Spoonfed citizens

In this video from last night’s debate, Barack Obama makes politics a bit too cause-and-effect, in my book.

Sound bite: “One of the things the next president has to do is to stop fanning people’s fears. If we spend all our time feeding the American people fear and conflict and division then they become fearful and conflicted and divided. If we feed them hope and we feed them reason and tolerance then they will become tolerant and reasonable and hopeful.”

Isn’t that essentially insulting? We are politicians’ empty vessels. We are molded by their rhetoric?

The Presidency isn’t a PBS self-improvement show. It’s an executive job.

Sounds like Obama has been hanging out with Oprah too much.

Next he’ll get elected by giving us all free cars.


  • Ben

    “Next he’ll get elected by giving us all free cars.”

    Yes, please.

  • Jimmy

    OK, I’ll give you that it’s a bit insulting, but isn’t also a little true? Isn’t the Bush administration’s constant invocations of September 11, which in my opinion belittles of the memories of those who were killed that day, no better or even worse? Obama’s point, while made poorly, is that the politics of fear do irreparable damage to this country, and it’s a point worth making.

  • Sizeable minorities of these citizens *still* believe Saddam Hussein had direct links to Al Qaeda, partricipated in the 9-11 attacks, and had WMDs, Jeff.

    Molded by poltical rhetoric? Sad, but true.

  • Witness the hysteria over the Iranian president’s visit to New York. (Yes, I’m too lazy to look up how to spell his name.) The president’s drumbeat to war with Iran appears to be successful thus far.

  • Hank Williams

    Perhaps it was impolitic to say it, and therefore a faux pas, but damn if it isnt true. You cant tell me that the president doesnt have the ability to set the public mood and attitude about such things. Clearly as Jimmy said, president bush has done exactly that.

    Jeff, I cant believe that you really dont think that the public can be manipulated or effected by the tone of political discourse. I suggest you take a drive through middle America before you get insulted on behalf of all of us.

  • Looking at the last 6 years or so…yes Americans can be defined by rhetoric. Many of the decisions over the last years and the support gained is because of politician rhetoric. Its not based on evidence to say the least or even knowledge and experience. “Truth” through repitition has been a very effective tool in spreading rhetoric and the selling of various agenda.

  • brookLYN


    We had nothing but fear in the last six years

  • Jeff-
    That is not the point, and you know it. We are all mirrors to some extent, and the point he was making was the constant fear mongering that this Administration traffics in. His point was, I think, that if you can flip the script and focus on what you have instead of what you’re missing, you might just attract what you want.

    A little disingenuous on your part.

    P.S. I am not an Obama supporter, but I felt I had to say something.

  • You can always tell the commenters on the left. Of course they agree with this statement! The public is stupid in their opinion. Obama believes that only the wise and wonderful like himself (and Hillary) know what’s best for America. We are just children waiting to see the mood of our mommy and daddy.

    Please. The American people don’t feel “fear” or ” hope” based on what some politician does or says. Even ones in Congress or the White House.

    What is insulting is the fact that so many of you believe that.

  • Don


    Obama’s apparent makeover of FDR’s “you have nothing to fear but fear itself” shtick bombed with me too. Too many posers trying to wring political magic out of worn out FDR/JFK mass media shamanship.

  • Howard, I’m sick of that meme. Then shut the door on democracy.

  • And why bother with journalism if we’re all a bunch of idiots?

  • Brooklyn, et al,
    We have reason to fear. I saw it. I felt the heat from the second jet hitting the second tower. I saw the horror that followed. Fear, people. Fear.

  • Hank,
    Well, I’d say that president’s doing a piss poor job of setting the public mood since the mood is against him.
    No, we are an independent people. And if you think that we’re a bunch of idiots, then you, too, don’t believe in democracy, free markets, reform religion, education, or journalism. But worse, you’re just a snot then, thinking that you’re so damned much smarter than your fellow man.
    This ain’t England.

