Already weakened by three decades of slow arsenic poisoning from Reaganism, the United States ordered up a new dose of Ronald Reagan’s special “government is the problem” elixir in Election 2010 – and it is hard to envision how this willing victim will soon, if ever, recover.
Perhaps the most telling of all the exit polls from Tuesday was that a solid majority of voters declared that they thought “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals,” paraphrasing Reagan’s favorite political theme, one that has been at the center of America’s stunning decline.
Animus against Big Government has always had a populist appeal and surely some of Washington’s clunky actions have fed this disdain. But Reaganism is, in essence, the populist, smiling face of Big Money ruthlessly neutralizing the one institution that could threaten corporate dominance of America, a democratized and energized federal government.
Today’s victorious corporate Republican chieftains and their Tea Party foot soldiers are just the latest embodiment of Reagan’s dark legacy. They favor cutting taxes for the rich; slashing social programs; reducing regulations on corporations; weakening the power of unions; ignoring needed investments in national infrastructure; disdaining environmental science; and trusting “the magic of the market.”
This Republican strategy that Reagan popularized in the early 1980s has – over the past three decades – returned the United States to a second Gilded Age of extreme wealth at the top, a shrinking middle class, growing desperation among the working classes, rampant stock speculation, and a bubble-and-bust economy.
Yet amazingly, millions of Americans went to the polls on Tuesday and voted for this approach. In Rust Belt states – such as Ohio and Pennsylvania – which have substantial interest in manufacturing jobs related to the auto industry, voters punished Democrats who saved General Motors and Chrysler, and favored Republicans who would have blocked the bailout.
Voters also sent the conflicting message that they wanted the federal government to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” but also cut the deficit. They then empowered Republicans whose major idea for job creation is to slash taxes for the richest top two percent of Americans, an approach that has been ineffective in job creation but is expected to add about $700 billion in red ink over the next decade.
Other craziness lies ahead. Media pundits are already hectoring President Barack Obama to move right and cooperate with the Republicans, but the Republican leadership has made clear that its primary goal for the next two years is to make sure that Obama is defeated in 2012.
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” declared the Senate’s Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, shortly before Election Day.
Other key Republicans have announced that they will not compromise on what they regard as their “principles” or on the anti-government message that they discerned from the voters.
In short, Obama faces the prospect of continued Republican obstructionism except that now the GOP is in a much stronger position. When the economy continues to sputter – as it almost surely will – the news media will blame Obama, either for “failing” to achieve bipartisanship or for “failing” to heed the supposed electoral message and shift rightward far enough.
Meanwhile, Republicans are angling to regain control of all three branches of government: the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. The dream of Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” appears to be alive and well.
It’s also a safe bet that the American Left will continue to berate Obama for not being “left enough,” for not somehow enacting socialized medicine or for not getting Congress to approve other sweeping progressive legislation.
But the voters told pollsters that they felt Obama was too much of a left-wing activist. Indeed, House Democrats, who took the hardest votes for progressive legislation such as a “public option” for health care and a cap-and-trade system to combat global warming, took the brunt of the Republican assault.
While Republicans were unseating progressive legislators like Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, many progressives were deserting Obama and the Democrats by not voting or casting ballots for minor third parties. Some even campaigned against Democrats who fell short on some issue or another.
For instance, anti-war activist David Swanson, who is based in Charlottesville, Virginia, opposed his local congressman, Rep. Tom Perriello, for voting in favor of a war funding bill. Perriello, a staunch Obama ally and possibly the most progressive congressman ever elected from that conservative district, lost his reelection bid by about 9,000 votes.
History may shake its head over why so many progressives abandoned the nation’s first African-American president less than two years after his election. [For more on the tragic history of this electoral strategy, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The ‘Teach-the-Dems-a-Lesson’ Myth.”]
But the story of Election 2010 is more troubling than just Democrats coming up short on Obama’s promises of “change” or some disaffected progressives sitting on the sidelines for an off-year election. This is the culmination of calculations and miscalculations dating back to the 1970s when the Left and the Right chose diametrically opposite approaches to national politics.
The Left, which then had the upper hand in media and a strong reformist voice in Washington, opted to reduce its presence in the nation’s capital in favor of "organizing" the countryside. There was a professed fear among some progressives of being co-opted by Washington insiderism.
Media also was considered expendable, as promising news outlets were shuttered, like Ramparts magazine and the Dispatch News wire service, despite having broken important investigative stories that changed the frame of the national debate. Other left-of-center publications, like The New Republic and The Atlantic, were sold to neocons or conservatives.
The Left settled on a new slogan: “think globally, act locally.” But this reliance on “grassroots organizing” failed miserably to counter the Right’s new strategy of investing heavily in national media outlets, think tanks and pressure groups to lobby on behalf of corporate interests and to go after troublesome mainstream journalists.
The Republicans also played whatever hardball was needed to win, and the Democrats – after the Watergate scandal ousted President Richard Nixon in 1974 – lost their stomach for standing up to the GOP’s nastiness. [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
Reagan’s victory in 1980 was the first clear indication of the direction of things to come, but the Left continued with its strategic withdrawal. The Democrats chose to finesse the Republican onslaught of well-funded attack groups by tacking to the center and cozying up to corporate interests themselves.
