More Indoctrination

Now that we’ve spent the last week learning about the indoctrinational (probably not a word) nature of a stay-in-school address, I hope these lessons can be applied to other things kids might see on TV screens. Like Schoolhouse Rock. Or this propaganda message. You may think it’s innocent enough, but it tells kids that “Mr. T don’t lie,” setting them up to believe anything he tells them, and it also creates a cult of personality by encouraging them to “be cool just like me.”

On a less glib and sarcastic note, one of the interesting things about the way controversies like this are covered — apart from the fact that they are covered, and get saturation coverage from the very pundits who admit that the controversies are ridiculous — is that the end result is always a win for the side that starts the controversy, even if most people disagree with them. Their side wins in two ways. One, they tie up cable-news coverage for days with the “is the President indoctrinating your children? some say yes, others say no” stories. And two, by staking out an extreme position, they allow others on their side to portray themselves as sensible moderates. We saw this with Newt Gingrich and Laura Bush and other Republicans who said there wasn’t anything wrong with the President speaking to children. This was portrayed as the “centrist” position. And that’s a net win for their side.

In the world of 24-hour news coverage, there always have to be three sides: the right, the left, and the sensible middle. The right does a better job of grabbing hold of the agenda in the U.S. because they understand that if the “right” position is as extreme as possible, then anything even slightly to the left of that will be portrayed as being centrist, which is how you get Newt Gingrich or John McCain portrayed as centrists. The Democrats lose these debates because, in their zeal to prove they’re centrists and distance themselves completely from the left flank, they forgot that this just winds up pushing the centre further to the right. (So even though Obama’s governance has not been liberal, the narrative is that he has been too liberal, as it always is with Democratic presidents, because his governance is the leftmost on the acceptable range of ideas. Whereas George W. Bush and even Reagan could distance themselves from other, more right-wing ideas that had been introduced into the mainstream.) We saw that in the health care debate, where the public option — because the Democrats themselves portrayed it as the most left-wing among the acceptable range of ideas — has become the “leftist” idea, allowing the Republicans to (again) paint themselves as the centrists.

The Republicans allow very right-wing ideas into the mainstream of the debate, and get to be centrists by staking out a position slightly to the left of that. It’s a much smarter strategy.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.