Interview with Digby
Glenn Greenwald: I'm excited to welcome to the show today a blogger whom I've been reading religiously way before I even began blogging, and who's the author of some of the best insights about political and media criticism that you'll find anywhere on really a daily basis. And that of course is Digby. Welcome, and thanks for joining me.
Digby: Thanks Glenn, I'm thrilled to be invited.
GG: Thrilled to have you. So I want to start off by talking about something that you've been writing about over the past week, and I've been writing about it as well, and that's what's going on in the political campaign with Obama and McCain, and more specifically what's going on with the media behavior. And one of the interesting observations that you made a day or so ago was that right around this time in 2004, even though a little earlier is when the Bush-Cheney campaign launched the whole Swiftboat smear. This is obviously an important time when the media is starting to look for these kinds of filthy, scurrilous story-lines. So what do you think is, there's really been a change in the campaign narrative and in the McCain strategy. What do you think is been going on the last couple weeks and what's its significance?
D: Well, I think that there's a couple of things. The first is what you say, I think that they've probably been planning some kind of a campaign to raise Obama's negatives during this period. 'Cause it's the dog days of the campaign, we're going into the Olympics, and then the conventions - I think everyone expects Obama to have a good convention, you know, a lot of enthusiasm - so they want to get his negatives up as high as they can and this is the time to really build that because everybody's bored with the campaign at this point. And I'm not, obviously, Obama had a great trip to the Mid East and Europe and maybe they can knock him down quickly after that.
So that's part of it, I mean, I think that's just sort of a routine way that the Republicans have figured out to, you know, dominate the narrative during these presidential summers. But the other thing is, is just how, you know, McCain just hired this guy Steve Schmidt, who you've written about in the past, and so have I, and this really is his specialty. He's the guy who really pushed the narrative on Kerry, about being, you know, he was for it before he was against it flip-flopping. And he apparently created a lot of those themes that came out. So this kind of follows with that sort of thing, and a certain kind of, I don't know, nasty sophomoric quality to the kind of criticisms that you're seeing. This whole Britney Spears business, and, you know, the presumptuousness meme, all this stuff, it's very, it's a very certain, it's a very particular kind of pointed criticism that's aimed at trivializing a candidate as much as criticizing them for their positions or trying to position them in the campaign. This trivialization is very important, and I think particularly important with Obama, because they feel that they've got to something to work with there. The guy has a, you know, he's young, and he is, you know, his campaign is based upon, you know, aspirational kind of, you know,..
GG: That transcendence...
D: Yeah, that isn't really, you know, and, you know, they need to, they want to transform that into inexperience and passivity and shallowness.
GG: Yeah, and vainness, vanity,...
D: Vanity, you know, this is all started with, Maureen Dowd actually pioneered this one with Obama, she called him an anorexic starlet that, you know, chewed Nicorettes for, you know, for sustenance, you know, she's kind of been trying to feminize him for some time. She called him "O'Bamby", you know, for...
GG: For a long time, and yeah and she, for a long time, he was sort of a meek little submissive slave to the, you know, whip-wielding, masculine, emasculating....
GG: So I guess that meme has been, you know, growing in her mind in the sort of bacterial precincts in her mind for a long time and has found now expression more lively.
You know, isn't it really just unbelievable that — and I know this isn't a novel observation, it's been clear for a long time, it's still kind of never ceases to amaze I think — and you look at what our country has become, the extraordinary crises that it faces, the very systemic, you know, corruption and other problems that's plaguing it, and yet in order to talk about the presidential campaign, there's, we basically have to talk about things like "O'Bamby" and is he arrogant, and Britney Spears. I mean, you can't have a discussion about the presidential campaign unless you talk about the pettiest of matters because that's the only things that compose it. Isn't that kind of extraordinary, no matter how often you see?
D: It's really extraordinary this time, and I kind of thought that we managed to, you know, avoid it at least to this degree. I didn't think that it would gain this kind of traction this time. And in many ways, because we have two major things happening: there's a, you know, the war, obviously, which is still a major issue for people, but with the economy, you know, being this turbulent - I honestly didn't think people would put up with it. And, you know, the jury's out, we don't know if people will put up with it; it's possible they're going to reject all this stuff and just go, you're out of your minds, we've got real problems, which may actually grow as we go into the fall, that they may demand a little more seriousness.
