The "Conventional Wisdom" Machine

I was having a conversation today about the gap between what blog readers know and the “conventional wisdom” that the “Washington Elite” — opinion leaders, legislators, their staffs and the circles they associate with — think they know. It brought to mind an old post (Sept 2002!), Getting Rolled. From that post:

How often have Congressional Democrats been rolled by the Republican machine, voted for something they shouldn’t have, and then been blamed by the Republicans for the drastic consequences?

The events typically follow a pattern. The extremely powerful Republican media machine sets up an environment that convinces the Washington politicians that it will be very difficult politically to vote against them, and makes sure that the vote happens quickly – before opposing forces have time to realize what’s going on and rally enough real people on the other side to demonstrate that there really is support for non-Republican positions.

How many times have we seen this process at work? It is the careful creation of a local environment calculated to maximize pressure on the legislators at the best possible moment. The phony Republican news events, the “independent” media playing along & following their script, the AM radio 24-hour-a-day Republican drumbeat pounding out the lies, the slurry of misleading or blatantly deceitful op-ed pieces filling the editorial pages, the dittohead letters to the editor (or “astroturf” – phony grassroots letters generated by a marketing firm), the pack of columnists writing according to instructions FAXed over from the Heritage Foundation (follow the NEA smear for an example) (second NEA smear link here), pretty soon all the news stories reflect the Republican line and repeat the Republican falsehoods.

It becomes a drumbeat of constant repetition of the same lines over and over and over until they become “conventional wisdom.” “Everybody knows that” so-and-so is true so there’s no point wasting your energy trying to say it ain’t so. Polls then show that the public (deprived of any contrasting information) solidly favors the Republican position. Calls and letters flood in to Congressional offices (from Christian Coalition phone banks). Democrats start to worry about their chances of holding office if they oppose the Republicans on this one vote.

Then the vote comes up in the Congress, and enough Democrats – afraid that Rush Limbaugh will say something bad about them, and mired in a Washington “bubble” environment cut off from their constituents – vote with the Republicans to get the issue through and out of the way. Tax cuts, budget cuts, right-wing judges, “compromises” on health care or welfare or energy… and Bush slides it past the voters as a “bipartisan” win for the Republicans.

I call this process “The Forest.” We have now seen it happen enough times that we can recognize what’s happening and even predict the next move. What’s unfortunate is how the Democrats in Washington fall into the same trap every time. Now it’s happening on the ultimate issue – war and peace, life and death.

America’s political elite live in an information bubble. It’s like the Right has set up a “conventional wisdom machine” that is targeted at opinion leaders, legislators, their staffs and the circles they associate with. Heavily-funded right-wing organizations work to infiltrate their message into the information that these “leadership elite” receive. They achieve this in many ways. One way, of course, is that they have their very own bought-and-paid-for media outlets like Fox, the Washington Times, and most of AM radio. But they also have worked to get the more mainstream opinion leaders under their influence. Influential columnists and reporters receive large speaking fees from corporations and trade associations. They get free “retreats” where they learn about “market solutions.” And everyone is certainly afraid of the shame and humiliation should they become the target of the character assassination machine. That acts as a powerful incentive to toe the line and reject “marginalized” information sources — people like Scott Ritter and Michael Moore, constituents complaining about election fraud, and Progressive online news sources or blogs (those terrible things that leaked the exit polls) — and stick to “credible” sources.

The Armstrong Williams scandal shows us the amounts of money involved in, and the “reach” of this effort. I mean, Armstrong Williams? If Armstrong Williams is getting $240,000 directly from the government, imagine what mainstream opinion leaders are getting from the big-money corporate trade associations, right-wing think tanks, etc. — over (speaking fees, travel, gifts) and under (bribes, like Williams got) the table.

The amounts of money the Right is putting into their outside-the-election-process propaganda effort — over $300 million a year just for the think tank/advocacy communication infrastructure — ought to warn us that most of the traditional channels through which “the leadership elite” get their info are likely targets of this effort.

Marginalizing sources like blogs is one way to scare Washington types away from the info they contain. Reading blogs is a way to break through that bubble.

Update – See also The Conservative Marketing Machine, by Laurie Spivak