03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Health Care, the Church of the Savvy Now Rails on the Concepts of Transparency and Accountability

The most effective kind of propaganda -- as any propagandist will tell you -- is the kind that is almost completely invisible, cloaked in the argot of objectivity or worse, in the argot of a political ideology antithetical to the propaganda's message itself.

We can discount over-the-top press releases from the national Republican or Democratic parties because we know they are propaganda -- we know that the parties both have ideology/substance-free motives for attacking the other party, and thus will cite anything they can to attack the other party. We know, in short, that they are propaganda.

But it's harder to detect and filter the invisible propaganda -- and the most pernicious of invisible propaganda comes from what New York University professor Jay Rosen aptly calls the Church of the Savvy -- that is, from Washington reporters and pundits (both liberal and conservative) who produce "news analysis" that is skewed by their own highly subjective, ideological and self-interested views of what is "politically realistic."

Case in point is the now-simmering debate over the most undeniably objective issues in the political/journalism realm: Whether or not the president has broken clear campaign promises, and whether such promise breaking should be considered dishonorable or honorable. And what makes today's debate so fascinating is that it's taking place not on any kind of ideological issue, but on an issue that, unto itself, should be considered the most nonpartisan of all: Basic government transparency.

President Obama made an explicitly clear promise to hold negotiations over national health care legislation not only in public, but on C-SPAN. And this wasn't a minor promise -- he made the promise as an instrument to attack his Democratic primary opponent Hillary Clinton, insisting that because Clinton refused to open up negotiations to such transparency in the past, Clinton was a legislative failure.

President Obama has now broken his promise, first by cutting secret deals with the drug industry, and now by endorsing a plan from congressional leaders to hold final legislative negotiations behind closed doors. These are the facts, and they are not in dispute -- even though the White House insultingly pretends they are.

What is in dispute -- rather incredibly -- is whether or not this should be seen as A) acceptable and B) newsworthy. And those members of D.C.'s Church of the Savvy who are arguing that the promise-breaking is acceptable and not newsworthy are deftly presenting their conservative, Establishment-coddling propaganda in the most effective way: As allegedly "progressive" and/or "objective" arguments.

Consider the propaganda from the Center for American Progress. Igor Volsky -- under the banner of progressivism -- argues that we should applaud President Obama for breaking his campaign pledge to let C-SPAN cameras bring the health negotiations to the public. But his rationale is entirely antithetical to the basic progressive principle not just of open government, but of the concept that the public (ie. voters, activists, etc.) can play a role in public legislation. Responding to C-SPAN's letter asking for access to the negotiations, Volsky writes:

The C-SPAN letter itself betrays this reality. "Since the initial introduction of America's Affordable Health Care Act of 2009, in the House and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the Senate, C-SPAN has televised literally hundreds of hours of committee hearings, mark ups and floor debate on these bills for the public to see," it reminds us. On the whole, C-SPAN's coverage informed and entertained the viewer. But did it improve the underlying bill?...

It's no exaggeration to claim that health care reform is only possible because of the ritualistic ping-pong back and forth that occurs through private conversations...

Notice the Church of the Savvy assumption here: Transparency might be fine and dandy, but it didn't improve anything -- and the only thing that improves anything is secrecy. Never considered is the fact that those hours and hours of C-SPAN coverage might have helped viewers -- individual viewers, grassroots organizations, journalists, etc. -- follow the process for purposes of organizing, pressure, and reporting. Never considered is the fact that such transparency might have allowed for the public pressure that kept good provisions in these bills. In the Church of the Savvy, even considering the value of such benefits is blasphemy because it is "unsavvy" to consider that government is anything other than a gated community whereby Powerful People make decisions for The Rest of Us. Put another way, even for many Professional D.C. Progressives, it's "unsavvy" to consider a less elitist ideology that sees the possibility of government working in a different, less elitist sort of way.

If this wasn't bad enough, Volsky goes beyond effectively arguing that efforts to crush transparency are actually progressive and on to arguing that the concept of lying to voters as AOK. He says we should all simply accept that "the reality of politics doesn't square with the promises of the campaign trail," not bothering to explain what would be so "unreal" - so impossible -- to simply let C-SPAN cameras film the negotiations, as promised. That's not an objective -- much less, progressive or even fact-based - viewpoint. It's a conservative platitude with absolutely no basis in any substance whatsoever.

