Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Disinformation Campaigns and the Generational Shift in Politics

In a posting several days ago (5 June), I addressed the issue of disinformation in American politics. I predicted that in this federal election cycle, we are on the verge of a disinformation campaign the likes of which we have not seen at any previous point in our history. I distinguished disinformation from misinformation: the former is the deliberate dissemination of information those disseminating it know to be false, in the expectation of twisting the consciousness of those receiving disinformation.

In my 5 June posting, I discussed a flurry of carefully tailored comments on progressive blogs immediately following the announcement that Barack Obama had won the Democratic nomination. These comments gave every indication of having been planned; they gave every indication of having been released all at once as soon as the announcement of Obama’s nomination win came through.

These comments purported to be statements by Democrats disgusted that Mr. Obama has the nomination. These “Democrats” stated that they intended to vote for McCain in the coming election.

My assessment of this flurry of comments on progressive blogs as part of a disinformation campaign seems to be borne out now that Ms. Clinton has endorsed Mr. Obama. That endorsement makes it very difficult now for those trying to split the Democratic vote to use this particular little nasty trick as effectively as they had hoped to do.

The comments of disaffected Hilary supporters have suddenly ceased on progressive blogs, for the most part. What is clear is that many of those making these comments were not disaffected Hilary supporters at all. They were Republicans masquerading as angry Democrats to create the illusion of a national movement of disaffected Democratic voters.

So on to new tricks: I predict that, in addition to the overtly nasty bash rhetoric we’ll see all over the place now that Obama has been chosen the Democratic candidate, we’re going to see another trick tried again and again. I’ve already noticed it on the blog of my statewide “liberal” weekly newspaper, the Arkansas Times.

This is the sober, dispassionate, disinterested prediction that McCain will win, because states that have been voting Republican for some time now will do so once again in this election.

This prediction is anything but dispassionate and disinterested, though it will be spoon-fed to voters again and again in the coming weeks as bona fide political analysis. The prediction plays a cynical numbers game to gain bogus legitimacy. It depends on projecting voting trends that will mirror precisely those of recent presidential elections.

Such analysis pays no attention at all to the fact that this election has changed the ground rules in significant ways. It has brought out a massive tide of new Democratic voters. Many of these are young voters who have previously felt disempowered.

These are trends of intent concern to those who want to conduct politics as usual. These trends portend changes in the way that we do politics which go beyond the surface—substantive changes. The trends point to shifts in the American political scene that may well—if they are not stopped in their tracks by sheer force—be as decisive for the future of the nation as the shifts of the 1960s were.

We are seeing now the birth of a new politics in this country. What is happening now, especially among young voters, does not break down along traditional liberal-conservative lines. The fault line in how the political process is being viewed runs right through the Democratic party itself, dividing Democratic voters into those wedded to politics as usual, and those seeking a new way to engage the political life of the nation.

This election has unmasked the fatuity and insincerity of many of the “liberal” claims of my generation of Democratic voters. Though we of the baby-boom generation have professed concern to include people of color, women, LGBT people in the political process, we have done next to nothing—next to nothing substantive—to translate our professed concern into action.

We have invited minorities to the table only as token representatives of groups. They have not had a voice at our table—not a real voice. They have been there to echo the opinions of the straight-identifying white males who still control our political, economic, and ecclesial life. We have tolerated these minorities at the table only insofar as they were clones of the white-male power structure dressed up in minority garb—only insofar as they were “nice” minority members who played our game, and did not threaten to change the status quo.

We have, in other words, we boomer liberals, willingly participated in the politics of divide and conquer, of pitting one minority group against another, of the Republican right. We are a vanilla version of the more robust flavors of discrimination offered by the right. We all come from the same manufacturer. The ugly divide-and-conquer tactics centered on race and gender in this election derive as much from right-wing strategy as from liberal complicity in that strategy.

It has been in our own best interest—the best interest of liberal boomers—to natter on about inclusion and representation and places at the table for all, while we belie our rhetoric in our actions. A case in point: liberal political commentators in my state are now (rightly) decrying the ugly misogyny we have seen in this election, primarily targeting Hilary Clinton.

Yet these same white-male commentators seem utterly oblivious to the reality that they themselves edit and write for publications that have only male (and white-male, at that) political commentators: white-male middle-aged middle-class heterosexual political commentators. These are almost the only voices we hear in any “official” political discussions in our local media, whether televised or print media.

Fortunately, not a few voters are getting the disconnect between liberal rhetoric and liberal action among voters of my generation. Many of those getting it are younger voters. And it is not accidental, I think, that these voters are also far more media-savvy than are those of either the traditional right or the old left. In particular, these voters know how to use the power of the internet to circumvent the information-flow stoppage of the “official” media, whether of the left or the right.

