Democrats are losing the propaganda war

Liberals are getting crushed by the right’s agitprop, and Verrit will not save them.

Democrats are losing the propaganda war

Liberals are getting crushed by the right’s agitprop, and Verrit will not save them.

Democrats, and the center-left more broadly, are obsessed with numbers games. They are animated more than anything by facts, by a consensus reached among themselves that they possess an exclusive monopoly on empirical reason. They blurt out facts and stats among one another, devoid of any context but the conviction that if God is not on their side, then reason is, and so long as that’s the case they’re bound to win. It is no surprise, then, that when the world’s most thankless Clinton hype man, Peter Daou, set out upon his third-time-charmed attempt to create an agitprop center for American liberalism, he turned to facts. Verrit! The reductio of every smug tendency that fuels the center-left, brought to you by the digital sensibilities of a fifty year old who believes he can sneak into a Silicon Valley break room if he can just find the right hoodie. Open up the website and whisper your seven digit verification code into the mouth of the faceless specter containing all human knowledge. The specter will whisper back to you the world’s most sacred truths: Sanders and the Mainstream Media Helped Put Trump in the White House. Ah, sweet facts. Maligning Hillary Clinton from the Left is a Conscious Embrace of the Far Right. Good, very good. Hillary Democrats are the Heart and Conscience of America. If you tell Verrit that you love it, it generates an authenticated card that says I know.

James Baldwin once described the Nation of Islam’s popularity — which he found troubling — as coming from the fact that they had all of the evidence on their side. The best propaganda has always been situated in the truth. But despite our technocrats’ preoccupation with data, they’ve never had much luck with agitprop. It isn’t only their latest banal quote verification platform. Blue Nation Review, Verrit’s more straightforward content-mining ancestor, lived its short life being shared mainly by those looking to mock it. In 2015, BNR was sold to mercenary huckster David Brock, who liquidated the staff and relaunched the site as ShareBlue, a dull failure even more dismal than its predecessor. A great deal of the trouble may be attributable to the fact that Peter Daou had a hand in all of these efforts, but the trouble goes further: beyond this particular blowhard and his foibles, there is no explicit venue for center-left American propaganda founded by any member of the respectable liberal classes, at least not one that has ever caught on. The closest they ever came was the liberal blog and comment hub DailyKos, founded in 2002 by future Vox Media millionaire Markos Moulitsas.

Even then, the success of the site was predicated in reproducing the ecosystem of liberalism at large, allowing a community of a million computers to assure one another that they were winning. When Kos attempted to impose a unified purpose and direct its energies toward the larger world — for example, by demanding that users stop litigating the 2016 Democratic primary while that primary was still going on — all of the blood went out of the chutes and now DailyKos is identified primarily with its founder and his habit of publicly wishing death on coal miners whose electoral preferences displease him. The Right has Breitbart and Drudge Report and the National Review Online. The Left has Jacobin and Dissent and Matt Yglesias on a feisty day. All of these are forums not just for internal debate and self-congratulation, but for the production and distribution of explicitly political ideas designed to draw the American public into the ambitions of their operators.

Despite our technocrats’ preoccupation with data, they’ve never had much luck with agitprop.

The trouble is that Democrats find this sort of work embarrassing. You see it in all the stories mocking Verrit, the complaints and jokes not just from the left or the right, but from proud members of the 65.8 million-strong voting bloc that Verrit claims as an audience. “Can you anonymously quote a guttural scream?” one anonymous party operative told Vox when asked about Daou’s efforts. “If Verrit takes off… there’s an interesting story about what it means for the Democratic Party,” said another. “For right now, this story is just ‘Peter Daou launched a thing that doesn’t appear to make any sense so we’re all making fun of it.’” It is difficult to imagine any such takeoff under these conditions but beneath the immediate exasperation with the incompetence of a single man, the reaction of party Democrats consists of something more deeply rooted in their character.

