R.I.P. Ted Kennedy: The Senate’s Last Liberal
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Ted Kennedy’s brothers went out in flames: Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. literally when an explosive-laden plane he was flying in World War II blew up in mid-air; President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy shot by assassins (almost certainly more than one in each case!). Ted himself lingered on, winning the Senate seat from Massachusetts John had formerly held in 1962 and staying in it for 47 years — longer than any of his brothers actually lived. He came into power as the young, irresponsible kid riding in on his brother John’s coattails — “And Teddy Makes Three,” read the headline on the Life magazine cover — and stayed there long enough to become an Elder Statesman, a sort of Strom Thurmond on the other ideological side, a living storehouse of institutional memory and essentially the Senate’s last liberal in an era in which the Right-wing propaganda machine has dumped the term “liberal” on the same scrap heap of opprobrium to which they previously consigned “communist” and “socialist.”
The obituaries predictably hailed Ted Kennedy for his ability to compromise; both his willingness and his skill at reaching out to Republicans and finding some degree of common ground in passing bills on immigration, health care, education, civil rights and other issues. What the obit writers only grudgingly hinted at — with their comments about how politics in general and the U.S. Senate in particular have become more “polarized” since Teddy’s heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s — is that Teddy’s successes were possible only in a different political climate with a very different balance between the major parties and different expectations not only from the American people but from the corporate ruling class on what they wanted and needed from government.
In a peculiar fashion, Ted Kennedy’s death bookends Michael Jackson’s two months earlier. In the early 1980’s Jackson’s album Thriller became the last music phenomenon that crossed genre walls and sold to just about everyone who knew and cared about popular music. Since then the walls have grown higher; today top-selling albums, movies and other mass entertainments are keyed so specifically to market niches that they can make lots of money selling to specific market niches even if everybody else can’t stand them. In a way, Kennedy’s style of politics is as much a throwback as Michael Jackson’s music — to a time in which both major U.S. political parties were united by a conception of government as a force for the public good.
For some time I’ve been playing with a particular bit of analysis about the connection between media technologies and not only popular culture but politics as well. In the first half of the 20th centuries, the new media technologies were mass in nature. Large-circulation newspapers and magazines, phonograph records, motion pictures, radio and television offered identical messages simultaneously to millions of people. As a result, I would argue, people thought of themselves in mass terms, and the major political movements of the first half of the 20th century — fascism on the Right, socialism and communism on the Left — were therefore collectivist.
Things changed, I would argue in this analysis, with the introduction of the transistor radio in 1959. Throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, the new media technologies have increasingly been individual in scale. Transistor radios, Walkmans, cable TV, specialty publications and now the Internet have increasingly salami-sliced the mass audience. “Narrowcasting” has replaced broadcasting. Like the music scene in the post-transistor, post-Walkman, iPod world, politics too has become a “narrowcasting” activity. Campaigns aim not at maximizing the total number of people who vote but at changing the balance of an election through encouraging their supporters to turn out while not only ignoring opponents but actively discouraging them to vote at all. And instead of the collectivist political movements that ruled the extreme Right and Left in the first half of the 20th century, the major movements in the second half of the 20th, and now in the 21st, century have been individualistic: libertarianism on the Right and anarchism on the Left.
The new “narrowcasting” politics aims, like the “narrowcasting” culture, not at persuading the “masses” — the very word seems horrendously out of date — but at tailoring the message to reach individuals on a one-to-one level. “Narrowcasting” gives an audience the power to freeze out any competing messages, so nothing that might challenge their preconceptions has a chance to get through. With vastly more access to money, air time and other resources — not surprisingly, since capitalists will always far more lavishly support those who support them than those who challenge their legitimacy — the Right has had far more success in the era of narrowcast politics than the Left. They have built up a huge network of talk radio, cable TV, specialty publications and other media that endlessly repeat the message not only that America should be a Right-wing country but that anyone who disagrees is part of some grand conspiracy to destroy this nation and everything good, true and beautiful it stands for. What’s more, they’re able to use their own media to tell their followers over and over again that theirs are the only sources to be trusted; the rest of the corporate media are “liberal,” “Left-wing,” “drive-by,” “state-controlled” and so on.
