January 24, 2008—Hillary Clinton took a cheap shot at Barack Obama in suggesting that he liked the right-wing policies from the past couple of decades. But it’s troubling, too, that Obama would buy into Washington’s conventional wisdom that “the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time.”
Democrats and progressives did have “ideas,” from how to address health care to how to respond to global warming. What they didn’t have was a strong infrastructure that could promote and popularize these ideas with the Washington insider community or the broader American public.
The origins of this right-tilted asymmetry date back to the 1970s when the situation was reversed. Progressives held the upper hand, possessing important think tanks, such as the center-left Brookings Institution and the farther-left Institute for Policy Studies.
Young progressives also held a strong advantage in media, with an array of vibrant underground newspapers and radio stations that spoke to a politically active student population. In the 1970s, I recall activists mastering the skills of video cameras, confident that progressive media would lead the way toward a new day in America.
But that was when the Right and the Left made diametrically opposite judgments about how to proceed. The Right – recognizing its structural disadvantages – enlisted conservative foundations and tapped into wealthy individuals to build and expand its media outlets and think tanks.
In the late 1970s, former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon led this strategy from his perch as head of the Olin Foundation. Before long, Smith-Richardson, Scaife and other right-wing foundations were lining up to fund right-wing magazines and invest in the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and other think tanks.
By the 1980s, the likes of South Korean theocrat Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch were pouring billions of dollars into a rapidly expanding right-wing media.
From these investments came a plethora of well-financed think tanks, year-round attack groups, and a vertically integrated conservative news media – from books, magazines and newspapers to radio, TV and eventually the Internet. Right-wing activists flocked to Washington and New York for good-paying jobs as journalists and pundits.
Meanwhile, the progressives were busy dismantling or starving their infrastructure. By the late 1970s, nearly all the underground media either had disappeared or had been bought up by corporations more interested in selling products to a youthful demographic than in promoting a political agenda.
A popular slogan on the Left was “think globally, act locally,” encouraging activists to eschew national politics in favor of “grassroots organizing.” What that meant in many cases was progressive activists relocating to the San Francisco Bay area with little influence in the nation’s heartland.
So, while the Right was sending reinforcements to the information/power centers of Washington and New York, the Left was dispersing its forces to other parts of the country far less influential in setting the national agenda.
Soon, however, the Right came to dominate political thinking in the countryside, too, through its media outreach, especially talk radio that portrayed “lib-ruls” as immoral, un-American traitors.
By the 1980s, the Institute for Policy Studies was shriveling in terms of influence, mostly surviving as a whipping boy for the Right while wealthy liberals shied away out of fear of career-damaging controversy.
To protect its “relevance,” Brookings repositioned more and more to the center and even to the center-right. The thinking at the think tank apparently was that the more centrists and neoconservatives who could be added to the roster the less vulnerable Brookings was to the accursed “liberal” label.
This change in ideological fortunes also had an impact on mainstream journalists who found that investigating the wrongdoing of the Reagan-Bush years guaranteed coming under attack from aggressive right-wing groups, like Accuracy in Media, as well as drawing fire from Moon’s Washington Times and other media outlets.
A key job of those right-wing media attack groups was to silence unwelcome news from the mainstream press. Again, progressives did little to counteract these trends, essentially leaving honest reporters to fend for themselves.
For self-preservation, many mainstream journalists sought safety by tilting their reporting and commentary to the right. Progressives often got mad at this trend and denounced the news media’s cowardice and complicity, but still ignored the underlying problem.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, as the Right waged what it called “the war of ideas” – essentially pounding and marginalizing Americans who disagreed with Reagan-Bush policies – Washington’s insiders began to hail the conservatives as the ones with the fresh ideas while dismissing liberals as a spent force.
The reality was always different. Both sides developed and presented plans for addressing the nation’s problems, but one side – the Right – had a giant megaphone to promote its policies while the other side – the Left – essentially had thrown its megaphone away.
Some Washington Democrats adapted to this hostile political environment by masking progressive ideas in phrases that were deemed less likely to draw conservative fire. Others, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, opted for a strategy called “triangulation,” which sought a “third way” apart from the extremes of Right or Left.
However, the Clinton administration mostly failed to pass even its mildly progressive measures, such as Hillary Clinton’s health care plan. Bill Clinton’s key victories came in alliance with Republicans, such as winning congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The Right’s media/think tank dominance also ignited possibly the biggest idea of all: the dream of permanent Republican control of the U.S. government.
By 1994, the Right’s infrastructure had the Clintons on the run, promoting “scandals” about their Whitewater real estate investment, their troubled marriage and even the suggestion that they ran Arkansas “death squads.”
As the Right’s strategy grew more obvious – especially with Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 for lying about a sexual relationship – the Left continued its neglect of media investment.
Indeed, the Right’s tightening grip on the information flows of Washington – with the emergence of Murdoch’s Fox News and the Right’s virtual monopoly over talk radio – appeared to frighten off the Left from ever seeking to break that hold. The Left’s hope still seemed to be that “organizing” would solve the problem, but it never did.
To this day, the right-wing media/think tank asymmetry remains a powerful element in national politics, countered mostly by factors that emerged with no organized effort from the American Left, such as the comedy shows of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and the now widely perceived incompetence of George W. Bush.
A fascinating – though little noted – feature of the current Democratic presidential campaign is the differing approaches for dealing with the still-toxic environment for liberals.
In effect, Hillary Clinton offers a combination of her old “triangulation” and the hardball politics of the Clintons’ personal political machine. Some pro-Clinton Democrats who contact me say they view the nastiness toward Obama as a positive, suggesting that the Clintons will be able to hold their own against Republican attacks in the general election.
If Hillary Clinton manages to tough out her route to the White House, this view holds, she would know what to expect and could dish out as good as she gets, even as she tries to craft centrist approaches toward the nation’s problems.
On the other hand, Obama seeks to rally a broad coalition of Americans in support of a mandate for “change,” which seems to translate into a modestly progressive agenda. In this way, he hopes to transcend the old dynamic of harsh partisanship that has enveloped the Clinton and Bush II years.
Though many Americans see Obama’s consensus-building as one of his most attractive features, some rank-and-file Democrats – hardened by the nasty Republican tactics over the past quarter century – view Obama as naïve if not disingenuous. They also bristle at his comments about the Republicans as the “party of ideas” or about Ronald Reagan as a transformative leader.
Hovering over this debate within the Democratic “base,” however, is the specter of the Right’s powerful media/think tank infrastructure -- and the Left’s quarter century of failure to counter it. That is a hard reality to change but it may be the only way to change America's political dynamic.
[For more on the Clinton-Obama split, see Washington Post’s “Some in Party Bristle at Clinton’s Attacks”; for more on the history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation (Redux).” Or read Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege.]
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This story was published on January 25, 2008.