“suicidal self-hatred of Western Left-wingers”

Over at WSJ, there is an article about The Late, Great American WASP by Joseph Epstein.

I won’t say much about the article itself. The author is essentially talking about an enlightened aristocracy as related to ethnocentric nationalism, plutocratic ruling elite, landed gentry, primogeniture and noblesse oblige. It’s an interesting topic, but the author simplifies and in doing so falsifies history a bit. Still, the topic should be discussed for its continuing relevance.

My purpose here, however, is simply to make note of a couple of comments. The two commenters were speaking to a more side issue that is another interesting topic. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this side issue, but I thought I’d share it because I found it curious.

Frank Pecarich, in his comment, offered a quote by Collin Cleary:

“Even within the most modern of Western men – yes, even within our politically correct academics – we still see some glimmer of the old, Indo-European thematic nature. One sees this, of course, in the polemical nature of Leftist scholarship. And, as Ricardo Duchesne has pointed out, their critique of the West embodies the perennial Western negativity about itself, and Western “self-doubt.” This may be the hardest point for Right-wing critics of the Left to understand. The suicidal self-hatred of Western Left-wingers is something that seems utterly mad, and defies explanation.

“Of course many Right-wingers do, in fact, have a ready explanation: the self-hatred that currently grips Europeans, and European-Americans, is a kind of plague germ spread by non-Europeans who wish to manipulate us for their own ethnic self-interest. But such manipulation would be impossible if Europeans did not already exhibit an innate capacity for ruthless, sometimes suicidal self-criticism. The anti-Western animus of the European Left may be foolish, dishonest, and disastrous – but it is not un-Western.”

I’m not familiar with Collin Cleary. I wondered what was the larger argument he is making, but the source of the quote wasn’t offered. Fortunately, a quick web search brought up the article which begins with that quote. Cleary is a neo-pagan of the neo-reactionary variety. His argument is basically that left-wingers take too far what is otherwise fundamentally true and good about the Western tradition. This he describes as our “tragic flaw”, individual freedom brought to its self-defeating extreme.

It seems a bit melodramatic with the author’s description of the “suicidal self-hatred of Western Left-wingers”. Still, I’m intrigued by the general idea of the “old, Indo-European thematic nature”. In this view, the Left isn’t un-Western and as such neither is it un-American. However it is described or judged, it can claim an ancient lineage of sorts.

In response to that quote, James Nedved wrote:

Very interesting. I never thought about that in relation to Leftist criticism of the West, that “even it” is really part of the Western “tradition” as it were.

We in the West when you think of it do have a penchant for self-criticism on BOTH the “Jerusalem” and “Athens” side of our patrimony: Jerusalem: search our hearts, find our sin and get rid of it. Athens: Socrates was the original asker of the question, “What is the right way to live?” (An aside: If he would have just shut up, he wouldn’t have had to drink the hemlock.)

Both sides of our patrimony ask us to criticize ourselves / our laws / our “way” to find and then to prove (in the sense of “test”) ourselves.

With this comment, Nedved adds another layer of Western tradition from two other sources of the Mediterranean variety. Levantine Judeo-Christianity obviously didn’t originate in Europe, but it has become so syncretized with the “old, Indo-European thematic nature” that is impossible to separate the two. Protestantism is very much an European creation and Calvinism particularly embodies the attitude of self-doubt and harsh judgment. As for the Greek influence (by way of Hellenism and Rome), we have another strain of Axial Age influence that later fully bloomed in the Enlightenment Era. Combined, the doubting prophets and philosophers were overlaid upon the ancient dark imagination of the European pagans.

In a The Phora discussion thread about Cleary’s article, someone with the username Petr wrote:

I myself would be ready to acknowledge and celebrate the genius of Aryan peoples (as a non-Aryan Finn myself ), but yet I think that writers like this often overstate their generally correct case concerning the exceptional altruism and idealism of Indo-European peoples by over-generalizing and not noting similar traits in other peoples as well.

Here, for example, the brazen attitude of Leftist polemics is attributed to Aryan high spirits. But in other New Right writings, Jewish or Semitic fanaticism is blamed for that same thing…

The Jews had enough suicidal idealism to rebel repeatedly against the might of Rome, inspired by their messianic ambitions, until they were almost destroyed. On the other hand, the Asiatic Aryan peoples of Persia and India do not seem to have displayed that Faustian individualist attitude that writers like Cleary seem to consider as typically Indo-European.

That is a good point. Cleary is a true believer seeking to defend his conception of European traditionalism. His analysis, although interesting in parts, is ultimately apologetics and should be taken as such. Even so, I’m always fascinated by exploration of origins.

Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

I’m not a political partisan, but neither am I politically disinterested and I try to avoid feeling politically apathetic. One way or another, I am a strong defender of my values, and so I spend a lot of time clarifying values (my own and others).

My values could be labeled many ways and I’m not more attached to any particular label than to any particular party. Nonetheless, it is through labels that we can speak of values in a larger sense, how we touch upon broader attitudes and worldviews, that which connects one value to another value to create sets of values.

In articulating certain values, I’m going to use data about labels that gets at what matters most beyond mere labels. But I also want to consider the issues for their own sake, to look into some data and see what picture forms.

I recently came across this brief mention of the Wirthlin Effect from the book Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff (pp. 252-253):

Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist for the 1980 and 1984 elections , writes in The Greatest Communicator about what he discovered when he went to work for Reagan in 1980. Wirthlin , a Berkeley-trained economist, had been educated in the rationalist tradition to think that voters voted on the basis of whether they agreed with a candidate’s positions on the issues. Wirthlin discovered that voters tended not to agree with Reagan’s positions on the issues, yet they liked Reagan. Wirthlin set out to find out why. His answer was that voters were voting on four closely linked criteria:

  • Personal identification: They identified with Reagan.
  • Values: Reagan spoke about values rather than programs and they liked his values.
  • Trust: They trusted Reagan.
  • Authenticity: They found Reagan authentic; he said what he believed and it showed.

So Wirthlin ran the campaigns on these criteria, and the rest is history— unfortunately for progressives and for the nation. The George W. Bush campaigns were run on the same principles.

“It is not that positions on issues don’t matter. They do. But they tend to be symbolic of values, identity, and character, rather than being of primary import in themselves. For example, if you identify yourself essentially as the mother or father in a strict father family, you may well be threatened by gay marriage, which is inconsistent with a strict father morality . For this reason, someone in the Midwest who has never even met anyone gay could have his or her deepest identity threatened by gay marriage. The issue is symbolic, not literal, and symbolism is powerful in politics.

That is a bit of info entirely new to me. I’ve never before heard of this Wirthlin guy, apparently one of the biggest players who shaped modern politics in the US. As an advisor to Reagan, he was one of those big players who played behind the scenes. This reinforces my view that presidents aren’t where the real power is to be found. Real power is being in the position to whisper into the president’s ear in order to tell him what to say.

Still, the general idea presented by Lakoff wasn’t new to me. I’d come across this in a different context (from a paper, Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinity, by Jost, Federico, and Napier) and have mentioned it many times (e.g., What Does Liberal Bias Mean?):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

I’ve previously pointed out that Americans are becoming increasingly liberal and progressive, but the real point is that this has been going on for a long time. The conservative elites, or at least their advisors, fully understood decades ago that most Americans didn’t agree with them on the issues. Nonetheless, most Americans continue to identify as conservative when given a forced choice (i.e., when ‘moderate’ or ‘independent’ aren’t given as an option).

It makes one wonder what exactly “symbolic conservatism” represents or what people think it represents. Reagan often stood in front of patriotic symbols during speeches and photo-ops. Look back at images of Reagan and you’ll find in the background such things as flags and the Statue of Liberty. Ignoring the issue of “true conservatism”, this symbolic conservatism seems to have little in the way of tangible substance, heavy on the signifier while being light on the signified.

Is this why Republicans have become better at obstructing governance than governing? Conservative elites and activists know what they are against, but it isn’t clear that there is much in the way of a shared political vision behind the conservative movement, mostly empty rhetoric about “free markets” and such (everyone wants freedom, markets or otherwise, even Marxists).

To look at the issues is to consider how values are expressed in the real world. What does it mean that many Americans agree with the symbolic values of conservatism while disagreeing with the actual enactment of those values in policies? What are Americans perceiving in the patriotic and pseudo-libertarian jingoism of the GOP or whatever it is? And why is that this perception appears to be so disconnected from reality on the ground, disconnected the reality of Americans’ daily lives and their communities?

