A War on Ideas

We are desperate to call ourselves an idea-driven society. Political speeches go out of their way to talk about how industrious and innovative the United States still is. But I think there is a growing sense that while innovation still thrives in this country, we are no longer leading the way. In fact, we are falling behind, specifically because we've got it backwards. We let the money guide ideas, rather than allowing ideas to guide money.

Good ideas go to die on Capital Hill and are replaced by worse ideas driven by people with money, drafted with the sole intent of giving those people more money. Actual, old fashioned idea driven legislation - popular bills drafted in response to an overwhelming public need - are a curious relic from another time. Bills now accelerated through the cumbersome process of voting and ratification are often those funded by big money. Just so there's no confusion - when I say big money in regards to politics, I mean the lobby.

Big money, in essence, refers to any powerful lobby with enough money to buy political influence and airtime. Big money once told us that cigarettes weren't harmful. Big money tells us that nobody cares more about the environment than Chevron and Shell. Big money convinces the public that up is down, black is white, rich is poor, so long as there is money to be made doing it, and they get away with it, because many people are conditioned to believe that slickly packaged ideas are simply too clever, or too fun, or too memorable not to be true.

Another place where good ideas go to die is the 24 hour news cycle. Bold and original investigations have largely been replaced by vapid coverage of complex issues driven by people with money. The stories are not presented to educate the public, or unveil understanding of an issue, but to maintain public interest in the network's brand. Better still, so long as there are two versions of the truth for every story on every network, no one will ever really know what is going on, but readers will continue to flock to subsequent stories on the same topic in hopes the truth will be addressed there. It is what I refer to as a 'perpetual interest campaign,' and whether you are a reporter or just a news or politics junkie, those campaigns are what you live for.

Perpetual interest campaigns are researched, prepared and presented with the sole intent of guiding mouse clicks. Actual, old fashioned human interest stories - reports investigated in response to an overwhelming public need - are also a curious relic from another time. Stories now green-lit by editors and producers and slapped up on the masthead are often those guided by big money. Just so there's no confusion - when I say big money in regards to media, I mean empires. I mean places where all reporting is inextricably and inevitably linked to a broad editorial agenda. Much of it is trash, and it lays across the spectrum of political preference. Trash news - be it HuffPost or NewsMax or Drudge - hones in on which stories generate the money and the clicks, and wallows in them like pigs in slop.

The representatives for all these money driven ideas (in politics and in media) are fascinating people. They are masters of their trade, of speaking fast, of casual interruptions that don't sound rude, at quick comebacks that misrepresent an opponent's statements. I observe these masters of spin daily. If there is a course offered on crafting the perfect sound bite, these people have likely attended or taught it.

These masters are sometimes politicians. They address the press directly or act as pundits on shows like Hannity, Schultz, Limbaugh, Stewart or O'Reilly. These idea mongers are speakers bred with a single purpose - mangling complex ideas beyond the point of recognition, and spinning the truth beyond recognition, if it happens to interfere with what they're there to sell.

Body language is everything - O'Reilly's in control.
I've noticed that Republicans and those leaning to the right - pro-business, pro-Capitalist - are generally so much better at communicating ideas in a slick, unimpeachable way. Political candidates on the right are generally a lot better at conveying their ideas and leaving listeners with something like a picture in their minds of how the world works. 

Those who lean left, generally speaking, have a tougher time distilling their ideas. They hem and haw. They stammer, they pause, and they speak in generalities. If we are engaged in a war of ideas, and those ideas are driven by money, this is really catastrophic for liberals. It's the very reason right-wing engineering is poised to guide our society in deep, meaningful ways, and it has the permission of much of our population.

So, why are Republicans - either on Capital Hill or in the Media - generally so much better at conveying ideas? Why does Obama's rhetorical style leave many cold, and does this hurt his attempts to sell his ideas to the public? There are numerous explanations, but for the purpose of this essay I give you two.

First, read Moral Politics, George Lakoff's ageless treatise on the strict father and nurturing parent dichotomies. We live in an age where citizens are more receptive to the strict father model. We've been shaped by fear in the age of terror and stress over an ailing economy. All around us, job loss, general disenfranchisement and a sense of disconnect causes us to yearn for strict father-style representation, and, as Lakoff suggests, conservatism - in its many iterations - offers that. Even the 'you're on your own / your success is only as great as your effort' ideology of libertarianism falls more in line with the strict father model than the nurturing parent. I am not suggesting that either of these models is absolutely right or correct, but my problem is that the tea party Congress has essentially posited that one model is right, and one is wrong, and so far as we keep voting them into office, they have the nation's agreement.

"There's a fly in my limoncello!"
A second reason for conservatism's dominance in conveying ideas: follow the money. The best idea mongers usually have a background in business. What do business people focus on, day in and day out? They pitch. They present. They convince people to part with money. They advertise. They massage shareholder tension. They write press releases. They are lords and masters of public relations because in business, PR is the backbone of perpetuating success. So, take that business acumen and apply it to politics and to punditry. What do you get? You get the best sound bites. You get the most memorable debate quotes. You get slick. 

Politicians and pundits from and funded by big money are masters at slick. They pitch. They present. They convince people to embrace certain ideas about the world over others. They write press releases. They massage tension. They are lords and masters of public relations. No matter where you are or how you operate, good PR is good PR.

Politicians and pundits on the liberal side are more often community organizer / college professor-types. Sometimes, they're in business, but generally speaking, they're accustomed to not having to self-edit the way their business minded peers do. They're used to holding court with people who already agree with them. Take that long winded, nuanced approach and apply it to politics and punditry. What do you get? You get lectures. You get grey areas. You get no sound bites. You get - in essence - Obama.

"We are outraged, outraged!"
So, for these reasons and many more, this is a war of ideas that conservative minded operatives are more likely to win. In this war of ideas, however, the ideas themselves are not chosen by their relevance or importance, but to their proximity and relationship to big money. It is disheartening to learn that the game itself is rigged. This war of ideas is, in fact, a war on ideas. We (those with no access to big money) have little say in what sorts of stories, bills, laws, and ideas are woven into the fabric of our culture. And when we do, those pitching on our behalf are either advertisers, marketers, business-people or people utterly unprepared to deal with the masters of spin who sit across the table from them. 

In this sort of an environment, the best ideas are drowned out and distorted. It's bad enough that we're largely exposed to referendums backed by big business. The few good ideas that do filter in and catch fire are drowned in spin. It's a wholly broken system, one whose only saving grace would be for us, the population at large, to see what is happening and extract ourselves from the game. We must no longer allow others to tell us which ideas are worth listening to, or which ideas are bad or good. Doing so requires that we recognize a business interest from a human one. It requires that we recognize the difference between an idea that promotes the health of a business's bottom line, and an idea that promotes the overall health of society and culture.

The extent to which those two things intersect is at the very heart of the political debate this season, and I hope you're paying attention over the noise, because it's only going to get louder as November approaches.


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