As I have noted frequently on this blog, one of the most promising developments the internet poses for our political life (and for the lives of our churches, I would also maintain) is the ability of blogs to give voice—real voice—to voices that have historically been excluded by the mainstream media, both of the left and of the right.

Blogs and other online media sites give everybody a chance to be at the table in a way entirely unanticipated by the control-oriented, status-quo-maintenance politics of both the traditional right and the old left. Those of us whose voices have been shut out or carefully tailored to echo the observations of the power centers of our society can now speak for ourselves—in a new way, in an unanticipated way, in a way that reaches around the world.

This potential for change (and for interconnection, for solidarity, between people of all colors and stripes everywhere in the world) frightens those who want to maintain the status quo. It frightens not merely those conservatives who want, with William F. Buckley, to stand athwart history and shout stop. It also frightens gradualist liberals, those who want to anoint only predictable voices that will speak lullingly of change that doesn’t upset the balance of power in any substantive way—that doesn’t upset the balance of their power in any substantive way.

Does all that I have said above mean I am a messianic Obamabot? Hardly. I know enough history to know that the reign of God is always on the horizon, never here in history. It’s what we have to keep striving after, not what we have already built.

Give people power, and they are likely to abuse it. Give power to the marginalized and oppressed, and they may misuse their new-found power even more spectacularly than those who once lorded it over them. Some of the absolutely most horrific abuses of power I have seen in my lifetime have been manifested by women of color, by women one would have expected to know better and do better.

Granting power alone—shifting the structures of power—is no guarantee that things will move in a more humane direction, once power shifts have occurred. What is always essential in participatory democracy as a check against the tendency of those with unbridled power in their hands to abuse their authority is the big table, at which a place is set for everyone.

Insofar as it is participatory, participatory democracy acts as its own check against the abuse of power by any person or group within the body politic. Building open forums in which accurate information is available to all, and all have a chance to comment on how this information is used by the entire society, by its very nature militates against abuse of power by any individual or group.

The shift we are now seeing in our political process is, in some sense, an inevitable one—insofar as we continue to be a society that values, at least theoretically, free speech and the free and wide transmission of information (and it is entirely possible that we can move in the other direction). The shift is an inevitable one in a postmodern age, in which the ground rules of communication, affiliation, bringing people to the table, have shifted radically due to new technologies.

We liberals of the baby-boom generation have, in key respects, simply been caught off-guard by the development of the internet. While we have remained stuck in the modern moment, using new technologies to extend our buying power, our illusion that we can remain young and powerful up to the very end, our lust for new experiences and new things, many of those in the next generations have begun to realize the power the internet offers postmodern global culture for radically inclusive participatory democracy.

And as we boomers continue playing, the next generation has been hard at work building—building towards postmodernity. This is their moment. We need to give them a chance. (For further information on doing so, see Micah Sifry, “Obama’s Organization and the Future of American Politics,” www.huffingtonpost.com/micah-sifry/obamas-organization-and-t_b_105958.html; and Courtney E. Martin, “Fanning the Flames of Youth Civic Engagement,” www.alternet.org/story/87026/).


colkoch said...

Bill, I agree with your analysis about the younger generations, and I've noticed one other trait about a lot of the tech savvy millenialist. They don't seem to take no answer for an answer, and I mean this literally. I've had many conversations with twenty somethings when their cell phones will ring, and they will choose to ignore the ring in favor of the immediate conversation, but then you will hear the text message beep and that they will not ignore. They will pause, respond, and take up the immediate conversation as if nothing had happened. It's a different kind of polite recognition that says, look I hear you knockin but you can't come in right now. I will let you in though, just be patient.

Our generation is much more apt to take the original 'no' for an anwer, and not bother to try the different way in. I think the millenials have quite abit to teach us about communication in the new world, and 'no' isn't one of the answers they will accept---not if they can find another way in.

William D. Lindsey said...

Great point, Colleen. I've noticed that pragmatic adaptive tendency of the millennials, too. When things don't work, they're inclined to find a way to make them work--and to use new technologies to make this happen.

Interesting enough, just before I saw your comment, I had noticed a discussion on John Aravosis's "America Blog" about how a number of senior senators are apparently violating campaign law by using on their campaign websites official (taxpayer-bought) pictures of themselves from their D.C. websites.

John Aravosis says re: this, "You know, it could be that these Senators don't really get the internets with all its tubes."

Well-stated, don't you think? One of the reasons the "internets" and their tubes are so frightening to many power centers trying to maintain control today is how quickly those tubes send out information that the power centers just don't want transmitted. At its best, that can make for a better world, with a truly informed citizenry.