Or am I coming at this from the entirely wrong angle?

It’s not primarily a partisan issue, even though it regularly gets expressed in partisan terms. We don’t seem to have a good language to speak about the more fundamental values and possibilities that underlie politics. All that we have is a confused populace and, I would argue, a confused political leadership.

Unfortunately, partisan politics is the frame so many people use. So, let me continue with it for the sake of simplicity, just keeping in mind its obvious limitations that can mislead us into unhelpful polarized thinking. Most importantly, take note that the American public isn’t actually polarized, not even between the North and South — as Bob Moser explained in Blue Dixie (Kindle Locations 126-136):

Actually, the GOP could dominate the region more completely— much more completely. In 1944, the Republican nominee for president, Thomas E. Dewey, received less than 5 percent of South Carolinians ’ votes (making John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004, his worst showing in the South, sound quite a bit less anemic). That was a solid South. The real story of Southern politics since the 1960s is not the rise to domination of Republicanism but the emergence of genuine two-party competition for the first time in the region’s history. Democrats in Dixie have been read their last rites with numbing regularity since 1964, and there is no question that the region has become devilish terrain for Democrats running for “Washington” offices (president, Senate, Congress). But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.”

I can’t emphasize enough that it isn’t fundamentally about partisan politics.

When more Americans (including Southerners) identify with Democrats than Republicans, they aren’t ultimately identifying with a political party. What they are identifying with is a worldview and a set of values or maybe simply dissenting from the opposite. Political parties use their favored rhetoric, but they rarely live up to it. The central important point isn’t that most Americans are to the left of Republicans but that they are far to the left of Democratic politicians as well. What the mainstream media deems to be ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics isn’t particular liberal at all.

Besides, most Americans don’t vote and aren’t involved in politics in anyway. Most Americans feel demoralized and disenfranchised. Most Americans feel the opposite of empowered and engaged. Most Americans feel those with the power neither hear their voices nor care even if they did hear. But I would argue that, generally speaking, politicians simply don’t hear at all. They are listening to their advisors, not to the American people.

Going back to the Wirthlin Effect, I was brought back to a realization I’ve had before. Yes, Americans are confused about labels or else strongly disagree with the elites about what those labels mean. To repeat a point I’ve made before:

Considering all of this, it blows my mind that 9% of so-called ‘Solid Liberals’ self-identify as ‘conservative’. Pew defines ‘Solid Liberals’ as being liberal across the board, fiscally and socially liberal on most if not all issues. Essentially, ‘Solid Liberals’ are as liberal as you can be without becoming an outright communist.

How on God’s green earth could such a person ever be so confused as to think they are a conservative? What do these 9% of conservative ‘Solid Liberals’ think that ‘conservative’ means? What kind of conservatism can include liberalism to such an extent? What could possibly be subjectively experienced as conservative despite appearing liberal by all objective measures?

Consider the seemingly opposite Pew demographic which is labeled ‘Staunch Conservatives’ (basically, conservative across the board). Are there 9% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ who self-identify as ‘liberal’? Of course not, although interestingly 3% do.

Compare also how many self-identify as ‘moderate’: 31% of ‘Solid Liberals’ identify as moderate and only 8% of ‘Staunch Conservatives’ identify as moderate. ‘Staunch Conservatives’ are as partisan as they come with %100 that lean Republican (0% that lean Democratic, 0% with no lean). On the other hand, ‘Solid Liberals’ have 1% who lean Republican and 3% with no lean; that might seem like minor percentages but that means 1 in 100 ‘Solid Liberals’ are drawn toward the Republican Party and 3 in 100 are genuinely independent.

So, yes, there is something weird going on here with the American public. Is this confusion artificially created? Is the public being manipulated by politicians who know the American public better than the American public knows themselves? Apparently not, as Alex Preen explained on Salon.com:

According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are.

The research found that this was as true for Democratic politicians. All politicians across the board were equally clueless about and disconnected from those they claim to represent. This is why it isn’t a partisan issue. It is a bipartisan ignorance.

There is an elite among the elite who knows what is going on. The Wirthlin-like advisor types are in the know and I’m sure there are Democratic equivalents to him, although maybe Wirthlin was a cut above even the average advisor to the elite. These guys aren’t just advisors. They and those like them are pulling the strings behind the scenes. If one is feeling particularly conspiratorial, one might surmise yet another level of power beyond even the evil mastermind advisors.

Whatever is the case, I doubt Reagan had a clue. Wirthlin probably was only telling him what he needed to know to gain popularity and win the election. Reagan, like most politicians, was just an actor; but Reagan had the advantage over most politicians in having more practice at being an actor.

The first thing a politician has to do is convince themselves of their own rhetoric because only then can they convince the public. They have to become the role they are playing. It didn’t matter that most Americans didn’t agree with Reagan on the issues for Reagan believed in himself. It was his starry-eyed optimism and unquestioning confidence that convinced people to buy the product he was selling. That product wasn’t any particular issue(s). Reagan was the product. The American public elected a figurehead, a symbolic figurehead of symbolic conservatism to rule over a symbolic country.

Anyway, in saying that it isn’t fundamentally about partisanship, I must admit that it isn’t without merit that most Americans identify with Democrats. It is true that I’m one of those that tends to say our faux democracy is just an argument about Pepsi vs Coke, but even so there are real differences. This was made apparent to me some time ago when I came across a review of a book by James Gilligan, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others which I posted about and then later, after reading the book itself, wrote a more personal response.

Gilligan’s book is one of the best presentations of compelling data I’ve read in my life. Part of what makes it so powerful is that the data is so simple and straightforward. There is a consistent pattern of several correlations of data and this pattern has continued for more than a century. When Republicans are in power, the rates of three things goes up: economic inequality, murders and suicides. When Democrats are in power, the rates of those very same things go down.

On an intuitive level, I’m sure Americans understand this. Most Americans don’t care about partisan politics, but they do care about these kind of social problems that impact all Americans. Any party or movement that could alleviate these problems would gain the support of the American public. Democrats don’t even fight that hard against these things and still most Americans would rather identify with them. The only reason that Democrats don’t win every election is that so many Americans don’t vote at all. People feel like they don’t have a real choice. Voting Democrats doesn’t generally make anything better, although maybe it keeps it from getting worse as quickly as it would under Republican administrations. Either way, it’s hardly inspiring.

If Americans cut through the bullshit and voted their consciences, they would vote for a third party like the Greens. And I don’t say that as a partisan for the Greens. But just imagine if the Green Party became a new main party. As we have it now, the Democratic Party is closer to the positions of the average conservative. What we have now is competition between a conservative party and a right-wing party. What if instead we had a competition between a liberal party and a conservative party with Republicans being a right-wing third party and with another major third party to the left of the Greens?

The only reason most Americans don’t vote for parties that are more on the left is because the MSM has them fooled. Most Americans don’t even understand what the parties represent. Most Americans don’t even realize how far to the left are their shared values. The bullshit rhetoric of symbolic ideologies combined with the MSM spin creates such a political fog that the American public doesn’t know which way is which.

I have hope, though, that with the rise of alternative media enough of the fog is lifting and the light of clarity is beginning to dawn or at least peak through.

In life, what we value is what we get, but first we have to understand our own values. Americans don’t just want the rhetoric of freedom. They want actual freedom. It isn’t the only thing they want, but it is very important. We can later on argue about the details of what freedom means. For now, we need the force of populism to shutdown the rhetoric machine. When average Americans can hear one another speak, then we can have a genuine discussion about the real issues. Not symbolism, but the issues themselves.

Property is Theft: So is the Right’s Use of ‘Libertarian’

There is an extensive article about Murray Rothbard and anarchism — from the AFAQ blog: Rothbard: “We must therefore conclude that we are not anarchists”. He writes that, An Anarchist FAQ spends some time explaining, probably in far too much detail given their small size and corresponding importance, why “anarcho”-capitalism is not a form of anarchism. Ironically, its founder Murray Rothbard once agreed!” Maybe unsurprisingly, this not-so-minor detail has not received any attention among right-wing liberarians.

The author made an interesting comment where he offered a juicy quote from Rothbard: “One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy. ‘Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over.” (The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83). It’s rare to come across such honesty about an act of dishonesty, an act of ideological deception and rhetorical sleight of hand.

