If 9/11/2001 was the catalyst for the end-game of Western Civilization, 11/2/2006 could arguably be considered the tipping point, when the transformation became both obvious and inevitable. For the first time in a generation, political spending on television had little to no impact on electoral results. The masses couldn’t be scared, intimidated, or lied into submission by a ruling party with nothing else to sell. People didn’t suddenly become wiser, or more media literate. Rather, in 2004, most citizens took control of their own media. iPods subverted talk radio and satellite news broadcasts by directly providing more entertaining options. Campaign ads went unseen and unheeded thanks to TiVo and DVR. Finally, viral messages were spread over the web, with Google reinforcing meme’s through search ranking, while personal networks spread deeper ideas. DVDs like “An Inconvenient Truth”, aggregators like iTunes Store and YouTube, and info-networks like History Channel, Discovery, Current, and even PBS can focus deeply on single issues, and present more complex pictures of issues from multiple perspectives. These threads become self-reinforcing, and once a candidate or issue campaign crosses their boundaries, their positions on other issues are either reinforced or invalidated by association. The depth and cross-party acceptance of these new forms make them difficult to counter. As always, time works against the target: John Kerry couldn’t use the megaphone of a major party campaign to deflect entirely scurrilous viral charges in time before the election. Conversely, no real charge (neither competence nor corruption) was large enough to counter the fear meme cultivated by the Bush campaign, which short-circuited rationality. In 2006 the fear meme was weaker with time, but more significantly, the competence meme was inescapably real. No stirring or scary ad could nick a deep, obvious, pervasive conclusion. This conclusion was reached not through the major media, but through micromedia.
Single issue blogs churn and regurgitate the message, refreshed by databases with the most up-to-date evidence stoking the flames. Research once, re-search (google) automagically over and over to reinforce. The Bush administration has tried to stem the tide by re-indexing, re-sorting, and re-arranging every measure of social, economic and military progress historically available to us! By redefining the terms of every argument, they’ve sought to reframe every debate by obscuring the results of their policies. When it was clear they were losing the war on terror badly, they first stopped reporting attacks, and then changed all the definitions so historical benchmarks couldn’t be applied. When it was obvious their tax cuts weren’t helping revenue, they changed accounting standards. From the 2000 election results onward, the Bush administration has skillfully manipulated statistical measures to the benefit of their policies, even those most clearly failures. The modern Republican Party has dominated recent politics through their control of the debate. Every argument is framed in their terms, then parsed interchangeably as cold, economic necessity, or unarguable religious conviction. This deliberate strategy was impossible to derail as long as people were passive recipients of pre-digested information. It failed in 2006 because people have become active participants in an on-going debate with a common, open set of terms.
This shift is radical because in many respects, it throws the baby out with the bathwater. We not only reject Dick Cheney’s unchanging, nonsensical mantras, we no longer see Bill O’Rielly, George Stephanpoulus, and Tim Russert as fair brokers of information. Fox News personalities are tinted by Fox News itself, which is tinted by Republican policy and politics. CBS and PBS are tinted a different, but equally recognizable hue. Consequently we grow up aware of the shading, and take it into account. We avoid it all, but we most actively avoid oppositional perspectives. Obviously, if you’re mad at Republicans, you will not bother listening to their attack ads aimed at Democrats, or vice versa. But chances are, if you have a DVR, you won’t bother with any attack ads at all.