The weak link in America’s political regime

Summary:   The weak link in the American political regime is obvious from our history, but we refuse to see it.  When we are ready, then America will be on the path to reform.

Try this thought experiment:  what if Ronald Reagan or George Bush Sr. abandonded Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1969?  Would his subsequent political career been possible?  Would Feminists ever have forgiven him?  Would the New York Times ever have written an article about him without mentioning Chappaquiddick?

Liberals prefer not to think about the obvious.  Corruption is often invisible to its owner. 

Let’s examine another example.  Why do our leaders lie to us?  Perhaps because we want them to do so.  Lies are often more fun than truth.  As in stories about the Washington DC Tea Party.  Fed by lies, many of the tea party faithful believe that millions attended.  The actual total was probably under 100 thousand; perhaps only half that.  This post traces the origin of this useful bit of propaganda.

As an example, let’s examine “Tea Party March on DC Draws Somewhere between 2 million and 60,000 People. Go figure.“, Nick Gillespie, Reason Online, 13 September 2009 — Excerpt:

Press accounts are pegging the crowd at somewhere between (get this) 60,000 (ABC News) and and “in excess of 75,000” (local officials) 1.2 million (local police agency estimates) and 2 million people (ABC News again, Fox News, The Daily Mail, and various other outlets).

I confess to having no way of checking or even evaluating these stats, but from my view of the proceedings (and having attended various events over the years), my sense is that 60,000 is way low and 2 million a stretch by a huge factor. Crowd counts are notoriously difficult and always pumped up or down for various reasons.

That said, the three takeaways I had from the event comport with Welch’s from yesterday’s post: First, the crowd was truly huge. …

This is well-written agitprop, like so much written about the Tea Parties.  In fact the posts cited by Gillespie provide no evidence that the DC rally was more than 75 thousand or so.  He gives no source for the 1.2 million estimate.

  1. Tea Party Protesters March on Washington“, ABC News, 12 September 2009 — “approximately 60,000 to 70,000 people flooded Pennsylvania Ave, according to the Washington DC Fire Department.”
  2. Protesters March on Washington“, Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2009 — “A spokesman for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services estimated the crowd at “in excess of 75,000″ people.”

Other journalists report the same numbers, such as “Thousands Rally in Capital to Protest Big Government“, New York Times, 13 September 2009 — “The demonstrators numbered well into the tens of thousands, though the police declined to estimate the size of the crowd.”

Here are the two links Gillespie gives for the “2 million estimate people” estimate”:

(1)   As many as 2 million protesters attend 9/12 Washington, D.C. Tea Party Rally“, Darren Pope, syndicated columnist, 13 September 2009 — Excerpt:

According to individual reports on the internet late Saturday The National Park Service had reportedly estimated around 1.2 million people attended the rally. There is no mention of the rally on the Park Service website and I have been unable to confirm that they have released any official estimate.

Some websites citing the 1.2 million number have claimed to be quoting Park Service employees, but I can find no direct quotes from anyone connected to the Park Service that can be confirmed at this time. Phone calls to the NPS went unanswered on Sunday.

There were also several reports Saturday saying that ABC and Fox News had reported that the crowd was estimated to be as high as 2 million. ABC News is now saying they never reported that number. According to ABC they were misquoted by a rally speaker. At this time there is no report on the Fox News website that includes an estimated attendance figure.

No support there for the 2 million number. 

(2)  “A million march to US Capitol to protest against ‘Obama the socialist’“, Daily Mail, 14 September 2009 — “As many as one million people flooded into Washington for a massive rally organised by conservatives claiming that President Obama is driving America towards socialism.”  No source is given for this number.  The photograph gives a more accurate caption:  “Tens of thousands of people converged on Capitol Hill on Saturday to protest against government spending.”