But, I didn't expect it to be this bad this time, but it's seems to be that the language of modern politics is these little cultural references, it's as if we're, you know, it's all done in some kind of code, where we're making these momentous decisions about huge global issues, and issues in our own lives when we're talking about these economic issues that are confronting us. And we're doing it in this weird kind of popular culture code that's been developed. And not by the Democrats, this is really been a Republican project. And what it does is it dumbs down politics, trivializes it, and it allows them to sort of create these narratives that put the progressive and liberal candidates into these little stereotypes and archetypal boxes that really limit their ability to talk seriously about things. It's very clever, because the archetype plays to their strengths, you know, big tough guys — well, you wrote a whole book about it.
GG: Right. Well, let me ask you about that, you know, not about my book, but about that last point that you made, about the way in which the predominance of these petty personality themes drowns out any discussion of the issues, which obviously is a significant part of the point. I mean, the Republicans know this year, not just this year, every year really, but particularly this year, that if there were any kind of, you know, just objective examination of the issues, that's what would determine the outcome of the election, that they would have even less chance that they have now. I mean, McCain is inextricably tied to a whole litany of policies that the American public hates, and if you're, you know, McCain's handlers and running his campaign, it's perfectly rational that you would want the election decided on every ground other than substantive issues.
But I wonder, one of the points that a lot of people are making during the primary contest, was that one of the reasons why it became so nasty and so personal was because there were very few differences of any meaningful type between the candidates. I mean, when it was Hillary and Obama and Edwards, they were far more alike than different. And so you almost couldn't have a contest based on policy disputes because there weren't very many policy disputes between them. Is that the same in terms of Obama and McCain? In other words, if it weren't for the fact that Republicans were so adept at, you know, flooding the discourse of these themes, and if it weren't for the fact that the media ate them up because it's, you know, they're softballing, and it's easy to report, would we be having the kind of substantive debates that the country ought to be having, given where the candidates have positioned themselves?
D: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean first of all I would go back just to, you know, your original premise about the primaries. I think that it's true that the reason that things got so nasty was because there weren't a lot of differences, but I don't think that's the whole story. I think the story there was that people, because there weren't a lot of differences, people made the choices between the two candidates based on some very emotional and passionate personal identification. And I think that it was mostly in the affirmative, I think a lot of people, the people chose those two candidates originally — I'm talking about the two, Edwards, you know, kind of, he scrambled the deck a little bit, but he got out early and the rest of it really devolved into nastiness after he left the race. And so I think that they chose those candidates originally on a sense of personal identification, aspiration for, you know, women or African-Americans or whatever it was, you know, youth versus experience, you know, whatever. And so, when that happens, people get personally invested on a level that they don't in a normal political campaign where you don't have, you know, you don't look at the candidate with a sense of, he's me. So I think that was part of what fueled that, and so, I think that's distinct from what we're seeing with McCain and Obama.
You know, I, clearly I think both of them are trying to blur the issues, you know, they're, they both made some, you know, tacks to the middle, McCain less than I expected, because I thought that was his great strength, he'd be running from the Republican brand as far as he could, and his 'maverick-ness' would be the, you know, selling point — he was the guy who fought Bush, right? He's the one Republican in the country who can say that he wasn't Bush's toady for the last eight years. I thought that was his great strength, and he's been doing a lot less of that than I expected, although that may be what they roll out in the fall, because he hasn't secured his base yet. But the nastiness, I think, that's just Republican Playbook 101. I mean I think that's just what they go for — they want to diminish and trivialize the Democratic candidate. They've been doing this since Clinton, but really it was Gore, that campaign in 2000 that really crystallized this for them.
GG: Right. Well, you know, one of the enduring questions is why the press behaves in the way that they do, and it's not something you can answer with easily packaged answers or unifying theories because there's, the press is not any more monolithic than any other large collection of, you know, institutions and people with all kinds of competing motives. But what I do think is sort of distinct about the race this time, and I think it's why a lot of Democrats deluded themselves into believing that things would be different this time around, that things would be better this time around, is because the press clearly doesn't have the level of personal animosity that they have for Obama that they had for, say, John Kerry or Al Gore. Obama's a little savvier, he's kind of cooler, there's the drama that appeals to a lot of people in the media about first African-American president potentially. He's a little more personally engaging and charming. They tend to be finger in the air kind of people and so the fact that the Republicans are hated has taken the sheen off of a lot of the Republican appeal for a lot of people in the media. They're clearly more favorably inclined toward Obama as a candidate than they have been for any other Democratic candidate for quite some time. Certainly way more than, you go back in time to Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis, or anyone like that. And yet, the behavior in which they're currently engaged, you know, the constant repetition of these petty, stupid right-wing personality demonization attacks, is exactly the same. What do you think explains that?