Chomsky has explained the origins of libertarianism in the European workers movement that included anarchists, Marxists, communists, etc. He went so far as to argue that, “a consistent libertarian must oppose private ownership of the means of production and wage slavery, which is a component of this system, as incompatible with the principle that labor must be freely undertaken and under the control of the producer.” Libertarianism, by original definition and identity, meant left-wing. There is no way around that simple historical fact. Even Rothbard felt compelled to admit to it, even as he took pride in the right-wing’s co-opting the label — not the first nor last time this would happen (The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind).

Consider Wikipedia, which is not known for promoting radical thought, where the article on this ideology, Libertarianism, states rather bluntly that, “Libertarianism originated as a form of left-wing politics such as anti-authoritarian and anti-state socialists like anarchists,[6] especially social anarchists,[7] but more generally libertarian communists/Marxists and libertarian socialists.[8][9] Interestingly, one of the citations is the same Rothbard source. One of the other references confirms Rothbard’s admission. It is Roderick T. Long’s essay “Anarchism” (Gerald F. Gaus & Fred D’Agostino, eds.; The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy; p. 223):

“In the meantime, anarchist theories of a more communist or collectivist character had been developing as well. One important pioneer is French anarcho-communists Joseph Déjacque (1821–1864), who argued, against Proudhorn and the individualists, that what workers have a right to is not the product of their labor but, rather, the satisfaction of their needs. Déjacque appears to have been the first thinker to adopt the term “libertarian” for this position; hence “libertarianism” initially denoted a communist rather than a free-market ideology.”

Speaking of Rothbard’s piece, someone going simply as Anarcho wrote, “Nice to know that we are part of “the enemy” and the acknowledgment that our use of the term had been “long” – nearly 100 years when the laissez-faire right decided to appropriate it from its users. It is somewhat ironic, then, that amongst the first acts of the propertarians with their “absolute” property-rights was to steal their name! Ah, it may be objected, anarchists think “property is theft” so why should we complain? Well, because we believe in possession and use-rights and we were still using the term then! And we still are (the AFAQ blog marked the 150th anniversary of our use of the term back in 2008). While difficult given the funding the propertarians get from the wealthy, I do hope that anarchists and other radicals combat this appropriation of “libertarian” by people whose ideology is the exact opposite of what it traditionally means” (Mutual Aid, Parecon and the right stealing “libertarian”).

None of this is a secret, as this info is easy to find if one is looking for it. Yet few Americans, left or right, are aware of this ideological history. American libertarians, in particular, are disinformed or willfully ignorant about the origins of their professed ideology. It would appear this was an intentional strategy to undermine leftist ideologies by co-opting them and creating bastardized versions that betray their original inspiration and principles. Obfuscation is a well established tactic of the reactionary mind. The point isn’t merely to steal a powerful label from the left like counting coup in battle but ultimately to make such words meaningless so that public debate is made impossible. If libertarianism can mean authoritarianism as is inevitable with propetarianism, then the ideal of liberty can be made impotent as a threat to capitalist systems of power.

Vicious Cycle of Politics

There are two related thoughts that have been on my mind today.

I was thinking about American history, as that is what I’ve been reading and writing about lately. I see these repeating patterns and it can seem odd to me. Things keep changing and yet they don’t. The odd part, to my mind, is that so few seem to notice or think it all that important.

My first thought is about religious tolerance and inclusion.

Earlier in American history, Protestants had most of the power and they oppressed all other religions. Those they feared the most, however, were Catholics, Quakers and Baptists because they were competing Christianities. After centuries of persecution, Christians started forming alliances for practical reasons of trying to maintain what they perceived as a Christian society.

Jews had also been a persecuted minority, but they weren’t Christians. Catholics were bad enough. Accepting and tolerating or even cooperating with Jews, now that was going too far. Nonetheless, alliances began to form. Americans began to speak, instead, of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Muslims have now become the newest popular scapegoat. Muslims are perceived as the enemy of both Christianity and Judaism. This has strengthened the Judeo-Christian bond even further, even going so far as creating an unhealthy pact between the US and Israeli governments. However, as with Catholics in earlier Protestant America, Muslims are growing in numbers and becoming normalized.

It is simply a matter of time before Muslims will become part of the club. Americans in the future will speak of Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition of Mosaic monotheism. So, then it will be the Mosaic monotheists against everyone else. Then, of course, a new enemy will arise that “Real Americans” will join together in order to fight.

Repeat and rinse.

This cycle is so predictable. It’s almost boring in how obviously predictable it is. I feel inane in even pointing it out. Why can’t we just skip forward a few cycles and save some time, not to mention lives?

My second thought is about socialism and capitalism.

Here is a video to give you an amusing way of looking at the issue:

This is the best portrayal I’ve ever come across about the problems of dogmatically polarized ideologies.

Each side is inseparable from the other, each existing in a vicious cycle of reactionary political rhetoric and power-mongering. One side wins, becomes full of themselves and goes too far. Then the other side takes power, becomes full of themselves, and goes too far. And the cycle continues, ad infinitum.

I was thinking about this because of reading about the Southern Plains and California.

Those living in the Southern Plains were originally motivated by the capitalist rhetoric of free soil that became popular with the early Republican Party. Then the railroad and industrial tycoons got greedy and eventually Wall Street collapsed which led to the Southern Plains farmers to be inspired by the rhetoric of agrarian socialism, interestingly using rhetoric not dissimilar to what was used with free soil politics. In both cases, rural farming was romanticized, whether it was seen as opposing slavery with free soil or opposing capitalism with agrarian socialism.

With the Great Depression, larger numbers of these Southern Plains farmers headed to California. Of course, they couldn’t be independent farmers there as land was owned in massive tracts by wealthy landowners and so instead many of them became poor migrant laborers. That was in some ways a fate almost worse than death in their minds, but the rhetoric of their agrarian tradition wouldn’t let them see how they were being taken advantage of. They moved into the factories as the Cold War pumped a bunch of federal money into the defense industry. Becoming middle class and respectable, these same people embraced capitalist rhetoric again.

Now, a second era of massive economic turmoil has hit us. People are criticizing capitalism and once again discussion about socialism has arisen, especially among the new generation. Heck, socialism is quickly growing in popularity, in this era when the Cold War is mere history to many Americans. Before long, the demand for left-wing reform will become strong again and even go mainstream.

It’s an endless cycle. It keeps repeating, I suspect, because of a collective amnesia about history. The switching back and forth tends to happen over several generations. By the time it switches back the other direction again, there aren’t many people left who have living memory of what came before.

What if this endless cycle is part of the problem. When neither side can win, when both sides keep repeating their same mistakes over and over, maybe a third option is in order.

Conservative-Minded Authoritarianism & Liberal-Minded Anarchism

Someone once made the argument to me that there was a particular bias in social science research. The argument was based on the anecdotal evidence of the research this person had come across I suppose by way of what was reported in the media and maybe the blogosphere. His observation was that researchers had focused their studies more on conservatism than liberalism.

It would be surprising if there weren’t any biases such as this or something similar. More social scientists and scientists in geneal identify as liberals than as conservatives (and I’m sure that even the conservatives in this field are relatively liberal-minded). It does make sense that liberals and the liberal-minded would be greatly curious about those so different from their own attitude and worldview, especially considering that liberal-mindedness strongly correlates to open-minded curiosity.

Nonetheless, I doubt that curiosity is a zero sum game. A curious-minded person would probably be just as interested in liberalism as conservatism. Besides, most research I’ve seen in this area tends to simultaneously test for both sides of the political spectrum. I suspect it is rare research that would only study conservatism while entirely ignoring liberalism.

The bias I might see along these lines is more in the media reporting. The right-wing has caught the public imagination since the homegrown right-wing terrorism made itself violently known in the 1990s and especially since 9/11 brought the foreign right-wing terrorism to the attention of Americans. During the Cold War, the media focused on left-wingers while ignoring right-wingers. But the Cold War has been over for more than two decades now. With fundamentalist terrorism, Americans are learning new respect for Godlessness, despite its former association with the Communist Threat.

There is a more direct bias that is pertinent to the original hypothesis. Ever since the world wars, social scientists have been obsessed with authoritarianism. That was the era when right-wing fascism came to power. Many people escaped fascism by coming to America. The social scientists among these refugees were quite intently focused on understanding right-wing authoritarianism in the hopes of preventing its return.

