Page Two: Spinning Tales

The GOP masterfully weaves a tapestry of deceit

Page Two
The Republicans have long been brilliant at shaping an overall political narrative that serves as the most important element in their electoral campaigns. Their take on any daily development or news item is presented in the context of and in harmony with the overall narrative.

The Republicans dare not run on the issues. If they did, they would have to explain not just the utter failure of the Bush administration but how they can talk about the party's platform without talking about deregulation. This isn't a new development; for a while now, their campaigns have been pushed in the form of fictions, only loosely connected to realities.

Each and every campaign has its overall story. The narrative pushes big ideas while ignoring recent history, stated policy goals, and legislative track records. The major themes and storylines are consistent, with only minor variations campaign to campaign.

First, they lay out the villains and said villains' evil goals. These include emphasizing how global warming is a lie representing the irrational fanaticism of environmentalists. Then they detail the anti-American, anti-business attitude of the left, coupled with its burning desire to use taxes as a means for a redistribution of wealth. Countering these are righteous heroes: elephant-riding, Republican white knights who live by a code of decency, tradition, and morality. The latter is indicated by Republicans' insistence that they will cut taxes, balance the budget, and support free enterprise – all while growing businesses and kicking ass internationally. These themes are like Top 10 hits for them. Throw in casual racism, distrust of others (especially people of color), and the attempt by immoral radicals to destroy common decency, set against the uncertainties of the future; none of these ever gets old. The Republicans not only continue to dance with those that brung them, but they do it to the exact same tunes.

Much like familiar tales that begin with "Once upon a time" or "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," the Republican story is delivered with a shorter, yet still traditional and repetitive, opening "Mainstream liberals have ...." The gist of the message will be about how out of touch with mainstream Americans these "liberals" are, not like "us." Sometimes the villain is the party, and sometimes it is individual politicians, but it's always media.

There are many examples of how this storytelling works. One time, the idea was to deny that Republicans in any way had fueled or spread the word about Barack Obama's supposed Muslim background. As nonchalantly as possible, they insisted they had not spread the story. Even if pushed, they wouldn't quite say it was untrue, instead insisting that they had no proof it was true.

Reinforcing rather than debunking the story, they kept spreading it – but within the context of the idea that spreading such stories was dirty politics, which they were not practicing and never would.

During the first two days of the Democratic Convention, the Republicans did an incredible job positioning the major story as being the tremendous Clinton and Obama split in the party. Every story reported, and many of the interviews emphasized, this. After Hillary Clinton's unmistakably heartfelt endorsement of Obama, they concentrated on wondering why she had not said that he was the best man for the job. If she had said that, they would have focused on something equally unimportant but with exactly the same spin.

Later, following the announcement of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate, the story became the shocking, unprecedented assault on Palin by the liberal press. As important as any point is that this across-the-board assault was largely fictional. I'm sure there were blogs and websites that were vicious in their criticisms. Those can be found on any issue. The New York Times was probably the most aggressive critic in mainstream media. What they covered were her record and her history, which are not just legitimate territory but exactly the topics the press should be covering.

Meanwhile, the significant right-wing mainstream media – ignoring the long history of its own often mad-dog attacks on Hillary Clinton, which frequently crossed any lines of common decency – not only condemned mainstream liberal media's coverage but often actually labeled it "sexist!"

Sure, there was some pleasure in listening to the impossibly sleazy Dick Morris (once he hired whores; now he is one), the ridiculously pompous Bill O'Reilly, and the most intellectually dishonest commentator on television, Sean Hannity, discuss sexism – but not all that much.

The overall narrative remains pretty much the same from campaign to campaign – you know, the same old story about how honest, hard-working American patriots face a daily assault from the massive (far-left) liberal juggernaut, which includes biased media, constitutional destruction, unfair and onerous taxation, and corrupt politicians.

A major story thread is the villainy of mainstream, far-left liberal media. Not only is it out of touch with the American public, presenting only biased stories, but it's dominated by neo-Bolshevik Marxists so consumed by their hatred for the USA that they try to destroy it and demoralize it in any way possible.