Even as this pattern became obvious – with the Right’s media machine becoming a powerhouse and with the Left left with no messaging capability to speak of – the progressives refused to change course. Building media remained near the bottom of the Left’s priority list. [For more, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
In 1992, when the Democrats finally clawed their way back to power – mostly due to Republican mistakes and divisions – the chasm only widened between corporate Democrats like President Bill Clinton and a Left that although it had dissipated its own influence still demanded progressive policies from the governing Democrats.
The Right’s powerful media machine also gave the Republicans enduring strength even after suffering a stinging defeat at the polls. The locker-room-style rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh and other hard-talking Righties had a potent appeal especially to white working- and middle-class males.
It didn’t take long for the Republican media advantages – and the Democratic weaknesses – to prove decisive with a GOP landslide victory in 1994. It was no accident that the victorious House Republicans made Limbaugh an honorary member of their caucus.
However, despite the Left’s deepening media deficit, almost nothing was done through the 1990s. Rather than engaging in the hard work of building outlets for explaining the nation’s problems to the American people and offering practical solutions, the Left opted for fanciful notions about third parties somehow changing the national political dynamic.
In 2000, many progressives rallied to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader under the deceptive slogan “not a dime’s worth of difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Nader’s success in siphoning off energy and votes from Gore allowed Bush to stay close enough nationally and in Florida to steal the White House with the help of five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gore’s shortcomings aside, Bush's “election” may have marked the end of American democracy as a meaningful concept. Besides his theft of the presidency, Bush further stacked the U.S. Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues, as Democrats again shied away from nasty confirmation fights.
Last January, the Bush-appointed ideologues – John Roberts and Samuel Alito – along with right-wingers chosen by Reagan and George H.W. Bush opened the floodgates to secret corporate donations that inundated Election 2010.
Obama’s core political mistake may have been trying to stabilize a very sick patient – the U.S. economy – rather than applying more radical remedies. His stabilization approach largely worked, at least for those heavily invested in the stock markets which have rebounded to two-year highs.
Obama’s stimulus plan and auto bailout also saved many jobs that would have been lost if he had adopted a laissez-faire approach.
His other option would have been to shake up an already badly shaken system by, say, nationalizing ailing Wall Street banks. He also could have challenged the Washington power structure by ordering investigations of Bush-43’s war crimes and bringing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to prompt conclusions.
But that course of action would have risked a wider economic collapse, even worse joblessness and bitter conflicts between Obama and potent political/media interests in the power centers of Washington and New York. He would have faced even more accusations of overreaching.
Plus, the weak American Left would have provided little meaningful political support. More than likely, it would have continued to find something to criticize.
The media reality that Obama faced was what I encountered last month when I was driving late at night from upstate New York back to Washington. To stay awake, I sampled what was available on the AM dial and was stunned to discover how many different right-wing voices there were sneering at Obama and the liberals. I could find no channel that offered an alternative.
Even decades into this dangerous media imbalance, the Left mostly continues to ignore its messaging gap. Wealthy progressives spend some money on tracking what the Right is up to (i.e. Media Matters) and subsidizing non-controversial investigative journalism (i.e. ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity), but they still do little to support real independent journalism that examines systemic problems or high-level crimes.
After Obama’s election in 2008, the Left’s most promising – though flawed – media effort, Air America Radio, was deemed expendable by wealthy progressives. Rather than spend the money and provide the management skills to improve Air America, they pulled the plug in January 2010, the same week of the Supreme Court’s ruling on corporate donations. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Democracy’s End of the Road.”]
Today’s other progressive media operations remain fragile or limited.
MSNBC, which is owned by General Electric pending a sale to Comcast, has experimented with a liberal evening line-up (only after failing at everything else, including trying to out-fox Fox). But MSNBC could easily shut down its experiment if it senses a risk to the interests of its corporate parent, whether GE, a charter member of the military-industrial complex, or Comcast.
Faced with this paucity of independent or left-leaning media, many rank-and-file progressives have turned to the liberal-oriented irony of Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who sponsored a massive rally for sanity on the National Mall last Saturday.
However, as many progressive writers have noted, Stewart and Colbert are primarily entertainers, not activists committed to changing the political/economic system.
So, Tuesday’s congressional elections represented the latest wake-up call to American progressives that they must make a much bigger commitment to building media. However, they have shown a remarkable tenacity to hit the snooze button no matter how loud the alarm.
Instead of action, one can expect a number of articles from the Left about how Obama and the Democrats failed because they weren’t leftist enough. Despite all the evidence, the Left remains obstinate against the need to reconsider what it’s been doing for the past several decades.
The bottom line is that the Left has a fanciful view of its own influence, or perhaps its problem is an unshakeable faith that the working class will somehow naturally understand its own interests.
However, a near-voiceless progressive movement and a noisy Right telling fearful Americans that they should again follow in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps make a dangerous combination, only likely to get worse when Reagan’s centennial birthday is lavishly celebrated in 2011.
Based on Tuesday’s elections, the American people appear eager to march down the old road marked by Reaganism, even if the path leads to vats of Kool-Aid laced with arsenic.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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Mr. Parry's stories are republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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