Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for January 2010

Lessons from the Scott Brown mess

I’ve been trying to stay away from the political stuff, but Scott Brown’s stunning upset victory in Massachusetts is making my pundit zone itch.

Most of the people reading this already know where I stand on the issues, but there’s nothing particularly interesting about my opinions.

What’s interesting to me is how this Senate race has stunned Washington and sent pundits on both sides scrambling to make sense of it.

I think this race reveals something deep and important about our national character, but nobody has quite figured out what that something is.

Let’s break it down:

REPUBLICAN SPIN: This vote was a national referendum on Obama’s presidency. Voters rejected deficits, voters rejected health care, voters rejected big government and after just one year of empty promises, they have firmly rejected Obama. Voters want someone to fix the economy and give them their jobs back.

DEMOCRAT SPIN: Coakley was a lackluster candidate who made some terrible mistakes. Scott Brown ran a great campaign with the entire force of the RNC behind him. Democrats didn’t take the race seriously, so the flood of GOP money and GOP talent overwhelmed them. Republicans treated this like a national election; Democrats took it for granted, so the Republicans won. Wacky independent voters (blithely dismissed as “teabaggers”) are upset about the economy and the Democrats stayed home to punish Obama for not being liberal enough.

REPUBLICAN CONCLUSIONS: We’ve got ’em on the ropes. Health care is dead. Big government is dead. Obama’s honeymoon is over and 2010 is gonna look like 1994. All those crazy independents were actually STEALTH REPUBLICANS and if the Dems don’t shut down everything and do what we say, the people are gonna rise up and give us our majority back!

I even heard one Republican whackjob say that Brown’s election meant that Massachusetts voters were PRO-TORTURE! He called it “enhanced interrogation.” Yeah, and crashing into a telephone poll is “enhanced parking.”

DEMOCRAT CONCLUSIONS: Full speed ahead! We’ve only got 59 seats but guess what, that’s STILL A MAJORITY! Let’s push through everything we want and go down fighting! Shove health care down their throats and make them love us! Stop all this wussy compromise and bet-hedging crap and WIN SOMETHING! Make the Republicans filibuster and let the American people see them holding up health care. Obama’s flailing because he lost his base. Stick to your guns and become the guy we elected! Democrats are losing elections because they’re timid and afraid! But we have the power! Let’s use it and put some points on the board!

My raw material for all this comes from comparing the Dennis Miller and Rachel Maddow podcasts today.

Miller is smarter than the average Republican and Maddow is smarter than the average Democrat. Which is just my shorthand way of saying they are both willing to nod in the direction of reality, even when they’re charged up and emotional.

The most amusing thing between them? They both agree on Maddow’s proposed course of action. Maddow wants the Democrats to charge full speed ahead and so does Miller. He thinks Americans are terrified of health care legislation and will run the Democrats out of town on a rail if they push it through. Thus, he wants them to try it, almost as badly as Maddow does.

The really interesting thing? Senate Democrats are buying into the Republican spin. This election scared the hell out of them. And I confess, anything that puts the fear of God into an American politician has got to be a good thing.

Do you know how long it’s been since we’ve seen a politician AFRAID of his constituents, genuinely afraid of losing power because of something they did? It’s a lovely thing, and I wish we could see it more often.

The Democrats are so afraid, they’re going to bend over backwards to accomodate Brown and punt health care all the way back to the drawing board.

Victory for the Red team, right? Wooooolveriiiiinees!

I’m going to unpack this and see if I can figure out where reality is.

PREMISE 1: 70% of voters don’t know what the hell is going on. That leaves 30% who actually care enough to follow the news, beyond what they hear from Jon Stewart. 15% of Republicans and 15% of Democrats are passionate, plugged-in and well-informed. They read blogs, attend meetings and pontificate about political issues with their friends.

PREMISE 1B: 10% of the passionate, “well-informed” people on each side believe things that are ABSOLUTELY WRONG. The people who are supposed to be fact-checking things and sorting out truth from lies decided that was too hard, so no matter how stupid the quote is, if it comes from an elected politician, they’ll run it, pair it with a denial from the other side and say their job is done.

As a result, even the people who try to keep up with this stuff are liable to take ridiculous things as articles of faith.

For example, most of these passionate Democrats honestly believe that state-run medicine would be cheaper, better and more accessible than a private system.

On the other side, Republicans honestly believe we can “win” the war in Afghanistan and turn Iraq into a functioning democracy.

PREMISE 2: Voters are old.

Twitter, Facebook and SMS all you like but the people who actually show up and vote are people who have a stake in the system and have time to study it. That means OLD. Retired people are the heart of the electorate. They have time to attend meetings, time to organize protests and time to fill message boards with political nonsense.

