Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Posts - June 4-10

6/8 - Brendan: Bad guys and stories in the "energy crisis" (permanent link)
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In a new edition of his Political War newsletter, conservative David Horowitz outlines his strategy for winning the energy debate.

Horowitz first offers an accurate analysis of the reason Republicans are losing - namely, Democratic are out-demagoguing them with "oil men"/special interest rhetoric:

We are losing because the Democrats are attacking us with images ("price gouging energy companies") but we are opposing them with arguments ("it's about supply and demand") that are over many voters' heads.

Horowitz's argument for what the GOP should do is characteristically inflammatory:

[W]e haven't told the public that the Democrats and environmental extremists are waging a war against them -- against their prosperity and freedom.

Horowitz then outlines a "story" designed to be "emotionally powerful". "[M]ore importantly", it "generates images of Democrats as bad guys". He says Democrats "have choked off America's energy, and with it a significant slice of Americans' freedom". Now, he says, they want to "[c]ontinue the war". "[T]heir solutions are big government controls -- socialist schemes -- that will cost taxpayers more and will not work."

Could the energy debate be any more cynical? First, Bush turned California's electricity problems and rising gas prices into an energy crisis to escape blame and build momentum for his energy plan. Then, the Democrats mostly accepted the premise and started beating up Bush and the Republicans as anti-environment. Now Horowitz wants to tell a "story" that Democrats are bad people who are anti-freedom and support "socialist schemes".

Update - 4:04 PM EST: I was just sent a link to an outrageous Horowitz article from Wednesday called "Matters of Treason" on National Review Online. He uses the powerful and dangerous PR technique of erasing the some/all distinction to associate the questionable or worse actions of some leftists with all liberals. The article manages to raise the specters of treason, fascism, socialism and Communism. Remember how consciously Horowitz described his intention to be "emotionally powerful" and "[generate] images" above. This is propaganda, folks. Here's the worst quote:

When you [conservatives] go into your next battle with our opponents, would you please stop referring to leftists who despise America, who have waged a forty-year war against its foundations, whose agendas are to build a socialist and even fascist utopia (redistribution by racial preferences) as "liberals." These are not liberals. They are leftists. The only thing they are liberal about is hard drugs and sex. In every other respect they want to control your lives.

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Related items on Spinsanity:
-Brendan Nyhan, Democrats go inflammatory on energy (5/31 post)
-Bryan Keefer, Powering Up the Rhetoric (5/21 column)
-Brendan Nyhan, Race and "Racial McCarthyism" (4/23 column)

6/7 - Bryan: The McCain feeding frenzy (permanent link)
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In an op-ed in the New York Times this morning, William Safire continues the speculation that Senator John McCain may leave the Republican party. Drawing on other speculative media reports, most notably an article in the Washington Post last week, Safire contends that McCain's denials of such an impending switch should not be taken at face value. He posits two possible scenarios, both of which have McCain speaking with a "forked tongue": he is either "feckless and naive ... being manipulated by a coterie of anonymous and faithless key aides," or "A manipulative McCain is using a phalanx of anonymous helpers to mislead the public".

As possibly the most sophisticated example of McCain-bashing to date, let's break Safire's piece down carefully. First, as Jake Tapper pointed out yesterday on Salon.com, the story that Safire uses to back up his allegations is highly speculative. This is not to deny that McCain may be thinking about switching parties, but there is no direct evidence beyond the typical inferences of pundits and reporters trying to scoop each other. Some, such as Rich Lowry of the National Review Online, have become so beholden to the hype that they speak of McCain's departure without qualifying it with "potential" or "possible" (whether intentional or through a slip of the keyboard it's impossible to know).

And then there's the name-calling and crude attacks, typified by Michael Kelly's column yesterday in the Washington Post:

I feel pretty, oh, so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and gay. And I pity any girl who isn't me today. Gosh, it's a wonderful time to be a brave, bold, independent-thinking, straight-talking, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may, profile-in-courage, Mr.-Last-Honest-Man-Goes-to-Washington, presidential-timber, maverick United States senator.

The first two lines, an allusion to a song from the musical West Side Story, are a cheap insult, especially in the context of the now-infamous campaign against McCain in the South Carolina primary, which included allegations that he fathered out-of-wedlock children and is mentally ill.