Neither gives much support for the 2 million number, esp since well-sourced numbers are under 5% of the 2 million number.  He also also cites Fox News as a source, which repeated the story that ABC News gave the 2 million number.  ABC News denies it:  “ABC News Was Misquoted on Crowd Size“, ABC News, 13 September 2009 — Excerpt:

Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the group that organized the event, said on stage at the rally Saturday that ABC News was reporting that 1 million to 1.5 million people were in attendance. At no time did ABC News, or its affiliates, report a number anywhere near as large. reported an approximate figure of 60,000 to 70,000 protesters, attributed to the Washington, D.C., fire department. In its reports, ABC News Radio described the crowd as “tens of thousands.”

From Matt Kibbe’s statement (for which he apologized) came the “2 million” number which spread as wildfire — ratifying the Tea Party supporters’ self-image as the vanguard of a mass movement.  Using this as their launching point, inflated estimates circulate around the Internet.  They believe not because the number is plausible, but because they want to believe.

Perhaps when we’re ready for the truth — both Left and Right — we’ll be ready for better leaders.  Then we can build a better America. 


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop):

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. The two tracks of discussion about the Iraq War, never intersecting, 10 November 2007
  3. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  4. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008
  5. What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008
  6. Everything written about the economic crisis overlooks its true nature, 24 February 2009
  7. The housing crisis allows America to look in the mirror. What do we see?, 8 March 2009
  8. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  9. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  10. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  11. The decay of our government, visible for all to see, 3 June 2009
  12. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  13. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
  14. A new news media emerges for our new world, unseen and unexpected, 9 July 2009

17 thoughts on “The weak link in America’s political regime”

  1. One other thing on Chappaquiddick: Ted Kennedy lucked out. Two weeks earlier or later and he’d have been politically dead. There was this little distraction called Apollo 11 going on at the time which saved his drunk ass.

  2. OTOH, yesterday I’m watching News Hour on public TV, and lo and behold, there’s N. N. Taleb of “Black Swan” fame. Boy was he cranky. Immoral, says he, referring to the bailouts. Too much debt, like a cancerous tumor, killing us slowly, and we have more debt now than last year he scowled. Of course, a Princeton economist assured that Taleb was mostly nuts, but still, more truth, more eloquently delivered than I expected. Cracks in the wall. Amazing.

  3. I’ve heard it said that self deception can actually be an extremely effective tactic evolutionarily. From the Wikipedia entry:

    It has been theorized that an instinct for self-deception can give a person a selective advantage, based on the rationale that if a person can believe their own ‘lie’ (i.e., their presentation that is biased toward their own self-interest), the theory goes, they will consequently be better able to persuade others of its ‘truth.'”

    Of course, it seems to me that this is a tactic that is rational for individuals but not for whole societies, making it a structural problem akin to the tragedy of the commons; by this I mean that it is an instance where individuals each rationally seeking their own good lead the whole to ruin.

  4. FM: Liberals prefer not to think about the obvious. Corruption is often invisible to its owner.

    Why pick on liberals? John McCain’s Keating Five involvement now has largely been forgotten.
    Fabius Maximus replies: “Pick on liberals” seems a bit much for a post 90% about conservatives.

  5. We must have a preference for being lied to. I recall back in 2004 Howard Dean was slammed by the rest of the Democratic Party for saying that the US should treat its allies well, since it won’t always be the superpower, and it will need its good relations then. Stating this truth which should be obvious to anyone who can read– that we won’t be the world power forever and until the end of time– was regarded as something no presidential candidate could say aloud.
    Which means, I guess, that we prefer to reward politicians for telling us things which we know cannot be true.

  6. DBake from #5:

    Which means, I guess, that we prefer to reward politicians for telling us things which we know cannot be true.

    This is a really good point. I’ve been thinking this for years as well. We’re so quick to blame “the politicians” for lying, and of course its a real problem. Still, politicians are often just self-interested actors who care about the preservation of their own careers. Just like the rest of us. So how can we blame them for taking what is often the safer path: speaking popular lies?

    We get angry at politicians for speaking out of both sides of their mouths, and in general being very slippery and hard to pin down to a single position. That’s fine, but turn it around for a moment. George W. Bush gets criticized by conservatives for being too slippery on immigration. But, Bush had to put himself out there, and somehow please a coalition of
    – business conservatives who in general like immigration as long as the immigrants cannot get full citizenship
    – nativist conservatives who foam at the mouth at the thought of a single mexican entering this country legally or not
    – the religious right, who simply don’t like the freedom of modern liberal society.
    Considering that all, can you really blame the guy for having incoherent immigration policy?

