It's one of the central truisms of US politics - politicians running for president run more towards the extremes during the primary and more towards the centre during the general election. But that's not happening this year. This was always supposed to pose a problem for Romney during the primary election phase: how to appeal enough to the right to gain the nomination, without taking positions that would prove toxic during the general election.
One solution was suggested by Romney's own senior campaign aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, the "Etch-a-Sketch" erasure of everything that had gone before. Although poorly phrased, there was nothing novel about this. Rather, it was today's media and technology environment that made this pre-videotape, pre-YouTube, pre-Comedy Central strategy sound hopelessly out-of-step and out-of-touch. Sure, the Romney campaign will still try to erase anything it can, but since it's so much harder nowadays, that won't be its primary strategy.
Instead, Romney is taking a much more radical turn: He's not moving to the centre at all. Rather, he's planning to work closely with right-wing media as part of a strategy to essentially shut off the centripetal force of general elections drawing politicians to the centre. Judd Legum at ThinkProgress brought this sharply into focus with his piece, "Romney advisers reveal strategy: Ignore journalists, pander to right-wing conspriacy websites".
Legum first sets the stage by pointing out how the first part of this strategy has been shaping up for quite some time, via Romney's well-established pattern of avoiding taking specific positions - and those who might pressure him to do so:
"The press dubbed it 'the Mittness Protection Programme'. As the campaign wore on, Romney has refused to answer direct questions about major policy issues central to the campaign. For example, Romney has still not stated whether he would undo Obama's order ending deportations for many young undocumented immigrants."
Romney's budget proposals
After looking into the matter, it seems as though Romney doesn't really have a serious jobs plan, despite a 95-point document full of goodies for his multi-millionaire friends. None of what he proposed was the sort of thing that economists usually categorise as job-creation, much less model or measure in those terms. There were, for example, seven anti-labour proposals with no measurable job-creating impact. This directly parallels Romney's budget proposals, which he insists "can't be scored" by the Congressional Budget Office, and hence can't be discussed by economists - despite the fact that what he has said so far simply doesn't add up.
Then Legum quotes from what he describes as "a stunning interview with Breitbart.com, [in which] two top advisers to Mitt Romney revealed the campaign's plan to largely ignore journalists in favour of right-wing conspiracy websites". He quotes Romney campaign spokesman Lenny Alcivar as follows:
"When this election is over, one of the lessons that will be learned by the mainstream media is that they no longer have a toe-hold on how Americans receive their news. Never before - in a way that has taken Democrats off stride - have we seen the confluence of an aggressive online community, led by Breitbart, and an aggressive campaign team not willing to cede an inch of ground to Democrats. This combination has created a new political reality. We no longer allow the mainstream media to define the political realities in America. The rise of Breitbart, Drudge and others, combined with an aggressive Romney campaign is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the conservative movement… The governor will no longer allow the mainstream media to dictate the terms of this debate. This is just the beginning… We are witnessing the rise of the centre right media.
Of course, this is more of an evolutionary event than Alcivar lets on. Fox viewers have been living in an alternate universe for more than a decade - and that's not just an impression, there's plenty of data to prove it. First of all, a 2003 study by the Programme on International Policy Attitudes found that Fox viewers were the media consumers most likely to believe at least one of three false claims linked to support for the Iraq war.
Chris Mooney's new book, The Republican Brain, cites six other studies showing similar patterns of misinformation among Fox viewers on other subjects as well (see excerpt here). It might not be so bad if Fox viewers sought out other information sources as well, but Fox News personalities repeatedly tell their viewers not to listen to any other media. That's why the strategy Alcivar is laying out is a lot less novel than he lets on.
Resurgence of conspiracism
And yet, Alcivar has a point, for three reasons: First, Romney's open disdain for the mainstream media and their pesky questions about facts, issues and his positions is not an occasional matter, it is a core part of his re-branding himself as a "true conservative". Thus, the very reality of his more "moderate" past is directly implicated in his taking of a more radical strategy than Bush or McCain ever contemplated.
