Sep 21, 2009

Birthers, Tea Parties and Astro-Turf

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Recently, US liberals have been struggling to understand the current upsurge in radical right-wing sentiment. A number of people have offered their opinions (see here and here for some insightful posts). Some say it's an “astro-turf” movement promoted by corporations and special-interests. Others claim that the movement is composed of far-right nut-jobs who have hijacked the political debate. Yet another view (recently dismissed by the administration) holds that there is an underlying racist element to the movement. It seems to me that all of these explanations hold some truth, but all of them are partial and none of them provides a method for combating what has proven to be an extremely influential movement.

Not knowing any of the demographics for people involved in the various protests – whether it's anti-healthcare, anti-stimulus, anti-government or just anti-Obama – my sense is that these are not the people who would generally be consider to be right-wing extremists. These are not the people who have bunkers and weapons caches in their back yards; who paste big American flags to the back of their trucks and hang out along the Mexican border hunting for illegal aliens. Instead these are ordinary citizens whose political views would ordinarily be described as right-leaning moderate. What has driven them further away from the center is an existential uncertainty and perhaps even resentment which has crystallized around an antipathy for the persona of President Obama and his moderate-left policies.

Certainly, special interests are active in this movement, and there are definitely some extremists involved as well. Latent racism is also a contributing factor. However, my sense is that there is no over-arching motive behind these protests, rather, what we have here is a heterogeneous collection of individuals and groups, each with their own unique ideology and social-political motivations, which have been drawn together to oppose the current administration. This process has been catalyzed by media sensationalism and corporate funding, but these could not be considered primary driving forces – they merely hasten a reaction that already existed in the background.

The result is what is referred to by William Connolly (drawing on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri) as a resonance machine – an

“...energized complexit[y] of mutual imbrication and interinvolvement, in which heretofore unconnected or loosely associated elements fold, bend, blend, emulsify, and resolve incompletely into each other, forging a qualitative assemblage resistant to classical models of explanation” (his italics).
The same kind of mechanism could be said to have been behind the conservative revival of the 1980s and 90s as well as the election of Barack Obama himself.

The danger in allowing this resonance machine to continue uncontested is the potential for a revival of the neoconservative policies of the 1980s and 90s which have left a lasting scar on the face of the U.S. that has only just begun to heal. Its effects can be seen in the state of the media, in the economic crisis, in the environmental crisis, in health care, and in many other domains as well. With increased media attention and faster methods of communication, the current resonance machine has the potential to be more far reaching and dramatic than the prior. One does not have to be a supporter of Obama or his policies to recognize this threat – it goes against our own basic self-interest and the necessity of moving ahead with important socioeconomic and environmental reforms.

Because they have a foundation in affective thought, a resonance machine cannot be countered with rational arguments. Nor can they be picked apart and contested piece by piece. Town hall meetings may have some impact, but are also insufficient, and any concessions made may further catalyze their growth.

What's needed is a counter-resonance machine. One that disarms the influence of the first, halts its self-organization and redirects the energy into a more positive set of goals. In order to resist the underlying fear and resentment of the current machine, the counter-machine would have to be based on mutual respect and responsibility as well as a sense that there is great potential in uncertainty. The strategy for building such a resonance-machine would have to be long term – incorporating the current debates over health care and environmental regulation, but looking beyond them as well – and involve a number of tactics including education, policy, outreach, grassroots organizing, activism, and outright resistance.

There is no way of knowing exactly what tactics will work best or what end-form the counter-resonance machine will take. Experimentation will be key. In order to be effective, though, it must not center around the persona or policies of President Obama – doing so would make it too fragile and easily disbursed. As with the current machine, it will have to be a heterogeneous assemblage with no single underlying motive or ideology, but, rather than halting the search for solutions to our challenges, our machine will move them forward in a positive direction, possibly resulting in ideas that are different from those promoted by the administration.

While democrats and the media fumble around trying to understand and explain the growing anti-Obama movement, the resonance machine continues to grow. The consequences of leaving it uncontested or of taking a limited approach to resisting it are socio-political stagnation at best and, potentially, a return of the neoconservative policies of the 1980s, with greater force and greater potential for harm. Working to build a positive counter-resonance machine will not only halt the current resonance machine but will also help to propel the US into a brighter, healthier, and happier society.



