Surveying the wreckage after the last election, Democratic political operative David Brock called for “a Breitbart of the left.”
It’s difficult to imagine what a full-blown Breitbart of the left might look like. Would it support a reign-of-terror-style hostility to enemies of the revolution, a left-wing supremacy to mirror white nationalism? Would it feature a comments section that makes a fetish of demonizing the right? Would Brock become the left’s Steve Bannon, part propagandizer, part political Svengali?
He didn’t say. But Brock’s comments demonstrate the limits of his approach to power — one that resorts to mimicking right-wing successes without engaging the complex historical and moral questions involved in the challenges the left faces. It’s a problem liberals have encountered before, and one they must confront head-on as they look to rebuild political power post-election.
David Brock is a student of the architecture of power, particularly the political power of media. In the 1980s and 1990s, he emerged as the right’s favorite muckraker, crafting exhaustive investigative reports on prime conservative targets, namely Anita Hill and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Block-jawed with a mass of thick black hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Brock became a fixture on the DC scene in the mid-1990s, penning anti-Clinton hit pieces in the American Spectator. Those stories laid the groundwork for Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
Some 15 years later, a few things have changed. Brock’s hair, voluminous as ever, has flipped from black to gray, and his politics have flipped from right to left. But he is still a political operative, intent on applying the lessons of Republican success to Democratic politics. In the past few years, he has founded a Super PAC, a legal fund to sue Republican officeholders, and an institute to support liberal muckrakers.
It is no wonder Breitbart caught his eye. For Brock, the rapid rise of Breitbart, whose CEO will take his place at the right hand of the president in one month’s time, serves not as warning but a model: how to accumulate power in the new media age.
The long, sad history of liberal efforts to copy right-wing media
But Brock would be better served if he balanced his understanding of conservative success with a study of liberal failures. After all, there’s nothing particularly novel about Brock’s proposal. Since conservative media became politically potent — since Bush 41 invited Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes to the White House in an attempt to win them over and save his 1992 campaign, and since Fox News became the de facto communications arm of the GOP — liberals have tried to counter with ideological media of their own.
Time and again, that political mimicry has failed. There was Air America, launched in the midst of the George W. Bush years and heralded as “say-it-loud, say-it-proud liberal radio.” By 2010 the network had collapsed into bankruptcy. In the mid-2000s, MSNBC rebranded itself as “the place for politics,” and its evening opinion lineup took on an overtly liberal cast. It, too, has struggled in the ratings. Its most popular evening shows have rarely drawn audiences on par with their competitors on Fox. (Megyn Kelly’s show, with an audience of 3 million, regularly outstrips Rachel Maddow’s by about a million viewers, for instance.
Which is not to say these efforts have been total failures. Air America spun off shows that outlasted the network, launching Rachel Maddow’s career and helping speed Al Franken’s transformation from an entertainer into a politician. All of MSNBC’s evening shows started topping a million viewers during the election, trouncing CNN. But these shows have nowhere near the political pull of their conservative counterparts. If Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and liberal radio voices all went away tomorrow, the structure of Democratic power would not fundamentally change. The same cannot be said for the GOP if Fox News or conservative talk radio suddenly shuttered their operations.
Why has the fight for liberal broadcasting been such a struggle? Because liberal innovators have reverse-engineered conservative media without addressing the underlying need that those right-wing outlets meet. Right-wing media thrives in large part because conservatives do not trust other news sources. They have been trained for generations, stretching back to the 1950s, to view news media as inherently ideological, and to reject nonconservative sources.
A key difference: conservatives have a built-in aversion to mainstream media
The habit of consuming right-wing media has long been part of conservatives’ political identity. There is no real analogue to this phenomenon on the left. Yes, critics on the left have attacked mainstream media as being too conservative, too corporate — Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book, is a model of the genre. But that has never been a core liberal belief. Setting aside debates about why that is the case, it is the key difference between how the right and the left understand media, and why left-wing media has struggled so much. Liberals simply haven’t cultivated the same appetite for ideological news.
That context helps explain Brock’s most successful venture, Media Matters for America. Media Matters focuses on pointing out the bias and error in conservative media. It, too is a left-wing copycat, mimicking media watchdog groups on the right such as Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center. So why has it succeeded where liberal media outlets have failed? Because the underlying justification is different. Media Matters does not require liberals to believe mainstream news sources are biased, just conservative ones. And since conservative media outlets are by definition tilted toward the right, it’s a pretty easy sell.
To match conservative success in the realm of ideological media, liberals would have to first sow deep distrust in non-ideological news sources. Possible? Sure, especially after this last election season. But is it desirable? Even if you could train liberals to treat the New York Times with the same outright hostility they bring to Fox News, is that what you want?
I can hear some of my more left-leaning readers shouting, “Yes! That’s exactly what we want!” And I heartily agree that we could all stand to treat our news sources with a bit more skepticism. But the work of the New York Times is distinctly different from that of Breitbart or Fox News or Rush Limbaugh — and that distinction is worth preserving.
That drags us away from practical concerns about political mimicry and into more moral and ethical ones. Since the 1990s, conservative media outlets have been effective in shaping policy goals and motivating the Republican base. As a result, they have gained an incredible amount of political power. In early 2012 Dick Morris, in a rare accurate observation, said on Fox & Friends, “You don’t win Iowa in Iowa. You win it on this couch. You win it on Fox News.” In 2016 the balance of power may have shifted from Fox to Breitbart and Bannon, but stayed firmly in the right-wing media camp.
Captivated by the promise of power, liberals have sometimes lost sight of the associated costs. Part of what makes conservative media so effective is what makes it a poor model for liberals. The creation of a closed media ecosystem, fed by distrust in outside sources and increasingly disconnected from fact, leads to a politics built on misperception and misinformation.
Adopting the Breitbart model would also come with an ethical price
The Breitbart model is even less desirable. The site has suggested Huma Abedin is “most likely a Saudi spy” and that climate change is a “conspiracy against the taxpayer.” Do liberals really want to claw their way to power through media activism devoted to the spread of disinformation? Do they want to build communities around fear, anger, and disdain? Bannon sees political opportunity in chaos and destruction. Is that the path to power liberals wish to chart?
They shouldn’t, because compromising one’s values is both bad in itself and, sometimes, a tactical misstep. Take the example of the John Birch Society, the conspiratorial anti-communist organization founded in 1958. Robert Welch, the founder of the Birch Society, modeled it after what he believed was the most effective political organization of the 20th century: the Communist Party. He structured the organization as a dictatorship (with himself at the top), with front groups, small local chapters, and secret membership. And it appeared as alien and alarming to most Americans as the Communist Party itself.
Democrats have a lot to learn from Republicans. The right’s investment in local and state politics has been a model of effective political organization. Ralph Reed, a leading figure in the religious right, said in 1995, “I would rather have a thousand school board members and 2,000 state legislators than a single president.” That’s good advice. And they’ve already learned some important lessons from conservative organizing. The Center for American Progress and similar think tanks, founded explicitly to counterbalance Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute on the right, have emerged as important sources of policy and leadership.
But if they want to do more than just win, if they want to contribute to a healthy, well-functioning, and inclusive political culture, then Democrats must reject outright calls for things like a Breitbart of the left. Political mimicry cannot just be about power. It has to be constrained by values. Otherwise the Bannons of the world win, regardless of which party holds power.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.