David Brock – the Republican-turned-liberal political operative who spent the past year funding increasingly bizarre PR schemes in a failed attempt to elect Hillary Clinton – wants the left’s help. That’s the gist of an open letter to Bernie Sanders he published Tuesday:
“I will do all I can to fight the Trump Administration, but I need help from those in the position to resist through our democratic institutions…Please join me in pressuring these forces to stop facilitating the pollution of our public discourse.”
Brock makes noises about wanting Sanders to help from “the Senate floor,” but when he brings up his PAC, American Bridge – and then immediately turns his attention to Sanders’ supporters – it’s clear what he actually wants: money. As Sarah Jones notes in The New Republic, Brock is currently raising funds for new anti-Trump media campaigns, and this latest message signals that he hopes to win the backing of Sanders supporters as well; in fact, Democrats have been lusting after their cash ever since the primaries.
But anyone who hopes to move our country in a better direction – or who simply wants to beat Trump – would do well to send their money elsewhere. While there are multiple progressive media fronts, such as Progressive Army, that are doing the important work of vying for cultural hegemony in the Trump era, David Brock’s work for the Clinton campaign was a case study in cynical and abysmal failure.
Clinton’s Outrage Machine
To see just how terrible Brock is at what he does, one need look no further than his collaboration with the so-called “Hillary Men” – possibly one of the most absurd and impotent media operations in modern political history.
That story began in August 2015, when three top Clinton campaign officials – chairman John Podesta, communications director Jennifer Palmieri, and chief digital strategist Teddy Geoff – began contemplating how they could build a favorable media environment for Clinton’s political message. Their exchange would eventually appear on Wikileaks, which revealed Geoff making a little-noticed but remarkable point:
“I think it’s just helpful generally for people to see stalwart defenders [of Clinton] out there, so that even if some of what gets said is off-key or goes too far, they feel a little bit protected if they want to go public with a more moderated stance.”
Read between the lines, and the implication is clear: top Clinton officials deliberately promoted media surrogates who they felt went “off-key” and “too far” in an effort to shift campaign discourse in a favorable direction. This is not actually an unusual strategy in the world of political messaging: it’s just a standard Overton Window operation, designed to normalize a given position (like “Hillary is a good candidate”) by casting it as “moderate” in contrast to a more extreme position (like “Hillary is perfect”). The American right has relied on this approach for decades (Joseph Overton, who invented the term, was himself a right-wing intellectual), and today it’s an ordinary tactic of disciplined, effective advocacy campaigns across the political spectrum.
But the “stalwart defenders” Geoff had in mind – the self-proclaimed “Hillary Men,” Peter Daou and Tom Watson – were neither disciplined nor effective. Palmieri described them as “absurdly aggressive” and “a little off”; Geoff warned that “Peter worked on [Clinton’s 2008 campaign] and apparently burned a lot of bridges…digital folks do not speak highly of him.”
Enter David Brock, who just a few months later brought in Daou to lead one of the most radical and combative media operations in recent memory. The New York Times dubbed it “Clinton’s Outrage Machine.” They loudly praised Clinton with the hyperbole and triumphalism of a North Korean press agency, spinning even her infamous fainting episode as a “feat of strength”; they rebuked even the most moderate misgivings about her candidacy as “shameful” and “disgusting”; they even lapsed repeatedly into intimidation and harassment, threatening Clinton’s critics with SLAPP suits and contacting their employers.
The story of the Hillary Men, of course, was a story of catastrophic failure. Instead of a wave of “enthusiastic supporters” emboldened by hardline advocacy from Daou and Watson, we saw an apathy election where Clinton underperformed her predecessor across every demographic. Clinton’s outrage machine, the Times reports, was “roundly mocked” for its “Pravda-esque spin”; and, particularly among young people, Daou’s social media presence was voted one of the most ridiculous of the past year. There is little evidence that Brock’s media strategy had much significant impact on the race at all; if it did, it was almost certainly negative.
The Left Alternative
Brock, in his letter, concedes to Sanders that his “candidacy electrified millions…from students to working class families,” and proposes that:
“With the stakes so high, I pledge to help harness the passion that you and your supporters unleashed to empower progressives…and to hold Donald Trump accountable.”
There’s a good reason why Brock hopes to bring all of that energy in under his management: he just spent the past year fighting it, and he learned firsthand how powerful it is. Despite a multi-million dollar budget, direct access to the Clinton campaign, and an endless parade of corporate media allies, Brock found himself outmatched time and time again by Sanders and his advocates. Perhaps most emblematic of that failure was Brock’s so-called million-dollar troll campaign – an effort to astroturf online support for Clinton in opposition to Sanders, who “was backed by a passionate army of media-savvy millennials.”
As Clare Foran reported, “the effort threatened to validate a long-standing criticism that Clinton can’t generate adequate enthusiasm. It suggested her allies were willing to spend eye-poppingly large sums of money to shut down opponents. Mockery and cynicism ensued.”
Some have supposed that the Sanders base simply executed better than their opponents – even President Obama, speaking at the Democratic National Convention, insisted that “we all need to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders’ supporters have been during this election.” This is what Brock seems to think is happening too when he supposes that the left just has “passion” that needs to be “harnessed”. But one of Clinton’s more vocal critics, Felix Biederman, disagrees:
“Simply put, the program of paying a glorified bagman like Brock in order to get the media to tilt towards DNC goals is morning and ineffective…directly appealing to people’s material interests in their work lives, their health, and their well-being in the face of authoritarianism is how a political coalition is built. Opposition can only be fueled by a positive vision of a different future…”
Biederman hosts the wildly popular podcast Chapo Trap House – just one of a broad and growing coalition of alternative left media institutions that have done quite well for themselves without the management of David Brock. In fact, many of these institutions have advanced a progressive vision despite the belligerent and direct opposition of Brock and his media allies.
The reason for that is simple: while Clinton and her allies were trying to move the Overton Window in a direction no one wants to go, it turns out that truly progressive messages are wildly popular. If you want to see an America that delivers universal health care, that wipes out poverty, that demilitarizes our foreign policy, that eradicates racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, and that finally takes meaningful action against climate change – if those are the outcomes you want, there is a massive, diverse and growing constellation of left media that’s taking up these causes. Chapo Trap House is just one. There are an endless number of podcasts and radio shows out there, from Unauthorized Disclosure to The Benjamin Dixon Show to Street Fight Radio to The Katie Halper Show to Delete Your Account; there are print publications like Jacobin and Current Affairs; of course, there are entire online progressive media communities, like The Progressive Army.
All of these media outlets are struggling for funding at a time when a powerful, adversarial – and most importantly, authentic – left media is more important than ever. Brock can’t give you that. As progressive strategist Jonathan Tasini put it, “David Brock is the worst possible messenger…He should not be given a single dollar more.”
And neither should any of his centrist allies, e.g., the people who just elected Donald Trump. Don’t give them your money. Give your money to leftists.