Conservative goalposting defines how the media talks about political news. Conservatives set the terms of debate for the week’s conversation. And the center lets them. This has to stop.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask yourself: what were the major debates of the last two weeks? Whether South Africa is committing “white genocide” (hint: it isn’t), whether we should talk about Mollie Tibbets’ death as a immigrant crime (spoiler: it’s a loaded question) or whether Jason Kessler should be allowed to speak on NPR (pro-tip: not at all). We’re not talking about Haiti, or Yemen, the prison strike, or the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.
Notice anything in common about these stories?
Here’s a hint: All three of these stories are conservative obsessions. The right sets the subject matter. The major liberal news story, Trump’s criminal empire, is also a fixation of the right’s—so that one doesn’t count.
Whatever the issue, the pattern is depressingly similar. Tibbets, South Africa, Kessler, whatever story is in circulation. Our media selects these as Important Stories. They are discussed endlessly.
In a media environment like this, it doesn’t matter that progressives “win” this debate with facts and reason and logic and God knows what else. By elevating these stories, centrists have already blindly accepted an unspoken proposition: These Are The Important Stories. These are The Stories We Should Be Discussing. Even then, the center is playing the right’s game. The practice of accepting goalposts deep in conservative territory means liberals lose the minute they accept the terms of the debate.
The right knows that the centrist will appease them when it’s time to debate. It’s part of the center’s self-image. Centrists see themselves as eminently reasonable, better-educated, ready to debate. No surprise then, that they’ll blindly accept terms without thinking twice.
Where does this get us? I think we know where.
Instead of issuing the correct response to the Mollie Tibbetts debate—for example, saying, “This is insane” or “You’re dishonest” or “Go to hell” or “If you want to talk about killing sprees, let’s talk about Trump’s white supremacist supporters”—the center will typically argue the specific case of Tibbetts’ death.
Why are centrists like this? Why are they so easily rolled? Why do they keep falling for this con?
Because modern conservatism is designed specifically to attack modern liberalism’s weak points. The current right is derivative of liberalism. It echoes liberalism, it shadows liberalism. Modern right-wing thought was cooked up to combat a culturally-hegemonic progressivism in the middle of the last century.
In general, the left is skeptical about national structures.
Centrists, on the other hand, are wedded to the institutions of American society, and its myths. And the key myth for centrists is the myth of the non-ideological, rational, scientific American political citizen. In this story, ideology is the serpent that spoiled the American Eden. Ideas are bad. Ideas are dangerous.
The irony here is that this non-ideology is, in fact, an ideology. Centrist institutionalism is an ideology.
Centrism is so embodied in societal institutions that it can’t recognize that American centrism itself is an ideology. No surprise. After all, centrism can’t see the truth of conservative ideology. The far right does not share the same assumptions about our society that the rest of us accept as given. The far right has radically divergent notions of what the good society amounts to. These beliefs exist outside of liberal notions.
If you’re a so-called non-ideological, “hyper-rational” centrist, you probably make it a point of pride to be open-minded.
In reality, centrists see anybody who possesses ideological commitments as a threat. From this perspective, the left, who want radical change in the country, are seen as vaguely threatening.
Contrast that with the far right. They posture as reasonable souls within the liberal tradition. It’s a trick. Conservatives understand their own ideology; centrists do not.
In centrism, the last thing you want is to be labeled some kind of ideologue. That would be terrible. So centrists, who pride themselves on moderation, become the chief agents of moving our national discussion to the right.
I think you can see where this all gets us. Centrism is the ruling ideology of media. If a person or an institution lack a compelling vision of the good, they really will fall for anything.
If your ideology styles itself as a non-ideology, guess what happens? You start worshiping institutions. Which is two steps away from just straight-out worshiping power.
When centrists accept the right’s goalposts, they’re buying into the fallacy of the level playing field. But in a society where power is concentrated, there are no level playing fields left.
Here are some examples: Who succeeds in a free market? People who already have money. Who succeeds in the public square? People who already have loud voices and built-in soapboxes. Who succeeds in the war of ideas? People who have established academic chairs—or people who have audiences that already believe in those ideas.
Without a belief structure saying what the institutions are good for, everything else is quite meaningless.
Who cares how many Pinocchios your fact-checker says Trump has? That’s not important to anyone but media types.
While writing this, I copied a few headlines from the Washington Post and the New York Times. Both of these newspapers are regarded as powerful arbiters of official opinion:
One hates Trump. The other loves him. But as he comes to town, both of these W.Va. bus drivers see a bleak America.
By a 3-to-1 margin, Trump supporters embrace his personality over his policies
‘I am Papa John’: Ousted pizza chain founder wants his company back
President Trump’s tweet on South Africa redistributing farmland seemed to endorse a common claim of white supremacists.
How Politics Took Over the Killing of Mollie Tibbetts
Musk Details ‘Excruciating’ Personal Toll of Tesla Turmoil
Each of these titles fails the basic test articulated by Christopher Mathias:
Don’t invite people on your shows to argue that there is a white genocide in South Africa. There is not a white genocide in South Africa. This is not a “both sides” situation. This is the president pushing white nationalist propaganda.
— Christopher Mathias (@letsgomathias) August 23, 2018
Each of these headlines represents choices made by an editor or reporter: how to cover a story, how to orient the audience, and most importantly, a decision about what counts as news.
In each headline, we see a clear example of how the media accepts far-right framing of current events. Each story features:
A) right-wing propaganda seriously debated, or
B) a story about the controversy caused by conservative propaganda, or
C) In the case of Musk, just sheer propaganda.
Since we’re on the topic, let me clear a few things up:
—Trump having dedicated supporters isn’t news. You guys keep making it news.
—Papa John already has all of the platforms in the world. Why does he get another one? Why does it matter?
—South Africa isn’t experiencing white genocide.
—”Politics” didn’t take over the killing of Tibbetts. The far right made it a political issue, and the media accepted their goalposts.
—Why does Musk’s viewpoint matter on this issue?
The mainstream press doesn’t have an interest in progressive voices. I would love to blame the right for that. But it’s the center’s fault. Centrists will always accept the right’s terms of debate. They will embrace them beyond question, beyond investigation, beyond sense.
Friends, when we accept the story we are handed by the opponent, we lose. The center keeps speaking of a level field of play, but they never want to fight the battles that matter, against the opponent that matters. Mainstream media sings along to whatever tune conservatism is humming. They never think of changing the music.
Isn’t it hellish having to get the time from someone else’s broken wristwatch? It means you have to live according to somebody else’s schedule. The center must stop accepting conservative goalposts, and conservative terms of debate. The moment is always Right, and that’s forever wrong.