Living In The Propaganda Age: July 2012

It's no secret that the US has become a hyper-partisan place. But we have friends on both sides of the political divide, since we are middle-of-the-road people (a place mostly reserved for road kill, these days, unfortunately). So we find it jarring that Americans treat each other as "the enemy" based on politics. This is a bad thing -- it weakens our country -- but that's the subject for another blog. In this series of blogs I want to talk about the role of "spin" and propaganda in creating this divide. Right now, I want to talk about the awesome success of conservative media.


I had a surprising conversation with a much loved, elderly relative a few months back. He's always been a pretty sensible guy and he's still got his marbles. But, over the last decade or so he's become an avid follower of Fox News, and now he's utterly determined to see Barack Obama lose the election.

Whereas I'm a lifelong Republican and a free market economist, who taught for a few years at the University of Chicago , and then spent the rest of my career in business. But over the last decade I've had a falling out with the Republicans. I voted for Obama in 2008 and I plan to vote for him again.

Anyway, my relative and I had a conversation exploring our philosophical differences about economics and government. Turns out we don't have any. We both think that a market economy is the only system that has ever worked, but neither of us is a Ron Paul libertarian. For example, we agree that some regulation is necessary, so that your neighbors don't dump their sewage in your drinking water. We both think Social Security and Medicare are important. On foreign policy, we both think the US should respect the rights of people in other countries, but also defend itself. Neither of us wants to see the government trying to promote a particular religion.

So why have we reached such different political conclusions? To some extent because we "know" different facts, but mostly because we have different "spins" on the same facts. Spin is a polite term for propaganda.

Did I mention that he spends three hours a day watching Fox News?

The Conservative Machine

Both sides of the US political divide think that the other runs a hugely effective propaganda machine. But I'm here to say that Democrat propaganda doesn't hold a candle to "conservative" propaganda. Maybe things were different in the 1960s, but in 2012 it's no contest -- the right is overwhelmingly ahead in the propaganda war. John Kennedy thought we had a "missile gap" -- I think we have a propaganda gap.

The achievements of the conservative media machine, of which Fox is a part, have been nothing short of awesome over the past three years. Put simply, they took a political party with a recent track record of failure, and successfully disavowed most of that record -- in fact blamed the Democrats for problems created mostly by Republicans -- while rehabilitating and reconstructing the Republican party, at least in theory. (We have yet to see how the "new" Republicans will perform in power.)

And the people who accomplished this turnaround are not elected politicians, as the recent Republican primary process demonstrated. Conservative primary voters knew what they were looking for, but failed to find even one satisfactory "true conservative" leader. In fact, with the exception of Ron Paul, the Republican primary candidates seemed more like actors auditioning for a part -- trying to prove that they could read the script -- than like genuine political leaders. That's because the real leaders of the movement -- the people writing the script -- operate through the media.

Making a Silk Purse Out of ...

The conservative propaganda triumph over the past three years is all the more impressive when you consider the poor track record the machine had to work with. Conservatives and the conservative media have quietly distanced themselves from George W. Bush, despite their ardent support for him while he was in office. And they never liked his father. So, really the Republicans don't claim to have done a good job with the presidency since Ronald Reagan left office, 24 years ago.

(Actually, many of Reagan's policies would not pass the modern conservative litmus test. The Reagan tax cuts caused very large annual deficits, which ended up doubling the total national debt over eight years. To combat those deficits, Reagan agreed to two rounds of tax increases, one in 1982 and the other in 1983. So even Reagan would not qualify as a "true conservative" by today's uncompromising standards.)

Whereas the last president who delivered peace, prosperity, and a Federal budget surplus was .... Bill Clinton.

And then, of course, there's George W, whose record was a disaster from any political viewpoint. Here's a brief review of events during his administration, with the caveat that not all of these things were really his fault -- a point I will return to. But all these things happened. During its eight years in office, the Bush administration:

  • Took an annual federal budget surplus of $128 billion in 2001 (which was the last Clinton budget), and turned it into a deficit of $158 billion the next year. Grew that annual deficit to $460 billion by 2008. And, finally, submitted a FY 2009 budget with a deficit which the CBO estimated at $1.2 trillion.

This is a critical point in the propaganda war, so let me explain for a second. By law, fiscal year 2009 began on October 1, 2008 -- before Obama was elected. As of that date, the president (Bush) had submitted a budget for 2009, and Congress had approved it. In January 2009, (before Obama took office), the Congressional Budget Office filed its official estimate for how that budget would work out over the course of the ensuing year. The CBO estimate, dated January 7, 2009, was for a deficit of $1.2 trillion. That estimate would have been the same no matter who won the election. So Bush roughly tripled the deficit in his last year in office.

  • Almost doubled the total national debt, from $5.8 trillion to $10 trillion between 2001 and 2008, and then increased it to $11.9 trillion in its last budget, which took effect in October 2008. President Bush did much of his spending "off budget," meaning it didn't show up in the annual budget deficit. But debt is harder to hide, so the increase in the debt is a better way to look at his impact. The US owed twice as much after the George Bush budgets.

