Jeremy Young: Communities of Rumor and the American Electorate





[Jeremy Young is a doctoral student in 20th-century U.S. history at Indiana University. He has been blogging for six years at a variety of locations around the web and is a writer for the History News Service.]

I really can't understand people who look at Sarah Palin, who listen to her obvious incompetence, and see an inspiring leader and future President. Or people who felt the same way about George W. Bush in 2000. Or people who not only hate gay marriage, but honestly believe that it's the greatest threat that faces America today. It's not a matter of disagreeing with those people, as I do with, say, libertarians; their opinions and views simply feel alien to me. How can people in my country look at the same events I'm looking at and see them so differently? Are they wrong, or stupid, or something else?

A book I read last week, Alain Corbin's The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (translated by ProgressiveHistorians blogfriend Arthur Goldhammer), suggests an answer. Corbin's book concerns a similarly head-scratching event: in a remote village in industrializing France in 1870, a group of townspeople suddenly turned on a local noble, convinced themselves against all evidence that he was a Prussian and a Republican enemy of the French Emperor, and proceeded to torture him to death over a period of two hours and then burn his corpse in the public square. (They did not, as rumor had it, actually eat him.) Setting aside the stark brutality of the act, how could these upstanding townspeople ignore mountains of evidence and eyewitnesses who insisted they had seen the man many times and that he lived two towns away, and remain convinced that he was in fact a Prussian spy? And in what universe were the monarchical Prussians and French Republicans the same thing, or in any way related?

Corbin's answer to these questions is very interesting. I'm simplifying his argument a bit, but in brief, he suggests that there are two types of people: those who have access to a steady stream of reliable information about the wider world (in this case, city-dwellers, bourgeois, and the rich) and those who don't. People with little direct knowledge of events, like the peasant murderers in The Village of Cannibals, continue to get indirect knowledge, but it comes in the form of rumor, of bits and pieces of truth intermingled with scraps of various lies. Contrary to what some of us blue-state folks imagine, these people aren't stupid or irrational. Instead, they do the same things the rest of us do with the information they have: take it in, try to make sense of competing data, construct a coherent mental narrative, and interpret observed events in light of that narrative. What's more, they don't do this in isolation, but in near-constant communication with one another -- forming what can perhaps best be described as a" community of rumor." Certainly some people in that community have a better understanding of the wider world than do others, but it's very hard to tell which is which when everybody believes something different. Eventually a consensus is reached, and that becomes"truth." It's a process very familiar to us in the"reality-based community," except that the raw material -- actual, comprehensive knowledge of situations and events -- is missing. There's nothing wrong with the way these people think -- the problem is with the information they have to start with.

In the case of Corbin's villagers, a lot of their reasoning was sound given the information they had to go on. A lot of their confusion centered on the issue of taxation. The Orleanist monarchy, which ruled from 1830-1848, had imposed a crushing tax on the already-poor peasants. When the Republicans came to power, they had promised to repeal the tax but hadn't followed through, leading the peasants to view them as double-crossers probably in league with the monarchy. The Emperor (Napoleon III), on the other hand, repealed the tax immediately when he first took office in 1849; obviously he was on the side of the peasants and cared about their welfare. In 1870, when the Empire collapsed, the peasants were terrified about what would happen to them without their beloved Emperor. Meanwhile, wild rumors spread about the Prussians, a known militaristic power with expansionist designs. They wanted to attack the Emperor, which meant they must be in league with the monarchists and the Republicans (and also the Catholic clergy, who had also opposed the Emperor for seizing their property). Perhaps the Prussians had spies even now among the French peasantry! Maybe they were members of the old aristocracy, the strongest supporters of the monarchy (and therefore Republicans and Prussian sympathizers). It turned out that the cousin of the murder victim had been in the village advocating for the Republic. When the victim was told about this, he was surprised that his cousin would do such a thing and responded that he didn't think it was likely. There was the evidence! He was sticking up for a known Republican; therefore, he must be a Prussian spy. And so the villagers murdered him, expecting that the Emperor would award them medals for their action. (Instead, four of them were guillotined.)

There's certainly an element of mob hysteria in all this, but what's surprising is how many of the connections make sense if certain important information is omitted or not known (for instance, that many monarchist politicians were actually friendly with Napoleon III, or that the Republicans were opposed to all forms of undemocratic power, or that nobody in France actually supported a foreign invasion by the hated Prussians). The same forces are clearly at work in the"American heartland" where"hockey moms" and"Joe the plumber" live. It's easy to dismiss as stupid people who believe that, say, Obama is a secret Muslim or that gays are out to take over the world -- but such a view is both untrue and unfair. How can we expect someone to listen to our truth that Obama is a Christian when their co-worker is sending them an e-mail forward saying he's a Muslim, and their father-in-law is convinced he's a terrorist? Why are we more right than those people are? How do they know who to trust? And if they're not sure, should they vote for someone who might secretly be a terrorist?

