Triumph of the Right?
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Not after eight years of Republican rule that gave us a “global war on terror” that failed to find Osama bin Laden but used his existence as an excuse to wage a wasteful (of both lives and money) war in Iraq; a domestic regime that involved elaborate and sometimes illegal high-tech spying on Americans as well as others worldwide; a vivid demonstration when Hurricane Katrina hit of how pathetically unequal the federal government had become even to the task of managing a disaster, let alone preventing one; and an economic meltdown that seemed to be the final confirmation of the bankruptcy, literal and metaphorical, of the idea that an unregulated “free market,” an orgy of financial speculation and a policy designed to make the rich richer, wipe out the middle class and impoverish everyone else was the way to long-term prosperity in America.
But today the Republican Party — defeated and discredited as it seemed after 2006 and especially 2008 — is riding high again. Health insurance reform, the issue that sank the Clinton administration in its first two years and led to the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 1994, is working its black magic again, destroying the Democratic coalition and providing the Republicans a rallying cry for a sweeping comeback. Barack Obama’s presidency is going the way of Bill Clinton’s before him (and Jimmy Carter’s before him). Having compromised most of his best ideas even before he took office, Obama is fighting a militant, energized Right while at the same time giving the finger to his progressive base, expecting them to follow him wherever he leads out of sheer fear of the alternative of a Republican comeback.
It’s hard to believe that just eight months ago, with George W. Bush serving out the last weeks of his pathetic presidency, major magazines like Time were promoting Obama as another Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt and saying that his election meant that the era of “the era of big government is over” was over. Now Obama is heading for the cliff from which failed presidents take their tumbles into political and historical oblivion, thanks to the dynamics that have ruled American politics ever since Richard Nixon and George Wallace combined scored 57 percent of the vote in the 1968 Presidential election, definitively ending the New Deal era in American politics and inaugurating the conservative coalition that has dominated ever since.
Obama’s meltdown is happening for the same reasons Clinton’s and Carter’s did: the all too familiar combination of Republican discipline and unity, versus Democratic fecklessness and division. Having learned from the tactics of V. I. Lenin when he led the second Russian revolution of 1917 — the one that overthrew a short-lived attempt at a constitutional democracy and established the Bolshevik dictatorship — the Republicans know how to present themselves as a united front, keep their disagreements (mostly) behind closed doors, impose discipline on their members, stay “on message” and consistently present themselves as a party of unshakable moral principles (however much some of their most prominent officeholders might fail to live up to them in their private lives). By contrast, the Democrats air their differences in public, make concessions well before they have to, offer half-loaf programs which end up further “compromised” to crumbs, and govern from the belief that they have to sneak through teeny-weeny bits of incremental “change” because they fear the people — and, even more importantly, the wealthy individuals and corporations which finance both major parties — wouldn’t support them if they declared and fought for what they really wanted.
The Republicans and the Democrats also differ dramatically in their attitudes towards their bases. The Republicans love their base; they coddle it, embrace its prejudices, adopt its demands and often punish their own for being insufficiently supportive of the combination of lassiez-faire libertarians on economic issues and hard-line conservatives on social issues that make up the most reliable members of their coalition. By contrast, the Democrats treat their base as an embarrassment, continually bidding it to shut up and stay in the closet, taking for granted that it can’t go anywhere else and constantly whoring after the so-called “independents” and “swing voters” they think they need to genuflect to in order to win elections. As a result, when things go wrong the Republican base is energized and works that much harder for their party’s candidates and issues — while the Democratic base is demoralized and large chunks of it sit out the next election or give up on electoral politics altogether.
The continuing ideological dominance of the Republican party over American politics — including their seeming ability to convert the results of 2008 from an overwhelming defeat into a mere temporary setback — also stems from deep changes in the corporate world since the 1960’s and the virtual disappearance of any alternatives to a corporate-dominated politics. In 1952, John Kenneth Galbraith published a book called American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power, in which he argued that the U.S. had avoided having its economics and politics totally dominated by its business class because there were other institutions with the “countervailing power” to restrain the corporations and create a truly pluralistic society.
But the only two sources of “countervailing power” Galbraith actually named were the government and labor unions — and starting in the early 1970’s American business managed to neutralize both and render them impotent. Actually there was only one source of “countervailing power” in Galbraith’s sense — an aggressively regulatory government — since, at least in the U.S., unions exist only because the government protects them. Withdraw the laws that protect workers’ rights to organize and restrict employers’ ability to stop them — as American corporations and their handmaidens in political office did during the 1970’s — and labor collapsed, falling from 33 percent of the private-sector workforce in the 1950’s to less than 8 percent today. Indeed, were it not for labor’s success in organizing the government’s own workforce, there would essentially no longer be a union movement in the U.S. today.
