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THE ALLURE OF THE SWITCHER! For many years, Diane Ravitch was wrong. Now, she has joined our own tribe: // link // print // previous // next //

The other side’s messaging is powerful: The other side has powerful messaging—and its messaging is everywhere. This was Dan Quayle, in yesterday’s Washington Post “Outlook” section, writing something he may even believe:

QUAYLE (4/4/10): Many remember the Reform Party of the 1990s, which formed around the candidacy of Ross Perot. I sure do, because it eliminated any chance that President George H. W. Bush and I would prevail over Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992. What started as a grass-roots phenomenon ended with 19 percent support at the ballot box—and a majority of those voters would probably have gone Republican in a two-party race. Speaking on behalf of the Bush-Quayle campaign, to this day we firmly believe that Perot cost the Republican Party the White House. The 1992 election was the best showing for the movement Perot started, and whatever national influence it retained kept working to the benefit of Democrats.

In that passage, Quayle recites an ingrained part of GOP messaging: Clinton only won in 1992 because of Ross Perot. Point of information: Since Clinton beat Bush by six points, a substantial majority of Perot voters would have had to favor Bush over Clinton to make Quayle’s thesis turn out right. In fact, Perot voters split evenly between Clinton and Bush in that year’s exit polls (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/29/05). Those are the only objective data on which claims like Quayle’s can be judged. And they don’t favor his thesis.

Based on the evidence as it exists, Perot voters didn’t harm Candidate Bush in 1992. But so what? Republicans got busy inventing this alternate reality, in which their noble candidate lost because of this third-party movement. This is one of the ways the GOP tagged Clinton as an illegitimate president. We know—it’s heresy to remember such things! But Obama isn’t the only recent Democratic president to be tagged as illegitimate. The GOP did the same darn thing when a white Democrat got elected!

(In last Friday’s Salon, Steve Kornacki offered a detailed look at the polling history of the Clinton/Bush race, thus debunking Quayle’s claim. Three cheers for Kornacki!)

Quayle may even believe what he wrote, so ingrained in this GOP messaging. But then, Republicans have reinvented basic facts to explain away other famous defeats. Example:

Yesterday, John Dean did the full three-hour stint on C-Span’s invaluable In Depth program (click here). At 1:04 of the tape, a caller offers the standard excuse for Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in 1960. According to the caller, Nixon lost the White House that year because of voter fraud in Illinois. Nixon’s advisers “wanted him to challenge the electoral count in Illinois, which would have given him the presidency,” the caller said. But Nixon decided to take the high road, he said—though this experience might help explain Nixon’s bitterness toward “the media,” “the press.” (How “the press” would have been involved never quite got explained.)

Remarkable, isn’t it? Fifty years after that famous election, this country is full of disinformed souls who still believe that story. In fact, Kennedy won the electoral vote over Nixon by a healthy margin (303-219). Even if Illinois’ 27 electoral votes had flipped, Kennedy still would have won. But so what? This pleasing piece of disinformation has been spread all about, right to this day. Indeed, Dean himself showed no sign of knowing that the caller’s basic premise was wrong. He simply explained that down-state cheating on Nixon’s behalf would have outweighed any Chicago-based cheating which helped JFK. He never corrected the viewer’s claim that Illinois cost Nixon the White House. Indeed, he explicitly seconded the viewer’s claim that Nixon didn’t challenge the Illinois outcome because (in Dean’s words) he “took the high road.”

Given the way our politics works, it’s very easy to disinform voters in such ways. Well-funded, skillful message machines churn oodles of conservative cant. The liberal and Democratic worlds have never quite gotten around to building information platforms which would tell the average voter that they are being misled. We prefer to bellow and wail at the voters themselves, as occurred in this recent piece (more tomorrow). Or we run our keisters onto programs like Hardball, where we kiss the ass of one of the greatest disinformation-purveyors of the modern era.

(As a famous bipartisan player once said: This is the business we’ve chosen!)

Last Friday, we looked at the large-scale messaging strategy described by James Hoggan on Maddow (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/2/10). If Hoggan is right, a long-term effort is underway to portray the scientific community as a biased liberal bloc, as was done in earlier eras with journalists. (If this strategy succeeds, “the liberal media” will be joined in voters’ minds by “liberal science.”) And please—don’t think this effort couldn’t succeed. Their side is massively-financed and technically skilled. Our side is in the hands of children, sell-outs and goof-balls.