  • Paw

    I think it’s somewhat disingenuous of you, Jeff, to ignore the basic truth of the Rove years: even the most blatant unsupported lie, when repeated often enough by an authority figure like the President, will be believed by some people at some point. Propaganda works, Jeff – that’s why it’s still being used. Doesn’t mean everyone falls for it. Nor does it mean that “bad” propaganda should be replaced by “good” propaganda, which is what Obama seems to be advocating. Both should be replaced with simple truth and critical thinking. The first should come from those authority figures. The second should come from journalists.

  • Great stuff, Jeff, article and comments. Your replies are a tonic to my tired brain.

    Part payment, here’s a great article and comment on newsosaur.

    “But there is one underlying reason why newspapers will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities so well presented in your paper: They simply lack the intellectual capacity.”


    And from the comment.
    “It’s over — and that’s for the best.”

    Originally spotted on Recovering Journalist.

    Thanks again for your blog.

  • Since I’m a centrist, I half agree ;-). I agree with you that Americans aren’t unthinking propaganda puppets. But, Presidents DO have a big effect with what they say.

    More here.

  • Oh man is Jonathan’s comment ever dense. And dangerous: “Witness the hysteria over the Iranian president’s visit to New York….The president’s drumbeat to war with Iran appears to be successful thus far.”

    You really think Ahmadinejad’s own words and deeds didn’t create any of the alleged hysteria? (I would hardly call it hysteria. It’s grave concern, and it’s entirely appropriate.)

    You really think the American people need a cue from Bush or any other politician to be concerned about Iran? Did Bush somehow make us believe that a leader who denies the Holocaust and says there are no gays in Iran is a matter of concern when otherwise we would not have? Did Bush tell us Iran is developing nukes? No, the president of Iran did.

    If a president tried to do what Obama is talking about in an environment like the one we face now, he would lose all credibility. What’s the message you’re really advocating? “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it?” That’s not how this country works.

    You guys on the left can only see things in black and white. To be absolutely clear on the nature of the threat does not imply only one strategy to deal with it. That’s what we should be debating about. But you don’t want the debate to ever get there. You want to tell us how we “should” feel about these facts, and you want certain facts not to be discussed because they might lead a reasonable person to come to a different conclusion than the one you’ve already reached.

    What’s stunning is your lack of humility. You just know you’re right. No facts other than the ones you approve of will penetrate. No subsequent events will alter your conclusions. And if I disagree with you, it can only be because I’ve been hypnotised by a President I didn’t even vote for. How insulting.

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  • Andy Freeman

    The “Bush made everyone afraid” meme requires that Bush be an effective communicator. He isn’t.

  • Hank Williams


    Well he is doing a good enough job to prevent an outright revolt over the war. He has managed to be able to resist any substantial reaction to the war. And yes I do think I am smarter than at least some of my fellow men. Or perhaps I am just used to getting the short end of the stick and I am just a bit cynical. As a black male, I am very used to the idea that there are people who are dumber than me. Or perhaps what I am referring to is not dumbness, but something more nefarious. I like to think of it as stupidity because if I had to blame the Jena 6, and public acceptance of “halfrican american” and yada yada yada, on something other than stupidity then I would just be very depressed. So thinking I am smarter than some may be my own personal self defense mechanism against utter depression regarding the state of man kind.

    And by the way, it may be your blog, and perhaps this is the way your version of the blogosphere works, but I dont think you really have any right to call me a snot or anything else. I didnt call you any names and as a well known journalist I would have thought you would have better manners. I am sure it sucked that everyone here disagreed with you but not winning your argument should not cause the discussion to devolve into name calling.

  • “And if you think that we’re a bunch of idiots, then you, too, don’t believe in democracy, free markets, reform religion, education, or journalism”

    Bit of a black and white statement there. You can believe people are a bunch of idiots and still believe in the concepts above. Currently I believe in the concepts but the people involved with the execution of the above (including the average American) have seriousily dropped the ball in all areas.

    Free markets taking over government, with Haliburton and big oil literally at the President’s ear. Reform religion, well as far as I can tell if there has been reform I think the various anti-gay and the take over of the republican party by the far right would disabuse that notion. Education, wow thats a whole diatribe on how broken and fractured that system is. And don’t get me started on the mess that is the 4th estate. Its a sad sad commentary on the state of journalism when more relevent information comes from blogs and the Daily Show then from long standing news sources.