There is good reason that authoritarianism has become associated with the right-wing and from there associated with conservatism. Indeed, there is a correlation in the American population between these three. The question is whether this correlation implies a causal link or is it merely an issue of historical conditions. At least for decades now, conservatism has attracted right-wing authoritarians into its ranks, seemingly as an intentional seeking of alliances by movement conservatives and GOP strategists, whether or not they fully appreciated the psychological profile of their allies. Some (e.g., Corey Robin) theorize that this is more than a temporary and circumstantial connection.

Here is the key point for me.

An authoritarian type can be either right-wing or left-wing; the reason for this is because right-wing and left-wing are more about ideology (and rhetoric) than psychology. An authoritarian type can be a conservative or anyone who is conservative-minded, the commonality of social conservatism being a reason political alliance are so easy to form. An authoritarian can even be a liberal, just as long as they are fairly conservative-minded or not too strongly liberal-minded in all ways. I’m fairly sure the one thing an authoritarian can’t be is liberal-minded, pretty much by the very definition of liberal-minded traits (which have a strong correlation to liberalism itself)

This is where its important to clarify a point. Liberalism correlates to liberal-mindedness and conservatism correlates to conservative-mindedness. However, there are still a significant number of conservative-minded liberals (and left-wingers) along with liberal-minded conservatives (and right-wingers).

Another clarification needs to be made. Fascist statists are right-wingers and communist statists are left-wingers. This is a distinction of ideology (specifically economic ideology), but there is no clear distinction when it comes to their personalities. Both kinds of radical ideologues tend to be authoritarian and, more significantly, conservative-minded. When looking at authoritarian states, including communism, the thing that stands out to me is they are against all forms of social liberalism and liberal-mindedness (and all that leans in that direction or is conducive towards it): social democracy, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, free speech, free press, free intellectual inquiry, free artistic expression, freedom to assemble and protest, etc etc.

This points toward the knot of confusion and so we can now disentangle the most interesting strand of bias. With my explanation so far, I hope it is beginning to be clarified why mainstream notions of liberalism aren’t an equivalent category to mainstream notions of conservatism. To nail it down, let me offer a little refresher on traits theory.

Traits exist on a spectrum with most people being closer to the midpoint than to the extremes. The typical person has some range of comfort and ability that might include to some extent both sides of the spectrum, although there will tend to be a natural resting point that an individual returns to. The extreme cases remain important for they demonstrate traits in their purest form.

Two separate traits correlate to liberalism and conservatism. Respectively, they are Openness and Conscientiousness. They are completely separate traits and so how an individual tests on one measure has no effect on how they test on the other. This can create the not unusual situation of a person measuring high on both the liberal-minded trait and the conservative-minded trait or else low on both.

I propose this as an explanation for why liberal-mindedness hasn’t been studied as fully. Most scientists, academics, college students, activists, politicians, journalists and reporters who identify as liberal probably don’t measure extremely high on Openness while also measuring low on Conscientiousness. It is true that most self-identified liberals measure relatively higher on the liberal-minded trait of Openness, but those who are highly motivated and self-disciplined enough to go to college, pursue politics and/or succeed in a professional career wouldn’t measure low on the conservative-minded trait of Conscientiousness.

Based on this, one would assume that, in respectable mainstream society, there would be a disproportionately small percentage of extreme liberals or even just people who are consistently liberal across all traits. This is predictable based on how Conscientiosness is described in the research literature. Conscientiousness is the single greatest indicator of social success (i.e., success by other people’s standards and according to the status quo). This would explain why professionally established and economically successful artists tend to have higher ratings on Conscientiousness, despite this conservative-minded trait being low among art students. I would speculate that there is a connection to why the most innovative and genius (i.e., unconventional) artists often remain poor and unknown in their own lifetimes.

In an outwardly success-oriented society, conservative-minded conscientiousness is given central priority. However, at the same time, it makes for a bias in all aspects of such a society, including research on psychological traits:

http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/tipoct98/4collins.aspx

“Let it not be misunderstood, conscientiousness is recognizably an important predictor of performance and many other organizational outcomes (e.g., Barrick & Mount, 1991; Ones & Viswesvaran, 1996). But is it possible that this continued and concentrated focus on the validity of conscientiousness may overshadow other perhaps stronger personality predictors of job performance? Could it be that a plateau has been reached, and the time has come to move beyond conscientiousness in search of other predictor discoveries?”

Those who are extremely liberal-minded tend to have lots of social issues. Along with lacking success-orientation, they tend to be less healthy and more prone to becoming criminals (i.e., breaking laws and generally not being obedient and subservient). However, there being seen as criminals by society is the very same reason they are less likely to commit immoral acts that are the norm for a society or demanded by authority figures. So, high conscientious conservative-minded types are more likely to do horrific things and be successful at it, just as long as it meets standards of social approval. High conscientiousness, for example, will lead one to make sure the trains run efficiently in order to bring the enemies of the state to the concentration camps.

This is what irritates me. The conservative-minded project onto the liberal-minded their own conservative-minded predilections. The strongly liberal-minded will never make for good authoritarians. They may be losers who are alcoholics, drug addicts, criminals, sexual deviants, etc. They may even be terrorists of the anarchistic variety. But they won’t be authoritarians or not very successful authoritarians.

The anarchism angle is what intrigues me most of all. That seems like the polar opposite of authoritarianism. Even conservatives seem to understand that. More than the over orderliness and oppression of authoritarians, what conservatives fear more than anything from liberals is that they will undermine conservative order by undermining moral authority and social hierarchy. Liberals will only ever be authoritarians to the degree they are or become conservative-minded.

I wish liberals would be criticized for their actual faults and weaknesses, instead of being blamed for what goes against their own nature. And to return to the original point of this post, I don’t know about researchers who are self-identified liberals, but I think it unfair to blame their supposed liberal-mindedness for their heavy focus on conservative-mindedness, assuming such a biased focus even exists. If anything, the conservative-mindedness (relatively higher conscientiousness) should be blamed for their having ignored the fullest and most extreme expressions of liberal-mindedness.

We’ve already had decades of extensive research on authoritarianism. Let us check out the polar opposite side of things. Definitely, I’d like to see some insightful research on anarchism.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.795/abstract

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honesty-Humility_Facet_of_the_HEXACO_Model_of_Personality

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886910001182

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886911005046

http://www.psycontent.com/content/r86104550w030g0l/

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.845/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224540903365364#.UY1v4Eqd6So

Click to access Duckitt%20&%20Sibley%20submitted.pdf

http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2012-19403-001

http://www.jasoncollins.org/2011/06/the-evolution-of-conscientiousness/

http://www.academia.edu/153692/Evaluating_Five_Factor_Theory_and_social_investment_perspectives_on_personality_trait_development

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656611000997

Interesting Stuff on the Web: 3/23/13

Here are a few things that caught my attention. Taken together, they almost form a loosely coherent thought-web about the complexity of the left/right spectrum and some interesting examples in contemporary politics, from left-wing states’ rights secessionists to conservatives of the liberal tradition. I’ll share them without any commentary:

U.S. Out of Vermont!
Move over, Texas: In the Green Mountain State, it’s leftists who want to secede.
By Christopher Ketcham

“Yet here in granola-eating, hyper-lefty, Subaru-driving Vermont was a secession effort that had been loud during the Bush years, had not ceased its complaining under Barack Obama, did not care for party affiliation, and had welcomed into its midst gun nuts and lumberjacks and professors, socialists and libertarians and anarchists, ex–Republicans and ex-Democrats, truck drivers and schoolteachers and waitresses, students and artists and musicians and poets, farmers and hunters and wooly-haired woodsmen. The manifesto that elaborated their platform was read at the conference: a 1,400-word mouthful that echoed the Declaration of Independence in its petition of grievances. “[T]ransnational megacompanies and big government,” it proclaimed, “control us through money, markets, and media, sapping our political will, civil liberties, collective memory, traditional cultures.” The document was signed by, among others, its principal authors, a professor emeritus of economics at Duke University named Thomas Naylor and the decentralist philosopher Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Human Scale. “Citizens,” it concluded, “lend your name to this manifesto and join in the honorable task of rejecting the immoral, corrupt, decaying, dying, failing American Empire and seeking its rapid and peaceful dissolution before it takes us all down with it.””