  1. Jeremy:

    "Not knowing any of the demographics for people involved in the various protests – whether it's anti-healthcare, anti-stimulus, anti-government or just anti-Obama – my sense is that these are not the people who would generally be consider to be right-wing extremists."

    Who knows who they are? It's pretty tough to try to come up with a coherent understanding of such a diversity of opinions, views, and ideas that has coagulated like this. But, I have seen the same thing on the opposite side of the political spectrum where you get ALL KINDS of people gathered together at "protests," while in fact there are many competing (and sometimes contradictory) agendas all at once.

    "The danger in allowing this resonance machine to continue uncontested is the potential for a revival of the neoconservative policies of the 1980s and 90s which have left a lasting scar on the face of the U.S. that has only just begun to heal."

    considering the fact that we really have no idea what the specific agendas are, why the assumption that THIS is what will lead to a neoconservative revival? i don't see the automatic connection.

    "What's needed is a counter-resonance machine. One that disarms the influence of the first, halts its self-organization and redirects the energy into a more positive set of goals. "

    don't we basically already have that with the left? aren't these massive, polemic "machines" part of the issue?

    seems to me that some of the answers might lie in between all of this. i am not sure if creating one large machine to combat another is going to do anything different than what we already have. there has to be some way out of the polemic mass discourse that we already have going on. at least, that's my take.

  2. Ryan,
    First of all, "resonance machines" or "assemblages" or whatever you want to call them do emerge all the time on either side of the political spectrum, and protests are one place where you often see them in action. The thing is, this particular one has hijacked the public discourse and has begun to influence policy in terms of the economic crisis, in health care, and now in the environmental debate as well (i.e. the climate change bill). The point in recognizing what this (or any) movement is, is to understand what kind of strategy is needed to combat it. As I said, the current strategies are geared to homogeneous, single-layered movements - town halls, rational argument, trying to dissect them and address each individual concern, etc. But those strategies will inevitably fail when confronted with a heterogeneous, multi-layered resonance machine.

    Second, you're absolutely right that there is no way to predict the outcome of this particular movement, and it is, perhaps, presumptuous of me to claim that it will move toward neoconservative policies or something farther to the right. However, as a liberal, I feel that this movement is mainly geared toward impeding necessary social changes (particularly with regard to the environment in my case). So far it has successfully interfered with at least two of those changes, and is making a great deal of headway in others. Furthermore, the infusion of free market ideology, fear of "socialism," the call for smaller government, and the underlying racist tone of this machine all resonate with and mirror the prior neoconservative machine (as described in Connolly's Capitalism and Christianity, American Style). I think that alone warrants some sense of danger.

    Third, yes, the left could be described as a "resonance machine" or "assemblage" as well. Like I said, they're all over the place. In fact, to partially answer your final point, I can't imagine a counter movement that would not resemble a resonance machine, due to the very nature of self-organization. The issue is whether or not it's effective. The problem recently is that the left resonance machine hasn't been resonating too well, both internally and out into the general population. The right resonance machine, on the other hand, has. The problem with the left is 1) that it doesn't recognize itself as a resonance machine and 2) that it doesn't recognize the opposition as a resonance machine. Things seemed to be moving pretty well last Fall and into this Spring, but it was too focused on the persona and policies of Obama. When this new machine arose to get in the way, and succeeded in blocking some of Obama's agenda, the left backed down, sulked away, and Obama lost approval. Now they're attacking this machine using ineffective and limited strategies because they fail to recognize it for what it is.

    I realized in writing this, though I couldn't do anything to address it at the time, that using the term counter-resonance-machine might not be the best choice. It implies a reaction against the anti-Obama one. Instead, I think the left needs to build an effective resonance machine of their own - one that is not tied to Obama (though he'll be a part of it, no doubt) and one that can undermine the pressure from the right. This, I think, was the Hope that people sought in the election of Obama, but it fell short because one man - even the President of the U.S. cannot combat a full blown, effective resonance machine.

