What can you get away with saying?

As long as I’ve been on the internet, I’ve been dealing with the question “What can you get away with saying?” My solution has been to confess to being a paranoid conspiracy theorist and then say my piece. By making a joke of it, I can slip past some people’s radar, and when what I say turns out to be pretty well grounded, people are pleasantly surprised. (Sometimes.) But I pay a price for this, and for most people I’ll probably always be in the extremist niche.

The reason I have to play this game is that a lot of Americans, and I’m especially thinking of the Democratic leadership and the vaguely-liberal members of the media, just don’t want to hear certain kinds of ideas. One way or another doves, “populist” Democrats, and “conspiracy theorists” are just tuned out.

This comes up because recently Jonathan Alter of Newsweek was criticized for dealing with the same problem (“What’s OK to say?”) rather differently. When Atrios excerpted Alter calling the Bush Administration a “bunch of clowns” on Air America, Kevin Drum pointed out that Alter’s Newsweek writing during the same period was much milder. Kevin wondered why Alter didn’t say the same things on the pages of Newsweek that he did on Air America, and Brad DeLong pitched in, basically endorsing what Kevin said.

You really don’t have to wonder. Alter has an editor who will let him go only so far. The media are big business, and people who want careers learn what they can say and what they can’t. Significantly, one of the very few major-media people who lets it all hang out is Paul Krugman, who has a successful career of his own and is actually slumming when he writes for the New York Times. (In not-completely-unrelated news, Josh Micah Marshall and Matt Yglesias have both recently admitted that they are to the right of most of their readers. Not that they aren’t entirely sincere in every word they say, but they are certainly aware that moving to the left would not be good for their careers).

This is normally explained in terms of “what people want to hear”. That would be a doubtful explanation even if it were true — since sooner or later the truth bites you on the ass, whether you want to hear it or not. But it’s not the real explanation anyway. There are certain things the commercial media don’t you want to say, and professionals learn what those things are.

It gets worse. As we know, the right wing has learned the game of “working the refs”, so besides the publishers and editors, there’s an enormous, well-funded, conservative “media watch” goon squad ready to jump on any evidence of “liberal media bias”. And so Krugman, who is intellectually and ethically head and shoulders above almost all of his peers (e.g., William Safire and George Will), has been under fierce, unremitting attack ever since he figured out how bad the Bush Administration really is.

I should probably stop now, but then I’m a paranoid ideologue. The centrist (i.e. right) wing of the Democratic Party, possibly including some of the bloggers named, has played its own part in this. During the runup to the Iraq war, even most Democrats put the doves outside the pale. Prudential anti-war arguments were allowed, but dovish ones were not. The same could be said of things like free trade and welfare reform. Refusing to “pander” to its own constituency (except for social liberals, natch) seems to have become Rule One for many Democrats. Unfortunately, once the Democratic center had destroyed the Democratic left, the Democratic center in its turn became the “left”, and the vicious right-wing attacks continued without interruption. Appeasement never works.

During the 2000 election, the Republican right wing — a frightening group of Armageddon Christians, exterminationists, anti-Government anarchists, and neo-Confederates — stayed within the party, whereas the heavily-reviled Democratic left was driven out. (That was what Lieberman was for, right?) Buchanan got .7% of the vote, and Nader got 2.7%. Switch those percentages, and Gore would have won in a near landslide, 50%-46%.

Atrios excerpts Alter.

Kevin Drum compares Alter on AA and in Newsweek.

Brad De Long pitches in.

Kevin’s followup

Yglesias is more conservative than his readers

Marshall is more conservative than his readers