MSNBC Winning Battles, Losing War

Rachel MaddowIt bothers me that supposed liberals don’t see how they assure long term defeat by accepting the conservative framing of issues. The Republicans, by moving very far to the right, still get conservative policies even when Democrats win. The ACA—Obama’s signature healthcare reform—is far more conservative than what we would have gotten from Richard Nixon. Most recently, I’ve noticed this kind of conservative framing on MSNBC.

The best example of this comes from Rachel Maddow. Understand: I really like Maddow. She holds good progressive positions and her circuitous story structures are delightful. But she makes a major mistake when reporting on reproductive rights: she sets the fight over abortion exceptions rather than the rights themselves. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t believe that women ought to have the right to control over their own bodies; I know that she does. But she spends too much time (rightly) ridiculing those who want to force rape victims to carry the resulting pregnancies. And this says to the world: this is the battle line. But it isn’t. And Rachel Maddow knows this.

Another excellent example comes from Lawrence O’Donnell. On his 25 October 2012 show, he did a segment: “CEOs to Congress: OMG, fix the deficit!”[1] In it, he calls for tax increases and spending cuts, as though the spending cuts are a given and ain’t it great that financial types are finally calling for a very slightly less regressive approach to the problem.

I understand that the argument can be made for spending cuts. The problem with O’Donnell’s argument is that he is yielding the liberal ground and fighting the battle entirely on the traditional conservative ground. Up through the 1970s, conservatives supported tax increases and spending cuts to deal with deficits. Now liberals are claiming that if Republicans will act as they did a few decades ago, it is a major victory. It isn’t.

There are lots of very good ways to deal with our debt problem. As Dean Baker writes, if we got our healthcare system to cost as much as Germany (for example), we would have government surpluses as far as the eye can see. I recommend eliminating the Social Security tax cap. There are many other ideas. But we are lost as long as we dance in the streets at the thought of getting the smallest sacrifices from Republicans.

On reproductive rights, the problem is even worse. As much as I hate the “no exception” anti-choice people, at least their beliefs are logically consistent. I’ve written about this before, On Hating Women:

If you deconstruct the rape exception, it comes down to, “If you enjoyed the sex, you have to host that fetus even if it kills you, but if you didn’t enjoy it then we will allow you to avoid your hosting duties.” In this kind of thinking, there is no thought of the fetus as an individual. This is just punitive. Girls that enjoy sex should suffer the consequences! I can’t see this attitude (and it is the most common) as anything other than patriarchal: women must be kept in their places.

So the “rape exception” framing of reproductive rights is even worse than the extremist position. We should make the extremists define their position so that normal people can see what they are really calling for. That is my opinion. What is certain is that if we draw the battle line at exceptions, the best we will ever get are those exceptions. I don’t find that acceptable.

I hope that in the future our liberal friends at MSNBC and elsewhere will think about these issues. Shows such as The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word define liberal opinion as much as they reflect it. This is a war of ideas, and too often liberal commentators seek to win the battle (this election) and lose the war (better policy).


[1] Note the framing in the story headline: the deficit is a problem. But Obama has cut the deficit by a third. Why isn’t the headline “Cut Deficit Faster”? It would appear that not even O’Donnell knows the deficit has been cut, even though he certainly does.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “MSNBC Winning Battles, Losing War

  1. Really excellent analysis on some of the problems in MSNBC’s shows. All too often fundamental principles are abandoned in debates about where to draw the lines on these issues. Instead of affirming the rights of women to be sovereign over their bodies we get bogged down in coverage of under what circumstances a woman is eligible to get an abortion. Instead of taking a position against putting people in prison for personal drug use the focus is on mandatory minimums and the crack/cocaine disparity. While these issues are important, conservatives do seem to be better at shifting the battle lines in their favor so the debate is framed as being between a hard-right and centrist positions. In many respects Fox news is a far better propaganda machine for the right than MSNBC is for the left, even when they come off as completely looney.

  2. @Andy – Thanks! I’ve been wanting to write this for a while.

    In order for the left to counter the right, they would have to get similarly loony. "I thinking women should be able to have abortions beyond birth–up to about 3 years of age." Or, "All children under 16 must sniff glue at least 3 times per week." The truth is that the idea that at conception a citizen is created is no less wacky.

    In Maddow’s defense, she has a keen sense of humor. Like me, she find most things pretty funny. But I know she cares about these things and if someone she read wrote about this, she’d take it to heart.

  3. The problem you ignore is that ideology wise the country ISN’T 50-50, it is more like 35-65 Republican (with the moderates breaking towards the GOP in most cases, the exception being this last election).
    So although the country votes 50-50 it is not a 50-50 nation by ideology. Therefore, the trick is to convince moderates to vote with us so that we have a chance to pass meaningful legislation. I mean look at the problems Obama is having even passing commonsense legislation with a 50%+ popular vote support. No, I agree with Maddow and O’Donnell, better try to do this piecemeal and as the demographic shifts and rigidness of the GOP sets in, our chance will come naturally. No need to rush things at this point.

  4. @Charles – I think you have fallen for a conservative lie. America is [i]not[/i] a center right nation. I’m mostly interested in economic issues and this is where America is most liberal. The point of this article is that MSNBC uses conservative frames for their issues. This is a losing strategy. As I’ve written elsewhere, conservatives have won by pushing the debate into their own territory. If liberals accept the conservative frame, the only possible piecemeal legislation will be heavily biased against liberals.

    Even Republican voters are against cutting Social Security. Why is it that we are likely going to cut the program? It isn’t because the people are conservative. It is because the conservatives have managed to push the field of debate so far to their side that liberals think the only possible policy is conservative policy.

    Finally: we have every reason to rush things. If the Democratic Party stands for nothing those new voters might as well go with the Republicans. At least they can depend upon the Republicans doing something. How long will people continue to vote for Democrats when it means nothing?

    I encourage you to read more of the site here. These are issues I’ve written about in depth. The Democrats cannot stand around waiting for the demographic tide to sweep them into power.

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