Mark R. Levin, a former Reagan administration official, engages in a similar attack in a National Review "symposium", calling McCain "a politician of average wits and a rapacious ego, who has an obsessive-compulsive need to trash conservatives in order to curry favor with an adoring liberal media."

Yet all this superheated jagon may backfire. As John Fund of the Wall Street Journal pointed out earlier this week, the rhetoric employed by Safire and others is not only adding fresh blood to the media feeding frenzy, it's making the sort of media manipulation Safire attributes to McCain that much easier.

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6/6 - Ben: Election 2000 debate re-ignites (permanent link)
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The U.S. Civil Rights Commission (CRC) leaked its report on alleged disenfranchisement of minorities in Florida during the 2000 election this week, generating harsh rhetoric from conservative critics and liberal politicians almost instantaneously. Somewhere in it are disturbing questions about Florida minority voters' rights, but, as usual, much of the media found the rhetoric surrounding it to be more newsworthy.

The report found that ballots cast by black voters were ten times more likely to be rejected than those cast by white voters. It also criticized Florida officials for erroneously removing many qualified voters from the roles because they were believed to be felons and for not providing enough language assitance to Spanish-speaking voters.

Left-leaning CRC chairwoman Mary Frances Berry and Commission staff, of course, started off the spin war by leaking the report to the media. Berry also told the AP that she plans to ask Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate CRC's findings. Her own words were not too harsh, however, as she stated that she would ask Ashcroft to "determine whether there was any intentional discrimination." Other Democrats were not as temperate, though. The New York Times concludes its story with a quote from Lois Frankel, a Democratic Assemblywoman in Florida, who said "There's something inherently wrong with the system when a black voter is 10 times more likely than a white voter to be disenfranchised because of the color of his skin." Such race-based rhetoric is extremely contentious in such a volatile debate, and particularly ill-advised when it is not supported by the facts. As any basic student of social statistics knows, race correlates with a number of other factors which could have caused the problems CRC found, including education level and voting experience. This may not excuse the results CRC found, but it certainly should make liberals such as Frankel think twice about making accusations of systemic racism.

For the spin from the other side, which came fast and furious, look no further than the conservative Washington Times, which essentially took the right's line, accepted it as fact, and integrated it into its headline: "Election report's bias seen in leaks". In over 1000 words, the Times doesn't see fit to outline the findings of the report, except to state that it "claimed that many voters were prohibited from voting." The real news, apparently, are the complaints of conservatives on the CRC, who have seemingly legitimate concerns that they did not have input on the study, but also take the opportunity to personally attack Chairwoman Berry. Conservative commissioner Russell Redenbaugh, a registered independent, says Berry leaked the news to get her own view of the election into newspapers. Berry, however, is just one of eight members of the CRC, making the report not just her views, but those of at least five of its members. The Times also quotes Republican commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, who said CRC's credibility is "in the minus numbers" due to the report. The Times doesn't take the time to identify Thernstrom as a well known opponent of liberal race policies and the co-author of America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible, which argues that America's supposed racial divide is overblown. Not that this disqualifies her comments, of course, but it certainly is interesting in light of the hundreds of words devoted to accusations against Berry and details of her political donations to Democrats.

And so the left plays its racism card and the right turns back to the personal attacks it so often calls on when studies with findings that support liberals are released. Luckily, we Americans have an independent media to help us work through this morass of spin. Oh wait, never mind...

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Related links:
-Ben Fritz, Recount Reconsiderations (4/17 column)

6/5 - Brendan: Kuttner's tax increase euphemism (permanent link)
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Liberal pundits are good at labeling conservatives as extremists, racists, homophobes, etc. but their talents don't tend to extend to the kind of aggressive jargon many of their conservative counterparts specialize in. What they do contribute, however, are lots of new euphemisms for themselves and their ideas that are designed to avoid old, politically stigmatizing labels. Hence, "progressive" rather than "liberal".

Here's a new variation from a web-only column by Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect on what Democrats should do to undo the Bush tax cut:

The only good thing about the tax cut is that Bush's people cynically backloaded it in order to conceal the true budgetary impact. The deep cuts do not take effect until after 2005. So if Democrats build on their takeover of the Senate and take back the House of Representatives and the White House in 2004, it is possible to restore some revenue capacity before most of the scheduled tax cuts take effect (my emphasis).

