If forced to pick only one thing, the worst part of the explosive growth of right-wing talk radio since the 1980s is the way that it makes listeners (and now viewers and blog readers) feel like they are somewhere between moderately and well informed. Glenn Beck's schtick revolves around a constant barrage of "facts" that make the viewers feel like they are learning something. Limbaugh has been successful with this tactic as well. The hosts inundate the airwaves with what seem to be facts: out-of-context, cherry picked Founders' quotes, misrepresented statistics, assertions based on no or flimsy supporting evidence, and molehills turned into mountains. The end result is that talking to the average conservative is less like being pedantically lectured by Buckley or George Will and more like being blasted with a wave of hysteria-of-the-day catchphrases and talking points of which the speaker has no substantive understanding (Card check! George Soros! Van Jones! 10th Amendment! Death panels! Caliphate! FHA loans! ACORN!)

I can respect people who have ridiculous ideologies as long as he or she understands it. Believe it or not I count among my friends hardcore libertarians, young Earth creationists, tinfoil hat/HAARP Mind Control types, anarchists, Stalinists, and even a few vegans. It is not difficult to form a relationship of mutual respect with someone who has arrived at a belief system, even a silly one, after some careful thought. I would much rather listen to Jonah Goldberg – a tool, but one who has a half-decent understanding of the ideology and viewpoint he is supposed to represent – than some guy yelling a bunch of phrases he heard on Beck last night.

The biggest single source of annoyance is Beck's obsession with George Soros for the past year. Teabaggers seem to roam the Earth shouting "George Soros!" at predetermined intervals. Whenever something happens George Soros is responsible. Whenever new facts come to light that debunk some right-wing myth, the information comes from some Soros-funded group that exists to spread disinformation (Note: everything on the internet is funded by George Soros). Media Matters? Soros. NPR? Soros. Al Jazeera? Soros. MSNBC? Soros. Highlights? Soros.

Pretty annoying, right? Well it isn't less ridiculous if we replace "Soros" with "Koch."

Since the widely circulated and well done Koch exposé in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer in August 2010 progressives and liberals have suddenly discovered that the Koches are responsible for most of what ails the United States. This, in my opinion, reflects a lack of real understanding of the role they play in politics. Are they big money donors? Yes. Have they been active in astroturfing and faux-populist groups like FreedomWorks and the tea party? Yes. Are they trying to manipulate politics for their own benefit? Sure are. But there are lots of plutocrats diving headlong into the political process, spending what appears to be an unlimited sum of money to achieve their goals. I don't mean to imply that the Koches shouldn't be criticized or that they are not responsible for extensive shadiness that should be brought into the light. But it appears that the new rhetorical crutch of the lightly informed left winger is to pepper statements with "Koch brothers" and blame all of the world's ills on their devious machinations.

I'd like to say "Come on, we're better than that" but unfortunately this underscores the reality that large numbers of people irrespective of ideology are quite enthusiastic in their political beliefs despite being lightly armed with only whatever bits and pieces of information they heard someone else yelling recently.

34 thoughts on “THE BOOGEYMAN”

  • Inclusion of "even a few vegans" made me snorfle a bit. For full effect you should specify whether they're the PeTA types – I know some people who went vegan for health reasons who really aren't of the libertarian/creationist/mind control crazy caliber and don't really deserve to be lumped in with the people who think this is a good advertising campaign.

  • I dunno, ed. You're an expert in this field, so you're going to be better informed than most, and better able to retain information and articulate detailed arguments.

    I think Joe & Wendy Sixpack finding out that the Tea Party, CATO, etc., etc., are funded by billionaires with a long-term plan to fuck with the democratic process is a Good Thing. It'd be nice if they understood how and why and could articulate such, but c'mon, I think you know that's an unrealistic expection.

  • The one thing that my, based on the readers of this blog, less than stellar education taught me is that I know almost nothing. By showing me the wider world and just how much information there is to process, understand and master, I am still in awe of those who have knowledge that I will never obtain.

