If You’re Denying, You’re Losing

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Matt Steinglass says that all the talk about Barack Obama being a socialist or Mitt Romney being a social Darwinist is a “reverse dog whistle.” These aren’t words with subtle meanings that your own supporters understand but no one else does, they’re words designed simply to piss off your opponents. And it works! When you fight back against this stuff, you lose:

What liberals say: Barack Obama is not a socialist! Socialism is government control over the entire economy, not bailouts of private banks and industries that leave them private, like Obama’s (which Bush started anyway)! Obamacare isn’t a government takeover of health-care, it’s based entirely on private insurers! That’s less socialist than Medicare!
What voters hear: Obama…socialist….socialism…bailouts…Obama…Obamacare…government takeover…socialist.

What conservatives say: Mitt Romney is not a social Darwinist! He’s a middle-of-the-road Wall Street executive! Just because his business success has made him rich doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about poor people! Social Darwinists believe poor people are inherently inferior to rich people; Romney doesn’t believe that, he thinks deregulation and tax cuts will empower the poor to better themselves! Recognising that we need to cut Medicare spending growth doesn’t make you a social Darwinist, Romney’s just recognising budgetary reality! 
What voters hear: Romney…social Darwinist…Wall Street…rich…social Darwinist…poor people are inferior…cut Medicare…Romney.

As the old saying goes, If you’re explaining, you’re losing. Or, more pungently, there’s the (possibly true!) story about LBJ spreading a rumor that his opponent was a pig-fucker. Aide: “Lyndon, you know he doesn’t do that!” Johnson: “I know. I just want to make him deny it.” If you’re denying, you’re losing.

This is, in general, a fraught question. When should you respond to a slur? In the internet age, it’s now taken for granted that the answer is always and instantly. And maybe so. But Matt is suggesting that sometimes you’re just letting your opponents mess with your head. The people pissed off by the slur are mostly true believers who aren’t going to be affected by it in any case, and by fighting it you’re doing nothing but bringing it to the attention of people who would otherwise just brush it off and then check to see if NCIS is in reruns tonight.

I don’t expect any change to the “always and instantly” rule, but this is worth a thought anyway. Maybe there are times when it really is better to take a deep breath first.

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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