Conservatives Please Read
Book review by Historied of Sidanius and Pratto’s Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression

“I have worked as an executive in the corporate sector for 35 years and felt how powerfully this approach could be used there. The chronic lack of real talent to solve real issues of the business and environment, is very much compounded by issues of dominance and restriction of the search for talent and the education of talent to elite groups who are often clueless about the world. And this book provides a critical thinking 101 approach quite independent of its content.The growing hereditary nature of management succession (think President of the USA)is part of social dominance. The socially dominant send their kids to the best schools and these seem to be structured to restrict critical thinking or divert it into postmodernist irrelevance. This book helps you see such apparently unconnected phenomena in new ways. And it might direct students towards structurally relevant issues of society rather than the marginal. While this book is an obvious resource for the oppressed, I heartily recommend it to members of socially dominant power groups like myself.”

Comment by Andrew on Corey Robin’s post Edmund Burkey on the Free Market

“I’ve always been a fan of SDO theory. It reconcils social dominance and ‘selfishness’ with altruism, solving the riddle by positing that egalitarianism is actually a form reverse social dominance whereby the group overpowers the alphas and thens uses threat of violence and/or humiliation to keep any one member of the group from becoming more power than the other. This pairs nicely with anthropologists’ and of course, Marx and Engels’ observations on the ‘primitive communism’ of early hunter-gathering societies.

“Although many would likely cringe at the suggestion, I feel it’s an actual evolutionary explanation for the differences between leftwing and rightwing politics.”

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?
By Patrick J. Deneen

“There’s a further problem in the contemporary narrative that has been developed by conservatives regarding the course of the Constitution. While the narrative of the Constitution’s corruption by Progressives has been popularized by Glenn Beck, it has largely been developed by scholars who study in the tradition established by the German émigré scholar, Leo Strauss. They largely rely on a significant essay written by Strauss entitled “The Three Waves of Modernity.” In that essay, Strauss explains that the break with antiquity – particularly classical Greek and Roman as well as Christian thought – was inaugurated by thinkers of “modern Natural Right,” in an incipient form by Machiavelli and then further by Hobbes and Locke. These thinkers argued that a new science of politics was needed, one that was not as resigned simultaneously to a vision of ideal politics based upon the inculcation of virtue, and also a theory of decline that necessarily accompanied those high aims, as that which characterized ancient thought. Building on the “low but solid ground” of self-interest, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Locke sought to channel the great source of political strife toward productive ends, particularly in the areas of commerce and expansion of human knowledge (modern science). Aided by the insights of Hobbes’s one-time boss, Francis Bacon, the new science of politics was devoted to “the relief of the human estate,” a project that relied upon the new natural sciences for the expansion of human power and mastery over nature. This “first wave” of modernity recognized the inherent imperfectability of human beings – thus, that we have a nature, and that a successful politics can be built upon that nature – and served as the philosophical basis for the American founding.

“The “second wave” of modernity is called by Strauss “historicism.” Like a wave – following upon and deriving its content from the previous wave – this “second wave” took its point of departure from an instability within the first wave. The “second wave” of modernity took the basic insight of the philosophers of the first wave – that nature was subject to human control – and extended this insight to human nature itself. If external nature were subject to human dominion, why not human nature itself? Thinkers like Rousseau, Condorcet, Comte, and later, John Stuart Mill, developed the idea of human perfectibility, of the human ability to master not only external nature, but to improve human nature as well. If philosophers of the “first wave” argued that human nature was unalterable, philosophers of the “second wave” argued that human nature could be improved concurrent with an improvement in the material domain. The concept of moral progress became a central feature in second wave philosophy, a progress in historical time that was believed to culminate in man’s perfection, even ascent to a godlike condition. In America, thinkers like Dewey, Croly and later, Richard Rorty adopted the basic insights of this “second wave” of modernity.

“What Strauss perceived – and what his epigones too often overlook – is that the seeds of the second wave are planted within the logic of the first wave. A theory that rejects the fundamental governance of nature (at least that nature external to humanity) – or natural law – and substitutes this ancient Aristotelian and Thomistic standard for a more utilitarian calculus of interest inevitably jeopardizes any standard and even its own effort to ground its politics on a now more limited understanding of human nature. The “second” wave is embedded in the first wave – that is, lacking a standard by which humans are to be limited, their tendency will be to develop a political philosophy that invites thorough re-creation not only of our environment, but of the human creature. According to the implicit logic of Strauss’s argument, we do better to see that Progressive liberalism is the consequence of “Classical Liberalism,” and not its wholesale betrayal, as many today would like to believe.

“Strauss discerned that it is from the very individualistic basis of liberalism that arose the collectivist impulse of “progressivism,” initially in communism and fascism, but today in what we might call “progressive liberalism.” The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.

“It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America.”

The ‘About’ page for the Front Porch Republic website

“The economic crisis that emerged in late 2008 and the predictable responses it elicited from those in power has served to highlight the extent to which concepts such as human scale, the distribution of power, and our responsibility to the future have been eliminated from the public conversation. It also threatens to worsen the political and economic centralization and atomization that have accompanied the century-long unholy marriage between consumer capitalism and the modern bureaucratic state. We live in a world characterized by a flattened culture and increasingly meaningless freedoms. Little regard is paid to the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing. We’re in a bad way, and the spokesmen and spokeswomen of both our Left and our Right are, for the most part, seriously misguided in their attempts to provide diagnoses, let alone solutions.”

What It Means To Be A Progressive: A Manifesto
By John Halpin

“As progressives gear up for inevitable fights over taxes, budgets, and social policy, we shouldn’t forget about the importance of values in explaining who we are and what we want to achieve. We believe in freedom with opportunity for all, responsibility to all, and cooperation among all. We believe that the purpose of government is to advance the common good, to secure and protect our rights, and to help to create a high quality of life and community well-being. We want decent paying jobs and benefits for workers and sustainable economic growth. We want growing businesses producing the world’s best products and services. We want an economy that works for everyone, not just the few. We want all nations to uphold universal human rights and to work together to solve common challenges. This is what a progressive America looks like.”

Political Elites Disconnected From General Public

There is an interesting article by Alex Preen on Salon.com:

Politicians think Americans are super-conservative
A survey of thousands shows candidates from both parties think the electorate is way more right-wing than it is

“According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

Now, this might be surprising to many, especially those on the right. It’s far from surprising to me. The average American is way to the left of what is considered ‘liberal’ in mainstream politics and media.

“Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.”

I’m one of those left-liberals who actually pays attention to surveys of popular opinion. The one thing that surprises me is that so few people do pay attention. You’d think it would be a politician’s business to pay attention. Their whole job is theoretically to represent and yet they don’t know who they are representing.

One commenter put it well:

“Constituents? Who cares about them? MONEY votes conservative, and that’s what counts. to both parties.”

Another commenter extended that thought:

“I suspect what’s going on is that many politicians (a) feel they’re supposed to represent their constituents, (b) find they’re compelled to represent their donors and other fat cats, and (c) mitigate the cognitive dissonance by telling themselves (a) and (b) aren’t far apart, although, of course, they are.”

I makes me wonder. Can these seemingly clueless people really be that out of touch and just plain ignorant? People in politics and media tend to be people who are above average in both IQ and education. None of this polling data is a secret or difficult to find.

At least for those on the right, not knowing or pretending to not know is conveniently self-serving. The way they act and what they support implies that on some level they do know, as a commenter put it:

“Republican politicians may be in the grips of delusion about the beliefs of their constituents, but at the same time they understand the need for gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other aggressive antidemocratic uses of power, when they have it, to enforce rightwing priorities. Something isn’t quite right here.”

I care less about the politicians and media. If the public became self-aware of their own leftism, it would become more difficult for the mainstream elites to keep their ruse going.

* * *

3/22/21 – Below is an even better article by Eric Alterman, the author of the 2008 book Why We’re Liberals. I’ve had that book for a long time, maybe having gotten a copy when it first came out, but I don’t remember the details of it now. My first coming to terms with the American leftist majority came together in 2010 when I began to more seriously research the polling, survey, and demographic data. Maybe Alterman had helped plant some ideas in my mind in the years immediately prior.

Then again, much else was informing my thoughts back then. During the Aughts, I did further learn about corporate media bias and the propaganda model of news. Though my political awareness grew in the late 1990s, I had my fuller political awakening with the stolen 2000 election, about which nearly all of the media and politica elite maintained a conspiracy of silence. After that, having been a part of the anti-war protests, the largest such movement in world history at the time, I experienced firsthand how the corporate media spun narratives and downplayed the significance and size of it.

