US Democracy's End of the Road
This past week had the feel of “game, set, match,” the end to a long string of miscalculations by the American Left and a crowning victory for the cynical American Right – a triple whammy of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to unleash corporate campaign spending, Air America’s dissolution, and the Massachusetts Senate election.
Especially after the Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to spend whatever they want to punish some politicans and reward others, it is hard to see a road back for American democracy.
The United States is now at the very dark terminus of a four-decades-long journey, one in which – at nearly each fateful juncture – the Right made the smart maneuver and the Left mostly hurt itself, most notably by allowing its divisive squabbles over purity vs. pragmatism to destroy the best opportunities for progress.
In retrospect, one can see key turning points as far back as 1968, the year when the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy swallowed the optimism of a generation and divided the Democratic Party to such a degree that many progressives sat out the election, even though it meant that Richard Nixon would win and continue the war for four more years.
Only much later did evidence emerge revealing that Republican operatives had secretly sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks, a move that prevented a Democratic reconciliation and enabled Nixon to narrowly snake away with the White House.
Though Johnson and his top advisers were aware of Nixon’s treachery in real time, they stayed silent for “the good of the country,” a decision that they may have viewed as noble and pragmatic but one which nonetheless had devastating future consequences. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Significance of Nixon’s Treason.”]
So, by 1968, a troubling pattern was already taking shape. Many Democratic progressives refused to be practical regardless of what was at stake, and Democratic politicians shied away from tough showdowns with the Republicans and even joined in concealing evidence of their wrongdoing.
In 1972, emboldened by his still-secret success four years earlier, Nixon sought to ensure his reelection with another round of skullduggery – spying on the Democrats and seeking to manipulate their nomination process – but his luck finally ran out when a team of his burglars was caught inside the Democrats’ Watergate headquarters.
Despite Nixon’s best efforts – aided and abetted by "pragmatic" Democratic National Chairman Robert Strauss who tried to help shut down the Watergate investigation – the criminal proceedings exposed Nixon’s dirty operation, forcing his resignation in 1974 and leading to Democrat Jimmy Carter's election in 1976. [For more on the Watergate intrigue, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
From Nixon’s debacle, the Republicans learned important lessons, including their need to build a media infrastructure of their own to protect future Republican presidents from “another Watergate.” Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon took the lead in pulling together wealthy conservatives to invest in right-wing media and think tanks. [For details, see Lost History.]
The Left extracted an opposite lesson from Watergate. Feeling a false confidence that the mainstream news media would continue performing a watchdog role, progressives mostly dismantled what had been a thriving “underground” media of newspapers, magazines and radio stations, which had grown up amid the youthful opposition to the Vietnam War. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
The Right’s Surge
By the late 1970s, other parts of today’s political dynamic were falling into place. The Right and the Republicans played hardball, while the Left and the Democrats remained deeply divided between purists and pragmatists -- and were unwilling to confront GOP bullies.
In Election 1980, these political characteristics asserted themselves again. President Carter’s center-left Democratic policies offended farther-left Democrats, many of whom either sat out the November election or voted for independent candidate John Anderson.
Meanwhile, the Republicans played their usual aggressive game, this time over Carter’s Iranian hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan’s men went behind Carter’s back to contact Iranian officials much as Nixon’s team had gone behind Johnson’s back to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks in 1968. Indeed, some key figures, like Henry Kissinger, showed up in both operations.
(Similarly, too, even when evidence of Reagan’s treachery emerged years later, senior Democrats chose to conceal the evidence, just as Johnson and his advisers had done in 1968. [See Secrecy & Privilege for details.])
With Reagan’s victory in 1980, the emerging American political dynamics hardened. The Right kept pouring billions of dollars into a media infrastructure, which also included well-funded attack groups to go after mainstream journalists who wouldn’t toe Reagan’s propaganda line.
And, Reagan added a touch of “populism” to the Right’s messaging with his “government is the problem” mantra. This anti-government “populism” would remain central to the Right’s fortunes over the ensuing three decades, as wealthy corporations and rich individuals quietly funded groups that would rally average Americans against “big government,” a strategy that helped corporations maximize profits and consolidate their control of U.S. society.
Corporate titans understood that an energized and democratized federal government was the only meaningful force that could limit their power. So, they did what they could to hamstring and hobble the government, often under the false flag of "populism."
In the 1980s, the American Left followed a different path, ignoring the importance of having a media infrastructure that could get out its message, instead favoring vague concepts like “organizing” and “going back to the roots.” The Left embraced the bumper-sticker slogan, “think globally, act locally,” and abandoned the front lines of Washington's information wars.