These people are suffering from what Dan Cohen diagnosed at his recent IU lecture as the biggest problem of the information age: abundance. There's simply too much information out there, and so much of it is contradictory, that people who don't have a lot of time on their hands can't really make sense of it. But they still try, and what they do is turn to others in their communities of rumor who seem to have more information or a clearer sense of what's going on. For many people, ministers and church leaders seem like the obvious choices. For others, it's friends or co-workers who seem up on the news and send out e-mail forwards with their findings. It's often the loudest people, or the most prominent people, that ordinary Americans trust. And the Republicans have become experts in exacerbating this problem by feeding wild rumors about Democrats and liberals through this network of authority, often targeting the most trusted locations, like churches and e-mail. Get people started forwarding around e-mails about Obama being a secret Muslim, and it becomes true and real. Once these ideas have taken root in communities of rumor all over America, reasonable people in those communities will refuse to consider even abundant evidence to the contrary. What Corbin shows us is that it's not because they're somehow alien, but because they are in fact just like the rest of us: resistant to ideas that contradict what they know to be true.

How to fix this problem? There's no easy answer, but Corbin's work suggests that the remedy involves getting more information more reliably to more people. How can this be done? Al Gore argued in his book that the internet was the answer, because it put all the knowledge in the world at the fingertips of every American. But the internet is chiefly responsible for the problem of abundance. It doesn't fix the problem so much as it exacerbates it, adding a huge flood of new information to the already overstrained mind of the average busy American. People are always going to turn, for the most part, to"information filters" they feel they can trust. (Tina Brown's new website, The Daly Beast, is a perfect example of a product designed expressly as such a filter.) Perhaps the challenge for liberals is to make sure those filters themselves are well-informed and present that information to those who trust them.



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Maarja Krusten - 11/15/2008

Sorry, it looks as if I had a typo in my exit poll numbers, it shows up in my repetition of the percentage for Independents where the number should have been for Moderates. I listed 20% Independent where I meant to list 44% moderate in the last sentence.

The original sentences read:

In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents. In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 29% as Independent.

What I meant to write was:

"In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents. In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 44% as Moderate."


Jeremy Young - 11/15/2008

Mark, but my point is, the post agrees with you. I'm aware that it makes your point. That was kind of the point.


Jeremy Young - 11/14/2008

Lawrence, the point of my article was that everyone to some degree is "resistant to ideas that they 'know' to be true" (the assumption being that that "knowledge" may not be legitimate), myself included. So while we disagree on politics and economics, I don't take the first paragraph of your comment as an attack.

I would say, however, that both you and I, who read HNN, have more reliable facts on which to base our "knowledge" than do many people in America. That's a certain amount of intellectual elitism to which I'll gladly cop. But it doesn't have to do with partisanship per se.


Jeremy Young - 11/14/2008

Thanks to Maarja for her compliments, and for basically saying what I was going to say in response to your comment. This piece would have looked a lot different if I had written it directly for HNN (the prose would have been better, too!). Given the audience for which I originally wrote it, the things perceived here as unfairly stereotyping McCain voters were meant to appeal to a common bias among my readers (and which I myself feel viscerally), which I then attempted to explode through argumentation.

So, I understand your point, and I'm not surprised that folks here saw it as they did; it's simply par for the course when something written for one audience is transplanted to another (still, Rick, thanks for posting it here!).


Maarja Krusten - 11/13/2008

From reading his writing here and on his own blog, I like and respect Jeremy so, if you don't mind, I'll offer a speculative answer to one of your points since he has yet to respond. You write "I think you would have been more influential had you been more even handed." I agree with your suggestion.

However, I think we should take into account that Jeremy wrote this for his blog, Progressive Historians. HNN just happened to pick it up from there. I suspect that if this had been a more formal piece--or even had been crafted specifically for the HNN "main page" where we are reading it, it might have been a little different. He might have had more time to read it, consider how it came across, and recast some portions. Although I don't blog, I have the sense that bloggers sometimes dash off stuff quickly. From what I've seen on his blog, Jeremy actually sometimes reconsiders some issues, recasts them on his blog, etc. I respect that, it doesn't make him seem weak, it makes him seem strong. I actually respect his approach although as an Independent and a non-ideologue, I don't always agree with everything he writes.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/12/2008

Nothing describes Jeremy Young better than the last phrase in his penultimate paragraph above, "resistant to ideas that contradict what he knows to be true." The trouble is that much of what he "knows" to be true is false.

Perhaps he is not old enough to remember the aftermath of 9-11, when our airports were silent, grass grew in the runways, and our auto rental companies were going belly-up? He has no idea how clearly the Bush tax cuts were precisely the right medicine following the attack, or how the Gore economic policies would have been an utter disaster. The Bush tax cuts, which had been enacted in June 2001, proved a godsend. Had the Florida election flipped the White House the other way, we would have been up the creek without a paddle. And the Bush tax cuts were increased again in 2003, which also would not have occurred under a President Gore.

