This Year’s Model: How CNN’s Town Halls Tried, and Failed, to Police Progressive Ideas

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This Year’s Model: How CNN’s Town Halls Tried, and Failed, to Police Progressive Ideas

Oh, CNN. Oh, Washington. There you go again.

Tulsi Gabbard got asked a lot of questions during her CNN Town Hall. Some of them were reasonable, given Gabbard’s record: Given your family history, what’s the deal with you and LGBTQ rights? and You fought in the wars of regime change, and how you’re against them? Explain.

But many of the questions were odd, deliberate traps. Are you a capitalist? Is socialism evil? Is Assad a war criminal? They were gotcha-style queries, based around a central, unspoken premise: You’re not taking this ‘changing the world’ business seriously, right? Many different mouths were opened. But perspective was the same. Gabbard’s Town Hall took place in Austin, but it might as well have been near the Potomac. The questions were asked in the classic Washington voice, the voice of Consensus, wailing the same old sweet song we’ve heard in times gone by: Change can’t happen.

If this seems familiar, it should. The Washington Consensus asked the same questions during Bernie Sanders’ town hall. It was the same tone, asked by ostensible “independent” “citizens” … who turned out to be employees for various D.C. institutions. CNN apparently did not vet their question-askers. Jacob Weindling broke down the story here at Paste.

The phrasing of the Consensus’ questions was a predictable drumbeat: don’t you think that your policies are unreal? Don’t you think we can’t afford this … don’t you think … It’s the phrasing and wording you’d use when speaking to a deluded adult, or an oblivious child. The Consensus questioners used this tone with Bernie, and they used it with Gabbard.

I don’t believe that CNN sat down and tried to make progressives look foolish. But I do believe in the manufacturing of consent by groupthink. I believe that elitism means endless scrutiny and suspicion for new ideas, and blank checks for established ones. I believe that CNN doesn’t take its vetting details seriously because they don’t think they should, especially where progressives are concerned.

But this isn’t a tale about the news. Rather, this story is about why some people choose to wear blinders, and how those blinders work. It’s a story about three related stories: the Sanders town hall, the Gabbard town hall, and the attempted smearing of Rep. Ilhan Omar. But this could have been taken from any week in the past three years. My question is, why? Why would the Consensus make itself look so openly foolish and vulnerable?

I expect people that have power to fight for it. But to react so irrationally, with such terror, suggests there is something else at work. Something besides self-interest. What are they afraid of? What psychological tic could make the Consensus abase itself so shamefully?

The Consensus does not object to the facts surrounding progressive policies. Nothing that Sanders or Gabbard or Omar suggested is unreal, impossible, or unethical.

There is no law of nature that says Americans must fight in endless wars. We know many other countries have progressive policies. We know such programs can and do work. We know that we enough money for progressive policies—the war in Iraq has cost us trillions. We know there is nothing in American law or natural law that makes criticizing our allies wrong. We know that progressive policies are politically viable. The public wants them, by super-majorities.

If the policies are realistic, popular, and affordable, then what gives? Why do they react to these ideas with such violence? The offense exists in raising the public possibility of there being a different way. Like that passage in Matthew where Jesus says a man who even looks with lust at another woman commits adultery in his heart. The very suggestion of bringing up alternative modes of living, governing, or thinking appalls the Consensus. Their reaction is based in real, unfeigned emotion.

But America was built on novelty. For instance, the blogger Seth Godin recently wrote about concept cars.

“Every year,” Godin wrote, “Audi, Ford, GM and the rest of the auto companies bring concept cars to the big shows. These swooping, modern, magical cars are in stark contrast to the cars that are actually for sale.” At first glance, this doesn’t make much sense. Concept cars aren’t a form of market research. Why would the automakers ever bother?

