Buchanan and others enjoying respect where they were being laughed out of academia just a decade earlier.

    But as you say, just like liberalism in the 70’s, conservatism has reached it’s peak and begun it’s own downward spiral. The left, as Lindsay says, has to take advantage of this, and quickly.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    But as you say, just like liberalism in the 70’s, conservatism has reached it’s peak and begun it’s own downward spiral. The left, as Lindsay says, has to take advantage of this, and quickly.

    It’s completely true. But my main worry is that like the right before it, the left will turn out to only breed more authoritarianism, more corruption, and more failure. The Democrats would rather have 290 Representatives of whom 70 are conservatives ready to gut any progressive legislation in committee than 220 reliably liberal Representatives.

  3. SLC says:

    Re Barry Goldwater

    If Mr. Goldwater were alive today, he would be absolutely appalled at the current GOP ideology. He was pretty much a laissez faire conservative with no particular religious conviction and would have vigorously spoken out against the influence of the f****** born-agains in the party. Shortly before he died, he made the following statement concerning gays in the military, “we should be more concerned with whether they can shoot straight then with their sexual preferences.” Just as a matter of information, a cousin of mine who served in the Army and was an officer in the reserves died of AIDS. We found out that he was gay after the fact. According to his commanding officer, his sexual preferences didn’t seem to affect his performance in his duties.

  4. muppt says:

    GOP is controlled by neocon jews!

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Well, Goldwater is a good example of the shift in social conservatism. Goldwater himself was no libertarian; he voted against the Civil Rights Act, and had an overall crappy record on civil rights and civil liberties issues. The shift from Goldwater-style conservatism to Bush-style conservatism is partly the story of a shift from cultural conservatism that centers on racism to cultural conservatism that centers on fundamentalism and homophobia.

  6. SLC says:

    Re Goldwater

    Goldwater became more libertarian after he left the Senate, to some extent possibly due to the influence of his second wife. There is no way the later Goldwater would have tolerated the f****** born again influence.

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