We will shortly see how the lack of confidence among investors will now retard growth and progress because the McCain-Palin ticket was not elected. We will see how race relations are set back, and how conditions in the Middle East are worsened for the same reason. Yet Jeremy "knows" the election of Barack Obama was just the right medicine for the economy, the war, and everything else. We shall see.

Jeremy reflects the views of 99% of the U.S. professorate, and it is they, not he, who are really in the dock.


Maarja Krusten - 11/12/2008


Jeremy, here is an essay from a blogger which illustrates one theme spun out about the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Obama-Ayers records held at UIC. This illustrates concretely one of the themes of your essay—how rumors are spread. In this case, the rumors involve the Obama-Biden campaign. Consider the issues raised at
http://globallabor.blogspot.com/2008/09/my-reply-to-human-events-plumbers-story.html

What is the best response to something of this nature? It is because I anticipated from my past experiences in working with the Nixon tapes that the story might take such turns that I cautioned individual archivists to approach the CAC story with extreme caution and to focus in their public comments narrowly on archival principles rather than the political aspects of the story. (See
http://hnn.us/articles/35891.html for what happened to my group of archivists.) Better to let institutional spokespeople handle it, with well-positioned allies joining, if possible.

In my view, archivists are somewhat limited in what they can do to counter stories such as the one about the Obama Ayers records that I linked to above. When professionals get caught in the crossfire, they benefit from allies who have greater freedom of speech than they themselves do. Career considerations sometimes limit what professionals themselves can do. Potential job seekers never can be sure if what they write to fellow members of a listserv might not be cherry picked later in an effort to harm their chances at jobs by people with opposing political viewpoints. My generation of archivists had no electronic footprints (I myself had voted for Nixon), yet we faced all sorts of charges of bias in the early 1990s from some of Richard Nixon’s advocates.

These are not baseless worries. Consider how a report issued this year by the Department of Justice found that some administration officials had used Nexis to examine the electronic footprints of job seekers. For archivists and Special Collection staff, such considerations increase the importance of relying on strategic allies and clients, once removed from their own profession, such as historians, to speak out in their stead. Of course, as I pointed out above, historians let down UIC big time on this story.

In my view, UIC handled the CAC records release story in a surprisingly low key and low tech manner. It didn’t seem to use all the Web 2.0 resources available to it. Since your essay focuses on rumors and how the counter them, I’d be interested in hearing what else you think UIC might have done. Here’s an illustration of what it did do, a comment posted at
http://www.news-gazette.com/news/opinions/editorials/2008/08/29/uic_officials_shot__themselves_in_foot
Since the link no longer seems to work, I’ll post from a listserv message which linked to the News Gazette what UIC public affairs official Mark Rosati wrote at the end of August:

"The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Library is dedicated to the preservation and transmission of knowledge for our own community of students, faculty and staff, scholars from other institutions, and the general public. Many rare and important documents, maps, and other materials have been entrusted to the Library's Special Collections department, where they are catalogued, preserved, and made available on a daily basis.

The Library's collections include the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, more than 50,000 pages of documents and other materials which were donated by the board of directors of the Challenge in December 2001.

On Aug. 11 of this year, a former senior employee of the Challenge contacted the Library, raising a legal question about ownership of the collection and our right to make the documents available to the public. We took the correct and responsible course of action - to temporarily close the collection while researching the legal issues raised. After a thorough review, we determined that we indeed have the right to make the collection open for public inspection. The materials were reopened to the public and press in accordance with the normal procedures of Special Collections on Aug. 26, meaning that the collection was closed for only 11 working days all the while kept under lock and key.

Your claims to the contrary, the complaints and attacks from certain quarters had no bearing on any of our actions or decisions. We do not need to be, and were not, bullied into doing the right thing. On the basis of the prudent analysis that was performed, the collection would have been re-opened regardless of the comments that were made. The closing and prompt re-opening of the collection were actions of responsible stewardship, and the suggestion that the University wavered or caved in to pressure is, quite simply, baseless."

The CAC story involves speculation and rumors occurring at the nexus of the academic and political worlds. If you are interested in the dissemination of facts, the formation of strategic partnerships, and the effect of rumors and speculation, give some thought to how you would have handled the CAC story, had you been employed as an official responsible for handling this story at UIC.