D: Well, I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between the press and the right wing. The right wing doesn't care if the press likes their person or not. They see them as a useful tool, and so if the press likes them, like, you know, they like George Bush — terrific, great they can work with that, you know. If they're willing to carry every nasty little, you know, faux mot that they come up with research about Al Gore, they're happy with that. But they don't need it. They use the press to disseminate fear. And it doesn't matter if they're doing it, you know, in a positive way, and saying look at Al Gore, what an idiot he is, or if they're doing it in a negative way, as they're doing now with Obama in which they're refuting the smear, and at the same time they're putting the smear up in these big quotes on the screen that sit there for 10 minutes.
I just wrote about this a few minutes ago. I watched Andrea Mitchell actually get into it with Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, over this latest Britney Spears thing, right, and the press really seems to be angry about this, upset that McCain has gone so negative, but she's talking over Rick Davis who's going on a mile a minute and they're blah-blah-blah, she's saying, well, it's not right, and, you know, McCain's being negative and he promised he wouldn't and blah, blah, blah. But the whole time, the smear quote is up on the TV screen, and that's all you see, that's all you do, and that's all they want. They don't care that the press doesn't like them.
In fact, it works to their favor in this election, because they want to promote the idea that the liberal media is supporting Obama because the truth is that the media has been in the tank for McCain for years, and they want to get rid of that idea. Republicans need to run against the media; it doesn't do them well to be seen as friendly.
So, you know, the basic problem here isn't that the press is too friendly to Republicans or that they tend to, you know, beat into Democrats. The problem is is that they are not serious and they don't take their jobs seriously, and what they do is they say, are willing to spend their time, as you say, on this trivial stuff, and are willing to be used by the right wing to disseminate this stuff on whatever basis the right wing wants to do it, and that's how the campaigns end up becoming these shallow exercises in character study, which is become a stand-in for, you know, a discussion of the issues or, you know, even a discussion of what the public interest or what the voters' interest or anything else might be. And you end up with, you know, well, he's the guy you want to have a beer with or he's the tough guy who'll defeat the terrorists or whatever, you know, the rest of this is.
GG: Yeah, or he's the arrogant one, or he's the one, you know, whose values are an anathema to the....
D: He's the foreigner, he's the Muslim, he's the weirdo, we don't know who this guy is. He's big city, black guy, he's a, you know, guy from Hawaii. And Obama, being this sort of, I mean he's really a very modern fellow, coming from - and it has to do with his age, I think, most people under the age of 50 are much more, you know, there's a much more varied kind of family, racial make-up, you know, a lot more mobility...
GG: Yeah, backgrounds are more diverse...
D: People lived in different countries, I mean, you know, it's not that unusual, but it is unusual for a President. He's the youngest guy who's ever run, you know, I mean, he's the, born the most recently of anybody that's running for President. So this kind of stuff is coming up, the first in that line are always a big deal, so the right is exploiting that and exploiting fears, and racism and, you know, I mean, it's clear that that's going to be another subtext. They can't really come out with it full board but that's the probably the way McCain's going to solidify his base...
GG: So I guess the question is, I mean, clearly, you know — and you're absolutely right, the cultural appeals are how the Republicans will easily solidify their base regardless of whether McCain embraces every last one of their orthodoxies. But I guess one, you know, of the things Obama campaign has obviously concluded, at least as of now, is that responding in kind, you know, engaging in these same kind of personality assaults, either through surrogates or 527's or whoever, on McCain, is something that's not in their interests, or they're just not doing it for whatever reason. Is that something that you think is smart?
