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The Phantom of a Grassroots Revolt, and the Media's Responsibility

P.M. Carpenter

Two brief passages in Adam Nagourney's above-the-fold "Political Memo" this morning stand as a salute -- or surrender? -- to the well-nigh comical perniciousness of modern American politics.

The far right, observed Nagourney from the vantage point of Friday's "Values Voters Summit" in Washington, is officially leaderless, idealess, and, let's face it, downright clueless as to how to cure its idealessness; it has suffered a "string of electoral defeats"; its base is much smaller and now so superannuated it's approaching the point of extinction -- yet, merely by making a public jackass of itself, toting Obama-Hitler signs and shouting down lawmakers, this "formerly dispirited base of the Republican Party" now possesses "new hope ... that it can still command public attention and influence policy in Washington."

Because it does command public attention. There is no subjunctive here, where there should be. This is not a matter of ill-tempered toddlers merely trying to gain the attention of adults and thereby shortcircuit the well-behaved product of responsible parenting. No, the right has their attention. The adults, the grownups, the parents, are all ears.

In fact give us more, they say in response to the right's political infantilism, and we'll feature it on the nightly news, we'll plaster it all over primetime cable, we'll fill our newspapers and overload the Internet with your shrill crap.

And when we weary of it and begin to ignore it, it'll be your job, ye cranky children of the far right, to escalate -- to conjure something even more outrageous, more contemptible, more unworthy of any democratic discourse whatsoever. Then we'll be all ears again.

And so the ever-intensifying cycles of civic degradation proceed.

Never mind that the actual population of the pre-adolescent rabble is so miniscule as to be nearly incalculable. When only about 60,000 boneheads turn out for a Million-Moron March in Washington, D.C. -- the wickedest epicenter of all left-wing unholiness -- at the frenzied urging of right-wing talksters with audiences reportedly in the devoted gazillions, then you know there's something amiss.

What we're hearing is the deafening sizzle of a steak the size of a poker chip. There is no real there, there, although what little is there looms in the media as a monstrously sized monolith of extreme discontent, which is growing, daily, even monstrously larger.

What's the evidence for this? Why, public opinion polls, of course -- which just as naturally only reflect what the media are covering. If the media report there's a groundswell of heated opposition to Obama out there, then Americans' famous herd mentality kicks in, and chimes in. They wouldn't want to be left out from what's popular. A year ago, and this held true even among many conservatives, it was popular to be pro-Obama; now it's popular to hang one's head in shame and mumble, Never again, it was all a hoax. (And make no mistake: the same herd mentality exists among a frightful percentage of the left.)

The conspicuous result has been that although Obama's job approval rating clings to about the 50 percent mark, it has taken a rather time-compressed nosedive. But one must work backward, through the media's mythomania, to understand the Why of it all: To date, Obama has merely done what he promised to do, yet huge swaths of the electorate have lost sight of that, mostly because the media have converted infinitesimally small gatherings of heated opposition -- chanting inanities such as "government takeovers" and "socialism" and "Hitlerism" -- into a noteworthy "movement."

Look, like most politics, this ain't rocket science. It's pretty simple. The far right -- especially given the concentrically strangulating demographics of the matter -- has evanesced largely into a phantom. Oh, it's there, of course, but not significantly more present, statistically speaking, than the far left. Yet the far right's voice has become exponentially outsized, thanks to -- you got it -- the media.

In relation to all this it was with trepidation that I read the other day, in the Washington Post, that "White House officials are engaged in an internal debate over how hard to hit back, even as they have grown increasingly aggressive in countering allegations [from the far right] they deem to be absurd." The cause of my trepidation wasn't their "internal debate," but that "increasingly aggressive" part, which seemed to signal that the White House would soon be wallowing in the mud with the detestable Glenn Becks of our dubious political culture.

And that, I'm afraid, would only lend more credibility not so much to the incredibly contemptible Glenn Becks of this nation, but to the media's obsessive coverage of them. The White House would be putting itself on a playing field with politically motivated borderline psychotics -- and now that's a real story of High Distraction.

Think what you like about MSNBC's Pat Buchanan and his rather curious historical interpretations, but also give the man credit for knowing how to street-fight, which is why Dick Nixon kept him so closely around. But Buchanan was a student, too, and perhaps the keenest lesson he absorbed, and has repeated numerous times since, from our 37th president was, "Don't ever fight down." It weakens one's superior stance.

Accordingly, if White House officials really want a war, I'd suggest they pick on an approximate equal: the Fourth Estate. True, Obama & Co. has made occasional references to its "big circuses," but there's been no organized resistance to, or hectoring of, the media's rather mindless and unmistakably irresponsible false sensationalism -- its blowing out of all proportion the actual potency of the far right, not to mention its casual conveyance of the far right's inane messages.

Remember, however much the electorate loves to consume the Fourth Estate's fantasies, it despises journalists almost as much as it despises politicians. So the White House would gain a natural ally in any war against the reckless media.

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P.M. Carpenter's columns appear regularly on Carpenter holds a PhD in American political history from the University of Illinois.

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