Having divided the New Deal coalition that kept the Democrats in power through most of the 1932-1968 period — partly by moving the South from solid Democrat to solid Republican by embracing and exploiting anti-Black racism, and partly by moving the white working class out of the Democratic coalition and into the Republican one by exploiting the race and culture issues at the root of “the Sixties” — business interests and Republican politicians were able to destroy both government and labor. They did so through a decades-long propaganda campaign demonizing “big government” and winning public support for deregulatory measures that massively redistributed wealth and income from everyone else to the rich. Both major parties, dependent on the contributions of corporations and wealthy individuals to run their campaigns, enthusiastically participated in this orgy of deregulation that, along with the virtual destruction of the private-sector labor movement, left most ordinary Americans at the mercy of giant corporations that systematically exploit them as both workers and consumers.
But the Republicans gained far more leverage over the political system than the Democrats did from this capitulation to the priorities of big business and the rich. That was largely due to the Republicans’ ability to mobilize a highly resourceful, energetic and determined movement of ultra-Right activists which had begun in the 1930’s in reaction to the New Deal. United by ferociously anti-regulation, lassiez-faire economic views and — paradoxically — by a belief in the use of government power to enforce traditional standards of personal morality, these activists have steadily grown in strength, power and influence. Like Antaeus, the legendary giant in Greek mythology who grew stronger every time he was knocked down — the earth itself was his mother and replenished him whenever he fell — America’s radical Right has survived a series of political blows and reverses that would have killed movements with less determination and less usefulness to the corporate power structure.
The radical Right survived its identification with Nazi Germany and America’s other enemies during World War II, and grew stronger by identifying itself with anti-Communism during the Cold War. It survived the disgrace and fall of its first important adherent in elective office, Senator Joseph McCarthy, in 1954. It survived the landslide defeat of its first nominee for the presidency, Barry Goldwater, in 1964. It survived the disgrace and scandal that ended the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1974, and it elected one of its own, Ronald Reagan, six years later. It survived the first Bush recession and provided the shock troops for the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. And it is not only surviving the Republican electoral defeats of 2006 and 2008 but positioning itself for new heights of influence and control in the Republican administration likely to follow Obama’s in 2012 or 2016.
Today the radical Right has become the principal voice in U.S. politics, thanks largely to a sweeping change in the dynamics of the corporate media. For years the U.S. media were mostly center-Right; they advocated a generally conservative position on economic issues (largely representing the interests of their corporate owners) but were careful not to get too far to the Right of a population where many people still regarded themselves as “liberal” (a word that has been put as thoroughly beyond the pale as “socialist” or “communist” by Right-wing political and media leaders!). But with the shift of a majority of the white working class from Democratic to Republican in the 1960’s, a new kind of media emerged, with spokespeople taking to the airwaves and speaking in the styles and accents of working-class America to promote the new orthodoxy of the radical Right.
After1987, when the Reagan administration lifted the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” — which in theory meant that broadcast media (radio and TV) had to cover all sides of political issues, and in practice was so difficult to implement that it usually meant they didn’t bother to cover them at all outside of news shows, which were exempt — the U.S. corporate media basically split into two parties. (The same genius that allows the U.S. corporate ruling class to maintain two pro-corporate political parties allows it to maintain two pro-corporate media parties as well.) One was the traditional center-Right media — repeatedly demonized by their opponents as the “liberal media” — consisting of the big TV networks and most major big-city newspapers. The other was the new far-Right media, consisting of talk radio, cable TV news (particularly the Fox channel) and specialty newspapers like the Washington Times. (During the 1960’s there had been Right-wing talk shows and far-Right newspapers like the Manchester Union-Leader and the Orange County Register, but their influence was much more limited and there were too few of them to constitute a second media party.)
As a result, today most Americans learn what they know about the world either directly or indirectly from the far-Right media. Either they get the far-Right perspective directly from the far-Right media themselves — most of whose hosts continually demonize the center-Right media and explicitly tell their viewers, listeners and readers to seek only far-Right “news” sources — or indirectly from a spooked center-Right media who have been so stung by decades of charges of “liberal bias” that they bend over backwards to be “fair” and give the radical Right more voice and influence in what events they cover and how.