The narrowcasting of politics in a narrowcast media age has been accompanied by a slow and steady rise of influence in what used to be called the extreme Right in the U.S. In the 1930’s these people were a group of anti-New Deal, anti-Semitic kvetches who weren’t taken seriously by that many people, especially when the U.S. government went after them during World War II for their openly expressed Axis sympathies. But they recovered and expanded after the war, when the Soviet Union became America’s new enemy and they could claim to have been right all along that communism, not fascism, was the true demon that would destroy the U.S if we did not maintain our vigilance. The extreme Right in the U.S. suffered another blow when its first national spokesperson in elective office, Senator Joe McCarthy, was disgraced and censured by his fellow Senators in 1954 — but it recovered strongly enough to win one of its own, Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential nomination in 1964.
Goldwater’s landslide defeat in that election, which seemingly put an end to the extreme Right, was in fact just another temporary setback from which they recovered. Four years later, Richard Nixon won the presidency by cutting a deal with Strom Thurmond that turned the Republicans from the “party of Lincoln” into the party of dead-end opposition to civil rights. Between them, Nixon and George Wallace, whose independent third-party candidacy in 1968 was what motivated Nixon to cut his deal with Thurmond in the first place, won 57 percent of the vote in the 1968 presidential election to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent, signaling the ascent of an enduring Right-wing majority in U.S. politics. From 1968 to 2008, the Republicans have won seven out of 11 presidential elections — and the ones they lost look more and more like flukes, opportunities created by political scandals or economic collapses which the Democrats were able to seize on to gain power but not to do anything that would change America’s increasingly Right-wing orientation.
As a result, we have moved from a country in which both major parties accepted the idea of government as a force for the public good — no matter how much they may have disagreed on who “the public” was or what “good” meant or what policies the government should pursue on its behalf — to one in which one major party rejects the idea of democratic governance at all. It’s not just in the U.S. that the Right has turned from “conservatism” — a word which has the same root as “conservation” and implies that there are traditions and social obligations which should not be thrown away lightly — to radical individualism. It was not an American but Margaret Thatcher, whose tenure as prime minister of Britain mostly overlapped the U.S. presidency of Ronald Reagan, who succinctly summed up the basic philosophy of the new Right when she said, “There is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are only individuals.”
Ted Kennedy did more than outlive his brothers physically; he also outlived the historical moment for their kind of politics. The idea of reaching across the aisle to see if you could find common cause with someone in the other party and give them something of what they wanted from government in exchange for something you wanted from government made sense when there were people on the other side of the aisle who actually wanted things from government besides national defense and security. Today’s Right wants nothing from government but a strong military budget, giant giveaways of tax dollars to the rich — both in tax cuts skewed towards wealthy individuals and in sweetheart contracts for giant corporations — and a strong role in policing individual and public morality, a sop to the social Right that sits oddly next to an agenda for total lassiez-faire and a worship of “The Market” in economic policy.
The essence of Kennedy-style politics — what John, Robert and Ted all believed in and pushed for, within the limits imposed on them by a capitalist economic structure and the politics it generates — was that we’re all in this together. A society doesn’t survive and hang together totally from the welfare of its most affluent members; rather, those who have grown up with wealth and privilege (including the Kennedys themselves) have an obligation to those who have not to ensure the health, safety, security and well-being of all. It’s a notion with a long and honorable (and surprisingly bipartisan!) tradition in our politics — from the early Democrats of Thomas Jefferson (despite the asterisks he and his fellow Virginia aristocrats put on it that it didn’t cover Indians and Blacks) to the early Republicans of Abraham Lincoln to the progressive policies of both the Republican and the Democratic Roosevelts — but, despite Barack Obama’s evocations of it in his successful Presidential campaign, it’s looking decidedly out of date in this age of narrowcasting and the enshrinement of the belief that “there is no such thing as ‘society’; there are only individuals.”
