American Culture

They're winning. We're losing. Why?

They’re winning. They’ve been winning for a long time. They’ve convinced us that the national conversation is not about a contest over power and control but rather about twisted definitions of patriotism, morality, the rights of the individual, property rights, and family values. They’re winning because they are ever more in control of the vocabulary of that conversation. They have invested heavily in winning memes — ideas and beliefs parasitically encoded into the politically and culturally unaware.

They recognized long ago that those who control the definitions of words rule the conversation. They know that rigorous repetition of their memes is akin to selling any product — advertise, advertise, advertise. That meme machine, usually cranked up biennually, now operates full time. In 30-second, televised chunks, the memes spew forth in every market. The messages are paid for by political organizations and single-minded groups quietly but heavily underwritten by those who wield wealth and power as a blacksmith’s hammer, bending comprehension by the electorate over an anvil. In hour-long, prime-time, broadcast soliloquies, their public voices ritualistically denigrate that which does not serve The Meme.

They are not The Right. They are not The Left. But they perpetrate the meme that the struggle for political power and control is between Left and Right. That’s the remarkable cunning of their strategy: Take two entities that are essentially identical and paint them as vastly different, and one as preferred. Misdirection masquerades as clarity.

They have remarkable resources. They own media organizations that control television, radio, Web entities, and newspapers. They have highly paid minions whose divisive, hateful, meme-managing messages they control. They have massive databases that allow parsing of their memes for different audiences.

They have money. Lots of it. They spend it without reservation in the pursuit of winning. They know that well less than 1 percent of American adults contribute to political candidates. They can outspend those who oppose the meme — and did so, spending $23 billion on campaign contributions in the past decade.

Where will you find them? The paper trails of their political largesse lead to the finance, insurance and real-estate industries; lawyers and lobbyists; ideological and single-issue donors; the health-care, health products and pharmaceutical industries; communications and electronics firms; labor unions; agribusiness interests; energy and natural-resource extraction corporations; transportation; and the defense industry.

They have eroded efforts to reform campaign-finance laws and to curtail and control campaign spending. Now the Supreme Court of All The Land appears poised to remove the last shackles limiting their political spending in service of The Meme. They will be able to spend more money to achieve more power and control over … winning? (What is it, exactly, that they think they’re winning?)

They cannot control what people think. Free will has not yet been fully suppressed. But they can limit what people think about by dunning them with focus-grouped, direct-mailed, oped-paged, demographically diced, Facebooked, tweeted, news-storylined memes. In their world of continuous, mediated shouting, it is difficult to hear an opposing whisper.

They’re winning because they have bought representation — legislators and lobbyists galore. They’re winning because they do not face the electorate — their well-disguised, glad-handing, baby-kissing, well-coiffed, properly memed candidates face the voters.

They’re winning because so many watchdogs are no longer watching. Their natural adversaries are experienced journalists bred in vats of skepticism. But the ranks of professional reporters and editors, never high to begin with, have been thinned to the point of virtual ineffectiveness. They are winning because they can continue to hide in so many dark places.

They are winning. But have they won?

45 replies »

  1. Great piece, Denny.

    You’ve looked at half the issue I brought up about Sam’s piece on disinformation from a couple of days ago.

    Maybe Sam or you – or even I – will look at the issue of how they’re making it increasingly impossible for educators to inspire critical thinking and questioning in students by reducing education to test preparation – for tests whose content they control – and that are filled with the memes they want to posit as “important.”

  2. What you so eloquently described is the war between the “Haves and the Have Nots.” We all know how that will play out, just as it has for eons.

  3. Commenters: Stay on point. Stick to the substance of the post, please. No pissing contests.

  4. No, Denny, they haven’t won. Look at what they build from “winning”; it is not sustainable and it will fall…whether brought down by angry have-nots or from its own internal weaknesses.