  7. The pervasiveness of deception and self-deception across ideologies is indicative of a deep-seated problem. Personally I believe that there are eight layers of such, based on individual and collective, genetic and social, intellectual and emotional factors (two to the third power).

    Examining nature one sees successful species at all levels that deceive others, from insects up through primates, by camouflage, playing ‘possum’ and even feigning size (animals that puff themselves up, orangutans that use leaves to lower the pitch of their cries). Certainly in the human realm there are many professions where some amount of deception (lawyers, actors, salesmen, leaders of all corporate stripes, in addition to politicians) mitigate for success. Social survival in situations where there is a dominant religion or ideology rewards those who pretend the emperor is nattily clad, and punishes those who do not.

    There is also extensive evidence that health is positively impacted by self-deception, as is survival against long odds… the classical chin-up positive attitude is objectively effective even when not based on probability.

    If there is a cure for this it is education, despite the inevitable naysaying. Fortunately it will never happen, since all the institutions that control education (religions, corporations, governments) thrive on conditioning and deception, and self-deception, as survival mechanisms, which got them where they are, in such a position. And we of course are the descendants of those who most successfully deceived themselves and others in order to survive.

    The above are truths that have to be faced before more detailed ones are even relevant.

  8. Those Tea Party numbers are clear nonsense. There are around 600K people in DC, you notice when 2 million folks show up. I hate to base this on personal anecdote rather than numbers, but when Obama was inaugurated, downtown DC was shut down with hundreds of thousands of people streaming through the streets, trash everywhere, and no free space in any restaurant for two miles around. On Saturday you saw Tea Party “Patriots” pretty much every where downtown, but no where near a volume to suggest more than a hundred thousand.

    But to the point about our willingness to believe lies, I think its natural psychology. This site often describes US politics as more of a competition between teams than ideas, and this, I think, is more or less is true. We give passes to the superstars on our team–John Ensign is scum for sleeping with his campaign manager’s wife, but Bill Clinton is allowed to fool around with interns. Or, Obama clearly has a US birth certificate and is not Muslim, but birthers and Islamic terrorist conspiracies still exist.

    My guess is that it comes from some kind personal fudge factor in our head. When we look at politics today, we have an ideal in our head and then a reality on the ground. Sometimes the people and movements we root for don’t quite live up to what we want, or the opposition has more popular positions than we’d like to admit. This presents the average person (yours truly included) with cognitive dissonance–what we have is not what we want. One can either sit down and take a sobering survey of what is around them, reconcile some contradictions and learn to live with others OR hide behind some irrational thinking.

    The former sounds a lot easier than it is. There are hard truths one might need to face up to (such as: it is impossible today for a politician to win office by representing popular interests) that probably result in more questions and confusion than answers. So to survive, the average person forgets the uncomfortable parts and only remembers the things that conform to his world view. I don’t think that means we as a people can’t be more honest in assessing our politics, but the reality might be that we prefer not to think that hard.

  9. I recall that Plato once wrote about the concept of the noble lie – a lie maintained by the elite the uphold social harmony and stability. The noble lie was formulated in the book “The Republic” around 380 BC, but remains valid today. It is worth understanding when reading about utopian ideologies like communism.

    I have come to believe that democracy – although not 100 percent – is by itself a noble lie. It is simply not possible (at least not under the present circumstances) to maintain public interest in all kinds of political life. The very essence of democracy is the idea that people would be engaged in political life from foreign policy (should we fight in Afghanistan?) to health care. Perhaps it is possible on a local level, but even there I doubt it. Since people don’t (or perhaps can’t)care about democracy the elite dominates. Nobody wants to talk open about it, because the natural conclusion would be to replace democracy with a oligarchy. We are already there for all intents and purposes. Very few are honest about it.