Second, as Legum goes on to point out, Breitbart and Drudge are so drenched in conspiracism that they make Fox News look like CBS in the Walter Cronkite era. Among other things, he cites Drudge "aggressively" pushing birtherism (ThinkProgress, 5/17/12; Drudge Report, 4/20/11; TPM, 4/29/11) and promoting 9/11 truther and all-purpose conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (Red State, 6/20/11; Media Matters, 10/11/10) and Breitbart.com routinely comparing Obama with "Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot and Castro" (Media Matters, 9/29/09). Third, the Romney campaign is proudly declaring what other GOP candidates previously obfuscated or denied. The mask has been torn away.
In 1964, conspiracist energy fuelled Barry Goldwater's campaign, with multi-million-selling tracts such as Choice Not An Echo and None Dare Call It Treason motivating the GOP base. But William F Buckley was simultaneously working overtime to publicly drum the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement, to rid conservatism's public image of the conspiracist taint. Buckley's death has coincided with an ongoing resurgence of conspiracism in the conservative mainstream.
It's not just the Birthers, or the broader tendency of Republican lawmakers to look for nefarious Obama plots that call for his impeachment. Increasingly, it goes to the very heart of how conservatives view every aspect of the world. For example, a just-published study in Risk Analysis finds that emotionally driven conspiracism is now the most dominant form of global warming denialism. According to the study: "Associations with conspiracy theories (eg: "the biggest scam in the world to date") accounted for the largest portion of 2010 naysayer images with over 40 per cent of total responses for this category."
Ordinary denialism now trails behind this sort of conspiracism. Senator James Inhofe's ludicrous 2003 claim that "global warming is a hoax" is no longer an extreme position among conservatives - it's their leading view.
As I explained last month, an upsurge in conspiracism is one of two main reactions conservatives have in response to Democrats moving to the right:
While neoliberals saw their moves to the centre as inherently conflict-reducing, conservatives saw those moves as deeply threatening... Clinton and Obama's rightward moves gave rise to two types of conservative reaction. First was an intense explosion of conspiracism, which allowed for the interpolation of vast imaginary political space into a highly compressed political spectrum where no such actual space exists. The militia movement under Clinton and the Tea Party under Obama both traffic heavily in this sort of imaginary, often deeply paranoid politics. (Birth certificates, anyone?)
Embracing the Ryan Plan
The other conservative response is to move even more sharply to the right - which Romney has also done, as noted above. His embrace of the Ryan Plan, for example, not only commits Romney to privatising Medicare and Social Security, while giving trillions in new tax breaks to millionaires. It would also lock in eventual federal spending levels that would take us back to the 1920s - long before we took on the role of global military power, much less a modern welfare state.
Yet, even now, mainstream media in the US is incapable of seeing and naming what is going on. One major reason is that they themselves have long since stopped caring about truth in the realm of politics. If two sides disagree, both are reported, he-said/she-said style, without any hint that one or both may be lying six ways from Sunday. The media and its defenders call this "balanced". To call one side a liar would be "biased", to call them both liars would be "cynical", if not unthinkable.
There may still be all manner of concern over getting detailed facts right in stories about this or that issue - and thank goodness for that. But as soon as politicians step into the picture, all that matters is quoting them accurately, not whether what they say is true.
This disdain for truth when it matters most - when it applies to those who would be king - is exactly the opposite of what it pretends to be: rather than favouring no one, so that truth may flourish, it favours those most willing to lie, giving them a consistent strategic advantage over those who care about facts. Which is why and how the mainstream media has helped sow the seeds of its own ongoing destruction.
This de facto empowering of right-wing propaganda was part of the point I made recently in "Breaking ranks: The sidelining of two establishment giants", my column about the new book by Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein - It's even worse than it looks: How the American constitutional system collided with the new politics of extremism - and how it's been studiously ignored by the political establishment.
By religiously following this see-no-evil practice, the US mainstream media are incapable of seeing what's going on right before their eyes, even as Romney's top media men openly declare war on them.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.