GOP: Masters of Media

As the GOP slashes the social safety net, the party seizes on ‘scandals’ to distract the public.

Susan J. Douglas

Protesters hold signs during a tea party demonstration on May 21 in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The Republicans may have taken a drubbing in the presidential election, but they’re winning the bigger ideological battle. Neoliberalism — the doctrine of cutting government, reducing social services and then letting market forces run wild — remains the dominant ideology, regardless of its obvious, staggering failures. You have to hand it to them: Republicans stay on message — helped along by the mainstream media and, of late, the government itself.

Republicans know from repeated successes how to manipulate the news. They know that the media eats up conflict, and simple stories with heroes and villains.

The IRS bungling of a profoundly important investigation into the legality of the activities of 501(c)(4) nonprofits instantly became a media firestorm. Also known as social welfare groups,” these are the organizations that metastasized after the 2010 Citizens United decision. As tax-exempt entities, they can engage in issue advocacy,” but their primary purpose” cannot be to support or oppose specific candidates. They don’t have to disclose their donors, who can contribute unlimited amounts, so they provide corporations and wealthy individuals cover to support business-friendly and/​or conservative candidates. (The five top-spending 501(c)(4)s during the 2012 elections were all conservative organizations.)

Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS spent an estimated $165 million on the 2012 election, some $71 million of that on explicitly political broadcast ads, phone calls, mailers and the like, according to an NPR investigation. Now, Rove’s donors didn’t get their money’s worth — pretty much every candidate they opposed won — but that doesn’t take away the need to investigate Crossroads GPS.

But that’s not going to happen now. By targeting small fry with a massive, clumsy sweep of any group with, say, patriot” in its name, the IRS has ensured that 501(c)(4)s will continue to corrupt the political process. What’s more, this scandal plays into conservatives’ anti-government mantra.

Government bashing didn’t work so well in the 2012 presidential election. Obama won, in part, because of the support he drew from women, Latinos and African Americans, who, according to 2012 survey data from Pew, support a government safety net much more strongly than white men do. In other words, Obama won because of his insistence on a more involved, responsible and activist government. His win, then, demonstrated the majority of the electorate’s rejection of neoliberalism.

But it doesn’t matter. Republicans know from repeated successes how to manipulate the news. They know that the media eats up conflict, and simple stories with heroes and villains. The Right appreciates that members of Congress remain, aside from the president, the most significant source of political news, especially with the ongoing cuts in news divisions and decline of investigative journalism.

So Republicans in Congress have continued to beat the neoliberal drum, advocating further cuts to government revenues and downsizing the government (the villain) itself. And to distract us from, say, the number of Head Start programs around the country being closed as just one result of the sequester, they railed against the Benghazi attacks as more evidence of government ineptitude. And not to minimize the clumsiness of the IRS’s actions, but they appear to have occurred almost totally in one regional office in Cincinnati.

Yet Republicans and the media blew it way out of proportion. Compare this scandal” to, say, the report that CO2 levels — the most important of the greenhouse gases — have reached historically unprecedented and dangerously high levels in the atmosphere. That story hit the New York Times on Friday, May 10, and was dead within days. What does dealing with climate change require? Concerted government action and regulation.

At a time when scientists agree on the dangers of global warming and the need for international government action, when so many economists (with historical evidence on their side) insist that governmental austerity is a terrible way to deal with recessions, when we desperately need better gun control laws, the Republicans continue to rant about government overreach and inefficiency. The press suggests that the Republicans are succeeding because Obama remains off message. True, in part. But they’re also succeeding because the news media, week in and week out, allows them to set the agenda and, in the process, to reaffirm an ideology — neoliberalism — that is a ruinous failure.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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