It’s this combination of Democratic fecklessness, Republican determination and far-Right media domination that has ensured the course of the debate over Obama’s health insurance reform initiative. Obama made his first — and biggest — mistake by trying to do something that is simply impossible: to have every American covered by health insurance while maintaining private, for-profit insurance companies as the basic source of coverage. You can have universal coverage or you can have a private, for-profit health insurance industry, but you cannot have both — because the industry’s profits are what suck out of the system the money that could otherwise cover everybody. On at least two occasions before he became President, Obama admitted that the best alternative for universal coverage would be a single-payer system in which health care remains private but health insurance is taken away from the private sector, administered by a government agency and financed collectively through taxes. But, like Clinton before him, he wimped out from the get-go and left his progressive base stuck supporting a bad idea they (with good reason) don’t believe in.
Obama has continued to give away the store every time the industry or its minions on both sides of the aisle in Congress have challenged him. He’s yielded to the pharmaceutical lobby and given up on any change in the Bush-era legislation that forbids the U.S. government from using its power in the marketplace to negotiate lower drug prices for consumers. He’s admitted that the current bills in Congress won’t actually achieve universal coverage. He’s given up on challenging the drug industry’s opposition to allowing Americans to buy prescription medications cheaper in other countries (including single-payer Canada). And now he’s given up on the so-called “public option” that would have set up a government insurance company that would have competed with private insurers, offered Americans an alternative to paying sky-high premiums to fatten insurance companies’ bottom lines, and might actually have proved that government can deliver health insurance more efficiently and for less money than the private sector (as indeed it already does with Medicare).
With all the above “compromises” on an ill-defined legislative program that was fatally “compromised” from the beginning by Obama’s refusal to challenge the hegemony of private, for-profit insurers over Americans’ health, he’s ensured that whatever bill Congress finally passes will contain nothing but giant giveaways to big corporations. The result will impoverish the American people for generations to come, as they struggle to pay back the deficits Obama and the Democratic Congress have run up not only on health insurance but all their other corporate giveaways — including the trillions of bailout dollars they’ve poured down the rat hole of the financial sector. What’s more, they’ve put progressives in the all too familiar situation of having to choose between supporting a bad bill that’s almost nothing but corporate welfare — or handing the Democrats a political defeat that will likely put Republicans back in power to figure out even bigger ways to hand our money (and our children’s and grandchildren’s money) to the corporate rich.
Meanwhile, Obama — not only on health care but on absolutely everything he’s done as President — has been subject to a continuous campaign of vicious lies, smears, personal abuse and hate propaganda probably unequaled in American history. What’s more, aside from pleading for personal time to appear on the center-Right media (which has itself become grist for the propaganda mill against him!), he has no way to respond. Previous Presidents who had to contend with this level of media hatred — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln — at least had access to media owned by their supporters with which to fight back. With the high capital costs of mainstream media today, Obama’s attackers rule the roosts of talk radio and cable news, and get time on the center-Right media by disrupting Democratic Congressmembers’ town-hall meetings and spewing their hatred — while the case for Obama’s programs, let alone for anything more progressive, is relegated to the back pages of newspapers and a handful of specialty magazines and Web sites.
That’s how we’ve reached a point in the health insurance debate where the story is not where it should be — on the abuses of the private insurance system and the ways it literally kills people by denying them coverage for care they desperately need — but on well-honed fears, stoked by decades of radical-Right propaganda, that a government agency will “ration care” and “death panels” will “kill Grandma.” That’s why progressives are in the all too familiar position of playing catch-up, and why unless they learn to use the resources they have to build a mass movement the way their forebears did in the 1930’s and generate some pressure on the political process, Obama’s election will prove to have been nothing more than a blip, a little speed bump flattened by the steamroller of the American Right.
The task of building a counter-movement is incredibly difficult, but it can be done and, at different points in our history, it has been done. Social Security didn’t come about because of the generosity of Franklin Roosevelt or his Democratic Congress; it happened because of a man named Francis Townsend, a California doctor who proposed a wildly impractical old-age pension scheme but built enough popular support to scare the government into passing a more moderate program to do the same thing. More recently, in the 1980’s — the age of Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush — ACT UP used some of the same tactics the radical Right is pulling now, disrupting meetings with Congressmembers and staging highly theatrical events, to change AIDS from a minor issue only a handful of people worried about to a major national concern. It’s that kind of imagination and power — and the unity and internal discipline to use it effectively — that U.S. progressives need if they’re ever going to become more than just a footnote in the Triumph of the Right.