  3. Hi Jeremy,

    It's difficult for me to say whether something NEW is going on, or whether it's an organized public manifestation of opinions that have been floating around for a long time in private discourse.

    A lot of the ideas expressed at the protest aren't unlike things I've heard conservative neighbors, friends, relatives repeat many times. As far as I can tell, their ideas get fostered and/or debated primarily (1) in daily interaction with news media and (2) in face-to-face interaction with family, friends, co-workers, etc. Among the people I'm speaking of, the media is a heavy, heavy influence.

    I don't see anything wrong with these folks expressing their opinions and fears, but if, as you say, the discourse has "hijacked public policy" and "has begun to influence policy" more than the group is due, that's reason for concern. I'm just wondering whether or not they HAVE hijacked public policy. Congressmen are ultimately the ones voting, but I couldn't say what logic goes through their heads before they cast their decisions.

    In fact -- I had Fox News running in the background while responding to your post, and Glen Beck's complaint is the exact OPPOSITE of yours. Beck is complaining that the liberals have been community organizing for a LONG time, and gaining undue influence. Now, he says that maybe it's time for Republicans to organize together and fight back. He's giving a speech soon and is complaining about all these protesters who are being bussed in who will try and disrupt his speech and not allow others to listen to what he's saying. He says the democrats have "hijacked" the political process and that even some of the republicans have been "hijacked," although I didn't catch the exact reference.

    Maybe both sides have been hijacked, not newly hijacked but more along the lines of Ralph Nader's long-running argument that the Republican and Democrat parties both have too great a hold on politics in the U.S.

  4. It's as though all the issues (and any possibilities of compromise) get pushed to the background as both sides argue about the overwhelming influence of the 'other,' and work to drum-up fears.

  5. Stacie,
    Yes, this is absolutely something that has been going on in the background for a while - in that sense it is not new. However, the intensity of this movement is new. I also suspect, but cannot confirm, that it has drawn some people who would ordinarily consider themselves to be moderates further toward the right.
    This is part of the reason why I like the "resonance" metaphor (though, in other situations I use other metaphors or descriptors for similar phenomena). Resonance occurs when two or more unique patterns come together, harmonize with one another and create a new "emergent" pattern. The private discourse, as you say, has been there for a while. Some confluence of events, however, has brought those disparate discourses together, harmonized them and created this emergent pattern that we are seeing now.

    My liberal bias may be getting in the way, but it is my sense that they have indeed hijacked public policy (and so, I would flat out disagree with Beck). It's not really a matter of how many of them there are or whether their opinions represent a majority - that would be impossible to determine. Polls tend to indicate approval for the very policies that they are protesting, but that's not the point. The point is that the movement is based on unfounded fears and an existential resentment, which is only good for impeding progressive change.
    This is also not about democrats versus republicans. I don't consider myself to be either and haven't voted for either in almost a decade. The current anti-obama resonance machine doesn't limit itself to the Republican party, so why should the Left's limit itself to democrats? In fact, tying a resonance machine to a political party, as with tying it to the persona of Obama, is counter-productive. What's needed instead is a positive resonance machine that goes beyond Obama, beyond the Democratic party, that reaches out to the general population. One that moves us forward toward solving some of the very urgent crises we face today. One that opens out to accept difference and uncertainty - but not just accept them, to recognize that they are essential!
    Again, I think this was the hope that motivated people last Fall and earlier this year, but it was too tightly joined to Obama himself - He was the Change people were looking for. Now that the realization that Obama is not the Change, the enthusiasm has died down (though it does seem to come up again when Obama gives one of his show-them-who's-boss speeches).

  6. This is in response to your second comment - sorry I didn't notice it when I wrote the last bit. I'll try to be brief.
    One, there is no way to discuss the issues in this context, because there is no Issue. There are a multitude of issues all interwoven together. Take one out, the tapestry remains.
    Two, my intention wasn't to drum up fears - in that sense I regret the bit about the "danger of allowing this resonance machine to continue uncontested." I included it because I thought people would wonder why we should counter this resonance machine. The intention is to build a positive resonance machine that will work for genuine change.
    Three, I'm not interested in compromise or bipartisanship. As Stan Goff wrote, "Any time you hear the term bipartisan, check "your six" and check your wallet." ( We are facing a number of crises, that require direct, immediate and dramatic action. I'm not about to dictate what that action is or should be, but I see no reason to allow these people to simply stand in the way.