Lou McDade - 11/12/2008

Jeremy,
I've read a couple of replies about your article. Most seem to mention certain short-comings. Regardless, I felt that your article was lucid and did explain (coherently) a problem that may underlie a specific group of voters. I think you would have been more influential had you been more even handed. That is to say, it would have been in your ineterest to argue against yourself or provide information on how voters from both parties may be influenced from rumors. Not just those from the "red" states or those who lean to the "right".
Another point I'd like to make is in reference to the time people spend researching, reading and digesting the information they receive (regardless of the medium). It's my opinion that in order to have responsible leaders, a country must have responsible citizens. That means, they must dedicate time to understanding what is going on both locally and nationally. I'm not going to give anyone a pass for "not having enough time". MAKE TIME! How many hours of the day do some of us spend watching "pop culture" television or playing video games? Sure, some people have families and need to attend to working, cooking, cleaning and other domestic chores. After all of that, who feels like researching an article on tax relief for the middle class or 2nd amendment rights? But you know what? Citizens do have a responsibility to themeselves and their country and they should respect themselves more than just assuming that the 1/2 hour news cycle that is "infotainment" is going to inform them properly.
Mainstream news media continues to fail its viewing public with its mundane and vague reporting. Never in my life have I listened to reporters talk so often about so little of substance.
Lastly. The most important part that I can contribute to your article is the fact that news has failed us due to its partisanship. Current citizens feel comfortable with a specific news network, be it Fox or CNN because that particular network reports in favor of a particular side. Networks are all too aware of this and the same networks pander to people who they can manipulate by stating one side of the argument.
I'm stereotyping here: If I'm a pro-choice, latte' sippin', birkenstock wearing, blue blood from the northeast, I'm more likely to watch CNN. If I'm a gun totin', tobacco chewin, pro-life, capital punishin, red blood from the south or midwest, I more than likely watch Fox news.
If I only watch one channel because I know they are going to talk about issues in a manner that I agree with, I'm more likely to watch that network and only that network.


Maarja Krusten - 11/11/2008

Sorry, I absentmindedly reversed the two above. It's the University of Illinois at Chicago, not the University of Chicago at Illinois. No one would flame me for such an error but it still seems worth acknowledging and correcting the error.


Maarja Krusten - 11/11/2008

We’ve been discussing rumors and speculation and sources for reliable data. I mentioned bloggers and low hanging fruit and predictable postings on HNN in my comments above. Here’s an example of failure to move beyond the picking of low hanging fruit. In recent months, academic bloggers, some of whom have relied on university special collections libraries and archives for their own work, left to political bloggers a story involving records at the University of Chicago at Illinois.

Stanley Kurtz, a scholar who blogs at the Corner on the National Review website, posted some essays there in August about his efforts to obtain access to the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. According to Kurtz, his research centered on the relationship between Bill Ayers and Barack Obama.

UIC Special Collections staff initially told Kurtz that CAC records were available for research. A professor later told him that a question had arisen about the legal status of the files. An institutional lawyer apparently determined that UIC could not make the files available until it resolved issues with the deed of gift. An unidentified former member of the board of the CAC reportedly had raised questions about the legal status.

Kurtz turned to the Corner with an essay headed “Chicago Annenberg Challenge Shutdown? A cover-up in the making?” http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=MTgwZTVmN2QyNzk2MmUxMzA5OTg0ODZlM2Y2OGI0NDM= A few non-academic bloggers picked up the cover-up theme. None linked to the website of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), which provides descriptions of deeds of gifts, legal title, and restrictions.

Within a few days, the university resolved questions about the status of the records and informed Dr. Kurtz that he could view released files starting on August 25, 2008. Dr. Kurtz posted his reaction in a blog essay on the Corner on August 23:

http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=ZjE3YjQxNWZiNWMyNjQ2YTE1YTBlYjc3ZmMyOTk0ZjE=

“Has any material from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records been redacted, removed, or destroyed since my dispute with the library began? The answer is: I do not know. I don’t know if UIC simply determined that it had legal authority to open the materials, without further agreement from the donor, or whether UIC is making this material available only after having restricted some material, at the donor’s request. Obviously, I will be on the lookout when I view the records for evidence of tampering, or of, say, names in critical places being blacked out.”

Tampering with records is anathema to members of the archival profession. Archivists typically hold graduate degrees in history or in library and information science. They are trained to respect historical evidence. Moreover, the Archivists’ Code of Ethics states that “Archivists may not alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence.” To suggest that archivists might “tamper” with records is a serious charge. But the Corner does not have a comment function, which would have enabled a reader to point Dr. Kurtz to SAA’s website for information on access issues, codes of ethics, and so forth.

Not just here but in other instances, Google searches suggest that political bloggers write more frequently about stories relating to records (such as the National Archives and the Sandy Berger incident) than do academic bloggers. This helps acculturate the public to view archival stories as being political in nature.

At the beginning of September, I found that Googling the terms "Stanley Kurtz Chicago Annenberg Challenge Cover-up Library” resulted in get 1,890 hits. Googling "Stanley Kurtz" tampering Chicago Annenberg Challenge resulted in 394 hits. At that time, no academic bloggers had addressed the records access or archival aspects of the story. The framing fell to political bloggers, who focused on theories as to why Kurtz did not immediately gain access to the records and on what happened when Kurtz appeared on a radio call-in show. Academic bloggers were silent on both stories.

The Special Collections staff probably felt themselves very much alone here. Someone describing himself as an employee of the UIC library noted in a comment under a blog post on Daily Kos of the opening of the CAC records in August that "it was rough." He described speculation about what had occurred, then added, "Even though there's no smoking gun in the files, this wasn't the point." The self-identified UIC librarian asserted also that "(we didn't shred anything. We did however, redact bank account numbers on donation checks and social security numbers)."

