The 90-year-old, college-educated woman sitting across from me is someone whom I know for sure voted for President Obama in 2008. I also know that she reads the newspaper every day, she follows current events and issues, and she can talk about them. We were chatting amiably about the weather, her hobbies and her dog, when my husband asked her if she’d watched any of the 2012 Republican convention, which had just come to a close. Her answer shocked and disappointed me, and it turned out to be a here-and-now object lesson in the effectiveness of the Republican propaganda machine. Here are a few paraphrased excerpts from our conversation:
Q: What did you think of the Republican convention?
A: I didn’t watch all of it. But there were some really good speakers who seemed to have done nice things for people. I think it’s possible that the Republicans have the good of the people at heart.
Q: What do you think of Mitt Romney?
A: He seems like a kind man who has helped other people. They told the stories of the good things he’s done, and I think his business experience would help turn the country around.
Q: I thought I remembered that you supported President Obama in 2008?
A: Well, I did. But he’s been in office for the past four years, and the way things have gone hasn’t been so good. He hasn’t gotten a lot done. He doesn’t have the business experience. From what I’m reading and seeing on the news, I think maybe the Republicans could do a better job. I just think that maybe government doesn’t have to do everything for everybody. And they’d do a better job with Medicare.
Q [Well, not really a question–more like a rant delivered as gently as possible]: Really? My understanding is that the Republicans have a plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program, in which you’d get about $6,000 per year to go out and buy your own insurance from a for-profit company.
A: Are you sure about that? I haven’t heard that.
Q [Okay, lecture]: Also, about Obama being a failure: His plans to stimulate the economy and create jobs have been blocked at every turn. Maybe you haven’t heard this, but on the night that President Obama was inaugurated, the Republican leaders got together and vowed to block anything that Obama suggested. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell stood up in front of hundreds of people—it’s on tape—and said that the Republicans’ top priority would be to prevent Obama from getting a second term.
A: I don’t believe that.
So, this is what we’re up against. I’m trying to figure out where this woman got her information. I asked her what news stations she watches, expecting to hear Fox. But, no: She watches CNN and PBS. [Of course, neither of these news sources is right-wing–propaganda free, because both purport to balance and regularly offer air time to Republican spokespersons. So she could be getting some of the propaganda there.] She reads the local newspaper, whose editorial page is surprisingly liberal, but, of course, people quoted in news stories and op-eds may not be. But I’m guessing that the most powerful source of the information that is influencing her are political ads. Some are subtle; others are overt in their anti-Obama, visceral and very often misleading—if not downright lying—messages. If this conversation reflects what’s going on out there, the messages are seeping in. And when I think of all the otherwise intelligent people whose brains are being subverted by this stuff, I fear for the outcome of the 2012 election–and for our democracy.