    The trait that most progressives share is the knowledge that they don't know everything and that they never will. To be sure, what they do know is deeply held and generally backed up with sound research. On the right, however, gut feelings and thoughts of superiority based on nothing more than a very surface level view are more than enough to follow up on a vicious attack.

    Unfortunately, it's a whole hell of a lot simpler to be conservative where fancy book larnin' and nuanced thought are for sissies or commies.

  • That's right. ACORN is still on that list. Even though they disbanded a year or so ago.

    I agree with you that the left has been harping on the Kochs a lot recently. There are certainly others who do a similar thing and aren't being yelled about so much, but part of that (recently) is the faux Koch call to Scott Walker. It's more that the Kochs are an archetypal example of this sort of plutocrat with more money than sense. Limited attention spans, for better or worse, mean that the large media groups tend to pick a name and roll with it. It's really more that these guys are a vigorous example of what's wrong, more than that they're directly responsible for all of it.

  • It's not just the Kochs. It's also the Scaifes (as in Richard Mellon), the Olins, the Bradleys and the Coors (yes the beer people) to name a few.

    This is nothing new. A lot of this got started after Goldwater lost to LBJ over 40 years ago. That's when they started pumping money into the big think-tanks like Heritage and AEI.

  • It's easy for people to understand "These rich brothers are trying to buy your state to make themselves even richer, and the governor is their stooge." Pisses 'em off, too.

    Sure, it's not the whole story, but it's a good outline. You wouldn't dismiss someone as a creationist if they accepted evolution but didn't understand, say, allopatric speciation.

    One of the things that's hampered leftish causes is the lack of a good, appealing, simple narrative. These two assholes provide one. Don't look that gift horse in the mouth.

  • mother earth says:

    As long as I'm going to be all paranoid and Glenn Beck like, is it pronounced Coke or cock??? I sorta like calling them the cock bros.

  • @Mother Earth: Koch as in "addicts."

    And while I agree with larger claim that the Koch brothers themselves aren't all that unique in the current political landscape, I think Jude's got it right too. This is the first time in my lifetime that people are beginning to realize that the rich and famous whose names we know are in service to a richer and unheard of whose names we don't. Bill Gates and Donald Trump aren't the top of the mountain.

    It's also slow going to pound that narrative; remember, it took the GOP 40 years to really establish their frame–they won some elections and did some damage along the way, but the coup wasn't really complete until recently.

  • There are growing movements to boycott the products the Kochs produce. Will that hurt innocent workers at those paper towel factories and gas stations? Yes, but "So be it" as someone once famously said about the possibility that various political policies might get implemented and cost about 800,000 jobs.

    Yeah, everyone knows it won't work. But it could get some people to become aware that the stuff they use to wipe their asses might just bite them there as well. WalMart and Merrill Lynch and Bank of America have done far more damage to people's lives, but a little selective awareness never hurts. As Jude said above, they provide a helpful narrative for the screwing of American workers.

    Jon Stewart can put it on the chalkboard, since that's how comedians work nowadays. He can draw lines to Donald Trump's hair, the wavelengths of the magic sparkly starbursts that emanate from Sarah Palin, and Chevron stations and their paper towel dispensers. Somehow it will all spell KOCHADDICT$, which will be dutifully circled as well as underlined. Then there will be tears. Oh, and buy gold.

    If you don't get your gold now, you might have to buy it at the height of its inflated market!

  • I'd like to echo what has already been said above with regard to boiling complicated issues down to simple soundbites, and add that there are too many people out there who don't have the time, the attention spans, or the ability to follow complicated issues like this (and it doesn't help that we have a media which ignores or buries these stories in order to bring us earth-shattering news like Charlie Sheen's latest meltdown). You've pointed out previously that there is a significant minority of people (15%, wasn't it?) who are functionally illiterate. As in, they don't read at all, beyond basic road signs, never mind full-length treatises which trace the connections between seemingly disparate events like Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 and Walker's current attempt to bust the unions now (and I think they've actually succeeded in this in Ohio, haven't they? Haven't seen much about it in the news, I wonder why that is?). The overall national average for reading an actual book is one or two books *per year*, and even more educated people are not exempt. I took a speech class last semester and we had a substitute professor one day who also taught speech, who copped to not reading actual books–said he reads articles in journals, magazines and newspapers but doesn't make the investment in reading actual full-length books. And this is somebody who *teaches* in a *communications* field! At any rate, these people, the functionally illiterate and the less-educated, have benefited the most from liberal and progressive ideas in the last 150 years and have the most to lose if the neocon movement succeeds, and it's important to reach them any way we can.

