Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Science of Political Smear

Let me point readers to the comment thread to my post, "The Partisan Gap in American Morality."

I highighted in that entry that statistically, Republicans are more concerned about the collapse of American social values than are Democrats. The difference is not large quantitatively, but significant, and I frankly believe that conservative Republicans have more respect for traditionalism than do Democrats, who on average adopt and defend moral relativism.

Note too that we've seen all the outrage on the left and right about smear tactics during this campaign season. But what is a "
smear"? Is this concept fundamentally reprehensible, or is political smearing part-and-parcel to bare-knuckled politics?

Within reason, I'd say the latter.

But check out
Steve Benen at Crooks and Liars, who is bent out of shape with right-wing bloggers "trolling" the comments at radical-left blogs to find evidence of racist hatred:

For quite a while, conservatives have embraced an annoying strategy — trawl through liberal blogs’ comments sections in the hopes of finding intemperate remarks. The right then takes these comments to “prove” that the left is made up of unhinged radicals....

Little Green Footballs, a prominent far-right blog, had this item yesterday:

A search of the official site for “Jewish Lobby” reveals an enormous amount of antisemitic hatred being posted…. There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of posts that refer to the “Jewish lobby” at the Obama site. I stopped looking at the results on page 10. […]

By the way, it is absolutely no excuse to say that “anyone can post a blog there.” Barack Obama isn’t running a Blogspot blog, he’s running for president of the United States, and his official web site is full of hatred and antisemitism.

LGF’s criticism was interesting in part because it was only partially attacking Obama. The candidate, the argument goes, is wrong for having a forum filled with ugly content, even if the campaign didn’t produce the content. And, the argument continues, it speaks poorly of the campaign in general that it attracts people who’d provide the ugly content in the first place.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First, the Obama campaign (to its credit) created an open online forum. Anyone can “post a blog there,” and it’s not the campaign’s fault when someone adds offensive content. Second, the campaign has moderators to delete the truly ridiculous posts and comments, but it’s hard to keep up with the level of abusive text. That’s just a practical, logistical problem, but it hardly speaks to bigotry within the campaign or among the campaign’s supporters in general.

Okay, say we accept that this is a "practical problem," that it would be unrealistic for the Obama campaign to effectively monitor every community blog post that goes up at

Then what would Benen or other defenders of unhinged community racists say about the fact that
the Obama campaign is openly coordinating political rapid-response planning with Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos?

Someone at the Obama headquarters must know that hanging out officially with Markos Moulitsas is a political liability for the general election. It's not just the commenters at Daily Kos who are wickedly evil, racist, and anti-Semitic. Moulitsas himself has personally demonstrated
his promotion of hatred many times.

But again, think about this question of political smear: It's not a smear to monitor and disseminate information on the hatred of the left. Indeed, I've been making an industry of it, and so far I've not been attacked as "smearing" people (well, maybe once or twice, by
the targets of that opprobrium).

The truth is, political smear is an accepted, long-standing tradition in American politics, although there are degrees of partisan aptitude for the method, as
Right Wing Nut House points out:

This is getting so painful to watch that I just had to write this piece.

I would say to my good friends on the left guys, where in all that is good and holy did you people learn how to smear someone? Jesus, Lord you suck at it. Taken as a whole, your efforts are beyond pitiful. Amateurish, disorganized, barely a grade above schoolyard bullying and taunts. Sometimes, you’re not even that good.

In the interest of practicing the “new politics,” – which basically means if you smear someone, you’re only pre-empting a “right wing attack machine” effort that only distracts from the issues in this campaign and if the right smears anyone, they are racist pigs who deserve 5 years in a re-education camp – allow me to instruct you in proper smear etiquette as well as show you the ropes on how to make that smear a winner.

The trouble is, your efforts to date have been horribly childish and uncoordinated. Allow me to give you some pointers:

When attacking another candidate, please refrain from making fun of their physical characteristics like “yellow teeth” or, more broadly, trying to smear the candidate by criticizing him for being tortured while in service to his country, receiving disability pay as a result.

From a tactical standpoint, this is a total waste of good smear material. First, you didn’t say anything about McCain’s cancer – a smearariffic gaffe in that you should always go for the jugular. You could have put it this way:

“John McCain’s teeth are yellowed as a result of his chemotherapy treatment for skin cancer – a disease that will almost certainly kill him before his first term in office is over.”

A truly inspired smear would include the disability pay and the fact that the torture McCain had to endure was so severe he can’t raise his arms above his head. Perhaps you could have thrown something in about how such extreme pain shortens the lives of those who experience it and tie it into the cancer meme.

Get the idea? When smearing someone, creativity and a keen eye for detail is a must.

The real problem you have is that you took the whole thing out of context and the smear was easily debunked. Taking words that someone says and then not putting them in the proper context is so…so…Clintonesque, so 1990’s. This is the 21st century guys! The YouTube of what McCain actually said was all over the place before your smear had a chance to get rolling.

Now, if you’re going to smear someone by taking what they say out of context, the quote must be more extensive and much harder to debunk – like Obama’s “bitter” remarks in San Francisco. The guy went on for 5 minutes about the misguided yokels who cling to their guns and bibles while harboring racist thoughts about blacks and Hispanics. The right wing noise machine went gaga over those remarks and turned them into political dynamite because the explanation by Obama’s camp was almost as long as the quote itself.

See what I’m getting at...?

Now let’s look at a successful smear, shall we? The “Obama is a Muslim” smear is so perfect, it makes me weep to think about how elegant and perfectly logical it is. First, please note the sheer volume of noise on this one. Almost every right of center blogger has posted about it at one time or another. It doesn’t matter if they try to debunk it, it’s like they say about your name in public relations; as long as they spell it right, it’s free advertising. As long as the smear is mentioned, it doesn’t matter which way the writer goes on it.

Secondly, note how impossible it is to be proved wrong. The Obama camp can try and debunk the smear all they want, they only dig a deeper hole for themselves. That’s because every time they try, some Indonesian who knew Obama back when pops up and swears the guy worshipped in a mosque when he was 8 years old or something.

Does that make Obama a Muslim? OF COURSE NOT! But you’re not thinking like the right wing attack machine. What does “true” have to do with a political smear? While an element of truth should reside somewhere in the smear – Obama was in a Muslim country when he was a boy – the rest just follows logically.

Now, that's a pretty good piece of Machiavellianism!

I'll have more later, but keep this post in mind next time you see pictures of
Obama in a turban on my page.