Not long ago, the hard left website Democrat Underground cracked down on dissent and criticism of President Obama. The moderators of the forum established a long set of rules, trying to control the message to avoid causing harm to what they called the “progressive cause.” Generally speaking, the left is better at this kind of thing than the right. Privately they might squabble and disagree – and these disagreements show up more readily on the internet than they ever used to – but publicly the left is united and on message.
This topic came up on the Rush Limbaugh Show on Open Line Friday, with a caller asking “Why aren't the right commentators all on the same page?”
The caller was correct the right is more fractious. Consider the Iraq war: some major right-leaning pundits were opposed to it entirely, some were completely behind the idea, some supported the troops but thought it was a mistake, and as the war and rebuilding process went on, the divisions became even more pronounced.
At the present time, voices are still divided. Prominent conservative pundit Ann Coulter recently wrote a column criticizing the Afghanistan war, many reluctantly supported the TARP bailout (although most later recanted that), and some calling themselves conservatives were Obama supporters in the 2008 election.
Rush was hesitant to answer the question, concerned he might upset other right-leaning commentators on television and radio talk shows, but he finally gave this response:
If I were to tell you what the answer is, it would totally make sense, and it doesn't denigrate anybody. It wouldn't alienate anybody. It's a testament to the fact that we on the right are not a bunch of mind-numbed robots. Look, if you were in the Senate and Ted Kennedy was in the Senate, and he was the lion of the Senate, you would realize there's only one, so you would try to find your own niche in the Senate to stand out as doing something different or unique. That's as close as I'm going to get. If Mr. Conservative is locked up, what are you going to do? Maybe go for Mr. Moderate, maybe go for Mr. Centrist, maybe go for Mr. Professor, Mr. Whatever. It's not a talent thing. It's a business decision that they are all making, and I don't blame 'em. I mean it's smart business and it's competitive juices being used properly.
Essentially he's saying they say what they have to in order to keep a job. For some I think that's absolutely true: David Brooks, for example, working for the New York Times as the in-house “conservative” columnist. Others try to find a distinctive voice by varying from the basic right-wing line on some issues out of either personal belief or recognition of a market for the idea.
There is another force at work, though.
The American left tends to offer a united public face out of a deliberate, concerted effort to sway the public. Every week, the Obama administration meets with groups such as MoveOn and Center for American Progress to control the message. When a Democrat is caught in a scandal, the left closes ranks around him/her and spin down the damage. Few if any call for punishment, let alone resignation, and all find various reasons why what they did was no particular cause for alarm.
Part of the reason this message discipline works is that the left has willing help from like-minded people in the legacy media. The press will assist the Democratic Party and the political left in burying or minimizing events and scandals that harm their cause. This makes message discipline much easier, since the people getting the message out tend to be working with the people who want it controlled.
The left is also more united in public because they are more concerned about results than truth. You can say one thing and do or believe another, as long as you promote the overall progressive cause so standing up by your leftist pal and repeating the party line is encouraged regardless of what you personally think. Saul Alinsky's influential tome Rules for Radicals is full of this sort of approach, where the truth and what you really believe is secondary to influencing the public and changing society. What matters is what you accomplish it, not how you do so – just ask unrepentant terrorist and bomb maker Bill Ayers.
Conservatives on the other hand, tend to be significantly less talking point and shared-message controlled. The focus for a conservative tends not to be the goal but the principles behind that goal. For example, people generally believe conservatism is all about small government. Conservatives aren’t fond of little things, we want small government because the present size is unconstitutionally broad and reduces liberty. The principle is the rule of law and love of liberty; the result of those principles is a call for smaller government. For the right, truth and principles matter more than results; that’s why Rules for Radicals doesn’t work for the right.
This is why when some event happens, the right tends to have a dozen different interpretations and reactions, and the left tends to have one or two, repeating a few phrases. And really, which should you trust more? When you see one side marching in step with one shouted phrase and the other side discussing, disagreeing, debating, and offering alternatives, the latter just strikes me as more reasonable and trustworthy.