In the decade following, the reality of the US as a banana republic became ever more apparent, particularly as the even more leftist younger generation reached voting age. Yet the ensuing presidential elections again controlled the outcome with the rhetorically-framed lesser evil of forced choice between ‘mainstream’ candidates that were corporate-friendly plutocrats to the right of the American public (in reality, two greater evils). This inspired further research into how the majority was kept suppressed and how disconnection was maintained across society, which led to study of the Wirthlin effect and the history of how we got here.

I’ve continued to write about this topic, including some recent doozies. At this point, it is part of what might be the main theme of my entire blogging career. The public opinion angle on a leftward shift toward egalitariainism is one sub-theme within the larger perspective of societal changes over the past few millennia, from the Axial Age to the early modern revolts, with an increasing interest on the Peasant’s Revolt which might’ve been the first overt class war. There is a larger context and an older background to this present disconnected elite. But whatever we think of it, or however we interpret it, the basic truth of disconnection and the problems it causes cannot be denied.

Without further ado, let Eric Alterman explain the basic issue:

America is much less conservative than mainstream media believe
(text below from linked article)

It’s a well-known “fact” within the mainstream media that the country is not as liberal as journalists like to think it is. As with the consistent insistence on the prevalence of liberal bias, however, that fact is also fundamentally false.

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough is among many in the media and elsewhere who like to, as he says, “warn [their] friends in Manhattan and Washington and LA and in the mainstream media … that America is much more conservative” than they believe it to be. He made this claim in February 2012, basing it on the example of marriage for same-sex couples, noting that a majority of Americans still opposed its legalization. Scarborough did not actually identify which of his “friends” were making this claim, nor did he identify the nature of the argument they allegedly offered.

Leaving that aside, however, he had his facts wrong. According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, marriage equality was supported by a 54 percent to 40 percent majority within 30 days of Scarborough’s evidence-less assertion. Similarly, the Gallup poll on the issue taken closest to the statement, in May 2012, also put the number supporting marriage equality above 50 percent. (And don’t forget, we know that Gallup consistently oversampled for Republicans throughout 2012, so that number is, if anything, understated.)

Scarborough needn’t feel alone in his ignorance. The members of America’s political class, whether journalists, pundits, or politicians, routinely overestimate the relative conservatism of the American people. In fact, David E. Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Christopher Skovron of the University of Michigan published a study in March and discovered that thousands of state legislative candidates systematically judged their constituents’ political views to be considerably more conservative than they actually were.

While this was mildly true in the case of liberals and moderates, it turns out that conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron discovered. The source of this misinformation is unclear, but one can reasonably conclude that much if not all of the problem lies with the mainstream media. After all, state legislature candidates cannot usually afford much polling, and none of us are immune to the power of the media to shape what Walter Lippmann termed “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.”

A significant part of the problem appears to lie with the inaccurate use of labels. Without a doubt, self-professed conservatives consistently outnumber liberals in polls when Americans are questioned about their respective ideological orientations. Politicians, pundits, and reporters tend to believe that this extends to their views on the issues. It doesn’t. In fact it represents little more than the extensive investments conservatives have made in demonizing the liberal label and associating it with one unflattering characteristic after another.

I delved deeply into this phenomenon while researching my 2008 book titled Why We’re Liberals. In the book, I noted that as a result of a four-decade-long campaign of conservative calumny, together with some significant errors on liberals’ own part, the word “liberal,” as political scientist Drew Westen observed, implied to most Americans terms such as “elite, tax and spend, out of touch,” and “Massachusetts.” No wonder barely one in five Americans wished to associate himself or herself with the label, then as now.

Yet at the very same time, detailed polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press demonstrated a decided trend toward increasingly “liberal” positions by almost any definition.

Why Did I Become a Leftist?

In a previous post, I threw out some observations and conjecture about empathy in the context of recent interactions I’ve had with my conservative parents. My parents aren’t happy. Their having worked as poll workers in a liberal town on the day of Obama’s victory didn’t help matters.

Politics lately have rubbed salt into the open wounds of conservatism. The media gives us daily updates on the writhing that this has caused in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement in general, especially in relation to the Tea Party whose supporters are always going on about RINOs versus real conservatives. I don’t personally care too much about who those on the right end up sacrificing from their ranks. I’m perfectly fine with them eating their own, as they are apt to do at times like these.

However, I do care about my conservative parents which means I can’t help but personalize the issue of conservatism. I’m easily affected by the unhappiness and distress of those around me. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in a moderately good mood on the best of days, even when the people in my life are feeling satisfied with their place in the world. It would be different if I didn’t see them as often, but their moving back into town has made regular interactions the norm.

I actually like my parents in a general sense, by which I mean when they aren’t explicitly in righteous conservative mode. I’ve always been closer to them than my brothers have, for reasons that I don’t wish to entirely explain at the moment. To put it simply, I guess it comes down to understanding on a fundamental level why my parents are the way they are. I see how much I am my parent’s child. Every trait I love and hate in myself I can find correlates to varying degrees in my parents. Only circumstances clearly distinguish why I became a liberal-minded leftist rather than following in the rightward footsteps of my parents.

Looking back on my high school years in South Carolina, I can see how my left-leaning tendencies weren’t entirely formed and so not inevitable. Any number of events could have caused me to have become a conservative or at least more conservative-minded. At that time, I hadn’t yet returned to this liberal college town in the Midwest, i.e., Iowa City. I also hadn’t yet discovered the wonders and glories of the internet. My intellectual world back then was severely confined relative to my present situation living in a literary town full of book stores and libraries (public and university), all within short walking distance.

Growing up, I talked to my dad about all kinds of intellectual topics (and I still do). It was from him that I learned my intellectual abilities. This was eased both by the fact that I wasn’t yet fully a leftist and my dad wasn’t yet fully a right-winger (my dad could actually watch and enjoy the most liberal of tv shows such as Star Trek: Next Generation without any complaints). At that time, I didn’t have any other role models for what it meant to live a life of the intellect. So, my dad’s conservative intellect, albeit not without some basic liberal-mindedness, was profoundly influential upon my tender young emerging psyche.

I specifically remember two things we discussed around then in my late teens during the mid 1990s: 1) a book about the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of homosexuality, and 2) Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve which discusses race and IQ.

I look back now and see these ideas in a larger context. The right-wing culture wars were heating up and my dad was pulled into it. But at the time, I wasn’t a liberal and wasn’t versed in the liberal criticisms. I didn’t know, for example, that Murray’s book wasn’t intellectually credible. I actually took those ideas seriously for the simple reason that I took my dad seriously. I even remember repeating these ideas to others. If my intellectual development had stopped there, I would be an ideologically very different person.

The reason I took those ideas seriously was because of the social environment I found myself in. I was living in South Carolina during high school. After high school, I spent three summers in a conservative Christian YMCA camp in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. Also, the colleges I went to (Clemson and a local community college) weren’t exactly bastions of liberalism and leftism.

I had no larger perspective at the time, but I knew on a gut-level that there was something wrong with the world I found myself in. Maybe it was depression that saved me. The tidy conservative vision of life appealed to a part of me. Like my parents, I just wanted to be a good person… which in the conservative worldview goes hand in hand with being ‘normal’. There was just one problem. I was incapable of being normal. I had profound sense of dissatisfaction and suspected that it was more than a mere personal problem.

Nonetheless, on a basic level, I understood the attraction of the simple vision of life offered by the conservative worldview. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even to this day, a strong element of conservative-mindedness has survived within me. This is why I’m so conflicted in my relationship with my parents.

If I had never discovered the wonders of liberal-mindedness, I would have ended up as a tragic figure in a conservative story. But my parents had unintentionally planted within me the seed of liberal-mindedness. My parents taught me to think independently, especially my dad who taught me to question and doubt and to think analytically. My parents also kept plenty of liberal-minded literature around the house which formed the background of my mental development.

Still, that wouldn’t have been enough to have made me into a liberal or leftist. My earliest strong introduction to the liberal worldview was public education. Despite being in the Deep South, public school introduced me to a wide variety of people, both my peers and teachers, but particularly teachers.

I had an English teacher who was British and who taught the clssics of the traditional liberal education. Two books that I discovered through his class were Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Hermann Hesse’s Siddharha. The two protagonists were typical liberal heros dissatisfied with the conservative world they were born into, both ending up alone in poverty, one ending in tragedy and the other in spiritual vision. I internalized the liberal hero and the two possible endings continue to play out in my psyche.