Another UIC archivist referred in another forum to “thousands of violent and threatening calls the Library (including the circulation desk and the reference department) received . . . it was truly frightening.”

Where were the scholars? I saw no scholars writing in their blogs early on that “UIC needs to open these records and to do it properly. Let’s hear more about this collection, why UIC closed it down, and what it proposes to do.” And then following up with observations on the re-opening of the collection, the seriousness of the tampering charge, what UIC might have done to minimize the chances of threatening phone calls, the importance of good communications with the public, and so forth. Academics from the right and from the left both were missing in action here.

What about traditional media and opinion makers? Publications on the right and the left tend to put themselves in weak positions on archival matters because they fail to understand the need to treat the issues equitably and in a nonpartisan manner. Because they do not act in a nonpartisan manner, there are almost no publications that have any street cred here. I doubt I’ll ever see right leaning publications and left leaning publications issuing calls for early and broad access to the same records. Much more likely for writers for partisan old school publications are expressions of selective outrage. But even that is more than you’ll find among academic bloggers, such as those who blog on HNN who, all too often, seem just to reach for low hanging fruit.


Mark s huss - 11/11/2008

I admit I just skimmed your post,but your post is interesting enough that I will read it more carefully after work. But your reply (128873) misses the point. The first paragraph IS the important one. It demonstrates that you have fallen for the same belief in demonstratively false rumors that you spend the next several paragraphs remonstrating against.
Sort of like saying 'I can't understand why so many people don't realize that Obama is actually an alien Conehead bent on the destruction of Earth. Lets examine why people fall for the falsehood that he is actually human. And how people can learn to filter their information sources so they are not so easily mislead.'


Jonathan Dresner - 11/11/2008

You go ahead and laugh, but I'd bet that somewhere, in the unarchived bowels of presidential memoes of this administration, is a discussion of the possiblity. They may have rejected it as unlikely to succeed, especially once the President's approval ratings went below Truman's, but unconstitutionality and simple illegality just doesn't seem to have been a barrier to this administration. As with the French peasants, it makes a great deal of sense in context.


Jeremy Young - 11/11/2008

You're right -- good catch.


Maarja Krusten - 11/11/2008

Another example from the left was the theory which showed up on various newspaper comment boards that Bush and Cheney would not allow the 2008 election to take place. Over the course of the last year, I saw some people posit on the Washington Post's message boards that the current President and Vice President were determined to hold on to power, that martial law would be declared, and the elections cancelled.

News reports suggest that what is occuring now instead is turning out to be an unusually smooth and gracious transition, to date.


Maarja Krusten - 11/11/2008

The problem with "dirty politics" comes in the fact that once you sanction it beyond certain limits, you risk blurring the lines once you take the reins of government. Dirty politics means much more than whether what is stated by a candidate or surrogates literally is true or not.

If you read something such as H. R. Haldeman's diaries -- a good way to get an overview insider's look at Nixon's White House -- you see the extent to which political operatives are involved in areas which to the unknowing public may appear spontaneous and grass roots in nature, or not directly linked to a candidate.

The Nixon White Houe blurred too many lines. Nixon admitted after he resigned from office that he should have reigned in some of the political and governmental abuses but chose not to do so.

Take, for example, some of the Nixonian abuses of governmental power, such as the misuse for political intelligence gathering of the Secret Service detail assigned to Sen. Ted Kennedy. That involved the use of governmental power and evolved from an anything goes, end justifies the means ethos that had evolved during Nixon's campaigns. See
http://shrinkster.com/12ux
for a citation of the Teddy Kennedy Secret Service issue, as covered in Prof. Kutler's book.

Where do officials develop the idea that such things are ok? In part from the fact that in some campaigns, too many lines are crossed during in running for office. Not all lapses involve the candidate directly, sometimes the actions involve surrogates, sometimes they occur with a wink and a nod, sometimes with plausible deniability for the candidate.

As for moral authority, I'm not referring to moral arbiters. I'm talking about the fact that there are things the government has to do as part of its essential functions. You have to have sustainability. You want the governed -- the people in your care, of all political persuasions -- to believe that they will not be deliberately harmed by those powers.

Some of these things actually are fragile. They depend on people and whether, as one official once put it well, they believe that "the law is the *floor* of acceptable behavior." You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. It takes much more than saying "ours will be the most ethical government in history." If too many members of the public come to assume that agencies and departments will be used politically to punish and harrass political enemies, those agencies become weakened in their ability to perform some of their legitimate functions. And that hurts the government and the nation as a whole. So yes, based on my study of Nixon, a campaign ethos matters, as does where you draw the lines.


Jeremy Young - 11/11/2008

Vernon, we have different opinions on Matthews' politics -- I actually think he's fairly right-of-center -- but I agree with you that both of them are shrill and polarizing in a negative way. One thing that my post left out is that communities of rumor are not exclusive to the right in this country (consider, for instance, the 9/11 "truther" movement on the left). That's an omission, and one I'm happy to correct.