(An aside: The longtime accusation has been that mass media in this country has, and has long had, left-wing biases. This view is not shared by any liberals, progressives, or lefties I know, all of whom think that media reflects a bias in favor of the status quo. A strong argument can be made that this was never really the case, but even if one bought this line, this is no longer even a vaguely reasonable slander. Given the shrinking audiences and revenues of print and broadcast journalism that have led to huge cuts in staff and the closing of many bureau offices, the news is more homogenized than ever, having been slimmed down to be less detailed and comprehensive.

The exception is the growing market share and prominence of overtly right/Republican media. The high ratings of Fox News and the like, along with the success of right-wing talk-radio shows, indicate that the dominant political voice in American media today is conservative. The whole fiction that American mainstream media was aggressively liberal and overly biased was put to rational sleep with the advent and popularity of Fox News. It proved that the complaint was not about bias: Rarely has there been a media outlet as openly and aggressively biased as Fox. No, the problem for the right wasn't that media was biased; the problem was that it wasn't biased enough and in the right way.)

In silent comedies, since there was no sound, there would often be gags that assumed that since the film was silent, the world that it was depicting was silent. This sleight of hand allowed for gags that worked within the film even though they ran counter to audiences' everyday reality. Currently, Republican advocates use the chimera of the evil, mainstream, far-left media in much the same way. They cite it, but the talking heads and their networks can't help but boast about their rating successes and enormous popularity. In order for the story to work, they have to remove themselves from mainstream media (though they are a significant, perhaps dominant portion); at the same time, they need the ego nourishment of showing how well they are doing. They want to be invisible, and they want to be dominant.

The core problems are framed in a consistent way, with all commentators using the same wording to describe a situation or event. "Mainstream liberal media" is the constant; variations include "far-left" and "out-of-touch," with the occasional addition of terms such as "fringe" and "tree huggers." The nuclear option is to use the word "elite."

In the story overall, everything is presented with a value judgment, most often with political implications attached and almost always accentuated by loaded language. This kind of labeling can work especially well when casually used as an exaggeration. When speaking of John Kerry, Al Gore, and/or Hillary Clinton, throw in the term "far-left." (When talking of any Democratic politician, throwing in "far-left" doesn't hurt, but the most effective use of it as a smear is to attach it to centrists.) This would be the same as labeling Sen. John McCain and/or Sen. John Warner as "far-right" or "fascist" – not that some on the left have not done so, but such labeling doesn't happen in mainstream media.

I realize this sounds like paranoid fantasy, but read and listen carefully: Most Republican and/or hard-right-leaning talking heads, pundits, consultants, politicians, and candidates will present essentially the same story, adhering to it not just harmoniously but nearly identically. In the same way that conservative TV and radio pundits do as they each bring up the exact same topic, Republican speakers will also introduce it by saying no one else is talking about it.

I am not enough of a conspiracy theorist to insist that each day's message is shaped and transmitted from a single source or a generally small number of sources. It could quite likely be intuitive. Nevertheless, I will always remember the never-disputed story in The New York Times right after Katrina about Karl Rove convening a meeting to discuss reaction to the hurricane. "Blame it on the governor and on the mayor," he is on the record as saying. Immediately, Republicans across the board, from Fox News pundits to political leaders to individual letter-writers and radio talk-show callers loyally blamed the governor and the mayor.

What's especially brilliant about this offensive against the liberal media conspiracy as a defense against the rights' pandering is that the story doesn't even have to be true. In fact, the truth can get in the way.

Now, someone chided me for scolding mostly the Republicans for the current economic crisis while absolving Democrats. In a way, they're right. Deregulation is a crucial component of the Republican platform. Republicans have long been unanimous in its support. Democrats are so much more inconsistent. Sure, they are seemingly almost always willing to sell out or pander to one distinct constituency or another. As with all things, they lack unity and shared consistent focus. The Democrats whore themselves out, but they do so much more erratically than Republicans.  

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2008 elections, Republican narrative, Republican spin, John McCain, Karl Rove

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