What money the Left did spend on national politics was devoted heavily to “campaign finance reform,” pushing for laws and regulations that supposedly would limit special-interest donations given to political parties and candidates. While well intentioned, the logical flaw of this approach was that it limited what could be spent by politicians on campaigns but ignored the Right’s unrestricted – and unmatched – investment in media.
In other words, while both Republican and Democratic candidates faced limits on what they could raise for their campaigns, the Right’s rapidly expanding right-wing media pounded liberal politicians 24/7/365 and, indeed, demonized liberalism itself. The Left largely ignored this imbalance.
Subject to these endless assaults, many Democratic politicians trimmed their sails and tacked toward the perceived safety of more conservative-sounding positions. But that only infuriated the Democratic purists more. They called on politicians to sail directly into the gathering storm.
In the 1980s, I found myself in the middle of this tempest since it also roared through mainstream journalism. On the Associated Press Special Assignment Team, I focused on Reagan’s bloody policies in Central America, leading me to discoveries about the secret activities of White House aide Oliver North and ultimately what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Despite some success in exposing those secrets – and getting a new job at Newsweek after the scandal erupted in late 1986 – I learned painfully that the Right had made extraordinary progress in setting parameters for what mainstream journalists could report on, without risking their careers.
My efforts to explore the dark corners of the Iran-Contra affair, including cocaine trafficking by Reagan’s Nicaraguan Contra rebels and the origins of Reagan’s secret dealing with Iran, met with anger from Republicans and resistance from my Newsweek editors who had cozy relations with Henry Kissinger and other influential Republicans.
Those battles led me to leave Newsweek in 1990. Afterwards, I began contacting wealthy progressives with warnings about the dangerous changes occurring in Washington’s news media. But I often felt like Cassandra, foretelling disasters that no one wanted to recognize and confront.
Then, in 1992-93, a Democratic-led House investigation of Reagan’s 1980 contacts with Iran unearthed strong evidence of Republican criminality. But just like in 1968, senior Democrats – in this case led by Rep. Lee Hamilton – chose to look the other way. The Democrats even hid evidence, again presumably for “the good of the country."
My discovery of some of those documents in late 1994 and early 1995 – and my inability to interest several “liberal” news outlets in the story – led to the creation of the Consortiumnews.com Web site as a means of getting such suppressed history to the American people.
But my appeals to wealthy liberals and progressives for support continued to fall on deaf ears. They didn’t see much value in backing independent media outlets like ours.
As for the ever-expanding right-wing media, which by the mid-1990s had spread from magazines, books and newspapers to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, some progressives would just say, “turn it off.” But millions of Americans clearly were listening, watching -- and adopting right-wing views.
The Gore Debacle
At the end the 1990s, the Left’s purist vs. pragmatist split resurfaced again. Many on the Left were furious with President Bill Clinton over his timidly liberal or pro-business policies that he had promoted in the face of the Right’s ferocious efforts to humiliate and impeach him.
To his surprise, Clinton also had found the mainstream press nearly as hostile to him as the right-wing news media was.
During Campaign 2000, that animus shifted to Al Gore, as the New York Times and Washington Post misrepresented Gore’s words and intentions almost as enthusiastically as did the Right’s New York Post and Washington Times. The news media’s “war on Gore” peddled apocryphal tales, like Gore’s supposed claim that he “invented the Internet," and made Gore out to be a delusional braggart. [See Neck Deep.]
At the time, some leading progressives told me they were determined to “teach the Democrats a lesson” by supporting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who claimed to detect “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.
The Nader backers brushed aside concerns about the kinds of Supreme Court justices that Bush might select as well as my warnings that Bush – though selling himself as a “compassionate conservative” – would restore neoconservatives to power over U.S. foreign policy.
Having dealt with the neocons during the Reagan-era bloodbaths in Central America, I was keenly aware of their skill at manipulating information. But Nader backers assured me that Bush would surround himself with “realists” from his father's presidency, not Reagan-era neocons.
The Naderites’ ultimate dream was for Nader and the Greens to cross the five percent voting threshold, thus qualifying them for federal election funds, while still hoping that Gore would slip past Bush.
On Election Day, when I was standing in line to vote in Arlington, Virginia, two young Nader supporters were discussing exactly this scenario when a disgusted middle-aged woman turned on them and seethed, “You better hope Gore wins.” It was the old division between the purists and the pragmatists.
As it turned out, Nader fell short of the five percent threshold, but his vote total in the key state of Florida did leave that tally in a virtual dead heat between Bush and Gore.
We now know that if all legally cast votes in Florida had been counted, Gore would have won narrowly – as he also did in the national popular vote – but Bush clung to a 537-vote lead in the official Florida tally overseen by Gov. Jeb Bush’s allies, including Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
At that historic turning point, the Republicans benefited from having a powerful media apparatus which quickly defined the recount battle as Gore’s trying to “invent votes.” Meanwhile, the mainstream news media continued tilting toward Bush under the notion that his ascension to the White House would “put the adults back in charge” after eight turbulent years of Clinton.
