Thursday, June 29, 2017

Imprecision Matters

Nancy LeTourneau has an interesting piece in the Washington Monthly "What Happens When You Add Projection to Gaslighting." In it, she invokes the spirit of "Karl Rove and the affection for projection." from a 2011 piece in Washington Monthly.

If you click on Steve Benen's 2011 piece, he calls Rove's tactics "projection", but technically, projection is a self defense mechanism. You project your bad qualities on others to help yourself feel less bad about yourself.

Rove's tactic is more aggressive - to accuse his political opponents of doing bad things that he or his side are already doing. While it is tempting to capture this in an existing term - "projection" - that is not precisely accurate because the objective is to render criticism from an opponent inoperative, in particular, before that criticism can be leveled whenever possible. "Crooked Hillary" is an example, not only of framing, of course, but accusing an opponent of something of which the accuser is already guilty. He does that because he knows he is crooked (and does not feel bad about being crooked). Calling Trump crooked after that, even when accurate loses much of the zing, sounding more like tit-for-tat.

One of our problems is that we do not have precise terms for the array of aggressive tactics being employed by Republicans and Republican media ever since Karl Rove figured out the world was not prepared for his onslaught. (Why don't we call Fox news "Republican media"?)

Gaslighting is another imprecise term, though it captures the spirit of the perpetrators actions, the implication is that the person being lied to is always confused for a period of time. Unfortunately, this idea that there is "confusion" is false. Many of us have seen this day coming for many years, right from the start. But again, our language has no perfect term for this.

In the 1950s, McCarthy's array of tactics eventually came to be known as "McCarthyism".

As Nancy LeTourneau writes about the Rovian tactic of 'projection', "It is a very effective form of propaganda because it turns every argument into a cause for bothsiderism, thereby cutting off all lanes to the truth. This particular form we are now witnessing is especially pernicious in that it is an attempt to cut off lanes to the truth by claiming to seek the truth and casting those who are doing so as the purveyors of chaos and uncertainty…all in the name of creating chaos and uncertainty."

Absolutely correct.

But where does bothsiderism come from? If a news organization starts with a requirement of "balanced" reporting (which the NYT does) instead of commitment to complete and accurate reporting in context and that organization bends over backwards to maintain the appearance of fairness, instead of actual fairness, "fair and balanced" by that twisted definition leads to false balance which translates to false equivalence. And truthful narrative is easily lost.

On the other hand, Fox news has functioned for years as a propaganda machine telling folks stories that "ring true" to them in a mixture of lies and distortions when politics is covered. Both Fox news and NYT claim a separation of news and opinion. But only the NYT feels compelled to throw any story that involves politics into the opinion category if one "side" comes off worse than the other "side".

Just as NYT journalism model has allowed false balance and false equivalence to prosper, the Fox news model is the progenitor of fake news - telling folks stories they like to hear.

I blame the NYT in part for the mess we are in today because the NYT should have reported on Fox in the News section (not Opinion) for the willingness to build stories on fiction and call them factual. If the NYT had been doing their job, maybe we would have precise terms for all the nasty, devious practices being employed by Republicans and Trump today and they would not be able to use these tactics while hiding in plain sight.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Unaffordable Care Act

Republicans used a consistent tactic against the Affordable Care Act, voting in the House to repeal the Act more than 50 times and passing repeal in the Senate which was met with President Obama's veto. That was a tactic, but was not a policy because the votes were all symbolic. Only the early votes aligned with a policy objective - to repeal the law before sufficient time elapsed so that Americans understood the benefits the law would confer on them. So the stage was set for repeal after election of a Republican president in 2012. Failing that, the scorched earth strategy included challenging the law in the courts, but the Roberts Supreme Court balked on that one.

If HRC had won the presidency, we would now be seeing a focus on further challenges in the courts and, if Republicans had retained control of the Senate, a 4 - 4 deadlocked Supreme Court. Last October Republicans McCain, Cruz and others sent clear signals that even nominating and approving a ninth Justice was optional, not required. Chaffetz in the House would have pursued endless investigations of HRC, thus substantiating the argument - "How can we approve a nominee of a president who is being investigated?"

Now what? The Republicans dubbed the Affordable Care Act "Obamacare" which achieved two tactical objectives - (1) Diverting attention from the goal of the law to prevent lapses in coverage for those without the fortune to have employer health care insurance while making health insurance affordable and effective in the individual market, and (2) tapping into the visceral hatred of Obama of a certain segment of their voters, which happens to a segment that Trump was able to grow by drawing nonvoters into the system.