Jeremy Young - 11/11/2008

Ah, okay. However, I don't believe in this idea of "moral authority" in either campaigns or in the media. If you imbue people like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite with some sort of mystical moral authority, you hand them almost unlimited power that they can use to operate as an unelected branch of government and bring down the other branches (as Murrow did in fact do to Joseph McCarthy; deserved though the criticism was, what if he'd leveled it at President Eisenhower or someone else?). I don't think we should give anyone that kind of power. As for politicians drawing clear lines about what's appropriate, I believe the line should be that it's appropriate if it's true. I don't believe "dirty" politics is a bad thing; in fact, I think when we're fighting over control of the world's superpower, we're foolish if we run anything less than the most energetic campaigns possible, even if that means being nasty.


Maarja Krusten - 11/11/2008

Hi, Jeremy,

I suspect we're talking past each other here. I don't actually argue for making politics less partisan. The whole point of having different parties and different ideologies is that they are, well, different. You have to highlight the differences and press your advantages but you have a choice in how you do it, what you permit your surrogates to do, and where you draw the lines.

If you go too far, you squander moral authority you'll need later to govern. The tactical choices you make as you campaign can affect how you govern or rather how some members of the public perceive your goals and objectives.

Your essay focuses on rumors and on false perceptions. So, too, did my comments. I'm not taking a position on Mr. Taylor's piece, except to say that he points to the choices news outlets make in not publishing certain stories. However, in this age of the "big sort," it is harder and harder to find commonality in news sources. It's not like the old days when everybody watched either Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that there are few people on the web with very wide readership who speak with clear moral authority. I can't point to any off the top of my head.

You mentioned the Interent as a source of news. Of course, the Interent is a source of data but also of interpretive narratives and context. Most bloggers pick the low hanging fruit, and often with quite predicatable results. I rarely see anyone aim high here on HNN or elsewhere. The most insightful analytical pieces I've seen during the past election year have not come from history bloggers but from other sources. That surprises me given the fact that historians are trained in critical thinking but I've come to accept that it is likely to remain so. That doesn't mean I don't keep reading HNN but I know my "aha" moments are likely to occur elsewhere.


Vernon Clayson - 11/11/2008

Jeremy, your last sentence destroys your little thesis. Why should the liberals make sure those filters themselves are well-informed"? Are you saying that the presentations of liberals as rabid as Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann aren't sufficiently well informed? Strange, I take their every hysterical word as if it were gospel - not really. Okay, they don't have time to ponder their subjects as deeply and intellectually as you, it's enough for them to be the soap box orators for early this century, you can take over when they slip from the scene.


Jeremy Young - 11/11/2008

Maarja, you raise some very interesting points, as usual. I'll have to admit my partisan blinders on this one, but I don't necessarily think that all rumors are created equal. For instance, I think saying John Kerry faked his Purple Hearts (false) is different from saying George Bush was arrested for drunk driving and covered it up (true).

I think Mr. Taylor confuses the issues of partisanship and falsity. I think a lot of people confuse the two, actually. I don't think it's a bad thing to spread rumors against opposing candidates when they're substantiated (partisanship), but I do think it's bad to spread them when they're unsubstantiated (falsity).

Part of the disagreement stems from the general idea that we need to clean up politics and make it less partisan, which I think both you and Mr. Taylor believe. I don't agree with this. I'm perfectly happy to be tolerant and respectful of ordinary people who disagree with me on issues, but when those people are running my country -- and particularly when those people are corrupt -- I believe the gloves can and should come off. That doesn't mean we should lie about politicians we disagree with (we shouldn't) or that we shouldn't correct misinformation about them when we find it (we should). But if they've actually done something bad, we should make sure as many people know about it as possible.


Jeremy Young - 11/11/2008

Rea, I disagree with your interpretation of Obama's comments, but that's not really the point. The point is that my essay answers the question as "something else," if you managed to get beyond the first paragraph.


Jeremy Young - 11/11/2008

Rick, seeing beyond that crude caricature was in fact the whole point of the post, if you managed to get beyond the first paragraph.


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2008

Hi, Jeremy,

Interesting piece. I don’t accept all your premises but cannot address them all. However, I’m not at work today and have time to share some thoughts on some aspects of this.

John H. Taylor, executive director of the Nixon Foundation and former aide to RN, posted a thoughtful essay (“America’s Information Crisis”) about related issues at The New Nixon site two months ago. He pointed to some of the same issues you raise and looked to traditional media as a corrective to some of this. See
http://thenewnixon.org/2008/09/01/americas-information-crisis/

As you know, I voted for Richard Nixon as a 21-year old college student in 1972. I later had the fascinating job of working as an employee of the National Archives with the assigned task of listening to Nixon’s White House tapes to see what could be released to the public. The controlling statute required us to identify information related to Watergate and governmental abuses of power, including certain material related to campaign practices. I’ve given a lot of thought to the campaign ethos and how it affects Presidents and their parties. Nixon ended up paying a high price for his inability to reconcile the two.