    Hell, CNN can’t even report the stealing of a laptop without sensationalizing it and providing bad information. The Betrayus Ad became an easy and effective bait and switch for the republican party because of journalism’s refusal to filter. Sadly, journalism has become lazy. With techology, getting a story is just a matter of waiting for it to come in the email inbox. If there is more then one big story of the day, the journalistic system literally can’t handle it and inevitiable all but one gets tossed tossed aside.

    No I “don’t believe in democracy, free markets, reform religion, education, or journalism” as its currently being executed in America today but I believe those concepts have real power, can cause great good, and hope that someday leaders step forth once again with a vision beyond fear mongoring and kowtowing.

  • Crawford

    truth is good.

  • Brian O’Connell

    Switch the issue from war & terrorism to global warming and suddenly the right and left are on different sides regarding fear-mongering. Just like if you’re not paranoid if everyone really is out to get you, it’s not fear-mongering if you believe there’s really something to be afraid of. It comes down to whether you believe the object of the fear-mongering is legit or not.

    Large swaths of the left believe the threat of terrorism is made up or overrated, so voicing concerns about it is fear-mongering. Large swaths of the right believe the threat of global warming is made up or overrated, so voicing concerns about it is fear-mongering.

    One man’s fear-mongering is another man’s voicing reasonable concerns. So Obama hasn’t actually said anything, except that one shouldn’t raise an alarm about those things which aren’t alarming, which is everyone’s unspoken default position.

  • Brian,
    Well said.

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  • Individuals may be, by themselves, smart, well-meaning and ethical. Large groups, like say the sum population of the U.S., can make incredibly smart AND incredibly stupid decisions and like all animals are susceptible to the “fear of the crowd”.

    A trite example: take a crowded theatre of people on a friday night. A person starts shouting “FIRE! FIRE!” repeatedly, others take up the alarm and the crowd will likely jump up and flee, probably after a bit of confusion and commotion. Even if everyone else in the theatre doesn’t see flames or smell smoke.

    Chances are, if that individual shouted “FIRE!” twice, everyone would look – see no fire – and just write the person off. But if that person, and their 5 neighbors start shouting in alarm, then the theatre will move, even though the evidence of fire hasn’t changed. Persistence and multiple people repeating the same message DOES have an effect on a group of people. Especially when danger is involved.

    Now, if you were in the theatre by yourself (with the 5 other alarmists) and they shouted at you to get out, and you didn’t see evidence of flame, I bet you’d just think they were having fun with you.

    Karl Rove and marketing people know this well. That’s why Rove and the Administration would always assault an issue with MULTIPLE pundits going through MULTIPLE media. When Dick Cheney gets on the sunday morning shows it isn’t just on Fox news. They blanket all channels – if not with Cheney, then with other members of the administration. They then use their friendly sources like random retired military generals and “think-tank experts” on a variety of outlets to help reinforce the message. Within a week of this repeated “X is going to kill YOU” threat, people start to believe it – even if the belief is only enough to not become enraged about it with their local representatives. They don’t have to convince you – they just have to make you afraid to disagree publicly. (which, for most Americans is a pretty easy task)

    Oh, this isn’t just a Republican thing either. Democrats do it, MoveOn does it, Fox news does it, Madison Avenue does it. Anyone trying to get someone to do something will look for ways to move the crowd and they teach whole classes on this I’m sure in multiple disciplines.

    Anyway, don’t assume that just because your are smart enough to smell for fire before you run doesn’t mean you’d feel the same way with 400 people around you all running. Its simply not the same thing.

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  • Leslie C

    Ok, Jeff.

    Bad choice of word, but the essential point is a good one.
    Am actually doing a multimedia opinion piece on this… see what you created!

    Disclosure: I am a student of Prof. Jarvis

  • Joe

    >>Sizeable minorities of these citizens *still* believe Saddam Hussein had direct links to Al Qaeda, partricipated in the 9-11 attacks, and had WMDs

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