He is aided by fellow CAP blogger Matt Yglesias who takes it one step further, saying that we should all accept President Obama breaking any campaign promise he made that we now know he didn't need to make in order to win election. "The fact of the matter is that if Barack Obama had never promised a more open legislative process, he would have won the election anyway," Ygelsias declares.

Ezra Klein builds on this, adding not just his own progressive credentials to this defense of dishonesty, but also adding the veneer of journalistic objectivity via his affiliation with the Washington Post:

Did Obama actually win any undecided voters by promising, specifically, that "we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies?" How about his vow to avoid raising taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year? Are there any actual voters who worry about Democrats and taxes but were calmed by this line?

People in campaigns don't campaign to govern so much as to have the opportunity to govern...If the specificity of these lines really seemed to decide elections, you'd understand the impulse [to go all out to fulfill these promises]. But there's little evidence of that. Barack Obama won because Republicans were very unpopular and the war in Iraq was pretty unpopular and the economy was falling apart. It's easier to say that in retrospect than it was to confidently predict it at the time, but then, most people predicted it at the time, too. And it's not as if moving from "I won't raise taxes on people making less than $250,000" to "I'm not running for this office because I want to raise taxes on people and get kicked out in four years" is likely to swing the election in one direction or the other, or as if the C-SPAN line won Obama so many votes in Ohio.

First and foremost, the answer is probably yes, some voters did actually vote for Obama because of these specific promises. Perhaps it wasn't the margin of victory, but we can safely assume that some voters were swayed by these specific arguments, and -- at minimum -- there's more chance that at least some voters were swayed than Klein's assertion-as-empirical-fact that absolutely no voters were swayed.

But that's less important than the message that any campaign promise that the Church of the Savvy deems non-pivotal to a specific election is a campaign promise nobody is really allowed to care about or to expect to be fulfilled - even a campaign promise about the most nonpartisan of issues, open government. When such a cynical message comes not only from activists/operatives but from the media - the supposed guardian of democracy - it makes a joke of that democracy. The Fourth Estate watchdog is effectively saying that there's almost no campaign promises worth watchdogging.

As I said to start, these kinds of arguments, made under the banner of (allegedly) progressive organizations and objective news organizations don't seem like ideological propaganda -- but they are.

The ideology is the catechism of the Church of the Savvy replete with all sorts of subjective assumptions about how government should work, and how the American public should view campaign promises.

And make no mistake about it: These subjective assumptions are not prompted from opinion, but from self-interest (and assumptions/ideology based on such self-interest is one of the foundational hallmarks of true propaganda). These assumptions protect the members of the Church of the Savvy's prerogatives and territory as insiders. That is to say, the worldview inherent in railing against transparency and against holding politicians accountable for broken promises is one in which these insiders, and no one else, protets a monopoly on power, on access and on the understanding supposed "realities" of politics. If, as DC insiders, they - and only they - get to see the inner workings of the opaque legislative process and understand the "realities" of campaign promises, then they have Significance, Relevance and outsized Influence. They have an artificial monopoly over information, political comprehension and raw legislative leverage.*

These people do not inherently have these monopolies - and these "realities" are not Laws of Nature. These monopolies and "realities" are manufactured by this kind of propaganda, and the sooner we expose it for what it is - propaganda - the sooner those monopolies end and those "realities" change.

* SIDENOTE: As I've reported before, This is exactly why big news organizations in the DC Press Corps seeks to use its powers to prevent independent journalists from getting credentials to cover Congress. If independent journalists are granted such credentials to cover Congress, then the big news organizations suddenly lose their money-making monopoly over access to the U.S. Capitol. The same is true in a different way for a think tank like CAP. There's no doubt that organization is in consultation with Members of Congress and maybe even in on some of the backroom dealings. Its influence is therefore enhanced when as much of those dealings are in the backroom as possible by virtue of sheer math: The less players at the table, if you will, the more power for each player. If the public isn't allowed to be at - or even see - the table, then CAP has that much more influence over policymaking.