  7. To be honest, I have not a great understanding of US domestic policies and politics, but I am surprised and a bit amused by the use of the slogan "Fair Tax" by right-wing militants.

    Can someone explain briefly what they mean ? And why do they demand that ?

  8. For individuals, this is about specific issues, judging from the signs. So, yes, a person could discuss the issues, even if they're woven together, if given enough details from the event. So what weaves the protesters together other than collective outrage? Doesn't the broader discourse on "the protests" also "weave them together," whether participants like it or not, and attribute to the group missions and meaning that individual protesters may or may not have had? - Making it very easy for commentators to use the protest for alternative agendas....?

    On compromise, it doesn't have to be bi-partisan compromise. Maybe "agreement" would have been a better word. Whatever agenda you're proposing, if you want the country to pull together and take action on it (or alter current action), either through laws or allocation of federal funds, if it's something that you can't do by yourself with private resources and private action, you're likely going to have to get others to agree.

    In my experience (and this comes from a much smaller scenario) if you can find one or more already powerful/influential people willing to say "this system is shit" in convincing terms, usually repeatedly and at the right moments so people get the message, it goes a long way.

    Maybe that's why Obama's campaign went so well, but I'm sure many who supported him now find the 'changes' to be disappointing, to say the least. A lot of the other persuasive big-mouths are on the conservative side.

    Just glancing at the collage of pictures at the top, one problem with that kind of resonance machine is that it makes the message known "we are angry" but the individual messages tend to get lost or vary so much that few have the time or inclination to sort through and lay them all out. It might drive somebody else to think, "Hey, I'm angry too! I don't want higher taxes! I don't want to live in a socialist country!" But, there's not a ton of substance.

    That's the value of having one or more powerful spokespeople, or a unified mission laid out, for example in a petition. People tend to be more engaging, but clear missions help nail down the message.

    But, there's so much of an "us" against "them" attitude in American politics that it might be hard for such a person to avoid being thrown, by broader discourse, into partisan categories, "Republican," "Democrat," or, worse, "right-wing radical," or "left-wing radical." Worst case scenario, the person gets labeled as "radical," and many will automatically think "no, I don't want anything radical," unless maybe one of those resonance machines is working at the same time?

  9. Fair Tax:

    It replaces all income taxes, estate taxes, etc. with sales tax. Beyond that, I don't know the arguments... never been bothered enough by taxes to look into it. Maybe here:

  10. Thanks. Looks like transfering the major part of the fiscal burden to he shoulders of the less wealthy.

  11. Stacie,
    "For individuals, this is about specific issues, judging from the signs. So, yes, a person could discuss the issues, even if they're woven together, if given enough details from the event."

    Even if that were actually the case, the strategy of going from person to person or arguing issue by issue would be extremely inefficient, and, I would argue, ineffective. However, I would bet that all or several of the issues are interwoven even within the individual. One or a few may become more or less salient for an individual at any given time, but they are indelibly tied. Just try arguing with one of them and I'm sure it will become apparent.

    "Whatever agenda you're proposing ... you're likely going to have to get others to agree."

    Good luck getting such a large and diverse population to agree on any one agenda. The beauty of a resonance machine is that everyone doesn't have to agree on any one issue - that's certainly not the case with the anti-Obama group. Instead you have lots of different ideas, issues, and individuals harmonizing to create some kind of effective action (in this case, impeding the Obama administration's policies). On the other hand, when you tie a resonance machine to a specific person, group of people or agenda it ceases to resonate and becomes too confined and limited.

    Part of your critique seems to be that the strategy I'm advocating is more authoritarian than yours - as if I'm trying to dictate what people should do or believe. I would argue just the opposite; tying a resonance machine to a particular person (or even a few people) and/or a particular agenda seems (forgive the allusion) vanguardist and teleological. Who decides the agenda? Who chooses the spokesperson(s)? What happens when the spokesperson(s) get defamed? What happens if the agenda fails?
    In a resonance machine, the agenda emerges out of a broad discourse, and it doesn't stop with a particular policy - it is more long term and far reaching. If one person falls aside, the machine continues, if one agenda fails, the machine keeps going.