    That which you describe is the neo-liberal model of democracy, that citizens should be apathetic and uninformed and cynical. In this state, the interests you’ve pointed your guns at are able to control and reap the benefits of democracy. But it will fail. Neo-liberalism has never succeeded, especially for any length of time. There are a lot of reasons for it, but the biggest one is that, like a virus, it eventually kills its host.

  5. I’m not sure how you would fix this, tho. On the one hand, you have freedom of expression/speech. But on the other, you have “money controls the volume”. Obviously, education is key.

  6. Uber – why is education the obvious key here? How does education reduce the volume and reverse the influence of money? Might there be easier ways to do than fighting Them with a long-term educational fix that They’re bound and determined to prevent?

    I’m partial to raising taxes, personally, especially estate taxes and eliminating tax benefits for donating to think tanks and ostensibly “charitable” organizations. Anything that reduces the total amount of money available for volume increases directly.

  7. I’m not sure how it can be fixed either. I’m not aware of any neo-liberal examples that have been reformed; to the best of my knowledge they crash. Part of this is because the SOP is to undermine, hollow out, or kill all the institutions and pathways for democratic reform. The goal is to turn citizens into consumers so that they don’t behave like citizens who have something in the pot.

    The world is rife with examples since international “development” has been neo-liberal programs for several decades. Even when supposedly beneficent organizations like the IMF and World Bank enter a nation in crises, their prescriptions invariably include the undermining of public institutions (be it directly or indirectly).

    You might say that examples of developing nations are immaterial because the United States is not a developing nation…even call the American exceptionalism cavalry. But spend a little time on google looking at economic charts of developing nations under the neo-liberal regime and then compare those to similar charting of the US economy. You’ll note that starting in the late 70’s and accelerating in the 80’s (with no end in sight) the charts start telling an awfully similar tale.

    My guess is that barring an extremely brave leader backed by populist anger and strength, there will be no fixing. I’d guess soft, military dictatorship. We’ll probably all be dead by the time that plays itself out to the bitter end, and you’ll be glad that you are.

  8. Brian, why would you want to increase taxes? What good would it do? Is a tax increase going to improve things? Are our elected leaders going to act responsibly, are they going to even read the bills or even finish the bills before they pass them? of taxation While I don’t advocate the elimination of taxes, as some here have accused me, I’d rather see a Singapore model than a European model.. One must realize that one shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you, and profits are the engine that feed us all and keep the system whole..

  9. That was my problem with whythawk’s analogy between a bad restaurant and a bad nation. If you stop going to a bad restaurant, it will eventually go out of business. In a capitalist framework, apathy = failure. But in a political framework, those with the money hope to either sway your opinion or make you so disgusted with the political process that you don’t vote at all. In that case, apathy = victory.

    The optimist in me says that the American experiment has been a success. It’s taken about 200 years before a group of people were able to game the system to the point that it effectively stopped functioning. That makes me think we can’t be too far off from a “perfect” system.

    The cynic in me says that perfection is a moving target. What is right for one moment is wrong for another. Any fixed system will be gamed eventually. The inmates have nothing but all the time in the world to figure out how to rig it. There don’t appear to be any checks or balances beyond our poetic right to dissolve the constitution to fix the current impasse. The more fluid you make a nation, the harder the machinations and the foreign policy gets.

    Upon getting frustrated with that line of thinking, it’s easy to say “maybe we should go back to anarchy” but of course any form of organization will best anarchy in the short term. So then, do we come to the conclusion that death is a natural part of life for political systems? Maybe every political system must eventually end in external destruction or internal revolt.

    Our genes roll the dice every time a generation is born. It’s a natural way to retest assumptions and to clean the impurities out of the system. Maybe the body politic is no different.

  10. Brian, Sorry, I was actually cut off mid thought. I had to go to a meeting…about education. 🙂 Actually, we were discussing policy about grad school curriculum.