Now, it's understandable that the liberal Kuttner wants to undo the Bush tax cut, which tilts heavily toward the wealthy and uses a series of gimmicks to keep its estimated cost down. But can't he make an honest case for repeal or revision without that kind of euphemism?

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Related links:
-Ben Fritz, Recycling Rhetoric: Media Coverage of the Bush Tax Cut (5/29 column)
-Brendan Nyhan, Where's the outrage? (5/11 post)
-Brendan Nyhan, Andrew Sullivan says deceive the public (5/7 post)

6/5 - Brendan: Legitimacy attacks intensify on Senate Dems (permanent link)
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On Friday, Trent Lott released a noteworthy memo to Republican activists. The first item in the memo continues the illegitimacy attack on the Democratic Senate takeover that was covered here first. Pioneered by Rush Limbaugh, the tactic - which is intended to blunt Democratic claims about the illegitimacy of Bush's election - was picked up by Lott in radio interviews with conservative talk show hosts last week. Here is what he wrote:

We must ensure that the decision by Senator Jeffords is accurately portrayed, now and for history. It was a 'coup of one' that subverted the will of the American voters who elected a Republican majority. Neither the American people, nor even the people of Vermont, voted to put the Democrats in control of the Senate. Senator Jeffords, conspiring with the Democrats, has subverted the votes of the people.

Later, however, Lott goes even further:

[W]e must begin to wage the war today for the election in 2002. We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity of our democracy, to restore by the democratic process what was changed in the shadows of the back rooms in Washington.

John J. Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review Online point out just how farcical this argument is:

The American people did not vote for a Republican Senate; a Republican Senate was not on the ballot. In America, there are rules that govern how "the will of the people" is divined. Those rules are set forth in the Constitution and in laws made under its authority... Organizational control of the Senate, meanwhile, belongs to the party that can get a majority of senators to vote for it. The law contemplates that senators can switch parties. There is nothing illegitimate in this. There has been no coup or even "coup."

As I argued before, this kind of rhetoric is both misleading and destructive. Lott should not attempt to transform disputes over principles and policies into a battle over the sanctity of American democracy. By putting the Jeffords switch head-to-head with Democratic claims about Florida, he makes the political climate that much more inflammatory.

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Related link:
-Brendan Nyhan, The illegitimacy attack (5/25 post)

6/4 - Bryan: The rhetorical Internet arms race (permanent link)
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Howard Kurtz's column in the Washington Post this morning makes two good points about the proliferation of personal attacks on journalists and politicians. First, the Internet provides a less filtered medium than print. As Rich Lowry of the jargon-filled National Review Online puts it, "I would never write a piece in the magazine about one specific Maureen Dowd column. But if I get up on a Wednesday morning and see a column I don't like, I'll write 750 words on Maureen Dowd. In the magazine you have to be a little more profound than that."

Second, personal attacks and general nastiness sell. National Review's Jonah Goldberg, personally taken to task by me in an earlier column for his over-the-top use of jargon, tells Kurtz that "You don't just want to say the guy is wrong; you want to say the guy is stupid. Let's be honest: there's some marketing in it, too. Speaking in blunter terms draws more eyeballs. You get more positive feedback when you smack someone around the head and neck with a wet flounder."

While smacking people with dead fish over the Internet may produce a flurry of "You go, Jonah!" emails, it's not particularly conducive to rational debate. Instead, we have sort of a rhetorical arms race with pundits hitting each other with successively larger fish (to extend the metaphor to the breaking point). Perhaps saddest of all is that while Goldberg admits exactly why he uses his inflammatory rhetoric, he has no concept of how he's helping to degrade our public political debate.

Related links:
-Bryan Keefer, Daschle-bashing 102 (5/30 post)
-Bryan Keefer, Jeffords war of words (5/24 post)
-Bryan Keefer, New Cold War jargon (5/4 post)
-Brendan Nyhan, Race and Racial McCarthyism (4/23 column)
-Bryan Keefer, Jargon 101: Pardons and Punditry (4/9 column)

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