Friday, October 23, 2009

Nick Griffin, White House vs FOX, and the Overton window

If I am characterizing Joe Overton correctly, when someone comes along on a radical politician's political flank to promote even more radical ideas, it is plausible that the politician is encouraging this because it makes his or her ideas look less radical in comparison. It could be an effort to mainstream political deviance by repositioning the public's perception of deviance; i.e., "shift the window."

While I have a lot of time for ideas that place a lot of emphasis on how the range of "acceptable" opinion effectively limits political choices (I've argued that greater consciousness about the background "choice architecture" is more genuinely emancipatory than more formal choices - i.e. ballot casting - within the same constrained architecture), I'm skeptical of the thesis that the emergence of new radicals who are more extreme that the old typically helps the old radicals. Why? Because the dominating factor is polarization: if a political fight develops between the new radicals and their ideological opposites, ordinary people that are close to one side or the other will slide over that extra bit take up the fight for the "team", even though the prominent voice on the team is more extreme than their own.

Yesterday, British National Party leader Nick Griffin, who in June was elected to the European Parliament despite attracting less than 10% of the vote because of proportional representation, appeared on BBC's Question Time amidst an unsurprising uproar outside the studio. If one looks around the net for viewer reaction, the proportion of Britons exhibiting sympathy for Griffin is far in excess of 10%. The fact of the matter is that people like me, who are conservative but consider Griffin an extremist, find it difficult to not step into the debate to observe that, for example, with Peter Hain demanding that Griffin be barred from Question Time, you've got someone who today is as establishment as they come (Secretary of State for Wales) insisting that someone is being too radical to be heard when Hain made his own early career out of being radical (photo below is of Hain from 1969). Give me my own freedom of speech while denying it to someone else on the grounds that it isn't mainstream enough?

Could I point out that Hain was right in the thick of a campaign finance scandal this past year? Of course I could, but the reality is that I wouldn't be doing my reputation for judicious moderation (such as it is) any good by stepping in front of an attack on Griffin.

I believe this is what the Obama administration has in mind in its blasts at FOX News. It is difficult for many reasonable conservatives who find Glenn Beck etc over the top to resist the temptation to defend FOX with respect to the latest incident; indeed, Ken Rudin, who directs campaign coverage for NPR, described the White House's behaviour as "Nixonesque", a characterization he ended up apologizing for. If someone who's career depends upon preserving a neutral point of view couldn't resist the impulse to take a blast at FOX's attacker, how is anyone who is at all conservative supposed to refrain from similar comment? The situation is win-win for both the White House and FOX, since polarizing Americans will force those in the middle out into their respective camps. Everyone between them loses.

What is the latest incident? A month ago I wrote:
Obama has taken issue with FOX before, but this time the White House has further hinted that only "outlets" inclined to treat the administration uncritically will be granted access, meaning FOX would be a news gatherer who should not expect "participation any time soon."
That suggestion of mine that FOX will be frozen out in terms of participation has come true more thoroughly than I expected. As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has observed: "the White House tried to exclude Fox News – alone among the five White House "pool" networks – from interviewing executive-pay czar Kenneth R. Feinberg on Thursday."

CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC (which all have reputations for being more or less centrist while NPR is considered left by conservatives and MSNBC is now considered left by almost everyone) all refused to play along with the administration's attempt to squeeze out FOX. The networks agreed that either FOX could interview as well or none of them would. The administration is now faced with the prospect of having to contend that CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC are biased against them or admit that forcing people to be "for us" or "against us" will backfire when the generally respected majority chooses the latter camp.

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