Monthly Archives: February 2013

how to deal with your own partisan fringe in the Internet era

Just since Monday, a Minnesota state representative has called homosexuality “an unhealthy, sexual addiction”; a Texas Representative has compared the “immorality of wild, lavish spending” to the “two most horrendous things this country has done,” which are “slavery and abortion”; and a New Hampshire state representative has opined that “a lot of people like being in abusive relationships.” These quotes come from Teagan Goddard (a relatively neutral political aggregator), but I suspect he found them because liberal blogs and social media quickly disseminate right-wingers’ statements that will offend majority voters. Drudge and others spread liberals’ remarks on the right, but I don’t follow them closely enough to assess whether this pattern is symmetrical.

To some extent, what we observe is a classic feature of competitive politics, especially in a two-party system. Each party accommodates a wide range of views, but winning means satisfying the median voter. (And despite claims that the American people are polarized, in fact the median voter still remains the modal voter–most people are near the middle.) That means that each ideological extreme inevitably threatens its own party’s leaders and contenders for national office. To the extent that median or “swing” voters hear the extreme views, the party suffers. I say this without prejudice against the so-called extremes, which may happen to have the best views, on their merits. I am just making a point about the political game.

Although this core reality is perennial, things have changed in two respects. First, the Internet encourages the rapid and mass dissemination of extreme remarks by otherwise obscure office-holders and talk-radio hosts. Twenty years ago, would I have heard a Minnesota legislator’s latest thoughts about homosexuality? Rush Limbaugh started with one audience, the people who listened to his live radio show. On the whole, they agreed with him and they heard his whole package, including mainstream ideas as well as remarks that would offend most Americans. Now Limbaugh has two audiences: his friendly listeners plus enormous numbers of other people who just read his most outrageous statements (sampled here) on their Facebook page or in blogs. The importance of that second audience seems hard to overstate.

The other change involves the specific ideological positioning of the two parties. In the 1960s and 1970s, an obstreperous radical left drew a lot of attention. Again, I make no comment about the validity of the radicals’ views–I happen to share some of them, and some have become mainstream. But from a partisan political perspective, the radicals were a threat to national Democrats. And so national Democrats went after them. Starting as early as LBJ, they found opportunities to denounce left-liberals and radicals, called them out by name, and even took illegal and unethical actions against them, such as siccing the Chicago police on them in 1968. They also started formal organizations to debate them–including, in different ways, Americans for Democratic Action and the Democratic Leadership Council.

Many ugly scars were left. To this day, when a Democratic politician like President Obama is seen as disparaging his “base,” that triggers a whole history of conflict and resentment on both sides. I think the tensions were actually worse under Clinton, who faced a significant third-party challenge in 1996. But the net result, from a purely partisan perspective, is daylight between the actual American left and the Democratic Party’s leadership. Conservatives may keep saying that Obama is a socialist, but 61% of people put the President somewhere on the spectrum from “very conservative” to “somewhat liberal.”

As for Republicans: it is demonstrable that their party accommodates a wide range of views and includes moderate voters and legislators. But the new Web environment magnifies the voices of their radical right. Particularly for young people (who can’t remember an earlier time), the GOP is defined by memorable viral quotes about legitimate rape, race, and Obama’s birth certificate. In contrast to the Democrats, the Republicans lack an organized effort to separate themselves from that stuff. They make general noises about not being the “stupid party” (Bobby Jindal), but that is nothing in comparison to the public battles between national Democratic leaders and specific radicals over 40 years.

If you want people to know that you disagree with your own flank, you have to attack it. That means picking deliberate fights with prominent individuals and organizations. You can’t talk in generalities or ignore the most prominent radicals because they have too many supporters. You have to call them out. That will produce outrage from your own “base,” but the volume of the controversy is actually helpful if your goal is to communicate to a busy public that you are different from your own radical fringe. That is what Democratic politicians achieved in the Clinton era, and it was ugly. I was often on the left’s side in those fights. But, as Jesse Jackson, Sr used to say, it takes two wings to fly. I think that even today, both parties have ideological breadth, but only the Democrats give the impression that they fly with two wings. The perceived dominance of the Republican right is killing their chances, especially with young people.

youth opinions of immigration policy

(from an airplane) Last week, CIRCLE released our analysis of young people’s views of the immigration debate. The headline was not surprising. Only 8% of young adults chose immigration as their top issue in 2012, but those young people were overwhelmingly on one side of the debate, wanting to create paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. More than twice as many (16.8%) young adults from recent immigrant backgrounds chose immigration as their top issue. And among young immigrants of Latino background, 29.0% chose it. Thus there is a youth constituency for immigration reform–and hardly any  youth opposition to it–but it is mainly a top issue for Latino immigrant youth.

One thing that surprised me a little was some misinformation about the candidates’ positions on the DREAM Act–or else a miscommunication caused by our survey question.* Forty-two percent of the first- and second-generation respondents thought that only Obama (not Romney) would veto the DREAM Act. When combined with the respondents who thought that both 2012 candidates would veto the DREAM Act, nearly half believed that Obama was against it. Just about one quarter of recent immigrant youth (23.1%) and other youth (27.9%) correctly thought that only Mitt Romney would veto the DREAM Act. Nevertheless, the immigrant youth were notably favorable to Obama and opposed to Romney.

One possibility: our question was too complicated or obscure, and people misunderstood it. But another possibility is that people actually do not know that Obama favored the DREAM Act. I can see that happening because he is the president and yet no DREAM Act has passed. This means that Obama could gain youth support by signing legislation that included elements of the DREAM Act. It also means that Republicans do not have as serious a disadvantage with young immigrant voters as might be expected. Their candidate’s official opposition to the DREAM Act does not seem widely known.