    I meant to go on to say that Education is key because it theoretically teaches people how to at least make the attempt to filter though the noise. As Slammy and others have said many times, the noise is only going to increase. There is effectively no way to reduce it given the ease of communication (or, miscommunication). The dis/advantage of giving everyone a voice is that everyone has a voice. Unfortunately, if something is repeated enough, the noise BECOMES the signal eventually. Which is why I said I didn’t know how to solve the problem.

    I freely admit that I believe that raising taxes is definitely not the answer. My personally opinion is that we need to shift our priorities with what we already have. As callous and heartless as it sounds, I think we need to shift away from programs like the current health care bill and generational welfare (and, for that matter, social security), which for all intents and purposes, treat the symptoms, and move toward policies which promote prevention (education), security (police/fire/military), and cure (R&D). Unfortunately, much of the noise comes from the former.

    Imagine what you could do if all of welfare suddenly got shifted over into public education? Or, if not shifted immediately, what would happen if we somehow linked welfare to some sort of measure of educational success. More “success” = more welfare (but only up to a point. Obviously, being on welfare has to be more painful of having a real job. Which, from my limited personal experience, isn’t generally the case.)

    Unfortunately, the next question is, who controls the “mis/education.”

  11. Fikshun, You bring up an interesting point, and very eloquently I might add. Politics are very fluid and things change Here;s a point to ponder. Did you ever realize that in the history of the world, every currency has failed. Our current currencies are also on the verge of collapse. The only currency that ever lasted longer than 1000 years was the Roman currency and that only lasted because there was nothing to replace it. Just food for thought that can also be applied to governments and systems.

  12. Why is it than whenever there’s a conversation about raising taxes or moving revenues from one portion of government spending to another, nobody talks about the elephant in the room?

    Last i checked, social security isn’t funded through income tax receipts. It’s a payroll tax and, theoretically, off the books as a stand-alone program. So remove it from the government spending pie chart and look what’s left: the military. We’re talking about a solid trillion per year at this point. That’s where all the tax money goes. If we had a sane defense budget there would be money for a lot of things like health care, education, etc. etc. etc. without raising taxes…and quite possibly lowering them.

    And it’s not like it does us any good. The jihadis are not going to invade the continental US, neither are the Russians or the Chinese. They’re not going to do it even if we stop fighting them “over there”. So, wtf?

    But no, that “big government” is as American as apple pie. Nobody questions it, least of all the sort who get all kerfuffled about “big government”. But that’s what it is, and the companies on the receiving end of those hundreds of billions every year aren’t shy about buying influence with it.

  13. Really? You honestly think that those who espouse sacred rights such as the freedom to keep an bear arms are the ones manipulating the language. How absurd. Try re-reading (or reading for the first time) Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. The Doublespeak is coming from the left, when Obama says the trillion-dollar-plus health care plan will cut the deficit and not increase it. Please. You should all read a history book that compares the evolution of free societies with totalitarian regimes such as Soviet Russia and Communist China. See

  14. I see the money problem as being largely one of influence. And by increasing taxes on certain people, you reduce the amount of money that they have to spend on influencing the political process.

    Now, I admit that this trades one problem for another, but at the moment I see the money that the various Koch foundations and similar groups pour into the CEI, AEI, Cato, Heritage, Heartland, Hoover, and so on as a greater problem than our politicians.

    I’ll admit that there are other options out there that would be better, IMO, than even raising taxes. But they’re either far too long-term (education) to be effective, or they’re nearly impossible (reversing/limiting corporate personhood) instead of just horrendously difficult (raising taxes).

    There’s a lot of things that need to be fixed in the US, and we can’t afford to wait for the next generation to take over to fix them. By then it’ll be too late, if it isn’t already.

    I like the idea of dropping military spending, especially since military funding is an example of treating the symptoms instead of the disease (spending to reducing the conditions that create terrorists would be a more effective use of money than border fences, airport body scanners, and a large Middle East military presence). And I’m not against eliminating social security so long as there’s a better way to keep the elderly from being impoverished.