    I have a caveat to this, however: While I don’t believe democracy really can work as intended it can act as a safety valve. If public opinion is aroused by something (say: the Vietnam War) it is possible to influence to elite. It takes time, it is a hard struggle and you might even get arrested or beaten up by the police (or shot like at Kent State University in 1970). But the elite will in the end be forced to cave in, because the alternative would be to expose the noble lie of democracy. It can do so, but this would mean a entirely new political system.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The reason we have a democratic republic, not a direct democracy (e.g., Athens) is so that the public need not get involved in every political issue. Wars and major public policy issues (e.g. Health care) are among the ones that deserve it, if we are not become passive riders on the American Train. We have not yet seen the former (although it may be coming). We have seen widespread public interest in the health care debate, and our elites are astonished and befuddled.

  10. The sad fact of the matter is, we were all born into a society whose legal roots are that of an open camp / slave state. To appreciate the effects of the Battle of Hastings settlement in 1066 one might consider the revolt of the hereditary executive in 1225, when the nobility forced the crown to stop terrorizing the population ‘without let or hindrance’. The original is tough reading – but a revelation of attitudes and underlying facts: The Magna Carta, now usually called just The Great Charter.

    It is also the underpinning for all the British Commonwealth and the United States’ criminal and civil codes. Napoleonic Code is a vast contrast : an institution in Europe. Rather than the prosecutorial bureaucracy receiving kudos for prosecutions, false prosecution is liable to eject them summarily into the ranks of the formerly employed.

    It is hard to take any comment seriously which is prefaced by a notion of ‘choice’ in the matter of ‘public discourse’. Take a look at Matt Armstrong’s ‘Mountain Runner’ for a look at the concerns of ‘Public Diplomacy’ and the military. Media control – exemplified by the scandal in which 78 ‘impartial’ media reporters and advisers were revealed to have Pentagon ties – limits acceptable debate.
    The author of ‘Last Left Turn Before Hooterville’ – Alicia Morgan – has written a book available at Amazon called ‘The Price of Right’ which deals with ‘framing debate’. I must confes I haven’t read it myself yet : and Alicia and I were quipping before she got fairly started.

    Rather I have been searching for the underlying roots of internet wisdom : and finally feel I am making significant progress. For today, however, I will head you to a collection of pundits’ observations which shed light on the situation: Perception Alteration, posted at Opit’s Linkfest, 21 July 2009.

    BTW Do you have any idea how to pick up an RSS feed on your site ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: There is a button on the right-side menu for an “RSS Feed.”

    “It is hard to take any comment seriously which is prefaced by a notion of ‘choice’ in the matter of ‘public discourse’.”

    There are several (but too-rare) counter-examples. The current public involvment in the health care debate, that so befuddles our ellites. The 1960’s demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. IMO you are far too pessimistic.

  11. And what history do we have that ABC would report the correct numbers? I think 2 million was overstated simply because that’s what some wanted to believe. But 60,000 to 75,000 seems also way to small as well. Some are trying come up with a real number.

    The latest sourced information on the 9/12 crowd points to a lower bound of at least half a million.“, by Charlie Martin at his blog, 17 September 2009:

    “[Piringer] said the local government no longer provides official crowd estimates because they can become politicized. But the day of the rally, Piringer unofficially told one reporter that he thought between 60,000 and 75,000 people had shown up. “It was in no way an official estimate,” he said.”

    It seems to me a propaganda competition. MSM is going to quote the smallest number possible to discredit the other side meanwhile the other side quotes the largest number possible to prove they
    are correct. Meanwhile the facts are somewhere in between.
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, you miss the point I was making. The exact number is not important. The significance is that an absurdly large number — one with no supporting evidence — was so enthusastically repeated and so widely believed. Cold liars building support among their pawns. Very discouraging.

    Although this is unimportant, the evidence you cite for a larger number is weak. The sources Martin cites are meaningless. Other advocates, just like the ones citing the million-plus number. The only hard number he cites is the Metrorail traffic data for that date. Anyone bothering to click through sees the following:

    Metrorail: 437,624
    Comparable Metrorail Ridership 1 Year Ago: 362,773

    The difference is 74,581 — close to the major media numbers you so easily dismiss.

