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.
Change in Media Environment
Conservatives soon slipped to second place in the media war. Comfortable controlling the gears of government for so long, the right had largely ignored the rapidly shifting media landscape. John McCain, for instance, used an outdated e-mailing technology and had no functioning social network of his own. By Election Day, 2008, the Republican Party did not even have its own national list of supporters they could reach through text messages. While candidate Barack Obama talked about hope and change, an entire universe of liberal websites lobbed attacks and criticism every day at the McCain-Palin ticket. There were structural reasons for this decline. During the latter half of the Bush administration, triumphant Republican consultants who had won in 2004 largely with traditional spending on television ads, telemarketing, and direct mail had every incentive to encourage the party and the right-wing movement to continue spending on traditional outlets. Many television consultants receive up to a 15 percent cut of an entire advertising buy—which of course can be many of millions of dollars during an election season. Moving to online and nontraditional communications would result in a financial loss for some of these consultants, who doubled as advisors to the Republican National Committee and contractors to major conservative foundations.
Yet, while Republicans were expanding their traditional marketing strategies, some of the most cutting-edge corporate advertising campaigns of the twenty-first century intentionally abandoned using billboards, television commercials, and other traditional forms of branding. Ironically taking their cues from the socialist writer Naomi Klein—whose book No Logo detailed a world alienated by the over-abundance of corporate brands on every T-shirt, building, and bus—brand managers skillfully slipped their products into the background of movies, seemingly amateur blog posts, and the most popular YouTube channels. The corporate public relations firm Edelman, one of many advertising and marketing behemoths that specialize in this form of stealth salesmanship, carefully chronicled how the public shifted toward trusting “peer-to-peer” endorsements of ideas and products. They found that one of the efficient ways to mediate peer-to-peer marketing is through impersonal social networking and online content platforms. The USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism found that 80 percent of Internet users considered the Internet to be an important source of information for them in 2008—up from 66 percent in 2006—and already higher than television, radio, and newspapers. By 2010, USC found that over 82 percent of Americans were regular Internet users.
Edelman published a study, “The Social Pulpit,” revealing the various ways the 2008 Obama campaign wove campaign engagement into the social media habits of his supporters, from ethnic social media habits of his supporters, from ethnic social networking websites like Black Planet to innovative campaign widgets for local bloggers. Ironically, the study was written in consultation with Mike Krempasky, an Edelman executive who also helped found the conservative blog Redstate (a blog that duplicated the diary system of the left-wing blog DailyKos). Krempasky would later assist various corporations and right-wing blogs in deploying Obama campaign tactics to boost the nascent Tea Party movement.
However, out of power in 2006 to 2008, it was the left that had a greater incentive to experiment with alternative methods for organizing and delivering their ideas to the public, and it was the left that took the lead in the tactics proposed by Krempasky and others. Simon Rosenberg of the New Politics Institute and other left-leaning think tanks contributed resources to developing best practices for new communication tools as well as opportunities for incubating talent. Democratic campaigns sought outsiders adept at online strategy. Progressives developed online fund-raising schemes, like Act Blue, and experimented with new ways of connecting with voters, such as targeted SMS text messages. The Obama campaign’s decision to announce the selection of Obama’s running mate via text message netted an additional two million cell phone numbers to its database, which could then be used to plug voters into other election season notices. The unprecedented investments from the left coincided with rapid shifts in the media landscape. Perhaps most important, much of the institutional assistance simply buoyed left-wing initiatives that began organically, like DailyKos or MoveOn. As the progressive “blogosphere” swelled with traffic and influence during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, the momentum gave the impression that liberal bloggers would always be the prevailing force on the left.
Copyright © 2013 by Lee Fang. This excerpt originally appeared in The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.