In 1998, then First Lady Hillary Clinton famously observed that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was subverting her husband’s presidency. A decade later, a similar gang of Republican miscreants has mobilized to bring down the Obama administration and healthcare reform. Recent conservative attacks resulted in the firing of Van Jones. Didn’t liberals learn anything from the coordinated assaults on the Clinton administration? Why isn’t there a left-wing “conspiracy” to counter the kamikaze tactics of the right?
The conservative attack machine has three components. The first is political. Conservatives have adopted what Clinton adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, termed the perpetual campaign. As soon as Barack Obama was inaugurated, Republicans went on the offensive, aiming to diminish the new president’s popularity and to increase GOP congressional numbers in the mid-term election.
The right wing reiterates a simple theme: Obama is wrong for America. Beginning with the economic stimulus legislation in mid-February, Congressional Republicans have dogmatically opposed every Obama initiative. Meanwhile, the conservative spin machine has cranked out daily messages that denigrated Democratic proposals—Obama’s program will lead to socialism—and attacked members of the Obama administration, such as Van Jones.
The GOP’s daily messages are relentlessly negative and designed to evoke fear: Everything you hold dear is about to be taken from you. While some Republican missives seem nonsensical—Obama is not an American citizen—their thematic unity plays on visceral conservative emotions: People who are not real Americans are ruining the United States.
As a result, right-wingers have begun to describe themselves as “patriots” and assert that they want to “take back the country.” Heavily armed, they favor “sovereignty,” a blanket assertion of state’s rights that would diminish the power of the Federal government and, they hope, put white folks back in control.
The second component of the right-wing media strategy is sociological. The conservative attack machine broadcasts to those who did not vote for Obama in November—46 percent of voters who are overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and conservative. The negative messages resonate because Republican voters operate in an information “silo,” where their news is supplied by reactionary radio hosts, Fox News and conservative Christian ministers.
Since January, Republicans have solidified their base of McCain-Palin voters, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the Obama administration and Democratic initiatives. More importantly, GOP attacks have spilled over into the mainstream media, where they’ve eroded Obama’s support among Independents.
Finally, the right-wing attacks have a psychological component. George Lakoff’s Moral Politics, observed that conservatives and liberals have different worldviews. The conservative view, the “Strict Father” model, is rule based: children are taught to respect and obey their parents and the rules they espouse. Conservative messages are framed from a rules-based worldview that encourages absolutist, “concrete operational” thinking. Obama is not a legitimate president because he didn’t follow the rules about citizenship. Democrats aren’t following the rules because they’ve allowed “giveaways” to special interests.
There are several reasons why liberals haven’t been effective countering the right-wing spin machine. First, conservatives have an advantage because they only attack; they don’t propose solutions to real problems or alternatives to Democratic initiatives. The right-wing spin machine aims to bring down the Obama administration by maintaining that he is wrong for America. Therefore, conservatives blithely assert that, whatever ails the United States, government is not the solution, as the “free” market will fix all problems.
Second, while the Obama administration has controlled the legislative agenda, the right wing has dominated the message agenda and, therefore, been more effective shaping public opinion. Until recently, the Obama administration did not frame their message so that it resonated with average Americans. This is beginning to change. On Sept. 9, Obama began talking about access to healthcare as a moral issue, evidence of “large-heartedness ... A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play, and an acknowledgement that, sometimes, government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.”
Third, while President Obama is a compelling speaker, it’s not his role to counter conservative attacks. There has to be two aspects of the Obama administration: one concerned with governance, running the White House, and a separate entity that’s directing the liberal version of the perpetual campaign—the left-wing spin machine. The latter has been missing-in-action since Obama’s election.
It’s not a question of money. Liberals can raise enough money to counter the vast right-wing conspiracy. Rather, it’s a question of focus. After Obama’s election, liberals turned their attention to repairing America. While Democrats have to propose solutions to the mammoth problems created by eight years of Republican incompetence, it’s equally important to win the message wars.
Liberals must wage their own perpetual political campaign and use it as a vehicle to counter the vicious right-wing attacks. There has to be a liberal message machine that on a daily basis battles for the hearts and minds of average Americans.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.