I suspect the reason Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama for President early on — when the rest of the Democratic establishment was coming out en masse for Hillary Clinton — was that Obama’s 2008 campaign reminded him of John Kennedy’s in 1960. In both cases you had a young, relatively inexperienced U.S. Senator coming out of almost nowhere and galvanizing voters, especially youthful voters, with vague promises of “change.” The similarities don’t end there, either; like Obama, JFK governed a lot more moderately than he’d promised in the campaign, left key officials from the previous administration and figures from the other major party in positions of power, got the country involved in major wars in Third World countries and found their legislative programs mired in Congress after Right-wingers mobilized to block them. (Ironically, JFK’s murder saved his legacy; within two years Lyndon Johnson, a far better politician in terms of working with — or pressuring — Congress, had passed most of the big bills, including the Civil Rights Act, that had been stuck in the process when Kennedy was killed.)
But in many ways Obama’s problems run far deeper than Kennedy’s. Kennedy took office at a time when the U.S. was still basically a liberal country, and when the eastern business establishment still ran the Republican party and differentiated itself from the Right-wing crazies organizing what became the 1964 Goldwater campaign. Today the eastern business establishment has been exiled by the Republican party — it depends mostly on money from the South and Sun Belt — and has adopted the Democratic party instead. In Kennedy’s time Nelson Rockefeller was the personification of both the eastern corporate establishment and of moderate Republicanism — and incidentally the rich person the radical Right loved to hate, the one they considered a “class traitor” the way they’d thought of Franklin Roosevelt before him and think of George Soros now. Today the most prominent Rockefeller in U.S. politics is a Democrat.
Obama is president of a profoundly Right-wing country. Even though polls still show striking levels of support for “liberal” policy ideas — in the current health debate, not only the so-called “public option” but even a single-payer plan that would do away with private health insurance altogether enjoy surprisingly high poll ratings — it is the Right that is mobilized and energized in the current debate. It is the Right that has the combination of corporate, political and media infrastructures to control the terms of political debate in this country and continually force liberals and progressives to play catch-up. It’s an indication of how totally the time for Ted Kennedy’s style of deal-making had passed that in 2001, when he cut his last big bipartisan deal — getting Democrats to vote for George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act, which imposed strict new standards on public schools and allowed the government to make sweeping declarations that schools whose students hadn’t pushed up their test scores by certain percentages had “failed,” in exchange for major increases in federal funding to give schools a fighting chance to meet the new standards — he got rolled. The standards happened, the funding didn’t, and the outcome revealed the real purpose of “No Child Left Behind” — to discredit public education as an institution and prepare the way for vouchers and ultimately the total privatization of the education system.
I’m not saying that a progressive revival in the U.S. is impossible, but it will have to take a much different form than looking nostalgically back to the time of the Kennedys — or the Roosevelts — and hoping that a mass constituency can be built for liberal (let alone radical!) social change without a coherent strategy to take on the massive power of the radical Right. The mainstream media — the center-Right corporate media of the major networks and newspapers, as opposed to the radical-Right media of talk radio and Fox News — are reporting Ted Kennedy’s death as the loss of a great statesman. To the Left, it should be the loss of something else: of the illusion that electing a great politician — a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, a Clinton, an Obama — will automatically solve all our problems.
In addition to its far greater financial and media resources, the Right has another great advantage over the Left: they are much better at holding their politicians accountable and threatening to withdraw their support if the politicians compromise the principles on which they got elected. The Right-wing crowds mobilized to attend town-hall meetings with their Congressmembers didn’t just go after Democrats; they also yelled and swore at Republicans who voted for the bailout of the financial industry and otherwise went against the lassiez-faire “line” of the new Right. Instead of asking why Obama has betrayed virtually every promise he made to the Left in the campaign, we should be asking ourselves what we are prepared to do to confront him and end this bizarre double standard by which Right-wing U.S. politicians are praised as being “principled” when they refuse to compromise — while liberal and progressive ones are called “unrealistic” and “irresponsible” when they actually stand up for what they said they believed in when they ran for office in the first place.