But the success of those tactics now have an extraordinary impact on policy - "when tactics become policy". Republicans will either
(1) pass a bill that succeeds in cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans (with the prospect of further tax cuts for the wealthiest with the repeal of the estate tax and, less directly, cuts in corporate taxes) OR
(2) Trump's administration will continue to sabotage the law in order to support the notion that "Obamacare is a disaster!)
Obfuscation, lies, and distractions are not just the tactics of authoritarian regimes. In a democracy, these are the tactics used to confuse voters about policy. And now, seven years later, more than a few of those voters are wising up, which has some impact on the GOP moderates.
McConnell is sure to come back with a revised bill that offers enough of a fig leaf to the Republican moderates while convincing the Paul/Cruz et al faction that the bill is a first step in the destruction of "Obamacare". But in the end, the bill will continue to be opposed by virtually every constituency involved in health care, including insurance companies that are seeing the decimation of the individual insurance market for no better reason that to achieve the goal of repealing "Obamacare".

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Who's Caving Now

Whether Republican moderates always cave has been the issue du jour of late even before the news that Senator Heller will not support the bill "in this form". Some have argued the Senator's statement means he will not vote for the bill because pressure from the most conservative Senators will prevent the bill from moving further left as he would require to support it.

But for moderates to vote for the bill, only the optics of moving to the left matter. That means throwing a few billion their way, but that is only a token which can be easily undone in future legislation. Likewise for extending the Medicaid cutoff date. Medicare is being reshaped with this law from a benefit promise to a contribution promise, which is more easily controlled or eliminated. The radical reshaping of Medicare matters, not the exact date it happens.

This is not a prediction site, but I can not imagine the Republican bill will be stopped by Republicans. The safest bet is that the Senate bill will be changed slightly before passage and will then be passed by the House as is before the July 4th holiday recess.

Part of the Republican calculus will include allowing two so-called moderate Republican Senators to vote against the bill so that their seats can remain safe. Heller may be vying for one of those two safe spots. Susan Collins may snag the second spot, but let's see which Republicans yell the loudest about the bill over the next few days.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When Moderates Become Extremists

Josh Marshall has it about right in 'The Moderates' Tale (or the Play-Acting Before the Cave) predicting that despite protestations by so-called moderate Republican lawmakers to the contrary, when push comes to shove, they will vote with their majority - this time it's health care, as they always do. Which is something that the most conservative wing does not do - witness government shutdowns. And why should the conservatives give in, if the moderates will always cave?

As JM states, "It is not only that the ‘GOP moderates always cave.’ It is that we are asked to (and almost always do) indulge this fainting couch routine or a furious bout of chin stroking that comes as a prelude to the cave."

Josh Marshall's example is Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, but we have one of those "moderates' right here in New England -- Maine Senator Susan Collins.

Contrast this TPM view of moderates with the Boston Globe take: Susan Collins won't back down on health care.
Like hell she won't! McConnell left Susan Collins out of the health care bill working group for one good reason - her vote could be taken for granted.

If, in the end, the moderates simply cave, then the only difference between the moderates and the extremists is the window dressing.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Tugging at One Glove

Breaking News: New York Times budges on unfair "fair and balanced" reporting.

We have complained frequently in this space about the timidity of New York Times reporting in their straight news section when strictly factual reporting might come off as politically biased, at least to a biased observer:
The New York Times With Gloves On (includes relevant links to posts)
For Propaganda 101, We Need Journalism 2.0
To Boldly Go Where No Responsible Journalist Has Gone Before

So, the big news since 2001 that Fox News has infected American news with a propagandistic approach, aggressively distorting stories and manipulating context, while claiming to be "fair and balanced" has generally escaped the careful scrutiny of NYT reporters. That big story was left to the opinion writers.

That is, until now.

It started with the post-election stories on "fake news" which revealed the sources of these stories: 'Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory; 'This is all about Income'. For some reason, that news about fake news became newsworthy after the election, but not so much before the election.

Of course, the fake news story begs the question of the granddaddy of fake news, Rupert Murdoch.

And so the Times budged, big time, with "One Nation Under Fox: 18 Hours With a Station That Shapes America. Fox News is a singular force, crafting a searing narrative about what's happening in the world for millions of viewers, including President Trump."

That headline captures the heart of the problem. First, millions of citizens could be fooled by Fox News' narrative. After enough exposure to the 'searing narrative', many of those citizens came to favor a candidate who knew nothing about government or politics, other than that same searing narrative that he himself absorbed by watching Fox News.

But that was in the magazine section, which is devoted to features considered newsworthy. Not exactly straight news, but not quite the opinion pages either.

Maybe the need to cover the Ailes and O'Reilly scandals helped with perspective on Fox.

The latest graphic provides a perfect example of the crucial link that ties the fake news story to the Fox News saga: "How Russian Propaganda Spread From a Parody Website to Fox News."

While Trump remains president, we can only hope that the courage of the NYT will only grow so that the fear of being labeled not fair and balanced, even unfairly,  will not prevent the NYT from reporting straight news, in context, with accuracy in support of a compelling true narrative because, if the NYT refrains from the narrative, people come up with their own appealing narrative, courtesy of Fox and Friends.