  • The unexamined argument is not worth defending. I think of myself as a Leftie in part because I don't want to decide much for anyone else, just as I don't want someone else to decide for me (this used to be called Libertarianism until the anti-gay/anti-choice crowd took over their show.) There have always been Koch types and John Birchers, but in happy times, they are dismissed as extremist nuts. The public mania to follow these extremes always booms as confidence drops — that's why they're called "con(fidence) men." When the going gets rough, the weak-minded turn into Captain Queeg — or follow him.

    What I don't understand is that their most ardent supporters have the most to lose by their philosophy. One girl I know is a newly-rabid Beck maniac who thinks that she is standing on her principles by defending the Koch brothers and their ilk, even though she is on Welfare. But she craves independence and empowerment, so she admires these independent, powerful men. Not enough to cancel her benefits — only enough to vote for those who will do it for her.

  • Goofus and Gallant are actually sponsored by Soros and Koch.

    [I'm surprised, actually, how effectively rwr associates all sorts of bad things with Soros. Because, honestly, the "we're being controlled/oppressed by the man" branch of paranoia was, I thought, more attractive to liberals. I wonder if the left will now, or has already started the ad hominem rebranding attack of the right. I mean, I think of that as a right-wing standard…]

  • Name Withheld Out Of Shame says:

    Ed, if all you tell us is that you have some sense that it appears that some people are saying "Koch Brothers" in contexts that are somehow inappropriate or to a degree that is somehow exaggerated… sorry, but I'm not quite ready yet to View With Alarm.

  • The outpouring of shadenfreude against the Koch brothers has a lot to do with spending two years getting pounded with the idea that the Teabaggers were some sort of populist uprising. But it's getting a tad Beckian, so thanks for the reality check. If we're going to use rhetorical weapons from the Ailes collection, we should at least acknowledge what we're doing.

  • Politics has become part of the entertainment industry, so it requires broad, simple themes in order to resonate with as wide an audience possible. Many of the people who are

  • Looks like my comment got cut off, and the internet desperately needs my opinion, so I'll try again.

    Politics has become part of the entertainment industry, so it requires broad, simple themes in order to resonate with as wide an audience possible. Many of the people who are “into politics” these days are really just into the name calling, demonizing, and self-praise that makes up the bulk of talk radio, TV punditry, and blogs. These are people who couldn’t care less about actual public policy but have been tricked into thinking that the exact location and orientation of the flag pin on Harry Reid’s lapel is a political issue, and thus something that they not only can, but should care deeply about. And everyone is left much less informed as a result.

    Same thing happened with the Kochs. Made for a good soap opera storyline so it got pushed by the media, and people who are “into politics” took it from there. Now we’ve got crazy, sexy, exciting conspiracy theories about how Walker is going to hand over all of the state’s power plants and we’ll never be able to afford electricity again!

  • Wow, this really is something. Not three days after posting an essay that generalizes and condemns an entire region of the country, here comes an essay asking us NOT to be so hasty to generalize and condemn.

    Pick a side, my friend, we're at war.

  • The Man, The Myth says:

    To me its nice to have a bad guy we can denounce in one sentence like the Limbaughs and Becks have been doing effectively for years… sometimes we must play in the mud.

  • Well, uh I was watching (FOX LIES! FOX LIES! FOX LIES!) Glenn the other day and he brought up (FOX LIES! FOX LIES! FOX LIES!) a subject and said (FOX LIES! FOX LIES! FOX LIES!) that maybe I should do my own research and see if (FOX LIES! FOX LIES! FOX LIES!) Mr. Van Jones actually started the violent commie (FOX LIES! FOX LIES! FOX LIES!) organization called STORM.