The other teacher I had was in an art class. He loved art with almost a sense of mission. He was one of those rare teachers who realized the power and rsponsibility of being a teacher. What he taught me was to think outside the box, to never assume anything, and to not be afraid to experiment. He is the only teacher I hated to disappoint for he saw potential in me and so allowed me to see it for myself.

Before moving back to liberal Iowa City, I had this basic liberal foundation, although I didn’t yet have a comprehension of liberalism on its own terms. The classical liberal hero, as found in Jude the Obscure and Siddhartha, lived in a conservative society. That was my situation in South Carolina, but Iowa City was a different world. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by well-educated liberals, authors regularly visiting for readings, aspiring writers everywhere, and numerous libraries and bookstores. My liberal-minded potential blossomed into my present bleeding heart self.

My mom recently asked me why her children all became so opposite of her and my dad. There is no way I could explain this so she could understand. Asking why I failed to become a conservative is inseparable from asking why conservatism itself has gone off the rails.

As I came into young adulthood, one thing became abundantly clear. Conservatism has offered no good answers or solutions to the problem of human suffering. This isn’t to say conservatives never will, but it would require a lot of deep soul-searching. I’ll be more than willing to reassess conservatism if it ever as a movement decides to offer a compassionate response to the struggles and sufferings of the the least among us.

The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, Where Exactly?

Another blog (Reach the Right) brought to my attention an article by Jonathan Chait (The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen). It’s a good article that offers a detailed analysis, but I couldn’t entirely agree (nor could some other bloggers; for example, Erik Lundegaard).

In Reach the Right, I responded to the comment that “I think it’s an unusually difficult line of reasoning to argue with”. I didn’t find it difficult at all. Below is the reposting of my response.

I think there is truth in the article, but it also misses some of the context.

After many decades of narrative rule by conservatives, liberals are finally winning the narrative war. This more has to do with demographics than any effective strategy by liberals, demographics and overreach by conservatives, overreach that has turned away many Americans from the GOP. Liberals, or rather Democrats, have capitalized on this conservative overreach, but they can’t take much of the credit or blame.

The context, of course, has many factors.

It is true that what is deemed as ‘liberal’ has come to dominate much of the media. Then again, this so-called liberalism has come to dominate most of modern American society. Most Americans are liberal on many issues and becoming increasingly liberal. In fact, most Americans are more liberal than the MSM (and more liberal than the MSM portrays the American public) on many central issues such as the majority supporting pot legalization and being against overturning Roe vs Wade, just to mention two obvious examples.

The MSM, with much lag time, reflects the American people who are increasingly diverse — in terms of: races and mixed race individuals, interracial dating and marriage, ethnicity and culture, religion and atheism, etc. But the reality America has always been vastly more diverse than the conservatives would allow for in their vision of America. What is surprising is that the norm of the American people is seen as ‘liberal’ in the MSM. Liberalism in the MSM often just means a tepid middle-of-the-road position on issues, the real political correctness of liberalism is in between the right-wing and the left-wing, if anything favoring the former more than the latter in that you’ll see right-wing libertarians in the MSM more often than you’ll ever see left-wing socialists or anarchists (or even left-wing libertarians).

Anyway, why is it ‘liberal’ to portray gay people as normal people with normal problems and normal interests? In reality, most gay people are normal by all standards other than the standard of heterosexuality. Why is it ‘liberal’ to speak honestly about global warming? Truth knows no ideology. If certain facts and realities are perceived as liberal, that can’t be blamed on liberals.

America is an ideologically confusing and confused country. There never has been in America a tradition of traditional conservatism. What gets called ‘conservatism’ is too often just a variety of liberalism from the past such as classical liberalism.

This has caused liberalism to become conservative in many ways. Since, American conservatives often are against traditionally conservative positions, liberals have oddly taken up their defense. Traditional conservatives were at least against unregulated capitalism and for most of history supportive of non-capitalist economic systems, partly because capitalism destabilizes social order and undermines moral order. Traditional conservatives in particular were against usury which has become a major pillar of modern capitalism. Also, the precautionary principle is a core principle of any normal sense of conservatism, except of course American ‘conservatism’.

However, there are certain ways America is conservative and so is the MSM, especially Hollywood. American politics and media are obsessed with certain conservative themes such as good vs evil, us vs them.

Hollywood constantly portrays a conservative worldview with action movies that have men of action who are superior to men of thought and action movies that glorify (and otherwise normalize) war, violence and vigilante justice.

The genre of noir is an inherently conservative worldview (although more in the line of reactionary conservatism, rather than traditional conservatism). Noir can be found in the Dark Knight Batman movies, in Watchmen, Blade Runner, Dexter and in various gritty movies and shows that portray the world as fallen into darkness where a lone hero, usually a white male, has to fight the good fight, whether he wins or loses. In general, the conservative ideal of the white male protagonist still surprisingly dominates most of the entertainment these days.

Horror is another conservative genre. A popular horror trope is to show kids partying or somehow being naughty right before being killed. Like noir, horror tends to be about a fallen world. We live in a time of fear and uncertainty when the conservative worldview becomes attractive, although we are getting at the point when people are starting to want a new narrative.

Related to these, drug-taking and dealing is typically portrayed tragically. This is beginning to change some, but change has come slower in politics and media than it has in the general public. Obama laughed at the idea of taking seriously pot legalization, even though most Americans take it seriously. Despite all the negative drug portrayals or maybe because of it, drug use such as with marijuana has become more widespread.

No matter what one considers ‘liberal’, what interests me is that the media remains mostly closed off to the left-wing. As liberalism has become separated and distinct from the left-wing, conservatism has become aligned with or even conflated with the right-wing. This is largely why conservatives have turned away so many Americans and thus lost control of much of the MSM. It’s not so much that the conservative narrative has lost power, rather the conservative narrative turned into a right-wing narrative that has lost power. Most Americans want a moderate centrism which just so happens to be where liberalism is at the moment.

What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

Let me begin with the typical right-wing view that the MSM is left-wing biased (which I’ve discussed before: here, here, here, and here; but this post will take a somewhat different viewpoint than those previous analyses). This complaint is a particularly unhelpful viewpoint in that it simplifies a complex reality. At worst, one could say some of the MSM has a liberal bias which is vastly different than saying all or most of the MSM has a left-wing bias.

As Nader explained a similar distinction:

While the political right has been beating the drum for years that NPR is too liberal, Nader says that is not the true picture at all. He says that it is progressives on the political left, like him, who are being excluded from NPR’s airwaves.

“Progressive voices are not heard on NPR with the frequency of voices representing more corporatist and conservative opinion,” Nader said. “And progressive voices should not be confused with liberal voices and lumped into the same category for any frequency analysis.”

According to Nader, what NPR considers a liberal perspective is really middle-of-the-road. Among his examples are well-known Democrats like President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Progressives, he said, exist farther to the left on the political spectrum. They support things like a Medicare-type single-payer system for all Americans, and not the health care compromise passed by Congress.

Nader does make at least one good point. Academic studies in recent decades have repeatedly shown that the country’s political right, more than the left, is so peopled by true believers driven by principle that they reject political compromise and stay on message with such a strong voice that it attracts great media attention and exaggerates their real weight in the populace.

By ‘progressive’, Nader apparently means the same as what some would call a ‘left-liberal’. In this sense, such a distinction is clearly a reality. The difference here is between those who favor the status quo and those who are strongly and maybe even radically against it. Go even further to the left toward the actual left-wing (Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, left-libertarians, etc) and the difference is even vaster.

In a review of Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky, a good explanation was given of what liberal bias means:

[T]he mainstream American corporate media (the big networks, the big newspapers, news magazines, etc)serve to uphold the interests of the elites in this country (political and economic). Chomsky and Herman acknowledge that we do have a “liberal” press, (what does it really mean to be ‘liberal’ in America today anyways?), but that the liberalness is kept within acceptable boundaries. Basically, the mainstream press may give a liberal slant on what the dominant institutions and systems are doing…but they will not question the very nature of the institutions and systems themselves.