Candidates Nixon and Bush really won! If you read yesterday’s Post, then watched C-Span, you saw both claims reinforced, all in one day! The country is full of voters who believe these things—in part, because people like Dean seem to reinforce their beliefs. In reaction, we liberals insult these disinformed voters, failing to note the sprawling pseudo-liberal incompetence which lets such messaging grind on.

And of course, we call these voters stupid! What then would that make us?

As we were saying: In our post from June 2005 (see above), we were responding to a claim at the liberal site Tapped which said that Perot may have cost Bush the race! But don’t worry—it all turned out well. The author who peddled that RNC cant ended up with a job at the Post!

(Given the way American messaging works, we don’t doubt, not for a minute, that this writer believed what she said. Most likely, she had heard that claim many times. Given the way our messaging works, almost everyone has.)

Special report: Ravished by Ravitch!

PART 1—THE ALLURE OF THE SWITCHER (permalink): Diane Ravitch isn’t a household name; for that reason, we’ll start by identifying her. Rather, we’ll let her ID herself. This is the start of Ravitch’s interesting op-ed column in Friday’s Washington Post:

RAVITCH (4//10): I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice. But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working.

Ravitch is hot these days. For one thing, she has a new book—a book we look forward to reading, though our expectations for this particular author will be in the mid-level range. And Ravitch is hot because she’s a convert, an apostate, a switcher of tribes. For years, Ravitch was “a strong supporter of school accountability and choice”—a high-level advocate of the policies enshrined in the No Child Left Behind law. Now, Ravitch has switched her views—and she’s very hot.

Let’s say it again—we look forward to reading Ravitch’s book. Ravitch is experienced and knowledgeable, and we’re sure she’s totally well-intentioned, as she has always been. But as we look forward, we remember one point—Ravitch says she was wrong in the past, that her judgments over the past many years have turned out to be largely wrong. (In her own words, it has become clear that the strategies she favored haven’t been working.) In our view, the limitations of some of these strategies always seemed fairly clear in real time. In our view, a sensible person might look forward to reading Ravitch’s book. But he might wonder, at the same time, why Ravitch wasn’t a bit more savvy in the past.

Question: If Ravitch was largely wrong all those years, why should we assume that she’ll be largely right now? For ourselves, we would keep her history of (partial) error in mind as we approach her new work. But for many others, the switcher inevitably carries an allure—especially if the switcher switches over to your tribal side. Example: In Salon, this is the way Mary Elizabeth Williams introduced her recent interview with Ravitch:

WILLIAMS (3/25/10): Diane Ravitch has spent a lifetime in school. She was the assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush and an early advocate of No Child Left Behind. Today, she's a research professor of education at New York University, a passionate critic of the system and an articulate, outspoken advocate for saving our public schools. Her new book has the provocative title, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”

She's certainly got my attention. As a public school parent in New York City, where on Thursday, chancellor Joel Klein threatened to cut 8,500 teaching jobs—20 percent of which would come from the impoverished South Bronx—I've been watching the ongoing fiasco in education reform with a mixture of fear, anger and outright disgust.

The Williams-Ravitch interview is well worth reading. But if Williams has been watching the “ongoing fiasco” with “outright disgust,” we’re not sure why she’s so eager to hear from Ravitch! Ravitch was one of the influential people who stood behind the movement which has long filled Williams with loathing. What makes Williams so eager to hear from Ravitch now?

In our view, Ravitch didn’t judge all that well in the past. This tends to lower our expectations for the judgments we’ll find in her book. In our years of rambling, we’ve noticed one key point: People who were wrong in the past will sometimes be wrong in the future.

That said, Ravitch is a leading voice in the education world. She has studied education policy for decades; we feel quite certain that she’s looking for the best ways to proceed, and that she always has been. Her new book is stirring a lot of interest—and the topics she discusses are, of course, quite important. For that reason, we thought we’d spend a few days this week looking at Ravitch’s op-ed column, in which she sketches the basic ideas driving her new approach.

We the people love a switcher—especially when the switcher crosses over to join our own tribe. For those who have watched the ongoing fiasco with outright disgust, Ravitch once stood with the devils; today, she stands aligned with the angels. But are her judgments any more sound? Tomorrow, we’ll return to her opening paragraph in the Post—and we’ll check a statistical claim.