*Which 2012 presidential candidate argued that The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act rewards criminal activity by undocumented residents and that he will veto it should the DREAM Act passes

keeping a democracy from overreacting to terrorism

(Chicago) In her book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, Louise Richardson warns against generalizing but still ventures a cautious generalization about terrorists. What they want, she writes, are “the three r’s” of revenge, renown, and reaction. They are  strikingly vague about what kind of reaction they expect or what it will lead to (pp. 80-84). Bin Laden may have thought, for example, that the US would withdraw from the Middle East if he attacked us at home, or that we would invade the Arab world–but most likely he did not weigh that alternative or care which of the two outcomes occurred. What he wanted was a reaction of a large magnitude, something that would make him a significant player.

And that is precisely what he got in the form of the Afghanistan and Iraqi invasions. That does not (by itself) prove that those two interventions were bad for the world or for the US. They could have been good even if bin Laden had wanted them–for example, if our Afghan intervention had produced a stable, human-rights-protecting regime there. But it now looks as if both wars were bad, the costs too high for us and for the populations of both countries, the gains in human rights too evanescent. So then it appears that we gave bin Laden just what he wanted and did net harm as a result.

Richardson writes, “It was not quite true, therefore, that, in the words of President Bush, ‘September 11 changed our world.’ Rather, it was our reaction to September 11 that changed our world” (p. 167). That was true in big ways (two wars) and in subtler ways as well. For instance, enough Americans decided–wrongly–that it was unsafe to fly after September 11 that an additional 1,200 road fatalities occurred (p. 168).

The essential question is how a democratic government can avoid such an overreaction. In part, that’s easy. Very few US administrations would have invaded Iraq after 9/11–overturning a secularist Ba’ath regime in reaction to an attack by a fundamentalist movement based in an entirely different country. That was so stupid or venal that the probability of repetition is relatively low. But most administrations would have invaded Afghanistan, most Congresses would have passed the Patriot Act, and most free peoples would have curtailed flying and altered their behavior in many other irrational ways. I, for one, was not very happy flying in 2001-2002.

In a dictatorship, rulers can decide to shrug off a terrorist attack if that serves their interests. In a competitive democracy with a free press, the public typically demands a strong reaction. Imagine, for instance, that Al Gore had been president in 2000 and had chosen not to invade Afghanistan. We would be better off today, but no one would know that. Instead, Gore would be remembered as the weak president who was defeated in 2004 by the candidate who finally took us into Afghanistan.

Terrorism is a criminal offense that can be dealt with as such; it is not an existential threat to a country of our size and wealth. Terrorists are weak, and the biggest gift we can give them is to treat them as more powerful than they are. I don’t really expect these conclusions to prevail, especially in the face of another terrorist attack. But in the meantime, the best we can do is remind ourselves and others of these facts.

how the new media ecosystem favors government

(Chicago) Media outlets have proliferated. Once, only press barons could publish news and opinions, but today, anyone can blog or post a video. A high proportion of the new content is critical and editorially independent–in the sense that no one tells the writers what they may say. Yet the paradoxical result is that government controls the news agenda much more than it ever did.

This pattern is clearest at the local level, where new media have killed the traditional newspaper’s business model, causing newspapers to lay off their “enterprise reporters”–those who dig up original information. In Baltimore, for example, a Pew study finds that 53 major outlets now cover local news and information. But they can collectively afford almost no enterprise reporting. As a result, they all repeat the same content (albeit with diverse opinions tacked on), and the content comes disproportionately from the mayor’s office. “We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.” The news environment feels free because bloggers get to say nasty things about the mayor. But City Hall decides what they are talking about in the first place.

The same trend is now happening at the national level, although to a lesser extent because  some enterprise reporters still work in DC. In Politico, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write:

[The] White House … has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.

The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.

Again, the story is complicated at the national level, because reporters are still paid to dig for information in Washington. Lots of important information is available, regardless of the White House’s attitude to press conferences. Also, the two rival national parties have incentives to uncover some kinds of damaging information about each other. But VandeHei and Allen make a fair point. Far too few reporters are available to cover far too wide a range of stories.

In the longer term, a new model may develop for funding an actual watchdog press. But that won’t happen automatically, because enterprise reporting in the public interest is a classic public good–valuable to everyone in general, but not to anyone in particular. In theory, the government could subsidize the news as a public good on the model of European national broadcasters or American public broadcasting (which receives a pittance from the federal government). But publicly funded media becomes corrupt unless it is challenged by some kind of independent news: see the travails of the BBC. Thus the challenge of funding enterprise reporting remains even if the government helps. Our traditional model involved some lucky cross-subsidization: classified ads paid for journalists who covered city council meetings. That model was killed by Craigslist. I don’t believe crowd-sourcing or unpaid citizen journalism can fill the need–Baltimore illustrates what that leads to. And I don’t believe in technological fixes, because they can only cut the costs of publishing and dissemination, which are already extraordinarily low. New organizational forms are going to have to develop. I think universities have a role to play, because we have 2,000 institutions, nearly 3 percent of GDP, skills for analysis and communication, and a self-interested need to be able to share our ideas with the public.

See also the costs of neglecting journalism, a media reform primer, and five strategies to promote civic communication.

in California

(Santa Monica) As part of a 17-day road trip, I’m spending this week in California. I’m here because of meetings and talks, but my family has come along and we’ve scheduled some vacation time. As I usually do in such cases, I’m trying to stay offline as much as possible, and so I won’t blog again until Feb. 25 (from Chicago).