    As for health care, I think the current bill is bad, but it’s better than what we’ve got now, and just like with the Clean Air Act, Medicare, and other major legislation over the course of the last century, legislation like the healthcare bill will tend to be strengthened and improved. And that gives me hope that, even thought it’s bad now, it’ll be decent or good in 10-15 years.

  15. I’d be surprised if the health care reform bill is actually strengthened over time, maybe but if it happens you can color me surprised. Our elected representatives are unwilling to look at the root cause of why our system is over-priced and ineffective: the insurance industry.

    For example, look at the European nations that don’t use single payer/socialized medicine systems but market systems to attain universal coverage. They force insurance companies to be non-profit on basic plans (Switzerland, the Netherlands). Clearly the insurance companies in those nations find a way to be profitable by selling supplementary coverage…or they’d go out of business. But that won’t fly here in the US where profit is considered to be as magical as fairy dust and unicorn farts.

    Especially profits that aren’t derived from adding value; our “profit” model is based on rents…that is, skimming off the top.

  16. Jeff: Your offer to match donations is an extraordinary act of charity, and I applaud you for it. Thanks for the link. If you wish to amplify your thinking, may I suggest you write a post on your site and leave a link in the comments here? That way, your message will get out and the thread here will remain focused. Again, my thanks.

    Everyone: Thanks for the wonderful writing. I’ve learned so much from your various comments. Tip ‘o the hat, people.

  17. @Brian. Didn’t someone cover this in a post a few weeks/months ago? I think it was Slammy asking why rich progressives aren’t pumping $$$ into think tanks like the conservatives are. It’s not like there aren’t rich people out there w/ alternative viewpoints. Why don’t they act? I might not like what a lot of the far right-wing think tanks are coming up with (particularly in the area dominated by religion), but penalizing them because they are willing to put their money into their ideas leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. Rather than raise taxes, ask yourself why we have this (apparently) one sided dynamic in the first place.

    • I realize that it sounds like I’m penalizing the right wing, but that’s a side effect of two things – the groups I mentioned are right-wingers, and there’s simply so many more right-wing groups than there are progressive ones. Similarly, there’s a lot more rich conservatives than rich progressives, so any action that punishes both groups would disproportionally affect conservatives. That’s a simple fact of US capitalism, I’m afraid. It wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t need to be this way forever, but as I pointed out I’m pretty well convinced that we don’t have the time to wait another 30 years to undo all the damage that’s been done in the last 30.

      If you read my exposé of Steve Milloy from November, 2007, specifically part 3, you’ll get some idea of why I feel this way. The right wing organizations get money from large companies like ExxonMobil and from uber-wealthy individuals and “charitable foundations” like the Koch and Scaife family foundations, and the money gets passed around in a giant loop – Cato gets money from Koch and gives money to AIE, AEI gets more money from Koch and donates money to the CEI or pays for the CEI to do PR work, the CEI gets money from ExxonMobil and hires Cato’s people. And they all fund people like Steve Milloy, who is a known liar, and Kenneth Green who essentially tried to bribe scientists with “honoraria” for publicly opposing the IPCC. Behavior like this is not merely conservatives or right-wingers funding their own ideas, it’s conservatives funding attacks on society like what Denny described above, that Sam has described repeatedly, and that are based on lies, not ideas. And as such, it cannot be allowed to stand, and the “best” approach I’ve come up with to date to reverse it is taxation. If you think that there’s a better approach than the blunt instrument that is taxation and that doesn’t take 30 years to work, I’m all ears.

      BTW, the Supreme Court case that Denny mentions might permit corporations to directly fund candidates for public office, likely leading to corporations directly buying elected officials. The case was brought by the Free Enterprise Action Fund – and Steve Milloy is one of the founders and directors of the Fund.

    • Uber: yes, it was me. The bottom line is easy – there are a buttload more rich conservatives than rich progressives. For every George Soros there’s a hundred Scaife families. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but in general.