I mean, I think their expectation is, and I think Obama's expectation in the beginning is that the political climate in the country is different than it was in the past. It's different because it's dominated by a different generational sentiment for the reasons that you just described. It's different because the voting, the voter make-up is different and most importantly of all it's different because people are so — this sense of dissatisfaction is so acute, that the kinds of petty appeals that have worked in the past aren't going to work now they're banking on the fact that, you know, with big stream economics security, insecurity, and the low esteem in which all political and media institutions are held, that, you know, chattering about Britney Spears and lapel pins isn't going to have any resonance; it's going actually do the opposite, it's going to reflect poorly on the people who do those things. Do you agree with that strategy? Do you think that they need to be more aggressive, is, are they overestimating the extent to which things are different this time?
D: Well, you know, the funny thing is about that, I don't necessarily disagree with that. I mean, you know, it's fair enough to say that the Republicans' project is, you know, at least it's reached its peak some time back, let's put it that way. They definitely are in trouble. The Republican brand is being rejected, you know, nobody's really happy with Republicanism. But this doesn't mean that these attacks won't work. People kind of, you know, people make a lot of heuristic decisions in politics, maybe more than anything else. It's less cerebral than people think it is. It's, you know, based on certain, you know, instincts and, kind of, exposure over the course of your life to certain leadership models and, you know, the Republicans are really good at exploiting that stuff.
So, I don't think there's any guarantee. I thought up until very recently that there was absolutely no way the Democrats could lose this election, but because the economy doesn't seem to be, grabbing, as an issue, the way that I thought it would, at least so far — it seems to have been sort of derailed into, let's drill for, let's start off-shore drilling, and some other sort of arcane weird stuff rather than bread and butter issues. I'm a little less convinced than I was. I still think they're going to win. But, what I've been slightly disappointed with in the Obama campaign was obviously their field operation is reputed to be, you know, magnificent and really modern and they're going to have a get out and vote operation that will surpass anything that the Republicans did in the last election cycle, and that's really good news.
But on the messaging front, I'm kind of, I'm surprised they haven't been more creative. I don't think you have to go after McCain on these cultural issues, like, the story, maybe we should go after him because he's old, and why not, because they're taking on Obama, you know, because he's young, so why shouldn't they go after McCain because he's old?
I don't think they need to do that but they're, you know – McCain's corrupt. I mean, he really is. And he's not just corrupt, he's a man who is corrupt and has built his entire reputation on the idea of his moral rectitude. And, you know, I don't see why there hasn't been some strong pushback on that. His campaign's riddled with lobbyists, you know, you don't have to respond with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, but there's more...
D: ...you can't hit him hard on his own real vulnerabilities. And, you know, and so it just seems to me, there's a — I think the most disappointing thing to me in the Obama campaign seems to be the messaging side of it, it's just, that they're less creative than I expected them to be.
I thought they were going to come at this from a completely new angle, use different issues as sort of, you know, the kind of sweet spots where you can cross the partisan boundary lines. I mean, things, you know obviously things like Global Warming, that's a youth issue, it's one that's definitely, seems to be crossing into the evangelical groups. I mean, there's some things that you can use out there, some issues that aren't just traditional culture wars nonsense that, I think people are tired of that. And yet I'm not seeing the campaigning breaking away from that. Again, it's early; the fall campaigns could look completely different, this is a really weird time. But it seems to me this is a good time to kind of be hitting at McCain on some of this stuff and really trying to, you know, erase this nearly unassailable view of him as being a great man of honor and integrity. I mean there's really nothing except his POW experience — that's the only thing he has.
GG: Right, forty years ago, and it's all been straight downhill from...
D: Yeah, he's been...
GG: ...that point.
D: ...this opportunistic crook ever since then, basically and, you know, yet, you know, and that has protected him and of course, you know, the media's been in love with that whole thing. And, you know, it is a compelling story, I mean, you can't deny it. But it doesn't excuse everything he's done since, I mean, you know, nobody should be able to run on that forever. But yet he does, and there are ways to attack him I think, without getting petty about it, if that's what the Obama campaign is afraid of.
GG: Right. Now, one of the things I want to ask you, and we're running out of time, but I do want to touch on this a little bit, is, you were, you know, around in the blogosphere in, very active first as a commenter for, you know, at Atrios's blog, and then your own blog, you know, leading into and part of the 2004 election, whereas I was just kind of a distant observer then, not paying all that close attention to what blogs you were doing as part of the election.
