This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from The Machine: A Field Guide To The Resurgent Right by Lee Fang. Fang is a former investigative blogger for Think Progress, and a current reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and a contributing writer at The Nation. The Machine is an in-depth analysis of the at-times deceitful mechanisms used by the Republican Party to try and gain your vote. As Fang points out, the party’s message and messaging could not match the Obama campaign’s tactics, causing the McCain-Palin campaign to fall flat on its face in 2008. The Republican Party, once the masters of voter outreach, quickly found itself struggling to survive.
You can purchase the book here.
A Social Media Face Lift For Conservatism
To borrow a Sarah Palin aphorism, after their election defeat in 2008, conservatives didn’t retreat, they “reloaded.” Instead of finding new solutions to public policy problems or seriously reevaluating Bush’s failures, conservatives focused almost solely on new ways to communicate their old ideas. To do so, they looked to their natural allies in corporate marketing for inspiration; and they looked to the left for imitation. The result has been a recent and profound turn-around that has allowed the right the bury Obama’s message and dominate the political debate.
Historical Right-Wing Domination Of The Media
Traditionally, conservatives have almost always dominated direct mail solicitations, retained the best pollsters money could buy, and paid for the most celebrated advertising makers. Message discipline is the first lesson for any Republican politician. Talk radio? Unquestionably controlled by conservatives. Cable News? Fox News couldn’t be more right-wing and popular. The right had also dominated the Internet for most of the Internet’s fledging history. Throughout the nineties and for much of President George W. Bush’s first term, conservatives easily ruled online news. And much of that initial success stemmed from foundations and entrepreneurial pioneers, like Matt Drudge, creator of the wildly popular headline-aggregating side Drudge Report, and Jim Robinson of the news message board Free Republic. The pair formed a symbiotic relationship. Drudge, who played a role in breaking the Monica Lewinsky story, made waves in the media with scoops on the latest Clinton scandals, and Free Republic provided a platform for conservatives to share conspiratorial perspectives and to organize their own rallies and events. Many of the angry mobs hounding Clinton at public events were mobilized by Free Republic. The Free Republic—organized impeachment rally, “Treason Is the Reason,” featured Republican lawmakers and writer Christopher Hitchens.
Their efforts were enhanced by well-funded conservative investments in internet technology. The first major foray into purely ideological online news came from the Heritage Foundation, which worked with National Review magazine to create Town Hall in 1992. The Town Hall bulletin board forum on Compuserve required users to pay to dial into a central terminal to share information and read conservative publications. It later morphed into an Internet site with links to conservative opinion pieces, studies, and syndicated columns from newspapers. Town Hall helped organize the top conservative arguments, studies, and articles. The one-stop shop, similar in utility to Drudge Report, provided direction for various conservative websites, talk radio, and Republican politicians to get on the same message.
Conservatives maintained their dominance by constantly making investments in online news portals. In 2000 James Glassman, previously a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, launched a website called TechCentralStation with the corporate lobbying firm DCI Group. The website, with funds from corporations such as Microsoft and ExxonMobil, published reports from right-wing think tanks as news pieces. Glassman, who later became the director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, eventually closed TechCentralStation after a round of criticism that the site was essentially a smoke screen for corporate propaganda. In 2004, Bush strategists hired a number of firms to develop online tools to help supporters place op-eds and letters to the editor, well before MoveOn adopted a similar tactic. As even Karl Rove conceded, conservatives held an advantage in online news through 2004—but the right lost its edge after Bush’s victory over John Kerry.