So that's why Bill O'Reilly is always bragging about his ratings. I was under the impression the Fox News pug ugly constantly tells us how much bigger his rating share is than his liberal tormenters over at MSNBC because O'Reilly's just an arrogant bully who believes he can win arguments with the "angry left" by simply comparing audience size.
O'Reilly's schoolyard conceit was on vivid display in a dispute with Rachel Maddow two years ago when Fox News tried to incite white working class resentment against black Americans by repeatedly replaying a doctored video it had received from the late right wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart.
The deceptively-edited video falsely showed one-time Obama administration employee Shirley Sherrod confessing how her anti-white prejudices got the better of her as she repeatedly screwed over white farmers trying to get federal agricultural loans. In truth, at least one white couple came forward to thank Sherrod for going out of her way to save their family farm when no one else would.
"This is what Fox News does. This is how they are different from other news organizations," said Maddow on her show. "Just like the ACORN controversy, Fox knows they have a role in this dance. That's not new; that's not actually even interesting about this scandal. Fox does what Fox does."
To which O'Reilly replied on his own show later: "Which is kick your network's butt every single night, madam. "
There is an old adage that it's not a very good idea to ever pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton. I propose the Maddow Corollary, which is: It is a very, very bad idea to ever pick a fight with a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford Ph.D.who has a whole day to come up with a rejoinder.
And so, after playing the clip where O'Reilly brags about his ratings, Maddow said this: "Here Mr. O'Reilly has a point. You and Fox get great ratings. It is so awesome how great your ratings are. Here's the score card from last night. It is in TV ratings speak, but I think it will be clear enough. Here's Mr. O'Reilly that 757 would be him at 8:00, and that 245 would be me at 9:00, different hour, but you know same point, and don't tell Susan's mom whose actually pretty sensitive about these kinds of things, but we're actually outrated by all kinds of shows. "Deadliest Catch," that's about fishing. We get killed by a show called "The Closer" about which I know nothing about except it kills us in the ratings, and we get smaller ratings than WWE wrestling.... Of course, all of those shows also kill Mr. O'Reilly's show in the ratings as well as everything else on Fox, as do Sponge Bob, reruns of NCIS, and Hannah Montana, Forever, which is totally understandable. They are all more watched than The O'Reilly Factor which is totally irrelevant."
O'Reilly's not the only right winger who thinks size matters. There is also John Hawkins, who runs a right wing version of the Huffington Post called the "Hive." Hawkins wondered aloud in one of his posts how a guy like former Bush speechwriter David Frum (who Hawkins had earlier banned for life from the Hive for insufficient fidelity to the right wing party line) rated a spot on CNN or a column at Time when so many more popular conservatives were left out in the cold.
"What's the purpose of putting a guy like Frum on TV as opposed to all the genuine conservatives who dwarf his traffic and can obviously draw a bigger crowd?" asked Hawkins.
By linking the rightness or legitimacy of their arguments not to the incandescence of their insights or the artistry of their prose but to the raw numbers they're able to gather, O'Reilly and Hawkins exhibit that group-think and tribalism that lies at the core of the conservative mindset.
No wonder the right wing seemed so obsessed with President Obama's legendary "charisma," or the "messianic" powers they imagined the President was able to exert over the teeming hoards he could hypnotize at will.
Yet, according to Boston Globe writer Leon Neyfakh, there may be method to this conservative madness.
In an article in the Sunday Boston Globe's Idea Section, Neyfakh wrote that if you really want to change the way a group thinks and behaves you don't have to win over their hearts and minds. All you really have to do is to "convince them that everybody else is doing it."
To change behavior, says Neyfakh, you don't have to appeal to people's inner virtue or the better angels of their nature you only have to tap into their powerful drive to be "normal."
That is because virtues like respect and kindness don't automatically follow from people who are naturally good, says Keyfakh, "just people who have come to believe that that's what everyone else thinks is the right way to act."
Or, as the Columbia University psychologist quoted by Neyfakh puts it: "The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist."
This insight about group-think comes especially in handy if you are a conservative movement -- like the one that's been disrupting American politics for the better part of the last 30 years -- out to do more than just win over the hearts and minds of a few swing voters who might turn the next election, but rather are committed to the far more ambitious task of fooling all the people all the time so as to transform a modern, liberal, democratic American culture into one more hospitable to ideas and attitudes that are the antithesis of all those things.