  18. But it’s not “a simple fact of capitalism.” You are proposing to circumvent capitalism and, for that matter, democracy, by asking for what is, essentially, a short cut. I understand the sentiment, but I don’t really like the long term consequences of those actions.

    As for the rest of your comments…well…unfortunately, the progressives apparently don’t have the leadership to counter the far right (or even, dare I say it, the far left) and the news media hasn’t figured out how to make news profitable. So, the counterbalance isn’t there.

    Rather than taxes, I see media as a major part of the solution. Somehow, we have to figure out how to make “real news” profitable again so they have the resources to do the job properly. Of course, that’s also part of Education, so it may take too long for you. I just don’t see any other way around it.

    • I don’t see how I’m bypassing either democracy or capitalism. Increasing taxes takes an act of Congress, for example, so there’s our “representative democracy” right there. And taxation and capitalism are only in conflict because taxation reduces capital. But in this case, that’s the entire point. You’re right, though, that I’m looking for a short cut. Not because I’m afraid of doing the hard work over the long haul, but because I don’t see how there’s time for the long haul to work.

      Now, one of the things that would probably make a big dent and that would work better than taxation is reinstating the public interest standard in media and breaking up huge media conglomerates (financial conglomerates too, for that matter – “too big to fail” is a failure of regulation and legislation). But I’m presently of the opinion that it falls into the “nearly impossible” category along with changing corporate personhood and public financing of elections. All three would be better solutions than taxation, I suspect.

    • Uber: Circumvent “democracy.” That’s hysterical. Stay tuned, because in an upcoming installment in my elitism series I’m going to take a really hard look at this issue. Sneak preview: remind me again why democracy (as we know it) is such a great idea?

  19. Breaking up the media conglomerates might be a start. That would certainly stir up the MSNBC & CNN vs. Fox type mentality we have now. But that doesn’t really address the profitability issue. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the industry’s financial ins and outs. Maybe there has to be a different set of financial rules for institutions necessary for the public good? Hell, I don’t know. Shot in the dark, give media the same tax benefits given to churches?

  20. Slammy. Short answer, because it’s better than anything else we’ve been able to come up with that doesn’t depend ENTIRELY on trusting our benevolent leadership. 🙂

    • Oh, I don’t know about that. I mean, we’ve come up with ideas that I’d say are more than a little interesting. Not that we’ve seen a broad implementation of them. But Lippman proposed a strong meritocracy model that I keep thinking makes more sense than any other idea I’ve ever heard. It isn’t without problems, of course – no system that has to address the monkeyhouse that is the US is going to work flawlessly – but at its core there’s something to be said for entrusting issues to people who understand them best.

      Which is to say, the exact opposite of what we do now…

  21. Denny would be better able to answer the question, but i’m not sure that real news has ever been profitable. I’m under the impression that in the good ole days other things (like classified ads in newspapers) tended to bring in the money so that the organization could spend on news.

    And that, imo, is where the big American problem lies: everything has to be profitable. Not just profitable, but return ever-increasing quarterlies to keep the market “happy”. Public benefit…out the window. Long-term sustainability with moderate margins…kill it with fire.

    Which brings us back to the neo-liberal shuck and jive. Over the last 30 or so years we’ve replaced our idea of capitalism with the neo-liberal variant and market uber alles. Does the stock market serve as a place for companies to raise capital or as a place for marketeers to extract the capital from companies?

  22. I didn’t necessarily mean profitable to investors, although I’m certainly not against that. But it’s absolutely critical that it be profitable enough to have the resources necessary to do the job properly.

  23. Slammy, I don’t think I would trust any sort of meritocracy to run the whole government. Who decides what is “meritorious?” And wouldn’t that pretty much kill any new idea/way of doing things before it started? For instance, what if we decided that poets should run the country and that the current set of major poetry publishers were the ones deciding who should be let into the inner sanctum. Wouldn’t people like you pretty much be screwed? Now, running parts of it, yes. I can see that. That’s basically what I was saying the other day about teachers and “measures of educational success.”