    Koch is a German name that many Americans pronounce – Kotch or Coke, I have heard Koches use both.

    The default is that the owner of name is the authority on its pronunciation.

    For instance, in Georgia we have a county – Taliaferro – pronounced 'Toliver" rhymes with Oliver.


  • @ Jon
    Better than boycott Koch Industries, organize their workers!! A union workforce would just make these guys' heads spin.

    Ed: I get the column, and agree with your point intellectually, but sometimes you just gotta beat up on a bogeyman and two guys that remind everyone of Randolph and Mortimer Duke is just waaaaaaaay too easy!!!!

  • johnsmith1882 says:

    My personal favorite is Alinsky. Never heard of the man until a right-winger on another blog pounded away at it, using his name as a verb, Alinsky-ed, because all of us lefties have memorized whatever book he wrote in the 60's and have his poster hanging over our beds.

    In regards to your main point, I just want to point out that this misinformed or underinformed 40% of the country that is "the middle" or "moderate", in between the 30% die-hards on the left and right, are who decide election after election. So, if the Koch brothers are enough to tilt them towards the left, to vote Democrat rather than Republican, that's good enough, I say. There are plenty of people who don't follow politics, and vote anyway, with their little scrap of information determining who they pull the lever for. Why not let the scrap of information benefit the left? Besides, the Koch brothers are for real, not a made-up bogeyman like Acorn or Death Panels. So, I can see your point, but I sniff a faint whiff of false equivalence.

  • CaptBackslap says:

    I agree with your general point, Ed, but I think it's fair to point out that most anti-Koch liberal commentators don't have a long history of saying things that walk right up to the edge of positing a vast Teutonic conspiracy.

  • It's easier to focus on an enemy with a face than one without. The corporate execs who got bonuses of the financial sector bailout? Faceless. The guy at the head of BP? Resigned tout suite, and the corporation became faceless again. Michael Moore's comment over the weekend that "the rich have finally overreached" (paraphrased from memory)? Maybe. Or maybe it's just that this time we have a pair of faces to associate with the greed and carnage and that matters. The bad guys need to be named to be shamed.

  • It's actually worse than that.

    A recent study in the journal Political Behaviour provides some fascinating – and worrisome – insights into how people treat facts that challenge erroneous beliefs.

    Titled “When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions” [1] it clearly demonstrates the fact that people will cling desperately to a misconception despite overwhelming evidence that contradicts that belief. As the abstract notes:

    “…An extensive literature addresses citizen ignorance, but very little research focuses on misperceptions. Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

    Source: "When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions," Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, Political Behaviour, 30 March 2010.

  • I don't think the Soros/Koch comparison is entirely valid. The right has invented an entire nefarious history for Soros to make him out as the ultimate inhuman monster. It is, for example, an article of faith on the right that George Soros only survived the holocaust by turning over other Jews to the Nazis. They create these elaborate conspiracy theories connecting Soros to everything, because there's no evidence he's actually funding any of them.* The left has done neither. The Kochs ARE funding the things the left says; that those things have that much influence is debatable, but not whether or not the Kochs have been funding them. There's a subtle difference there.

    *Soros did give starting cash to MMFA and a couple other "left-wing" causes, but he has not been a leading funder of the left. The amounts in question are minimal compared too other political donators.

  • That's a good point, Geeno. And not only have Beck and company created a whole elaborate conspiracy surrounding Soros's supposed machinations, many of the causes that he HAS supported are things you'd think conservatives would support. I remember the rant Beck went on when he was trying to tie Soros to all of these foreign revolutions. He listed all these revolutions that Soros supported, but they were all anti-communist or anti-authoritarian revolutions. I remember watching that and thinking, wow, Glen Beck genuinely has no fucking idea what the Velvet Revolution was, does he?

  • What Geeno said. False equivalency alert.

    Jonah Goldberg is just Glenn Beck for a slightly better-educated demographic. Their messages are virtually identical.

  • Shelton Blake says:

    If I may, a few more facts for your consideration:

    1) Saul Alinsky

    2) Journ-o-lists

    3) the myth of global warming

Comments are closed.