On the Left, there was almost no media to fight back against Bush's brazen tactics and no timely protests to match what the Right was able to generate overnight through its national media. I also continued to encounter disinterest among some on the Left who still insisted that it really didn’t matter whether Gore or Bush became President.
Amid this climate of an active Right and a disengaged Left, it became a relatively easy call for five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court to twist some legalistic arguments into an excuse to hand the White House to George W. Bush. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
Not only did the Supreme Court reverse the electoral judgment of the American people regarding who should be President, but the five Republicans guaranteed that any Court vacancies would be filled by a Republican President, not a Democrat.
After Bush prevailed, Nader and his followers refused to accept any blame for the outcome, claiming instead that it was Gore’s fault for not winning his home state of Tennessee, or having a lousy recount strategy, or any number of other excuses.
It had become a trademark of the Left’s purists to almost never take responsibility for anything, but rather to assume the role of critic. They would typically find fault with whatever compromise the pragmatists judged necessary while pretending that the American people were ready to rally to the banner of radical change if only the Democrats would blow the bugle.
The reality was that many middle- and working-class Americans were now identifying with the Right’s anti-government “populism” -- as promoted by the pervasive right-wing media -- not with the Left’s unheard explanations for why government intervention was needed to address social ills.
George W. Bush’s presidency also didn’t turn out the way that some Naderites had predicted. Bush shoved aside his father’s old foreign policy advisers and restored neocons, like Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz, to key jobs in the national security bureaucracy.
Despite his tainted election victory, Bush also veered the United States sharply to the Right, slashing taxes mostly for the rich, further reducing government regulations of industries, running up the national debt, and – after the 9/11 attacks – adopting the neocons’ theories of preemptive war, particularly targeting Iraq for regime change.
The Left Stirs
In 2003, as the death toll mounted from the invasion of Iraq, I began to hear echoes among a few progressives of my longstanding recommendations about the need to build media that could counter the lies and distortions that were emanating daily from the powerful right-wing news media.
Those discussions on the Left eventually gave rise to Air America, a 24-hour radio talk show network. But it barely got liftoff in 2004 because of a shortage of funding and constant wrangling among its cash-strapped management.
Still, for all its problems, Air America gave voice to many Americans who had felt adrift in a hostile sea of U.S. media, where right-wingers demonized liberals as traitors and where mainstream news personalities kept their careers flowing in a profitable direction by not offending Bush loyalists.
But Air America couldn’t afford the basics of advertising that are a must in the radio business. You didn’t see the faces of hosts Al Franken and Rachel Maddow plastered on the sides of buses or inside subway cars; Air America didn’t even put out regular press releases.
It was the same ol’ problem, underfunded media. Yet, instead of investing more money in building Air America and other media outlets, the Left focused instead on government regulation as the answer to the media problem.
A common refrain was to restore the Fairness Doctrine in radio, as if the Republicans would allow that -- and even if they did -- as if some bureaucrats appointed by President Bush would demand “balance” from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Despite opportunities presented by developments such as the Internet and digital cable, media remained near the bottom of the Left’s priorities. Extreme religious groups did more to get their message out than did progressives, although they amounted to one-third or so of the American public.
The Naderite view from 2000 – that it didn’t matter whether Gore or Bush was President – also came back to haunt the American Left when Bush named two right-wingers, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, to fill vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though Roberts replaced fellow right-winger, the late William Rehnquist, Alito's appointment threatened to tilt the court further rightward because he took the seat of the somewhat more moderate Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired.
In early 2006, Alito's nomination faced strong Democratic opposition in the Senate, where there were 42 votes lined up against his nomination, enough to sustain a filibuster that could have stopped him.
However, a group of “centrist” or pragmatic Democrats came up with a “bipartisan” solution that cleared the way for Alito’s confirmation. To sidestep a Republican threat to eliminate filibusters, the so-called "nuclear option," these Democrats joined Republicans to vote cloture against liberal Democrats who were fighting Alito. Some of those pro-cloture Democrats then voted against Alito’s confirmation, which nevertheless prevailed on a 58-42 vote.
This sellout infuriated the Democratic “base,” which warned of future dangers from putting another radical right-winger on the U.S. Supreme Court.
This Past Week
Over the past year – and especially this past week – the various tendencies of the American Right and the American Left have converged like the final scene of a dreadful Broadway musical as all the characters crowd onstage.
In its first year in office, the Obama administration has often shown some of the worst characteristics of the pragmatic Democrats, making endless compromises and shying away from tough confrontations, hoping against hope that the phantom of bipartisanship will materialize.