But I have paid a lot closer attention this time around for obvious reasons, and what's surprised me a little bit, during the primary, was that - you know, for me the value of blogs is when blogs fill the roles are being unfulfilled by the establishment political media institutions. The more, the greater the uniqueness is of what we do, the greater the impact is. The more we sort of replicate what the political, the already existing political and media institutions are already doing, the less of an impact we'll have.
And I felt like during the primary season, the net roots had very little impact on either the media narrative or the course of political events, because by and large the functions that they performed were just duplicating what, you know, media outlets were already performing, and the political campaigns were already performing: cheering for one candidate, hating another, you know, embracing whatever narratives help their candidate, attacking the ones that undermine their candidate, regardless of whether they were true or false.
Do you think that's true, is that different than what it was like in 2004? And what do you think the role is that bloggers can play, if anything, in terms of having an impact in the general election?
D: Well, I think - I really like your definition of what bloggers should do, sort of filling this unfilled void out there. I think that's something that most bloggers should think about; they should try and put that into practice when they're thinking about what to write about and how to write about it. I mean, at least those who are, you know, sort of seriously committed to being, you know, progressive bloggers.
2004 was a preview of this, and it was, the problem was, that the primary was really truncated. Kerry ran away with it, and, but up to that point, there had been some pretty, it was building into a intra-party spat among what was the net roots then, which was a much smaller community than it is now. and certainly much less, I don't know, institutional in nature. We were, you know, all just hobbyists essentially at that time. But it was a preview, I mean, there was, you know, this Dean, Clark, Kerry, you know, people getting nasty overnight, people turning into complete freaks overnight, you know. Yeah, the same thing.
And I think that in a weird way it set up an expectation among people who didn't have a lot of experience with politics, you know, maybe younger people or people who sort of came into politics later in life. But that's how primaries work. So you had a short little fight for a couple of months before the primary started, and then the primaries would start and it would be over. The idea of long, drawn-out primary was really, you know, completely surprising to a lot of people and angering, like, you're not allowed to do this. The truth is that primaries have often been long, and this one was quite close by historical standards, I mean, it was really was, and there was a lot of passion involved. So, I think that the blogosphere, it was a sign of political immaturity that what happened this time, and I hopefully that experience will lead people to look at it differently. I assume, I'm assuming Obama will win and we won't have to look at this for another eight years but, you know, an open primary is an unusual...
GG: That would actually be the best, come to think of it, that's one of the best reasons to rout for Obama, is so that one doesn't have to be subjected a primary war for another eight years.
D: They're always miserable, Glenn. I mean, I've hated them my whole life, you know - not easy. mean, 1980 was a nightmare. You know, the whole Gary Hart experience, you know, heart-breaking, Jesse Jackson in the 80s, you know, this stuff this not, this intra-party fighting is really one of those things that's most difficult things — you're fighting with your friends, right? I mean this isn't..
GG: Over very little, over very little of real significance.
D: It's rarely over something, you know, major and, you know, and just, it's a family fight and you know how those are — they get really, really vicious, and people know...
D: ...exactly how to, where to stick the knife in to really make it hurt so, you know, it's a dare(?) unpleasant. I don't people really got that. I shouldn't say people - plenty of people did, but there those who didn't. So the blogosphere I think kind of lost its way.
And I think the main way that it lost its way was in failing to, you know, as a progressive movement and as the net roots specifically and this online, you know, group of writers and readers in, you know, trying to use some leverage that we did have in these primaries, to, you know, extract certain promises or loyalty from the candidates. I think we failed to do that and I think it was a missed opportunity, because now we're sort of flailing around, you know. What can we say? We didn't ask anything...
GG: Right, we're captive, you're captive, right.
D: But the other thing is I think we dropped the media critique, and I think that was huge mistake, because, this, I truly believe, and it's not just because, you know, one of my main beats in the blogosphere, I really think it's true, that this critique of the media and the way that they do things, this is at the heart of our problem in American politics today, and we're one of the few, you know, quasi-institutions to take that on, from the outside, and be able to exert some pressure against it. And it's not much, but it's something, and it can have an effect over time. And I think it was a big mistake for bloggers to turn a blind eye to some of the things that happened in the campaign on both candidates.