There is a sizable group of voters who belong to neither party and who do not view themselves as ideologues. In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents. In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 29% as Independent. There are a lot of swing voters out there, people who sometimes vote for one party and some times for the other. Perhaps some day someone will do a study of the various sources people across the spectrum turn to for information and how they assess data. It also would be interesting to study how voters react to circulation of rumor emails – that is, whether the circulation reinforces views already held, persuades recipients who are wavering, or results in blowback.

Years ago, I raised here on HNN the question of moral relativism and how differing voters react to smear tactics. There also is the question of whether going too far weakens the victor’s ability to govern. This came up in a Q&A session on the Washington Post’s website on January 13, 2006 with former Bush administration official John Yoo. The exchange suggested that not curbing mud slinging can result in blowback. Here’s the exchange from 2006:

Question: “Modern-day Presidents come into office with their public images colored by bitter electoral contests that often reflect an ethos of win at any cost. Can they easily shed that coloration once in office? Or does it become a drag on their ability to govern and convince the public of their trustworthiness?

The campaign ethos often reflects expediency and even a disregard for truth. If becoming President depends on one's supporters handing out leaflets that imply that not voting for George Bush will lead the Bible to be banned in Arkansas, so be it. Or calling all critics unpatriotic. Or implying that John McCain has an illegitimate child, as happened during the primaries in 2000. Or, to use an example that may have harmed George W. Bush in the contest with Al Gore, leaking news of a candidate's drunken driving arrest at the end of the campaign in 2000.

Do a President's appointees understand the degree to which their efforts in governance are hurt by the earlier use of these tactics during a campaign? And by the continued reliance by many Presidents on political advisors for tactical advice while in office? How can you separate political expediency from governmental expediency, doing anything to win, but then turning around and saying, we will govern ethically and honorably?

In other words, as a former government official, how insulated were you? [Did] you understand the extent to which your ability to stand up and argue "trust us, there is a legal and Constitutional basis for what we're doing and we would never do anything to hurt Americans" [was] harmed by the baggage an administration [dragged] behind it politically?

John Yoo: That is a very good question. It may be the case that the political environment created by campaigns makes it more difficult to govern, particularly in the foreign affairs area. This may be true especially when foreign affairs and national security issues are prominent in the campaigns themselves, as they were in 2004.”

You ask, how to stop it? How do people nudge others in the right direction in the workplace or in family situations? By not rewarding bad behaviors.

What would have been the reaction had George Bush stood up in 2000 and denounced the rumors about John McCain’s adopted child? Or the rumors in 2004 about Democrats planning to ban the Bible if John Kerry won? We’ll never know.

The best way to stop unsubstantiated rumors is for candidates themselves to denounce the worst ones and thus to model the behaviors and values (integrity, honesty, belief in personal responsibility) that voters of both parties say they want. But it says much about the political world that this rarely happens.

The other thing that would help would be if partisans acknowledged rebuttals or actions, however limited, that are taken by politicians of the opposing party when rumors come up. Again, I’ll turn to John Taylor and another of his posts from two months ago, “Obama Shines.” See http://thenewnixon.org/2008/09/01/obama-shines/

On the other side, I don’t read enough blogs to know whether any progressive bloggers provided positive reinforcement in reacting to John McCain’s response to the woman who told him in a town hall meeting that she was afraid of Obama because he was “an Arab.” McCain responded, "No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues..." When another voter said he was scared of raising his child in an America led by Obama, McCain responded, "I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States."

It’s easy for bloggers of the opposing party to nitpick responses by opponents as falling short, as many did with McCain’s response to the woman asking about Obama. But as any executive or manager or parent knows, the best way to improve behavior is to reward or acknowledge attempts to do better or to take the high road, even when the efforts seem to fall short. Not to do so suggests that politicians gain nothing from such efforts so they might as well not even try.

What you describe has many enablers.


Rea Andrew Redd - 11/10/2008

You ask if 'people are wrong, stupid or something else' because the don't see things like you see things.

Barack Obama had the same dilemma when he encountered Pennsylvania Democrats who were voting for Hillary Clinton. He characterized these Democrats as bitter, Bible toting and gun owning people whose circumstances kept them stupid.

Well, Obama picked his information filter and you have picked yours. Unfortunately, these two filters allow for stereotyping of those who don't have your perspectives on life.


Maarja Krusten - 11/10/2008

Hi, Jeremy,

Interesting piece. I don’t accept all your premises but cannot address them all. However, I’m not at work today so I do have time to share some thoughts on some aspects of this.

