In assessing what went wrong with the U.S. political process over the past few decades, it’s easy to see the broad outlines of the right-wing Republican ascendancy and the liberal-left Democratic decline, an imbalance that has now left the nation incapable of doing much besides waging endless wars, bailing out too-big-to-fail banks, slashing taxes for the rich, and running massive deficits.
But how this systemic failure occurred is more complicated – and the blame must be shared by all the players, including the mainstream news media, which adapted to the flood of right-wing propaganda by avoiding pitched battles for the truth, and the progressive community, which adopted misguided strategies that failed to counter the Right’s surging media power.
Without doubt, the Right and the Republicans were the chief protagonists in this historical chapter. In the 1970s, they reacted with a fierce determination to the threats they saw in the massive anti-Vietnam War protests and by a more independent news media, revealed by the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.
Wealthy right-wingers began investing heavily in a media infrastructure to promote their views and to attack their adversaries, including going after mainstream journalists who dug up information that undermined the favored propaganda of rightists from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Mainstream journalists were routinely denounced for “liberal bias.” And reporters, as well as progressive activists, who gave voice to criticism of U.S. foreign policy were deemed near-traitors, people who would “blame America first” in the words of President Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
The Right also appealed to white blue-collar workers by portraying liberals as effete and by stoking animosities against blacks and other minorities.
The key battlefield of these propaganda wars was the media, both old-line right-wing publications like the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and a host of new outlets, from magazines – like the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard – to right-wing talk radio and eventually electronic media, such as Fox News, the Drudge Report and an endless array of Internet sites.
The Right’s massive investment in media towered over what was spent on biennial or quadrennial political campaigns. It also was more influential because right-wing messages – day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out – could be tailored to the diverse interests of the American public, from religious conservatives to secular libertarians. Plus, by sheer repetition, the propaganda took on a ring of truth.
To make matters worse, the American Left chose the same time frame to retreat from what had been its advantage in media (called the “underground press” during the Vietnam era) and to shift its resources toward “grassroots organizing” in the countryside. The hot slogan on the Left became, “think globally, act locally.”
Liberal-left donors redirected their funding support to some of these grassroots efforts as well as toward charities that sought to fill the widening holes in the social safety net. The donors also put large sums into efforts to regulate “money in politics,” i.e. campaign reforms such as the McCain-Feingold bill which tried to restrict so-called “soft money” from outside groups.
After I left Newsweek in 1990, I approached a number of left-of-center foundations about what I had seen from my perch inside the mainstream press, what I viewed as a dangerous distortion that the Right’s spending on media was creating among professional reporters who increasingly shied away from tough stories out of career self-preservation.
My suggestion that the Left needed to address this imbalance by making its own major investments in a media infrastructure drew hostility and at times derision. To many of the liberal foundation executives, “media” was a dirty word, since they were wedded to their trust in “organizing” as the silver bullet that would stop the political system’s rightward march.
When I did find some agreement on the need for media, the foundation executives still rejected the notion of independent investigative journalism in favor of “good-government” advocacy that would push a favored position, especially the goal of “money in politics” reform.
That was often the case with Bill Moyers as he directed much of the Schumann Foundation’s money to outlets such as Tom Paine.com and the Center for Public Integrity that pushed for restrictions on campaign spending and hit both Republicans and Democrats for their reliance on special-interest cash.
I felt that this approach was a mistake for two basic reasons: one, it ignored that the biggest “money in politics” influence was centered in the billions of dollars that the Right was investing in its permanent media infrastructure. Indeed, by curtailing money a candidate could raise and spend, “campaign finance reform” actually exaggerated the value of right-wing media money.
For example, in 2004, when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was buffeted by right-wing media attacks on his Vietnam War service (accusations echoed at CNN and other timid mainstream outlets), he was limited in his ability to respond because he faced legal constraints on campaign spending.
In other words, Kerry felt he couldn’t afford ads to mount a counterattack against the smears, even as President George W. Bush had the luxury of sitting back and letting the right-wing news media (and the intimidated mainstream press) inflict serious damage on his opponent. That, in turn, made Bush’s reelection prospects all the brighter.
Which brings me to my second reason for thinking the Left’s “money in politics” emphasis was a mistake: I was confident that campaign reform would never survive long-term right-wing Republican dominance of the federal government.
Since the Constitution is – at the crassest level – whatever a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court says it is, eventually there would be enough right-wing justices to overturn any “reform” and give the wealthy even a freer hand to buy and sell the American political process. The Republican partisans who were getting appointed to the court would make sure of it.
That ugly reality came into harsh focus when five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court handed Election 2000 to George W. Bush by first stopping a recount in Florida and then twisting legal logic into an excuse to prevent its resumption. [For details, see Neck Deep.]
With Bush in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, the tipping point on campaign finance reform came during Bush’s second term when he put Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito on the court with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.
Once that group got an opening, with the Citizens United case in 2010, it threw out many of the reforms that had been painstakingly put in place over the preceding decades.
Similarly, the Right’s media showed that it could trump the Left’s “organizing.” Even a long-standing grassroots group like ACORN was vulnerable when right-wing activists took aim with a video camera and the skill to selectively edit scenes of a phony prostitute seeking advice from ACORN employees. The media/political firestorm that followed destroyed ACORN.
So, by focusing on “organizing” and “campaign finance reform” – rather than building a media infrastructure that could expose real abuses of power that the Republicans have made a central part of their modern modus operandi – the liberals and the Left created an opening for the Right to claim near total control of the U.S. political process.
That was demonstrated dramatically this fall when secretive corporate money exploited the Citizens United ruling and overwhelmed Campaign 2010. In collaboration with the relentless pounding from the right-wing media, the ubiquitous attack ads helped give the Republicans control of the House of Representatives and a powerful hand in the Senate.
This past week, after Repubican leaders finally consented to a White House meeting, Barack Obama apologized for not having done more to reach out to them and promised to collaborate with them on what look more and more like cave-ins, even as Obama looks more and more like a one-term president.
The real question now is whether the Left has learned its lesson and will get serious about building an honest media infrastructure or will simply continue down the same-old path. Some prominent reformers are already making the case that the highest priority must be a constitutional amendment to reverse the court’s Citizens United ruling. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Flush Republicans Play Hardball.”]
But the idea of getting super-majorities in the Republican-dominated Congress and Republican-controlled statehouses to approve a constitutional amendment inhibiting corporate funding for politics is fantastical, certainly nothing that could even remotely happen without a national political movement that would require a very different news media than the one that now exists.
And even if an amendment somehow were to magically appear, it would only restore the prior status quo, which was already skewed to benefit the Right with its massive investments in media.
The only answer, though surely a difficult one, would be for the American people (including wealthy progressives) to support a tough-minded and truly independent media that is not afraid to challenge the propaganda that emanates primarily (though not exclusively) from the Right.
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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