GG: Or not even to turn a blind eye, but even worse than that, to start embracing terrific media figures who were horrific before and are going to be horrific again, whoever they perceived happened to be helping their particular candidate. I mean, you would see the most lavish praise being heaped on, you know, people on CNN and ABC and MSNBC who are completely integrated in the entire rotting media structure...
GG: ...and part of the problem in every single way, because the had to, whatever they, whatever, you know, gossip they were passing on, or crap were disseminating, and because it was helping one or the other candidate, instead of constantly pushing back against that process and undermining it the way the blogs have been doing, you know, I think fairly successfully over the past four years. They not only turned a blind eye to it, they started openly embracing it, you know, this reporter is brilliant, and thank God for this station, they're the only ones who are speaking the truth. You know, Fox News or MSNBC or whatever it was, you know, suddenly bloggers became, you know, and the Politico became not only the most cited source, but some of the time the most approved source.
D: Oh, absolutely.
GG: Yeah, or even Drudge. So the complete reversal I thought was a little alarming, and I think you're right, I think that it's a by-product of that temporary situation. One wonders whether it will really be long lasting or if bloggers can sort of revert back to what they had doing before that, that was having, you know, a least relatively speaking, the greatest impact.
D: Yeah, well, I mean, I think I already see, you know, people - you know, there's a definite sense of people coming back down to Earth a little bit. And, you know, nothing that you and I have discussed before together, you know, nothing radicalizes you more than the right wing attacking. So it, you know,...
D: ...people tend to get a little more clear eyed about things once they see what happens with the right wing and how that affects whoever the liberal or progressive candidate is.
So, you know, I see it, I see them coming back down to Earth. We haven't had any real post-mortems on this, and I don't think we will until after the election, and we're moving into a new phase where Democrats are going to be in power and, as you know, with our mutual projects and other projects that we're doing, that presents a whole new set of kind of assumptions we're going to be making about to affect politics. And so we're in a period of transition trying to figure out how to be something more than just oppositional.
But the media critique remains the same. I absolutely...
GG: Yeah, constant.
D: ...believe that that is not something that should ever be sacrificed on the altar of politics, because it will just never work in our favor. These are huge corporate entities, the political establishment is a small sort of provincial village of people who all know each other, and all reinforce each other's prejudices and it's never going to rebound to our favor as liberals, it's just not; and we have to, you know, that's an essentially, definitionally conservative sort of institution...
GG: System. Yeah, and cult, yeah, absolutely.
D: ...doesn't work for us, and so we our jobs should really be — whatever we're doing politically, whatever tacks we decide to take, oppose or support politicians in various issue and what have you — that particular thing should remain constant. I think it's a big mistake to let that go. And I'm hoping, you see, there's a danger here, you know, Obama's going to be president, hopefully, knock on wood, and we're going to see a different media environment, and I'm hoping that we keep a clear eye on that because, you know, that is easily manipulated in ways that we may not see coming.
I watched Bill Clinton, you know, he had a very successful convention in 1992, and coming out of a weird campaign with Ross Perot, and, you know, the economy was in the dirt, and you know, Clinton had been revealed to be a womanizer and blah, blah, blah. And he came out of that convention like a shot. I mean it was a real, very, very powerfully well done event and the press was in love with him through the end of the election. They really were. I mean, he, whatever problems they've had with him before, sure there was some little gossipy things, but in some ways they actually helped Clinton. You know, his womanizing kind of made him seem more interesting and more baby-boomer and more generational change and what have you.
And, you know, the minute he got into office the press turned in a huge way, almost on a dime, and the right wing was ready there. And it wasn't just the right wing, it was also the conservative members of the Democratic party.
GG: Absolutely. Yeah, and that's, you know, I think, you know, any movement that wants to be new, and to have a purpose, needs to conceive of itself as outside of the establishment, and oppositional to it first and foremost. And whatever benefits can be derived from the establishment almost coincidentally, you know, are secondary at most. And, I think that's one of the most important things to keep in mind.
Well, thanks so much for spending the time in what I hope is just the first of many visits — "Digby Segments" we can call them, until we have a more creative name — to come. I think it was really interesting and I appreciate it.
D: You're very welcome and thanks for inviting me. Bye.
GG: Alright then, we'll talk to you soon.
[Transcript courtesy of Peter Grey.]