  • Expanded Federal outlays by 80 percent, from $1.9 trillion in FY 2001 to $3.5 trillion in FY 2009.

  • Passed Medicare Part D, without passing any additional taxes to pay for it. This legislation added a federal entitlement commitment with a "present value" of $15 trillion (as estimated by the Medicare Trustees in their 2009 report, p 127.) "Present value" is economist-speak -- it means that's the amount we would have to pay right now, today, to get rid of that obligation.

  • Presided over a massive expansion in sub prime mortgage lending.

  • Allowed the worst banking panic and financial crash since 1933. This crash has led to the worst worldwide recession since the Great Depression.

  • Created the TARP program to bail out banks that had made bad loans,

  • Authorized bailout loans exceeding $100 billion to the failed insurance company AIG.

  • Initiated the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler.

And then there's the foreign policy side. During the last administration:

  • We suffered our worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. (It was also the worst attack on mainland America since the British burned Washington in 1814.)

  • We invaded Afghanistan to get Osama Bin Laden, but allowed him to escape at the battle of Tora Bora. And having gone into to Afghanistan , we failed to either win the war or get out.

  • While still entangled in Afghanistan, we invaded Iraq -- for no very coherent reason -- at the expense of about 36,000 dead or wounded US soldiers and costs of anywhere from $1 trillion to $3 trillion, depending on how you count things like the cost of future medical benefits for wounded veterans.

  • We weakened our international credibility and many of our major alliances.

Now let me be clear, that while all these statements are true, some are not fair attacks on George Bush. For example, the 9/11 attacks probably would have happened no matter who was in office.

But that's my point. We're talking propaganda here. Can you imagine what Fox News and the conservative propaganda machine would have said if 9/11 had happened on Obama's watch? Wouldn't the Democrats would be the party that "let the terrorists in?" After all, Obama practically went to war with Pakistan in order to kill Bin Laden, and the conservative machine still says he's soft on Islamic fundamentalists.

Similarly, I don't think presidents control the economy, and I don't really blame GWB for the financial panic. Financial markets have a long history of these things -- including the banking panics in 1930 and 1933 which led to the Great Depression. I also think the various bailouts were necessary. But can you imagine what the conservative machine would have said if the panic had happened two months after Obama's inauguration, instead of a few months before? Wouldn't it be "Obama's crash?" Just like it's become "Obama's recession," despite the fact that the recession is worldwide, that Obama didn't start it, and that he did everything Congress would let him do to stop it?

And if it had been Obama, rather than Bush, who allowed Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora, do you think Fox would let their audience forget that? Wouldn't he be "the president who let Bin Laden get away?"

And what would conservatives be saying if North Korea had gotten the bomb on Obama's watch? Wouldn't Fox pundits bring that up every time they talk about Iran 's nuclear program? How could a party that allowed the Koreans get the bomb be expected to stop the Iranians?

My point here is that if the Democrat propaganda machine were half as organized, aggressive and cynical as the conservative machine, it would have been all over these opportunities. I'm not suggesting that would be a good thing. I'm just saying that the conservative machine is far more cynical and effective. It's a "propaganda gap."

I'm also saying that if conservatives are this effective when they have bad material, imagine what they would do with even one solid issue. The conservative propaganda machine is an awesome force for acquiring political power.

Meanwhile, the Democrats haven't even capitalized on the issues that are entirely fair and central to the next election. Obama could have been on the air during his first month in office, laying out the budget mess that Bush had left him, and citing the GAO deficit estimates, both for 2009 and for the future, when the baby boom retired. But he never did that, for whatever reason. He also never explained just how bad the panic was in 2008-9, and how close we came to another Great Depression. Maybe he didn't want to scare people, maybe he didn't want to point fingers.

And so the conservative machine was free to perform some awesome political jujitsu, convincing lots of people:

  • That the money spent (by their own party!) on bailouts was wasted because things would have been fine without it.

  • That the panic was caused by government meddling, but not by the party which had been running the government.

  • That the deficits are Obama's fault.

  • That the worldwide "great recession" is Obama's fault.

  • That the party whose vice president had said "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter" is now the party to clean up the mess

  • That closing the deficit will require further tax cuts.

  • That keeping tax rates for people like Warren Buffet and Mitt Romney at 15 percent is essential to economic recovery and to closing the deficit.

  • That borrowing from China to cut Buffet's and Romney's taxes to 15 percent was not "class warfare," whereas letting that tax cut expire would be.

(Let me say that I supported the Reagan tax cuts, but that's because the marginal income tax rate was 70 percent before he made those cuts. Now it's 35% for wage earners and 15% for people (like Buffett and Romney) who get their income from investments or from "carried interest.")

And the upshot of all this is that people of goodwill, like my elderly relative, believe that Obama is a socialist, or a fascist, or a Muslim, or possibly all three. And that it would constitute a national emergency if the next election doesn't return the Republicans to power -- despite their track record of failure, their weird economic program, their lack of credible political leaders, and their very cynical propaganda machine.