On September 9, 2009, Congressman Joe Wilson, who had represented South Carolina’s Second District since 2001, shouted “YOU LIE!” at President Barack Obama while he was delivering a speech before a joint session of Congress to boost support for his then-foundering health care reform plan. You remember this, yes? Obama said, “The reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” and then someone in the back of the chamber interrupted him and shouted, “YOU LIE!” The fury that then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi bore on her face as she shot her head leftwards, toward the interruption, may have been the most natural, visceral expression of disdain we’ve ever seen from a United States lawmaker.
All right, maybe the fainting reactions from the Washington pundit class did descend into self-parodic hyperbole—as though this single moment of disrespect to the president portended the five hundred years of unrelenting biblical apocalypse that, say, going to war with Iraq for no reason apparently didn’t—but you didn’t have to be a monarchist to see that Wilson’s outburst was objectively inappropriate. Hollerin’ nonsense at presidents during their addresses to joint sessions of Congress is downright boorish.
So the question at the time seemed to be, would Congressman Joe Wilson resign immediately, decline to run for reelection, or lose his reelection bid? The answer turned out to be . . . Joe Wilson raised tons of money, and so did his opponent, and nothing changed.
Only three days after the outburst, Ben Smith of Politico reported that disposable income had begun to fill up the coffers of candidates in South Carolina’s Second District:
A source on Rep. Joe Wilson’s campaign says his fundraising has broken $1 million—and surpassed that of his Democratic rival, Rob Miller—since his outburst of “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to Congress Wednesday.
The source said Wilson’s current tally is $1,005,021 from 18,859 donations amid a high-profile campaign on the Drudge Report and elsewhere telling conservatives that Wilson is “under attack” for his willingness to take on Obama.
By September 25—five days before the Q3 fundraising deadline—the National Republican Congressional Committee was asking Wilson to send a mass fundraising email on behalf of the party titled “The health care bill Pelosi doesn’t want you to read.” Wilson’s appeals to partisans turned him into a GOP cash cow.
It’s not news that stupidity can advance an American political career. This is, after all, the country that elevated both Warren Harding and Richard Nixon to its highest office. But the case of Congressman Wilson showcases something new, both within our body politic and in our brave new digital culture: the magical Internet, once touted as history’s greatest boon to democratic accountability, is now manufacturing national political brands, and the fundraising clout that goes with them, for confirmed morons.
There Goes Everybody
Things weren’t supposed to turn out this way. We were assured by digital savants that the advent of the wired public life would enthrone transparency and reason. The greedy, decadent gatekeepers would be tossed asunder, with an authentic Digital Will replacing them as the primary means of pressuring authority. “We no longer need companies, institutions, or government to organize us,” the tireless cyberutopian Jeff Jarvis explained in his book What Would Google Do? “We can find each other and coalesce around political causes or bad companies or talent or business or ideas.” Clay Shirky has ingeniously hymned the web as an inexhaustible mine of creative political resistance, even as he (like Jarvis) has turned this exuberant liberation theology into a lucrative career as a glorified corporate motivational speaker. It’s apparently never occurred to such cyber-boosters that the curation of political ideas on the web cuts both ways—that existing authority figures can pick and choose the crappy ideas and attitudes that suit them best from the same online “marketplace of ideas,” use existing apparatuses to push them through, and get away with it without even a rap on the knuckles from the ineffectual, or nonexistent, counter-authorities empowered by web connectivity.
Indeed, not only is our new breed of web-enabled lummox-leader able to mint loutishment into mass-merchandised victimology overnight, but the same tools that are supposed to fearlessly empower the U.S. citizenry now permit these goombahs to have the last word—and to launch a whole new raft of fundraising appeals. Nearly two years after the You Lie Moment, on August 25, 2011, Congressman Wilson was still milking it, having sent a fundraiser appeal titled “I Was Right,” in which, as McClatchy reported, “Wilson portrays himself as a victim of political enemies who have punished him for telling the truth.” Wilson, you see, was upset that $8.5 million worth of federal grants in the new health care law would, as McClatchy put it, “be used to establish 25 medical clinics targeting migrant and seasonal farm workers, some of whom have historically been undocumented workers.” Wilson’s appeal claimed that Obama “misled all of us.” In an actual, functioning political system, the congressman would have written a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services inquiring about enforcement mechanisms for provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 before asking his supporters for money.
By this time, though, Wilson knew how to play the new game. He’d rebounded from his “You Lie” notoriety and won reelection over his Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, by 10 percentage points. That’s right, he won his reelection race by approximately the same margin that he would have won by had he sat on his hands and shouted nothing that night. The only difference was that, by shouting, he separated certain excitable members of the American public from millions of their dollars during the worst economy in eighty years. Consider all of the dollars that would have been more effectively discarded had they been lit on fire and their ashes dumped into the port of Charleston. As McClatchy reported on October 18, 2009:
Over the next 21 days, through the Sept. 30 end of this year’s third quarter, Wilson and Miller combined to raise $4.34 million—more than Democratic Rep. John Spratt and GOP challenger Ralph Norman collected over two years for their 2000 election in what had been the state’s richest U.S. House race ever.
When political consultants first came to understand the power of online fundraising—this was in the wake of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, recall—the idea was that this would bring about a new epoch of decentralized democratic power wherein politicians bent toward the concerns of the masses, who’d suddenly become their largest funding bloc. As Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi wrote in his memoir, the Internet’s “decentralized, scattered architecture make[s] it difficult for big, establishment candidates, companies, and media to gain control of it.” Now it appears online campaign fundraising entrenches the status quo by fueling an exponentially expanding arms race, littered with bad incentives to bring out politicians’ worst traits.
Where Isn’t the Outrage?