PREMISE 3: That 70% doesn’t show up at the polls unless they’re scared of something or angry at something.

Combine Premise 2 and 3 and you realize the quickest way to get booted out of office is to scare or offend old people.

Conclusion? Old people are terrified of health care reform. They don’t care about the poor because they live in gated communities where they are sheltered from poverty, just as surely as they’re sheltered from rain, wind, and edgy TV.

They don’t care about health care because they already have health care. A retired voter can lecture you about the evils of socialized medicine while sitting in the lobby of the Medicare office. Reference Premise 1B above.

Those three premises contain all the information you need to unpack the election of Scott Brown. You might think this points to a Republican sweep in 2012 but don’t forget Premise 4.

PREMISE 4: Because voters are ignorant and confused, they fear any kind of dramatic change. The minute any kind of change gets too radical or too confusing, the 70% will rise up and squash it. That applies to Democrats trying to push health care through in 2010 and to Republicans trying to cut spending in 2012.

Republicans trying to cut spending? Sorry, I need to use more realistic examples. I meant, “Republicans trying to send more troops to Iraq in 2012.”

So, the trick is, soothe the voters’ desire for change without actually changing anything.


That’s the flip side to running on “change.” Voters love change because change, by itself, doesn’t actually mean anything. Change means something different to each voter. Obama voters thought change meant, “Ending the war.” Other Obama voters thought change meant, “Standing up to fat cats on Wall Street.”

Some Republicans even voted for Obama because they thought change meant, “Cutting wasteful government spending.”

Change is a nonsense word, a variable that means whatever you think it means. That’s why it’s so easy to promise. You promise it up front but you don’t have to define it until you actually get in office.

Do the voters want change? Voters will ALWAYS want change. That’s what change is. Change is a variable that stands for “things that voters want.”

When a politician promises change he’s basically promising, “I’m going to give you whatever you think you want right now!”

That works great until he gets in office and that nebulous variable has to take the form of actual policy. “But you guys said you wanted health care, right?”

In conclusion, Scott Brown was elected by angry, frightened old people who thought that Obama was going to screw up their health care. They hated the lazy, entitled witch who ran on the Democrat side and they’re angry at Obama for promising them the moon and bailing out Wall Street instead.


This does NOT translate into automatic support for Republicans, however. This election is a mandate for change, but change doesn’t actually mean anything.

The real challenge for Republicans is to associate this nebulous idea of “change” with an actual set of policies that people can agree on. Newt Gingrich did this with something called the Contract with America. He took the idea of “change” harnessed all the energy from it, and told voters, “Change means all the stuff on this list, right?”

Newt was careful to put things in that document that the majority of focus group participants voters could agree on, so they said, “Sure!” and put him in office.

If Republicans want to take power again, they have to define themselves as a broad, open coalition that believes in a clear list of popular things.

And for the rest of you, the undifferentiated mass in the 70%? You have to figure out what you want. Citizens are so burned out on politics now, they’re not even bothering to decide what they believe in anymore. They’re actually waiting for politicians to tell them what they should want.

It’s like expecting a job applicant to invent his own job.


Don’t take your base for granted.
Don’t rouse the sleeping 70%.
There is no such thing as a “mandate” anymore.

And finally, if you promise change in 2008, you damn well better CHANGE SOMETHING by 2010.

Apologies for the giant political rant. I promise I won’t do this again before November.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 21, 2010 at 19:43

Posted in Politics

The Doctor is Dead

Long live The Doctor!

My first exposure to Doctor Who was the 1996 TV movie by Philip Segal. It was a noble effort that ultimately failed to rekindle the series.

The real rebirth happened in 2005, under the guiding hand of Russell T. Davies. That era comes to a close tonight as Davies wraps up his assorted storylines and David Tennant ends his spectacular career as the Tenth Doctor.

Although the story premises are radically different, emotionally and mechanically Doctor Who is really the British Star Trek, featuring the same passion, the same nostalgia, the same conflicting storylines and the same epic fan wanks that characterize American Trek.

The Doctor’s storyline is so epic, so vast and so full of insane low-budget retcons, I never really had much interest in it, until Davies rebooted the series in 2005.

I can’t help but think of this as Doctor Who: The Next Generation, as Davies opened the door to new audiences, while respectfully paying tribute to the old.

And just like the eternal struggle between James Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, people develop deep attachments to the guy at the helm.

There is a marvelous generational tradition with Doctor Who that American fans have never really been able to experience before. There is a sense of ownership here, as fans claim this actor as my doctor.

Well, I’m proud to say David Tennant was my Doctor. Perhaps the first true international Doctor, as cable TV brought the weekly phenomenon into American homes for the first time.

Tennant captured the energy, the wit and the erratic sparkling genius of The Doctor and embodied, in many ways, the best traits of a generation.