Several reasons, Godin writes. One, the car companies are afraid of not innovating. Second, concept cars make the old cars look dated—and makes the new cars look, surprise surprise, new. Third, automakers understand that cars are big purchases. Buyers are risking a lot of money when they purchase a new car. What if next year’s model is out of style? So, Godin says,

Concept cars, then, are an assertion by the company: here’s where we think we’re going, thanks for paying attention, car nerds! Tell the others. We’re here to entertain you, have fun. We know it’s outlandish today, but by exposing you to these features over and over for five or ten years, by the time the cars actually arrive, you’ll say “of course,” not, “what’s that?” They’re normalizing design progress. Making it safe over time. As you’ve probably guessed, this doesn’t only work for cars.

Most American industries have an analogue to concept cars. And yet there’s one place where concept cars are forbidden: Washington. When Gabbard called Iraq “a war based on lies,” the public nodded. But I guarantee you, the silence in the District was deafening. American politics is an industry rigged to prevent concept cars from being shown.

There’s a reason for that. A man named Edward Bernays explained it, ninety-one years ago. Bernays was the father of American public relations. He said that America was largely governed through manipulation of opinion, and that the shapers of opinion were the true rulers of our society. He wrote:

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. … In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions. From our leaders and the media they use to reach the public, we accept the evidence and the demarcation of issues bearing upon public questions; from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite essayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time.

Bernays was wrong about the public. But he was right about how America worked. Bernays uses the phrase “invisible government,” but there’s nothing conspiratorial about it. He’s just talking about people who mold opinion: opinion-makers, thought leaders, lobbyists, people in the media, think tanks. To use Bernays’ term, opinion-makers decide on the demarcation of issues bearing upon public opinion.

Here’s an example. In most Presidential elections, if a candidate said, “Let’s get out of every foreign country. Let’s bring our military home,” they would be treated as a lunatic. “Let’s bring them home” is a perfectly rational answer. It’s easily explained. Easily understood. But it is never brought up. That is demarcation of public opinion in America.

This is how the mainstream politics functions. That’s why the beliefs of the government seem so disconnected from the experiences of ordinary people. There’s no secret, smoky room filled with billionaires and cigars. There’s no soldier with a bayonet making Dana Bash ask bad questions. There’s just a set of powerful people in influential positions. These people have been socialized into believing some ideas cannot be raised. Ever.

Some of my readers grew up in small towns, religious circles, or very sheltered families. Some of you may remember how surprising the outside world was to you, when you got outside your upbringing. Multiply that by a thousand, and you have an idea of how the American elite think and believe.

In their world, concept cars simply do not exist.

When Secretary Clinton said “single-payer healthcare will never, ever happen,” she believed it.

In 2003, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair told President Bush over a private phone call that “We’ve got to make people understand we are not going to war because we want to but because there is no alternative,” he believed it.

When President Obama said, in his Nobel Prize speech, defended America’s long history of military intervention, saying, “We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will,” he believed it.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton let the state of Arkansas execute a mentally-impaired African-American man named Ricky Ray Rector, and said “I can be nicked on a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime,” he believed it.

When Trump said, “No child of God should ever suffer such horror” before he bombed Syria and the children of God inside Syria, he probably believed it. What did all of these leaders believe? Essentially, There is no alternative. We do what we must do.

And more to the point, none of these leaders ruled or believed alone. It is not just important that the leaders believe. In fact, it is more important the many people who actually run the government—the officials and advisers and the functionaries below the leaders—believe there is no alternative too. That’s how you get a town hall full of people asking strange questions.

What we are fighting for now is for concept cars. We are fighting for the idea that new models can, in fact, exist. Medicare For All does not yet exist in fact. But it exists as a public idea—a very popular one. That is a victory. The Washington Consensus, the town hall denizens who do most of the heavy lifting in D.C., object to the existence of the concept car.

Politics is the art of the possible. And what’s possible, in the most literal sense, amounts to what we think of as being politically feasible. What is demarcated. Millions of people want universal health care, not to be crushed by debt, and not to have their children and friends and neighbors sent to fight strange wars in impoverished lands. These are good and wise beliefs.

But these beliefs can be ignored … as long as nobody brings them up. As long as they don’t get off the drawing board. As long as they are not This Year’s Model. But that’s changing. The Washington Consensus understands what’s on the menu for 2019 and 2020, and beyond. And it scares them. And it should. This Year’s Model is built to last.

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