The purist Left, too, has continued with its own sense of unreality as it demands that politicians walk the plank on behalf of progressive government policies despite a lack of public support and in the face of vicious attacks from the right-wing media.
The Right has again demonstrated its ability to whip up rank-and-file Americans to take positions against their own interests. The Tea Partiers, whose organizations sometimes get behind-the-scenes funding from corporate interests, rail against Big Government, apparently not realizing that their “populist” positions are serving the interests of corporate power.
The Republicans also have shown no shame in deploying the filibuster relentlessly, even though they threatened to eliminate it when some Democrats tried to use it. Republicans see no risk in obstructionism, knowing that their flanks are covered by the right-wing news media.
These troubling threads of U.S. political life knotted themselves together this past week.
It appears that some progressive purists sat out the Massachusetts Senate race in order to “send a message” to President Obama and the pragmatists, according to some e-mails I’ve received and some media reports. Meanwhile, the Right and its media operatives whipped-up a “populist” fury that lifted right-wing Republican Scott Brown into the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, giving the GOP the 41 votes it needs to sustain its filibuster strategy.
Not surprisingly, many congressional Democrats took the message from the Massachusetts election not as some on the Left had hoped -- as a call to arms to fight for more liberal solutions -- but rather as a threat to their political survival and thus another reason to crawl toward the “center.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid interpretted Brown's victory as the voters telling Congress to work together. But the Republicans have made clear that they have no intention of making any meaningful compromises with the Democrats. Why should they?
After all, the Republicans and their right-wing allies have shown that a mix of congressional obstruction and media propaganda will likely assure them a major victory in November’s elections.
The Right's confidence got another major boost on Jan. 21 when five Republican justices – including the two appointed by Bush – wiped out years of the Left’s investment in campaign-finance reform.
The five justices – Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Roberts and Alito – seized an opening presented by a relatively minor case of a documentary trashing Hillary Clinton and issued a sweeping ruling that will permit corporations and other special interests to spend unlimited funds to influence the outcome of elections.
Combined with the Right’s massive investment in media, the Court’s decision means a flood of right-wing corporate money inundating the electoral system, intimidating political enemies and rewarding political friends.
Ironically, Ralph Nader, whose candidacy helped make the Roberts and Alito appointments possible, stepped forward to denounce the ruling, saying it “shreds the fabric of our already weakened democracy by allowing corporations to more completely dominate our corrupted electoral process.”
Nader’s solution was to propose a constitutional amendment that would “prevent corporate campaign contributions from commercializing our elections and drowning out the civic and political voices and values of citizens and voters.” However, Nader presented no practical way for such a constitutional amendment to be enacted.
Another irony of the expanding power of corporate money is that it will surely be disguised in “populist” garments meant to deceive simpleminded Americans who will think they are joining a movement to free the Republic from the threat of Big Government, when they will actually be handing the Republic over to corporate titans, including some fronting for foreign money.
And to top off this past week, Air America – after many stop-and-go moments – finally came crashing to earth, declaring bankruptcy and closing up shop.
Its demise was interpreted by some liberal pundits as a sign that progressives shouldn’t bother to invest in talk radio because progressives supposedly are too nuanced in their viewpoints, while talk radio is all about simplistic bombast.
But the real reason for Air America’s failure may be simply that its managers and hosts were always flying by the seats of their pants. The low-budget operation was held together by glue and Scotch tape, as wealthy progressives never committed the kind of resources that were needed.
Now, the main source of left-of-center opinion is from MSNBC’s evening lineup of Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. But that’s a fragile reed for progressives to put much weight on. It’s not like what the Right has with its own deeply committed outlets, such as Fox News and hard-right radio hosts.
MSNBC, which is owned by General Electric but may soon be taken over by Comcast, experimented with the three liberal hosts only after all other alternatives failed. For a while during the Bush administration, MSNBC tried to out-fox Fox with even more flag-waving jingoism but found that right-wing viewers were loyal to the network that had served them so well.
MSNBC also is not simply a liberal bastion. It offers Republican hosts, like former Congressman Joe Scarborough, and its sister network CNBC is filled with pro-Reagan free-marketeers, like Larry Kudlow and Rick Sentelli.
So, it’s hard to look at the political landscape of this past year – and especially this past week – and see any route left toward a saner America where a democracy based on a well-informed electorate can expect to flourish.
President Obama may begin striking a more populist tone, but it may be too little, too late. Even if he's sincere, he's sure to be bombarded with corporate-funded 30-second ads mocking him and his policies.
If there is any hope for finding some long road back, it may have to begin with the American Left taking a serious look at itself and discovering ways to finally blend principle with practicality.