I regret that I never got to see the wise mastermind Doctors of years past. But Tennant gave modern TV audiences what they wanted, and they wanted a Doctor in tennis shoes.

The new Doctor is even younger, but they say his performance has a peculiar ageless quality to it, as if the new Doctor really is an old man wearing a young man’s body. That premise really excites me, so I hope Matt Smith can pull it off.

He had a great five minutes at The End of Time and the his season preview vid looks great. I’ll miss David Tennant of course, but I got a bit tired of the Russell T. Davies Whoverse and I’m hoping Steven Moffat can give us a bit more Highlander and a bit less monster-of-the-week.

The io9 gang has high hopes for him and I think it’s definitely time for some new blood.

But tonight is hats off to Davies and Tennant and a fine start to 2010.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 1, 2010 at 22:11

Posted in TV

2009, the year blogging sold out

A year ago I wrote that 2008 was the year the Internet moved out of dad’s basement, the year that ended a decade of hype and told publishers it was time to put up or shut up.

The Internet moved out in 2008 and went through 2009 like a bewildered college kid. It took its first faltering steps into the real world and gave up on a lot of big dreams. 2009 was the year the Internet put on a suit and learned to suck up.

A lot of smart people lost their jobs in 2009 as web publishers panicked and ad revenue dried up. A dozen of my favorite bloggers lost their jobs as news sites rejected quirky, distinctive voices and turned into boring corporate media machines.

The Internet may be more useful, more profitable and more efficient as we head in to 2010, but sites that survived the recession did it by sacrificing style and personality, as if charm is a luxury we can no longer afford.

2009 was the year the Internet went corporate. There’s a blandness in the medium now. Even the snark has a tired, forced quality to it, as if everybody is just going through the motions, hyping the same tired stories over and over again, waiting for the next celebrity screw-up to sweep through and pay the bills.

2009 was the year the Internet surrendered to groupthink. I didn’t read Gawker because I wanted to see a bulleted list of what came out of Anna Nicole’s stomach. I read Gawker because I wanted to see my favorite writers react to current events. I wanted to read reactions and analysis from smart, funny writers that I had a relationship with.

Now all that personality has been stripped away and every blog on the Internet has become TMZ Lite. The success of TMZ.com dominated 2009.

No one can deny what Harvey Levin has accomplished over there.

TMZ may be a tabloid, but in a world obsessed with celebrity death and celebrity screw-ups, being first with revelations about Tiger Woods and Michael Jackson carries a lot of weight.

Any success is bound to attract imitators, particularly in a recession when sites are too poor to break news and too scared to write opinion.

The recession turned the Internet into a dull corporate echo chamber of fake news and manufactured outrage.

Here’s my advice to bloggers in 2010: Don’t try to be TMZ. TMZ already exists and they’re better at being TMZ than you are. Don’t try to compete with giants on their home turf. Focus on what makes your site unique — the experience, the opinions and the personality of your writers. Don’t parrot the gossip sites, react to them. Critique them.

Find a voice and trust it. Don’t worry about the 30,000 readers who rush in from Digg and leave your site in 28 seconds.

Focus on the 3,000 readers who visit you every day. Focus on the 300 readers who link you from their personal blogs and repost your stuff on Facebook. Focus on the 30 readers who write good comments and create a community that people will come back to.

Drop out of the tabloid rat race and tell us what you think. I don’t need to read the same three facts on 30 different blogs. Don’t just parrot TMZ. Give me something to read after TMZ.

2009 was the year of the pageview, the year that bloggers sacrificed long-term audience for short-term flash. Individual publishers and advertisers know better, of course, but the guys who write the checks are still focused on raw traffic.

I’d like to think 2010 will be the year that changes that, but pageviews have been an obsolete measure for years and they’re still holding on. The truth is, a short-term burst of site visits is worth almost nothing in real terms. Big spikes look great in PowerPoint, but it’s the boring, constant visitor who pays the bills.

Blog publishers, big and small, have to stop thinking about raw numbers. Stop worrying about the weather, the mercurial ups and downs of your daily site graph, and start worrying about your core audience.

Stop worrying about how to capitalize on the latest celebrity buzz and start worrying about who you have a relationship with.

Why are readers coming here and why do they come back? Who are they and what do they want? Put up the obligatory link to TMZ when the next celebrity dies, but take your time with the follow-up. Don’t tell us what we already know. Tell us what you think.

Step out from behind your corporate logo and let readers see you as a person. Nobody has a “relationship” with Gawker or TMZ. Readers have relationships with people who write. Encourage those relationships; encourage your writers to develop a voice and put stories in context.

Focus on what makes you unique, and make the Internet worth reading again.

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 1, 2010 at 11:35

Posted in Columns