    Finally, It's true this particular resonance machine is built on anger and resentment. But that's not necessarily true of all resonance machines. The rise of Obama was based on Hope and desire for change - if that had continued (i.e. not been tied to Obama) we would be seeing a dramatically different discourse right now.

  12. Ok, I think I'm starting to get it.

    Wanted to add this link to one of Connolly's articles on resonance machines:

    That's a good point that it doesn't have to be complete agreement and that the resonance machine does foster common links.

    The divisive tone of this SPECIFIC resonance machine is probably what makes me skeptical. The Civil Rights movement is another positive example, one that did go beyond figureheads.

    Connolly calls figures like Bush and O'Reilly "catalysts," which suggests they're essential at formative moments. But, like you said, they're not at the center, and if they dropped out the movement would likely continue.

    What do you think it would've taken to move beyond Obama? Was "change" too closely tied to a "change of political parties"? I'm just guessing, but maybe what stopped it was the feeling, "We did our part. We elected him. Now it's his job to fix it."

  13. Thank you for posting that article. Connolly does a far better job of explaining the resonance machine concept than I do, and that was likely part of the reason for the lengthy discussion. It's good, though, I need to get more practiced at articulating my theories.

    You know, I've thought a lot about that beginning last Summer when his campaign was gaining momentum. I wrote a paper on it for one of my classes at the time (part of which you can read here:
    That was kind of a limited analysis given that it was for a particular class and that the election hadn't run its full course yet. Now I would probably revise a lot of it, and use a different theoretical framework, but some of the points are valid and the overall idea is good.

    I think the Obama campaign did a lot to cultivate the left's resonance machine, and a lot of the messages and ideals that I heard coming out of that were very inspiring. I do think that the majority of the problem is that it was so tightly bound to Obama as the Change. I'm not certain that that's all of it either. I think there is a somewhat vanguardist tendency in the left, and their out-reach strategy tends to reflect that. Perhaps more of a grassroots strategy would be helpful - as Pilger says in the movie on Open Anthropology, Where is Moveon? Where are all of the activist groups? Where are the churches, synagogues and mosques? Where is the environmental movement? All of these groups can find some thing to resonate, but it will take a lot of work and a different sort of strategy than the Left as a whole has employed to date.
    That's just a brief answer - I'll keep the question in mind, though, and let you know if I come up with anything.

  14. Thanks for this article, and in the process I got to learn more about "resonance machines" than I knew before. However, just one note about that quote in the article, where it reads:

    "which heretofore unconnected or loosely associated elements"

    I am unclear about the surprise concerning this assemblage of people. I would have thought that if anything it is a prolongation of the McCain-Palin movement, which was never all that weak. Indeed, they still managed to get about 40 million votes, from what I vaguely remember.

    Why does this assemblage of people have to be different from that one, especially since ideologically they seem to have so many of the same fears in common?

  15. Yeah, I think the McCain-Palin movement does play a role in this. Palin herself was one of the people spouting the "death committee" rhetoric in the health care debate. My sense, though, is that McCain and Palin didn't quite resonate broadly enough during the campaign (certainly not as well as Obama). But I think the discourse emerging out of the campaign resonates with several other movements (I'd bet there are a lot of Ron Paul Libertarians involved as well as a lot of other groups) to create something that is larger than any one of those movements or even the sum of all of them together.
    In that sense it is not different from any of the previous movements of which it is composed - rather it is emergent from all of them.

  16. Hi Jeremy,

    So your sense is that this is a broader movement than that represented by McCain-Palin.

    Good point about Ron Paul: while I find his statements on foreign policy and repressive government to be uniquely refreshing to hear from a congressman, when it comes to social policy and public health he strikes me as very chilling. I think he has a very idealized, down-on-the-homestead view of capitalism and individualism.

    Thanks again for this article, I personally found it to be the most interesting one of the few that I read on this subject.


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