As one of those depraved journalists whose job is to follow every minute-by-minute development in American politics, I can best describe my job like this: I look to see how much money politicians earn for saying or doing stupid things. It’s become one of those sad jokes among the Twitter chattering classes. That freshman congressman said he loves Hitler! What’ll it be, $3 million overnight? Ha ha . . . Oh, how we hate our lives.
For me, it started with Wilson, but even as I type these words, that immortal moment of political derangement is poised to be eclipsed. Missouri Representative Todd Akin, who’s running for the state’s U.S. Senate seat, has said something spectacularly offensive on a local television news show. Speaking about pregnancies resulting from rape, Akin said, “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare.” According to the CDC, the average number of pregnancies resulting from rape is 32,000 per year, but hey, one man’s “32,000 cases” is another man’s “rare.” Akin then hazarded his explanation for this non-phenomenon with one of the more infamous sentences of the year: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The problem with this bit of anecdotal soft-science is that it’s wrong to the point of insanity and something approaching cruelty.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and pretty much every other national Republican worth his salt swiftly demanded that Akin drop out of the race—not necessarily because they thought his comment itself was disqualifying, but because they never wanted Akin—who has a reputation for staying stupid things—to be the candidate facing Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. The incumbent Democrat was supposed to be vulnerable to a Republican challenge this cycle, and a pickup in Missouri could well put the GOP within striking distance of a Senate majority. But all these organizational imperatives of the old political order didn’t matter. Todd Akin might be a fool, but he could easily see how his epic moment of public lunacy could be mined for more coverage in the press, and how more fundraising dosh could be cynically reaped by depicting himself as a victim of the press.
In short, reader, he didn’t give in. The day after the scandal broke, he took to Twitter, writing, “I am in this race to win. We need a conservative Senate. Help me defeat Claire by donating.” Contextual ads surfaced across the vast spaces of Google and Facebook, reading, “Akin Isn’t Dropping Out: Chip-in $3 as a sign of support for Todd Akin’s campaign.” When Akin appeared on the radio the next day to announce his final decision to stay in the race, he noted that he’d received a “tremendous outpouring of support” from donors who didn’t like to see everyone gang up on someone who simply thought that women’s vaginas have magical anti-rape powers. We look forward to hearing what the final haul will be. Five million? One or two at least in the next week?
One million would make a fine benchmark, since that’s the figure Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann set when she stepped deep in it this summer. She, along with a handful of other Republican cosigners in the House, sent and publicly posted a letter to the Department of Homeland Security suggesting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s longtime top aide, Huma Abedin, may have been working to help the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrate the United States government. Bachmann didn’t provide evidence for this preposterous claim, other than noting that Abedin’s father knew someone affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood several decades ago. For a congresswoman with a long and well-blogged history of making inane comments based on nothing, this was her worst and most malicious moment yet.
And sure enough, Bachmann announced that her fundraising figures spiked to $1 million during her random persecution of a respected government official of Arab descent. No doubt, the avalanche of cynical, self-victimizing emails her campaign sent over the month demanding small donations to defend her against those who would roll over in the face of the Muslim Threat did just the trick.
The self-victimizing, viral fundraising pitch is now a permanent feature of American political life. One sure sign is how quickly the major party fundraising committees have wielded the blunt Joe Wilson cudgel. The minute that a petty outrage swarms in the vacuous political news cycle, you can count on senior party flacks taking to their overworked email servers to exaggerate the outburst and dispatch a new round of indignant fundraising appeals. The unequivocal worst offender here is not some rogue conservative demagogue: it is, rather, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Aaaaaand there’s the email from Debbie! is another of those jaded asides that appear like clockwork on the Twitter feeds of Washington-based political journalists thirty seconds after any Republican has said anything to any media outlet in the globe, let’s say. (One just rolled in as I was writing that last sentence, subject line “UNREAL,” demanding a donation of “$3 or more” to help defeat Todd Akin.) We won’t deny that Republican politicians’ media spots have a frighteningly high chance of producing attackable content. But because of that very volume of material, one’s credibility as an indignant commentator would seem to suffer by feigning outrage over every. single. thing.
This spring, Wasserman Schultz’s counterpart at the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, was asked in a television interview to respond to Democratic accusations of a Republican-led “War on Women.” This was, by itself, a rather pointless exercise: asking a rival political leader to endorse the opposition’s talking points about his party is a bit like asking Genghis Khan if he might possibly harbor some hostility toward non-Mongol populations. By contrast, asking directly about the various Republican-sponsored state and federal bills and laws since 2011 that have sought to restrict access to women’s health and family planning programs would be a more productive way of dealing with a major-party mouthpiece. Nevertheless, the sad journalistic set piece ran its course, and here is how Priebus’s response began:
Well, for one thing, if the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars, and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars.
In other words, Priebus was calling out the opportunistic “War on Women” slogan as an opportunistic slogan, and adding that it’s one he disagrees with, as a Republican National Chairman is wont to say in response to such limp questioning.
The email from the Obama campaign flack, titled “Republicans Compare Women to Caterpillars”—really?—came soon enough. Aaaaaand then there was the email from Debbie!
“To have the head of the GOP say these attacks on women are as fictional as a ‘war on caterpillars’ is callous and dismissive of what matters to women and completely out of touch,” Wasserman Schultz wrote. The DNC then took to Twitter to play around with hashtags: “GOP chair dismisses his party’s attacks on women’s rights, comparing it to a ‘war on caterpillars.’ #WomenArentInsects.” Women: not insects. Got it.
So, yes: Armed with the greatest means of communication designed to level all the old hierarchies that formerly sundered our leaders from the great vox populi, senior political operatives are hounding innocuous metaphors into the ground, determined to separate that last three dollars from that last gullibly alarmed supporter. Say what you will about caterpillars, but they at least have the good sense not to take interactivity at face value.