    • Let’s ease into this, Tramp. First, let’s take the same harsh, hyper-critical this-will-never-work stick to an alternate system, one where people who know absolutely zero make the same decisions.

  24. In such a system, where there is absolutely no knowledge, there would be no need for government because there would be no knowledge about why it would be needed or even that that the idea of government exists at all.

    I’m not trying to be a jerk about this, but you just set up a situation that can not possibly exist. There will ALWAYS be some sort of “knowledge” even if it’s misguided or plain wrong. Even if it’s pure self interest like, “i’m freakin hungry and that guy over there looks big enough to kill a bear for me to eat. i’ll follow him.”

    It is also assuming ALL of the people are incapable of learning. Not just unwilling, but incapable.

    Ultimately, it comes back to education.

  25. Uber, sure there has to be enough income to cover the outflow and make it all work. That’s beyond debate, but our current situation is one where profit (the quarterly, market kind) dominates just about all decision making. And the evidence that such thinking hollows out everything except the pockets of investors is all around us. Worse, we hear a lot of cries for things like education to follow this model.

    You’re right that it all comes back to education, but the long-term success of that is predicated on the majority of people valuing education. If we live in a nation where profit is the measuring stick of value, how do we develop a society that values education, which, if it is profitable will be so over a very long time frame and the profit will be, to varying degrees, intangible?

    Your critique of meritocracy is interesting, and reminds me of an essay V.F. Odoesvsky from Russian Nights. (I’d give a link, but have never found one; i had to have the university library order the copy that i read.) It is fundamentally a critique of rational-utilitarianism and follows the same lines as your poet example with successive groups of people demanding to run things. Of course, no one group succeeds at anything except having another group throw it out, and the end result is disaster…except for the twist at the end.

  26. Lex, even if profitability isn’t THE measuring stick (I agree with you there), it absolutely must be one of many measuring sticks.

    Here’s one of the measuring sticks I WISH I knew how to implement right now. I want to see a number next to every single reporters name when they are reporting the news, in much the same way a D or an R is next to a politician’s name. And that number represents some sort of measure of “factual accuracy” that has “experience” and “breaking story” built in. Sort of like a quarterback rating for reporters, I guess. And I want displaying that number to be absolutely mandatory when the report is acting in his/her capacity as a journalist.

    I believe that once people recognize and understand what that number represents, they will gravitate toward news services which include the higher number. Once that happens, three things will fall out. 1) advertisers will actually have to compete for prime spots. 2) news agencies will be willing and able to pay for the talent. 3) news agencies will be willing and able to pay for the research.

    The problem, of course, is how to generate that number and how to manage the factual accuracy part. I suspect there’d have to be some sort of guild and, within the confines of journalism, some sort of meritocracy type arrangement.

    I’ll have to look into Odoesvsky. I have to admit, I’m shooting from the hip most of the time. Haha.

    • Here’s one of the measuring sticks I WISH I knew how to implement right now. I want to see a number next to every single reporters name when they are reporting the news, in much the same way a D or an R is next to a politician’s name. And that number represents some sort of measure of “factual accuracy” that has “experience” and “breaking story” built in. Sort of like a quarterback rating for reporters, I guess. And I want displaying that number to be absolutely mandatory when the report is acting in his/her capacity as a journalist.

      You’re killing me. Wasn’t it just yesterday that you were dismissing my meritocracy idea on the grounds that “who would decide”?

  27. I’m not sure that it’s realistic, but i like the sound of QB ratings for journalists. Shit, why stop there? Let’s add politicians. It would be hard for pundits/opinion writers, but not impossible. There’s a lot of time where a grand opinion is founded utter bullshit and/or disinformation.

    In some ways this is already in service, only that media/journalists use ratings and politicians use polls. It just needs to be shifted to being based on concrete things rather than metrics that the metered can effectively create.