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Let's Not Help the Right Manufacture a Perception That Creates an Alternative Reality

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Some readers of my blog posts, readers of my column and listeners to my daily radio show have asked me why I spend a lot of my time pushing, critiquing, criticizing and generally talking about Democrats and the progressive movement and not Republicans and the conservative/Tea Party movement these days. My answer is fairly simple: Democrats and (thus theoretically) the progressive movement are in the policy driver's seat right now, and Republicans and the conservative/Tea Party movement are effectively locked out of power, at least at the national level.

Pretending this isn't true creates a reality that cannot exist without such manufactured illusion. Indeed, beyond the filibuster (which is circumventable in many cases), the only way Republicans and the conservative/Tea Party movement can wield power is through perception. The more the media -- and especially the progressive media -- pretends Republicans and the conservative/Tea Party movement is powerful, the more chance that wholly manufactured perception can become reality.

Unfortunately, as Alternet's Alisa Valdes notes, that illusion is being manufactured:

Four years ago, when millions of Americans took to the streets to support the human and civil rights of immigrants and, by association in the public mind, Latinos, the news media scarcely covered the marches -- even though they drew larger crowds than any other marches in the history of the nation, including the oft-dramatized culture-changing protests over the Vietnam War.

Fast-forward four years, to the Tea Party Convention, which boasted all of 600 registrants and one "we-tahd" hand-scribbler from Wasilla, Alaska and the contrast in news coverage is astonishing. The news media, including progressive talk radio and blogs, have been crowing about the big Tea Party "movement" for days now. USA Today has taken a poll about a Tea Party candidate's viability in presidential elections.

In short, what we are seeing is a mind-boggling double standard, and a wholehearted swallowing of right-wing propaganda as fact, in an American news media whose mathematics deem one Tea Party member to be greater than 4,000 human rights marchers.

There are two major reasons why this double standard exists. First and foremost, the media loves conflict, so they will build up conflict in any way they can, even if it means ascribing power to Republicans who have very little power.

But just as pernicious is the interplay between that desire for conflict and the allegiance to ideology.

The conservative media machine has an ideological reason to inflate the alleged importance of the right. That media machine has helped convince journalists, editors and producers in the traditional media to continue subscribing to the old frame that essentially posits that conservatives are Serious and Sober Realists and progressives are Unserious Dirty Fucking Hippies. This is a particularly useful frame in a Democratic era, when those journalists, editors and producers want a justification to create conflict.

The progressive media probably understands this pernicious ideological influence, but also is aiming to attract attention (read: ratings/readers/web hits) to itself, in part, through traditional and even right-wing media reverb. One of the ways to achieve such reverb (ie. to be mentioned in newspapers, on TV, etc.) is to play into the old frame -- specifically, by pretending the Republicans and conservative/Tea Party movement are very powerful and important right now.

And so many progressive blogs, radio shows and television shows devote relatively little time/resources to examining how/why Democrats/progressive organizations are coming up short, and a huge amount of time/resources to telling us how crazy truly irrelevant people like Sarah Palin or Tom Tancredo are. These are people who do not even hold a public office, but who are perpetually featured and promoted by conservative, traditional and -- worst of all -- progressive media as Important and worthy of Attention.

Obviously, the Palins and the Tancredos are extremists. But as I said, they possess no actual legislative power. They are relevant only to the extent that they are made relevant by us -- and the "us" is the conservative media, the traditional media and, yes, progressives.

You can argue, of course, that they are "relevant" because there's a relatively small amount of Americans who are their fans, and in a country of 300 million people, "relatively small amount" still means a few million people. But even that "relevance" is media generated -- the Palins and Tancredos develop that fan base largely through the media attention they garner -- the media attention that their positions (read: unelected celebrities) and fringe ideas don't actually warrant.

The end result, as Valdes points out, is "a wholehearted swallowing of right-wing propaganda as fact." The game of pretending these people are important creates a political system in which they are important. That may be good for ratings -- and even for progressive media ratings -- but it ain't good for the country, much less the progressive movement.

This is why I don't play this game in my own work. I'm not going to be part of a game that perpetuates a fantasy that both distracts from concrete reality, and creates an alternative reality that pulls our country ever farther to the right. It's not that I won't criticize Republicans or conservatives -- obviously I will and I do. If a Republican elected official with legislative claim on relevance says or does something destructive, then I'm happy to spend time on that because at least that Republican official can lay claim to legislative relevance. If an unelected conservative/Tea Party leader does something like that, and it can be used to open up a discussion about a larger more important issue, then I will occasionally spend time on that too.

But I have shifted from focusing on Republicans and the conservative/Tea Party movement during the Bush era to focusing more on Democrats and the progressive movement because this is no longer the Bush era - this is a moment when Democrats are in power. Again, I'll criticize the former, but only under strict parameters that doesn't help perpetuate a fantasy that unnecessarily empowers the right.