For example, today’s Los Angeles Times (January 6,2003) had a page 2 story on the U.N sanctions against Iraq. Now, the typical reader may see the story, and figure that since the LA Times is even reporting on the impact of sanctions against Iraqi civillians, this is demonstrative of their ‘liberal’ leanings. However, the story leaves untouched the most crucial issues regarding UN sanctions against Iraq, such as:
1)the U.S. and U.K. are the sole countries who sit on the UN Secutity Council who refuse to lift the sanctions against Iraq, despite the pleas of the other member nations (such as Russia, France, China, etc).
2)UN estimates have put the death toll from the sanctions at nearly one million civillians.
3)Two consecutive UN Humanitarian Coordinators have resigned in the past five years in protest of the effect of the sanctions, with the first stating “We are in the process of destroying an entire society.”

Basically, the mainstream corporatized press will leave the most crucial questions unanswered, if they portray American power in a bad light.

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Liberalism has almost become entirely equivalent with the status quo. It’s a strange phenomenon. This became evident to me in reading about Corey Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism. I discussed this theory with a left-winger who is highly critical of liberalism and, like Nader, tends to identify liberalism with its representatives in mainstream politics and media.

One insight has grown stronger in my mind. Corey Robin’s reactionary conservatives, according to their actual behavior, aren’t particularly interested in conserving anything and so their credentials as ‘conservatives’ is questionable. On the other hand, mainstream liberalism doesn’t particularly seem interested in liberating anyone or liberalizing anything. The former are reacting to the status quo and the latter are defending it.

Corey Robin makes the argument that conservatives have been reactionary ever since the conservative movement first began. Conservatism arose in reaction to a revolutionary era of radical politics, but conservatism wasn’t dedicated to defending the interests of traditionalism, of the old elites. Conservatives wanted a hierachical social order, just not the previous version found in the ancien régime. To conservatives, the old order had failed to defend society against radical revolutionaries and so needed to be replaced. In order to create a new order, they adopted the rhetoric of the left and adapted their methods to the purposes of conservatism.

This theory, along with other data, puts liberalism into a different context. Liberalism and conservatism are closely tied together. Liberals were also responding to the aftermath of radical revolution. However, instead of wanting to fight against it, liberals wanted to defend the public good that was achieved by systematizing democracy. This is how the United States began. So, this is how liberalism became the status quo of America and how liberals became the defenders of that status quo.

Saying that the American MSM has a liberal bias isn’t saying much at all. All of American politics and society has a liberal bias in this sense. Truth be told, Americans as a whole have a liberal bias, even though most Americans don’t identify as liberals:

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

In America, a liberal bias simply means a status quo bias. As the data shows, even many self-identified conservatives support standard liberal positions. When conservatives allege a liberal bias in the MSM, they are speaking a greater truth than they realize.

The conservative complaint simply expresses their complaint against all of modernity. The actual complaint isn’t against media bias but against the media not being biased in their favor… and that society in general isn’t biased in their favor.

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The problem the conservative faces is this.

One can’t simultaneously claim that the MSM has a leftist bias and that big business media conglomerates are acting according to a functioning free market by giving people what they want. One or the other might be true, but definitely not both. If the MSM is giving people what they want, then it isn’t a bias being forced on viewers. If the MSM is forcing a bias on viewers, then people aren’t being given what they want.

There is an inconsistency here. They can hold onto their belief that the MSM is biased or hold onto their belief that the free market works, but they can’t have both simultaneously. The claim of a left-wing bias would mean that the MSM isn’t friendly to conservative issues such as related to business. This is a strange claim to make since MSM is all about business and very successful at that. In reality, the main bias of the MSM is making a profit. However, it is true that as businesses media companies will seek to promote their own business interests in the political arena. Certainly, the MSM as big business has absolutely no incentive to present a left-wing bias of Marxism, socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, etc.

In the MSM, right-wing think tanks are cited as sources and have their representatives on as guests (I’ve even come across right-wing think tank representatives on NPR). Right-libertarians even have their own shows that are aired nationally. Heck, even the Russian channel made for American audiences has a libertarian host.

On the other hand, you’ll rarely if ever come across a left-winger on the MSM, whether as host or guest. You won’t see a panel of Marxists to analyze a campaign debate. You won’t see a socialist organization cited as a standard source in a major newspaper.

The argument of conservatives is that it ultimately has more to do with the issues discussed. The issues are seen as leftist and so any discussion is framed by simply bringing up such issues. This seems like grasping at straws to me.

Why is simply bringing up ‘environmentalism’ as a topic inherently a leftwing bias? How is it framing the discussion by the very act of discussing an issue that is relevant to everyone? If mentioning ‘environmentalism’ is framing, then why isn’t framing to have a business section but not a labor section? Why is it a leftwing bias to have a discussion of global warming that doesn’t include a denialist? Why isn’t a rightwing bias to not include a neopagan environmentalist or a anarchoprimitivist? Why is it a leftwing bias to not regularly report on rightwing politics such as fundamentalism and libertarianism? Why isn’t it a rightwing bias to not regularly report on leftwing politics such as atheism and Marxism?

 
The framing I care about isn’t just bias in the simple sense, although it includes it. In many ways, I do think the MSM gives people what they want. On the other hand, the MSM shapes what people want by controlling their choices. Not only are choices excluded, knowledge about those choices are ignored or dismissed. Framing is more insidious than the conservative view of bias. The problem is partly about how the elite control every aspect of life (through big media, big business, big government, etc), but this isn’t necessarily conspiracy. The power of frames is that even the promoter of frames ends up believing their frames, not unlike how the propagandist ends up using his own rhetoric to rationalize his actions in his own mind.
 
Still, it goes beyond even this. Framing is about culture itself. The framing of all of American society is liberal (which I first discussed in an extensive post about public opinion in terms of ideology, but there are two other posts where I discuss in more detail early regional history as it relates to different ideological traditions — here and here; also, an interesting post about the relationship of republicanism to liberalism in early American thought). American culture grew out of early radical liberalism such as Paine and Jefferson along with the less radical classical liberalism; the criticism and defense of markets, for example, both originally came from the left and both lacked roots in traditional conservatism. American culture also grew out of massive hypocrisy such as genocide, slavery and political disenfranchisement that undermined the ideals of that liberalism from the beginning (because liberals willingly compromised their own ideals, liberalism being undermined from within more than from without).
 
So, American culture has always been a combination of liberalism and hypocrisy, the two may be so intertwined at this point to be inseparable. Liberalism has been too often used to justify the failings of American society, liberals never allowing the perfect get in the way of the good which not unusually means that the theoretical goodness itself becomes questionable over time. My critcism of liberals often involves such hypocrisy.
 
Liberalism is the frame of American culture and so, at least in that sense, it is unsurprising that liberal framing could be seen in the MSM. Nonetheless, I don’t see why caring about the environment and environmental issues is a leftist bias. Considering we all live in and as part of environments, I’d assume that every American wants to see environmentalism (pollution, alternative energy, climatology, etc) discussed in the media.
 
Anyway, my point is that liberalism isn’t a frame invented by the MSM. It is simply American culture. Even American conservatives have mostly accepted the liberal frame in terms of embracing Lockean classical liberalism and so by default have also inherited the hypocrisy that goes along with it.
 
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To get past the ideological debate, all we have to do is look at what the data shows. The fact is that conservatives, Republicans, and Fox News viewers are the most informed. But what is interesting is that they are more misinformed to the degree they are informed. So, those on the right don’t know whether they actually know what they think they know.
 
I shouldn’t even bother linking any of the studies showing this misinformed bias on the right (for there are so many of them at this point, enough studies that Chris Mooney wrote an entire book analyzing the phenomenon), but I will share one because it specifically is about the media. In the 2003 study Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, Fox News viewers were predictably the most misinformed whereas NPR and PBS audiences were the least misinformed. If there is a bias in public radio (and the non-rightwing portions of the MSM in general), it apparently is a bias towards accurately informing its audience or at least not a bias toward misinforming its audience to the degree of Fox News.
 
The problem is that those on the right think everything has a leftist bias. Along with the MSM, science has a leftist bias, higher education has a leftist bias, the government has a leftist bias, polling organizations have a leftist bias, and on and on. Everything that isn’t explicitly right-wing has a leftist bias, possibly even communist. So, it ultimately is an impossible debate to win. The conservative complaint isn’t based on objective facts in the first place and so can’t be changed through the presentation of objective facts. Any facts disproving the alleged bias will simply be considered as part of the conspiracy of bias.
 
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As a side note, I thought I should give NPR credit for acknowledging its own biases, even if not the biases that conservatives would assume:
 
 
by Edward Schumacher-Matos
 
 by Edward Schumacher-Matos
 
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Here are two very recent videos that analyze how the bias debate is presently playing out in the MSM: