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Home Cable Liberals Face a Crisis of Definition

Cable Liberals Face a Crisis of Definition

Olbermann's suspension mini-drama was a direct product of the 2010 election which has made cable liberals wonder about their place in the bigger picture. Olbermann had found his place on MSNBC as in the run-up to the War in Iraq liberals felt increasingly emboldened to attack the Bush Administration. And the touchy sports anchor used it as an opportunity to reinvent himself as a cartoon of Edward R. Murrow, that has more than a little in common with Stephen Colbert's performance, and channel liberal anger toward the Bush Administration.

With Obama's victory, Olbermann like the rest of the liberal cable punditocracy switched from being the voice of the opposition, to the court jesters of the new administration. Their goal to harangue and denounce Republicans for their obstructionism of Obama's wonderful agenda. But in in 2010, the marketplace switched again. The Republican sweep of congress demonstrated to MSNBC that the face of the electorate had changed. The number of voters identifying themselves as liberals had hit the basement. And though MSNBC was doing well enough, its management has recognized that it is stuck with a niche demographic of angry liberals, with no growth potential.

Suspending Olbermann was the act of a nervous and indecisive management, that was suddenly less comfortable with their former radical course than they had been before. One of the catalysts for their indecision was Jon Stewart's rally which made a show of attacking both sides of the cable spectrum. Stewart was creating a new identity for the liberal punditocracy, one that was more ideological, but less overtly political, focused on issues, rather than political parties. And the very nature of such a reinvention betrayed a lack of confidence in Obama and the Democrats. An immediate backlash followed from Olbermann and Bill Maher. And MSNBC decided that Olbermann had become an embarrassment.

At the heart of the question is a crisis of definition. Things had been simpler in 2008, but now that Obama was no longer the golden child, now that he could no longer be trusted to carry the torch of liberalism, what would happen to the liberals. The Olbermann liberal of 2003 had defined himself as anti-government. The Olbermann liberal of 2008 had defined himself as pro-government. But 2010 risked shifting the balance into a muddy middle ground, in which liberals would be expected to defend a decaffeinated Obama Administration. Or go further left. Either one a risky choice.

ObamaCare had already disappointed many liberals who wanted an above board public option now. The slow pace of withdrawals from Iraq. The surge in Afghanistan. And foot dragging on Don't Ask, Don't Tell had already combined into a disenchanting stew. In policy circles, the Obama Administration was seen as progressive, but also erratic and unreliable. While the official position is that the Obama Administration was bad at messaging, the truth is that it was great at messaging, but terrible at everything else. But would those same liberals who trooped down to faint at Obama rallies ready to turn their backs on him? The answer was no.

As angry as many liberals had been at Clinton, they only lashed out once he was leaving. Many of them didn't lash out even then, but waited around until the 2008 primaries to release their venom sacs. So too we'll only begin to get the full measure of anger and resentment toward Obama somewhere around 2012 or 2016. For now most Democrats think they have no choice. And barring an unlikely primary race in 2012, with the likeliest candidate being Hillary Clinton, who has nearly as many negatives, and has already announced that she won't be running, the options just aren't there.

But Stewart had moved toward disassociating the liberal brand from Obama and Olbermann, emphasizing an idea of liberalism, rather than the reality. A wise retreat considering the devaluation of both brands. Obama had sold himself as the avatar of Hope and Change, only to deliver a muddled aftermath. Olbermann had been the angry pretentious voice of the outraged liberal elitist, outraged first at the Bush Administration and then at Republicans. But after the 2010 elections, suddenly cooler heads were wondering whether there was room for an Olbermann anymore. Whether it wasn't time to lower the volume and pretend to be the voices of sanity.

The red sun of angry liberalism has not yet set. Olbermann's suspension summoned forth supporters. And MSNBC, which still doesn't have much going on, caved. In the game of liberal chicken, MSNBC blinked. Which liberals tend to do when faced with angrier members of their creed. And so the Lean Forward express goes on barreling off the rails and into the night. But where is it really going anyway? Much of that will be answered by how Obama interacts with a Republican congress. For now angry cable liberals will probably be able to hang on to their role of namecalling and catcalling. But 2010 raised urgent questions about their relevance.

In 2003, Olbermann liberals were able to convince themselves that they were part of a vanguard of awareness, spreading outrage about the Bush Administration through the land, like malicious Johnny Appleseeds. In 2006, they could claim that they had been vindicated. And in 2008, they could claim victory. Their message had gotten out. The votes had been cast. And a new age was dawning now. All that was left, was to mock the Republicans into oblivion and turn America blue for the next three hundred years. But 2010 stuck its foot out and tripped them over on their ugly faces. Shockingly the Liberal's Progressive narrative had been aborted. Instead of going left, the American people had gone right.

Traditionally in response to such setbacks, liberals curse the stupidity of the public, rant about flyover country, get grief counseling and detach themselves from politics for a while. And that doesn't mean good things for MSNBC ratings. More worrisome for the channel, a public shift to the right, raises justifiable concerns about where the audience growth will be coming from. And without a serious prospect for growth, MSNBC will begin bleeding ratings, as audience members leave, but aren't replaced.

For a brief, not particularly shining moment, MSNBC tried to follow suit, and disassociate themselves at least a little from the politicians and policies of the Democratic party right now. But Olbermann made sure that isn't going to happen. And so MSNBC's leaky yacht is set on its doomed course, an elitist bubble of snide ivy leaguers chattering to each other about how stupid the hoi polloi are. And while MSNBC understands that course represents cable network suicide, they haven't found another model that works. FOX News has locked down conservative cable viewers, making it unlikely that MSNBC will take another shot at that demographic.And CNN shows just how hopeless trying to get viewers is on brand loyalty detached from ideology. So the course is set. MSNBC has linked its fate to the Democratic party and the Democratic party has linked its fate to MSNBC. And both will go down together.


  1. Anonymous16/11/10

    A dictator has to have ALL media in his pocket to succeed, talk radio and FOX have spoiled his plans. I don't think he can rise to the heights of 2008 when he was walking on water, but he still can do a lot of dammage by splitting American people.


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