John H. Taylor, executive director of the Nixon Foundation and former aide to RN, posted a thoughtful essay (“America’s Information Crisis”) about related issues at The New Nixon site two months ago. He pointed to some of the same issues you raise and looked to traditional media as a corrective to some of this. See
http://thenewnixon.org/2008/09/01/americas-information-crisis/

As you know, I voted for Richard Nixon as a 21-year old college student in 1972. I later had the fascinating job of working as an employee of the National Archives with the assigned task of listening to Nixon’s White House tapes to see what could be released to the public. The controlling statute required us to identify information related to Watergate and governmental abuses of power, including certain material related to campaign practices. I’ve given a lot of thought to the campaign ethos and how it affects Presidents and their parties. Nixon ended up paying a high price for his inability to reconcile the two.

There is a sizable group of voters who belong to neither party and who do not view themselves as ideologues. In the 2008 Presidential election, in terms of party affiliation, exit polls show that 39% of those voting identified themselves as Democrats, 32% as Republicans, and 29% as Independents. In terms of ideology, 22% identified themselves as Liberal, 34% as Conservative, and 29% as Independent. There are a lot of swing voters out there, people who sometimes vote for one party and some times for the other. Perhaps some day someone will do a study of the various sources people across the spectrum turn to for information and how they assess data. It also would be interesting to study how voters react to circulation of rumor emails – that is, whether the circulation reinforces views already held, persuades recipients who are wavering, or results in blowback.

Years ago, I raised here on HNN the question of moral relativism and how differing voters react to smear tactics. There also is the question of whether going too far weakens the victor’s ability to govern. This came up in a Q&A session on the Washington Post’s website on January 13, 2006 with former Bush administration official John Yoo. The exchange suggested that not curbing mud slinging can result in blowback. Here’s the exchange from 2006:
Question: “Modern-day Presidents come into office with their public images colored by bitter electoral contests that often reflect an ethos of win at any cost. Can they easily shed that coloration once in office? Or does it become a drag on their ability to govern and convince the public of their trustworthiness?
The campaign ethos often reflects expediency and even a disregard for truth. If becoming President depends on one's supporters handing out leaflets that imply that not voting for George Bush will lead the Bible to be banned in Arkansas, so be it. Or calling all critics unpatriotic. Or implying that John McCain has an illegitimate child, as happened during the primaries in 2000. Or, to use an example that may have harmed George W. Bush in the contest with Al Gore, leaking news of a candidate's drunken driving arrest at the end of the campaign in 2000.
Do a President's appointees understand the degree to which their efforts in governance are hurt by the earlier use of these tactics during a campaign? And by the continued reliance by many Presidents on political advisors for tactical advice while in office? How can you separate political expediency from governmental expediency, doing anything to win, but then turning around and saying, we will govern ethically and honorably? In other words, as a former government official, how insulated were you? [Did] you understand the extent to which your ability to stand up and argue "trust us, there is a legal and Constitutional basis for what we're doing and we would never do anything to hurt Americans" [was] harmed by the baggage an administration [dragged] behind it politically?
John Yoo: That is a very good question. It may be the case that the political environment created by campaigns makes it more difficult to govern, particularly in the foreign affairs area. This may be true especially when foreign affairs and national security issues are prominent in the campaigns themselves, as they were in 2004.”
You ask, how to stop it? How do people nudge others in the right direction in the workplace or in family situations? By not rewarding bad behaviors.
What would have been the reaction had George Bush stood up in 2000 and denounced the rumors about John McCain’s adopted child? Or the rumors in 2004 about Democrats planning to ban the Bible if John Kerry won? We’ll never know. The best way to stop unsubstantiated rumors is for candidates themselves to denounce the worst ones and thus to model the behaviors and values (integrity, honesty, belief in personal responsibility) that voters of both parties say they want. But it says much about the political world that this rarely happens.
The other thing that would help would be if partisans acknowledged rebuttals or actions, however limited, that are taken by politicians of the opposing party when rumors come up. Again, I’ll turn to John Taylor and another of his posts from two months ago, “Obama Shines.” See http://thenewnixon.org/2008/09/01/obama-shines/ On the other side, I don’t read enough blogs to know whether any progressive bloggers provided positive reinforcement in reacting to John McCain’s response to the woman who told him in a town hall meeting that she was afraid of Obama because he was “an Arab.” McCain responded, "No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues..." When another voter said he was scared of raising his child in an America led by Obama, McCain responded, "I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States."
It’s easy for bloggers of the opposing party to nitpick responses by opponents as falling short, as many did with McCain’s response to the woman asking about Obama. But as any executive or manager or parent knows, the best way to improve behavior is to reward or acknowledge attempts to do better or to take the high road, even when the efforts seem to fall short. Not to do so suggests that politicians gain nothing from such efforts so they might as well not even try. What you describe has many enablers.




Rick McGinnis - 11/10/2008

I despair for the future of history studies if this is the best you can come up with, Jeremy.

You can use a research library and hunt through periodical indexes, but you can't see beyond the crudest caricature of voters and fellow citizens offered up by newsprint media outlets? I'd hate to see what kind of comic book take on the fall of Rome, or the Dutch Tulip craze you're going to come up with in your future career.

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