Propaganda and the Netroots

Jon Chait's excellent piece on the netroots has some very sharp insights into the way politics and policy are debated in America. He is both attracted to the netroots, because in their ruthlessness and utilitarianism toward all arguments, they are finally, in his mind, countering the loud and insistent propaganda of the movement right. But he is also, mercifully, worried about the fate of actual inquiry, intellectual honesty and free debate among liberals - and Americans. Chait is absolutely right about how the conservative movement has policed its own thought these past two decades:

None of this is to suggest that lively debate cannot be found on the right. To the contrary: Conservatives have always argued fiercely amongst themselves. The difference is that conservatives are expected to toe the line in disputes between their side and the left. A conservative can criticize President Bush for being insufficiently conservative or suggest that running against Social Security is tactically unwise. What he cannot do is denounce the idea of impeaching a Democratic president for covering up a sexual affair in 1998 or question Katherine Harris's capacity to administer Florida election law fairly in 2000.

This has begun to change a little - but only because the fiscal, social and foreign policies of the Bush administration have been so disastrous even the propagandists at cannot ignore them. But, boy, how they try. Ask Bruce Bartlett what happens to a conservative writer who actually opposes, say, Bush's massive spending record. Ask Michelle Malkin the rewards of pandering to a shriekbox of online groupthink. The price of this discipline, however, is the kind of disaster that has happened under Bush. Inhibit free criticism and you get a propagandistic echo chamber that makes bad policy hard to forestall or avoid or revoke. That can be good for honing a message to get elected and to sustain power in the short term. But in the long-term, it's a recipe for policy failure and political collapse. Lies always fail ... in the end. What the netroots propaganda machine may do is both help Democrats get into power and force errors upon them when they wield it. That's Norquist's legacy: a movement ultimately welded not to ideas but to power. It may be Moulitsas's as well.

(P.S. My colleague Matt Yglesias has a Chait response here as well. As does Ross.)