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As Palin and Beck rise on the right, where is the left's answer?

Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck's ascent has taken ribbing from Keith Olbermann and the Huffington Post, but the left lacks a mobilizing media mouthpiece of its own.

By Staff writer / September 14, 2010

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin appear at a September 11 event in Anchorage, Alaska.

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As Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin continue to polish their stars on the boulevard of national conservative politics, the question arises: Where are the liberal counterpoints to their red meat, right-wing struts?

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Sure, there are the leagues of bloggers such as the Huffington Post and the TV show hosts such as Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, but so far, nary a one of those has led any impassioned rallies on the steps of important national monuments (Glenn Beck’s Aug. 28 “Restoring Honor” rally took place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial).

Ms. Huffington did make a brief dash for political office back in 2003, and Al Franken’s short-lived home, the liberal “Air America” radio show, actually greased his 2008 entry to the US Senate, but the fact remains, say political and media observers, that the right is way ahead when it comes to powerful media mouthpieces, and the phenomenon is most acutely embodied in the Beck/Palin power team.

Why is this? Money, style and the evolution of the two major parties are the big reasons the reach and impact of Beck and Palin is unprecedented in mass media history, says Geoffrey Baym, author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.” Not all that long ago, he says, the owners of big media companies used to trumpet the value of objective news coverage in their various outlets from radio to television. But once Rupert Murdoch began to wield his openly conservative agenda – and put his money where his various mouths are, the right began to gain an undeniable advantage.

Add to that mix what various experts have tried to pinpoint without appearing too simplistic: a fundamental difference in the way the left and the right grapple with important issues. As a gross generalization, says Clark University political scientist Mark Miller, “the right tends to see things in more symbolic, black-and-white terms, while the left often sees them as more abstract and oriented to ideas.”

Hence, he says, a flashpoint discussion over whether an Islamic group can locate a new center near the site where jihadists attacked the World Trade Center in 2001 turns into an exercise in style, not substance. Conservatives can’t move beyond the deep emotion and symbolism of the location while liberals hold up the constitution and cannot understand why the principle of freedom of religion does not hold sway.

And then there is the state of the two national parties. At the moment, points out Lara Brown, author of the just-out "Jockeying for the American Presidency,” the Democratic Party casts a very wide net these days, embracing everything from feminism to environmentalism to tax and health-care reform and beyond. "The Republican party," on the other hand, "is increasingly narrow and these individuals can speak to a smaller range of issues to get traction,” she says.

Certainly President Obama himself has had celebrity similar to Beck and Palin, says branding expert Mark Stevens. But that celebrity has taken a beating. “For a pure branding perspective, it’s the greatest rise and fall of a brand in world history, he says. Obama had risen to a rarified stratosphere of fame and impact, he says, the kind achieved by few – a human brand on the level of a Martin Luther King or Muhammad Ali. But that turned around quickly. “When Obama had his hand on the Lincoln Bible at inauguration, he never could have believed if we would have told him Glenn Beck's brand would be more important than his two years later.”

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