    Also, the “mainstream media is always against us” meme is IMO absurd. Note that it’s played with equal enthusiasm by both the Left and Right. Both cite much evidence, such as the media enthusastically buy-in to Bush’s pro-war stories! In fact, sometimes they help each side; sometimes they don’t. There is no simple relationship.

  12. Too pessimistic ! Don’t I just wish. Read your very own OODA links headers: ‘Posts about America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop’.

    I’m quipping with a scientist/communicator who is making sure I am aware of the implications of the Wikpedia entry on propaganda in an ongoing conversation right now. He appreciates that we both have spent time behind the veiled walls of Security. That’s why I posted that entry to my list yesterday. I also went a bit nuts posting an alternate history which should make the ‘milk and cookies’ crowd wonder if they hadn’t escaped into a parallel universe running Turtledove’s Fascist Amerika scenario.
    Fabius Maximus replies: While you might be correct (who can know in advance?), I agree — comment #11 reads like you have gone “a bit nuts.”

  13. At least I don’t confuse demonstrations with actual remedial activity. What is accomplished ? How many picoseconds did it take you to go from rebutting suggested alternative views to happily agreeing with any impugning of mental balance and intelligence ? I am not that secretive about what I really think.

    Tactics of Terror – Declaring Enemies“, posted at Obit’s Linkfest, 1 August 2009.

    Peace of Westphalia (see Wikipedia) was considered a method of securing peace. It is not followed. Any search on the parameters of American Military Interventions since 1890 will bring up a list of ever increasing activity. No military man confuses political solutions with killing people : unless it is for ‘clearance’.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I disagree with much of this.

    “confuse demonstrations with actual remedial activity”

    Demonstrations are a valuable tool to gain publicity and win support, initial steps in the process of reform. Isn’t this obvious? That does not mean that this particular movement, the “tea parties”, will have any substantial effect. I am skeptical, as seen in this post and earlier in Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop? (1 March 2009).

    “Peace of Westphalia was a method of securing peace. It is not followed.”

    This group of treaties ended a war (or series of wars). I doubt that anyone believed it would produce “peace” in a larger sense. Looking forward, the signing nations set rules to limit the violence of future wars, which were quite successful — probably beyond their expectations. Now the world begins to evolve to a new order, as we transition from the era of the State’s rise to that of its decline (as described in Martin van Creveld’s magnum opus “Rise and Decline of the State”). I have faith that we will adapt, and the new world might even be better than the old.

    As for your mental balance –
    (a) All I did was agree with you that your comment sounded “a bit nuts.”
    (b) Just because you (or I) write something that sounds nuts, it does not mean that you (or I) are nuts. We all do this on occasion. It just shows that we’re alive and human.

    A reminder: your statement in comment #11 which I found too pessimistic was “It is hard to take any comment seriously which is prefaced by a notion of ‘choice’ in the matter of ‘public discourse’.”

  14. FM: “Demonstrations are a valuable tool to gain publicity and win support, initial steps in the process of reform.

    For that assertion to be valid, one would have to have observed actual ands verifiable progress. Instead I see Congress reversing civil rights for Americans and financing military activities on a grand scale…in a time of global financial crisis. Admittedly arms sales are up. Somehow that is not something I consider a worthwhile objective.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t understand why “initial steps” must show “actual progress.” Most initial steps end in a fall, like a child learning to walk. We have to get up and try again. And again. That’s the lesson of history, and life.

  15. What would you make of a record of a lack of actual progress then ? Doesn’t that count as significant ? It isn’t as if the world was made yesterday!
    It is that lack of progress which causes one to dig for underlying factors frustrating it. Vietnam protesters must have noted several interesting facts…including police suppression of free speech involving investigation of acts of violence and intimidation against those seeking to remove the U.S. from participating in an Asian civil war. That sounds familiar somehow.
    ( We have always been at war with Oceana : Orwell )
    Here’s another one for you to try on for size. Rather than tie in everything from a position of fraud in reporting 9/11 – which does not imply I have any reason to think there wasn’t – I have avoided that issue; likely prudent as I don’t know much about it !

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