Some Notes on the Outrage Industrial Complex

In past years, I would marvel at the right wing's ability to take an obscure liberal from somewhere who had said something stupid and propel him to national prominence, through the use of Fox and talk radio. My favorite example was Ward Churchill, a professor in Colorado who became a celebrity after he made some comments of the "we had it coming" variety after September 11. During one stretch, there was some discussion of Churchill on every episode of The O'Reilly Factor save one for an entire month. The point behind Churchill and a hundred other such stories the right promoted wasn't just that their audiences should be angry at this one guy, but that liberals in general hate America and want to destroy it; the individual story is a stand-in for the larger group at whom they're trying to generate contempt.

But more recently, liberals have gotten, dare I say, just as good at this as conservatives were, maybe better. And I think it deserves a moment of discussion.

A week and a half ago, David Weigel raised an objection to the "Obscure Candidate Makes Shocking Remark" story, arguing that as electoral fortunes for Democrats worsen, they work harder to find these people to get mad at. As a rule, he said, "if you see the phrase 'GOP lawmaker' in a headline, your click will usher you into a world of back-benchers from Bismarck and Jackson and Dover and Sacramento, not the people currently threatening to take the Senate back from Democrats." Kevin Drum countered that "These folks represent a real constituency, and the mainstream of the Republican Party, far from disowning them, practically falls all over itself to insist that they have nothing but admiration and respect for their willingness to stand up and fight for traditional values without compromise. That makes them worth a story."

They're both right, even if sites like the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo run one "GOP Lawmaker" story after another primarily because they know they're irresistible clickbait (protip for aspiring web publishers: partisan readers love partisan stuff about how the other side are monsters). Even the most rational person, confronted with a headline that reads, "Person From Other Party Says Abominable Thing," can't help but click through to find out just what it was.

Should we count it as a victory that liberals can play this game just as well as conservatives? Well...yes and no. You could argue that a lot of the time it's harmless; what's being encouraged isn't so much real outrage but simple mockery, giving you leave to indulge your inner Nelson Muntz and point at someone whose ideology you dislike and say "Ha-ha!" More meaningfully, the infrastructure that enables it can find the outrageous remark not only when it comes from the vice-mayor of Maricopa, Arizona, but also when it comes from a more important person, like a GOP nominee for Senate talking about "legitimate rape." Yes, the smaller stories reinforce the underlying ideological argument (that conservatives are nutty extremists), but only when the person in question is of a higher stature is the story likely to break through to mainstream media and have an immediate political impact.

If conservatives have fallen behind on producing the sheer volume of this kind of thing, it isn't just because Democrats have a smaller quantity of crazy legislators (and other folks) who are out there doing the hard work of making outrageous statements. It's also because at this moment in history, the right has bigger fish to fry. When there's a Democrat in the White House, he's the one you focus your anger on, and it isn't necessary to go searching as far for other people to be mad at or to make fun of. Whenever the White House next changes hands, the roles will be reversed: Liberals will spend most of their time thinking about, and getting mad at, the president; and conservatives will resume searching far and wide for liberals they can hold up to ridicule.

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