It is simply déclassé to be so earnest. It is undignified, somehow, to have to push a worldview as if the facts did not speak for themselves. It is undignified to have to do politics. A refusal to frame anything as an effort to persuade, a belief that self-evident dominion over measurable reality, a confidence that any sensible person would want to align themselves with the ambitions of the experts on nothing more than the experts profession of their own good faith, all of this was the force that animated the doomed Clinton campaign for president. For all Daou’s pathological identification with the glory of his queen, he has always been after something that Clinton Democrats look down on: the notion that victory in politics requires shamelessness. It requires a willingness to assert a vision for the world no matter how silly and ill-conceived. If the Clinton campaign had launched Verrit themselves, it would have consisted of a single slide. Just look at the other guys. Enter this code to confirm: those other guys are bad.

It is undignified, somehow, to have to push a worldview as if the facts did not speak for themselves.

A great deal of liberal embarrassment comes from the fact that for a generation, they have not needed any dedicated propaganda outlet in American discourse because American discourse, by and large, was their agitprop. Who needs a Jacobin or a Breitbart when you have New York Magazine? When you have the New Yorker and half the opinion columnists at the Times? Vox is an outlet dedicated almost exclusively to the propagation of liberal consensus — why found a new site that’s explicit about that goal when every eager blogger with an eye toward his career will do it for you under the guise of explanatory neutrality? Verrit appears to us as grotesque not because it is stranger or more parodic than its counterparts on the right or left but because it is an exaggerated version of the discursive status quo. It does not make trouble for hegemony. It exaggerates it, and it tries too hard.

For the better part of a decade, liberals lost power at every level — 900 state legislature seats, both houses of Congress, the governorships of all but 18 states — but through it all they retained their cultural power, their mastery of the facts, their capacity to insist upon a certain baseline of reality among the think tankers and Hill staffers and press lackeys who constitute the whole of their imagined world. It was only the loss of the White House last year that put the first substantial cracks in this illusion. It was only the failure of a campaign that believed it would win because its facts said that it would win and said that it would win because it had the best facts, only the inescapable crash of their heads against the collective wall of a violent and disobedient American polity which forced them into the inescapable conclusion that for all the world that they’d won, there was still a world to lose on the outside.

The proxy agitprop of the serious and sober was no longer enough. Most of them have not yet figured out what to do with these circumstances. They wander back and forth from dreams of Russia to days spent howling against the indignity of all the new young leftists saying they’re not good enough to win. But Peter Daou is different. In his own idiot way, he is trying to break free. He is trying to crack open the side of the wall and carry his facts into the dark rooms of Clinton Headquarters, down the dark halls covered in discarded white papers and charts, he wants to carry his facts out into the daylight where he will force them on a world that may, at long last, appreciate that somebody at least has enough respect to lie to straight to their faces. He will probably fail. But some day, one of our liberals will succeed and the first real propaganda machine for the modern Democratic era will be born.

The proxy agitprop of the serious and sober is no longer enough.

In his essay “The Dream of India,” the essayist Eliot Weinberger presents the reader with a series of facts about the subcontinent, shorn of any context. “In India,” he writes, “the land is always green.” In India, crabs turn to stone the minute they are exposed to air. In India they tell the future from the flight of birds.

These facts go on for pages and it is quickly apparent that they cannot possibly be true. But why is Weinberger reciting them? The rhythm is hypnotic sometimes, but he’s a notoriously clever writer. He must have a new trick. Finally, on the final page, we receive a single footnote: “All of the imagery and some of the language are derived from works written in the five hundred years prior to 1492. India, of course, is where Columbus thought he was going.”

When some future liberal finally breaks into the sunlight and arrives in the realm of politics, ready to do the dirty work of propaganda, he will realize, of course, that many of the facts he’s carried with him don’t check out. But he will be doomed, I think, by an inability to recognize that he doesn’t just have useless facts, but that the world he’s arrived in isn’t the one that his friends and his facts and his figures were describing all along.


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Emmett Rensin is a contributing writer at The Outline.