The Fox News Election
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine * All rights reserved
“We have lived through bubble after bubble; endured waves of accounting fraud so open they might be called fads; seen political entrepreneurship work its wonders on Washington's K Street; tasted the spoiled fruits of deregulation; watched the destruction of American manufacturing, the sinking of the middle class, the show demise of labor unions, and so on. But the myths of the magic market persist as though nothing had happened to shake our faith in all those intervening years.”
— Thomas Frank, Harper's, December 2010
It's probably just as well that I didn't publish this issue of Zenger's when I had originally planned to – a bizarre series of computer malfunctions delayed me from early November to early December – because it's taken me a long time to process the results of the 2010 midterm elections and the stunning defeat they represent, not only for the Democratic Party but the entire spirit of progressive activism and the hopes I've lived with all my life for a more just, fair and equal society. The midterms were a defeat not only for President Obama and his weak, pro-corporate responses to the economy and health care but the very idea that anything other than lassiez-faire capitalism and the rule of “The Market” in its most wide-open, uncontrolled and brutal form should determine our nation's and our world's future.
The first important thing about the midterms is that the “shellacking” Obama and the Democrats got was delivered by a much smaller electorate than the one that voted them into power in 2008. As Hendrik Hertzberg noted in the November 15 New Yorker, 130 million Americans voted in November 2008 and only 75 million Americans voted in November 2010 – a drop-off of more than 40 percent. What's more, as Hertzberg wrote, “The members of this year's electorate were also whiter, markedly older, and more habitually Republican” than the voters of 2008; “if the franchise had been limited to them two years ago … John McCain would be President today.”
The second important thing is that the voters weren't necessarily endorsing the Republican platform – such as it is, since the Republicans weren't really standing for much of anything other than the usual Right-wing nostrums that government is too big, too intrusive, should leave the private sector alone and lower taxes. They were voting the way the late political scientist V. O. Key said Americans usually do: “retrospectively and negatively.” They were voting against the party that had promised to deliver millions of new jobs and instead had struggled merely to slow down the rate at which the American economy is bleeding jobs. The unemployment rate was 6.3 percent on September 15, 2008 – when the dramatic collapse of Lehman Brothers kicked off the crisis phase of the current economic downturn and turned the election around for Obama and the Democrats. Two years later, it had risen to 9.6 percent.
So millions of American voters – including the much-prized “independents” whom the Democrats have been courting for at least 30 years now, often to the detriment of their own base – decided that Obama's economic medicine hadn't worked, so they'd try something else. And the “something else” they were being offered was a stew of phony prescriptions that have somehow remained indelibly part of American (and, indeed, global) economic orthodoxy even though they have never actually worked. The new Congress and the Republican state governments also elected in the 2010 sweep are likely to stop granting unemployment insurance extensions to long-jobless workers, drastically cut back on government payrolls (the feckless Obama has already tried to appease them with a two-year wage freeze on federal workers) and vote new tax breaks for the rich – all programs that are likely to worsen, not heal, America's continuing economic woes.
What's amazing about the Republicans' all-purpose economic policy – the trickle-down concept that throwing money at the rich in hopes that some of it will trickle down to the rest of us – is that it has managed to maintain its support among a large number of people even though it's been shown over and over again not to work. Trickle-down economics were tried in the 1880's and generated the devastating economic “panics” (19th-century speak for “depressions”) of 1893 and 1897. They were tried in the 1920's and generated the Great Depression of the 1930's. They were tried by the Reagan administration in the early 1980's and would have generated yet another depression if it hadn't been for Reagan's massive buildup of the U.S. military, which acted as a classic Keynesian stimulus and undid all the damage done by the ruinous tax giveaways of Reagan's first two years in office.
The basic problem is that when you enrich the rich – when you either allow or actively pursue giving the people at the top a greater and greater share of a nation's wealth and income – you don't encourage economic growth at all. Instead you take money out of the hands of people who will spend it, thereby generating investment and production of useful goods and services, and deliver it to people who will hoard it, speculate with it (making themselves money without producing any useful products or contributing to economic growth), export it overseas or simply indulge themselves with it, buying expensive toys in what 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.” The result is what Karl Marx – whose diagnoses of capitalism's ills continue to be astonishingly accurate no matter how bad were his calls on what would, could or should replace it – called a “crisis of overproduction,” in which workers are able to produce fantastic amounts of stuff – but don't have the money to buy it.
America's capitalists have been on a sustained war against their working class since at least the early 1970's, when they unilaterally broke the truce in the class war begun during the Depression and World War II. Real wages for working people in the U.S. have fallen every year but two (1999 and 2000) since 1971. America's working people tried to maintain the so-called “middle-class lifestyle” first by putting the women in their families to work – 1960's feminists demanded jobs for women as a way of getting them out of economic dependence on men, then most families found they needed two wage-earners just to survive and maintain their standard of living – and then by borrowing. The current economic collapse was the result of an overheated housing market collapsing of its own weight after a decade during which many working-class Americans had been convinced that they could safely borrow on their homes to finance current consumption since “houses never go down in value” – until they do.
The American working class has repeatedly been sold the myth of the “middle class” – often with a not-too-thinly veiled strain of racism by which white working people have been told that they are the real bulwark of America and people of color are lazy bums who refuse to work hard and earn the rewards of the American Dream. As the ruling class generally has become more and more hard-line in redistributing Americans' wealth and income upward, America's corporate media have become more aggressive selling the ideology of “The Market” as a means of convincing working people, especially white and/or male working people, that their true class allies are the people above them and their true class enemies are the people below them – people of color, so-called “illegal” immigrants, Queers and other cultural rebels and anyone on the ever-growing lists of scapegoats de jour.
In his November 15 New Yorker article, Hertzberg complains about “public ignorance” as one of the reasons for the Republicans' election sweep. He cites a Bloomberg poll taken a week before the election that found “some two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes have gone up [they have gone down], the economy has shrunk [it's been growing, albeit anemically, since May 2009], and the billions lent to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] are gone, never to be recovered. [In fact, a recent report has shown that the government has been or will be repaid all but $25 billion of the nearly $800 billion TARP bailout money.] One might add to that list the public's apparent conviction that illegal immigration is skyrocketing [it's actually declining, largely because as the U.S. unemployment rate rises our country's power as an economic lure declines] and that the health-care law will drive the deficit higher [the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says it will shrink it].”
Hertzberg says the American people believe these myths because Obama and the Democrats haven't worked hard or effectively enough to convince them otherwise. But there's another, more powerful reason. Millions of Americans believe those falsehoods about the U.S. economy because in the last quarter-century, alongside the traditional corporate media that proclaimed “objectivity” as dogma and subtly propagandized for capitalism in general but without openly taking sides between the capitalist parties, there has come into existence another corporate media party, an openly and unashamedly Right-wing propaganda operation designed to convince the American people that lassiez-faire capitalism is the only workable and moral economic system; that all government regulation of the economy and all social-welfare programs take money away from the true “producers” and give it to the intellectually, physically and morally unworthy; and that the problems facing the white American working class are the fault of those below them, not those above.
This Right-wing corporate media party – the party of Fox News and talk radio – was the real winner of this November's election. The entire “Tea Party” movement that galvanized the rank-and-file American Right into dedicated activism against Obama and the Democrats, and generated the so-called “enthusiasm gap” that spurred Right-wing voters to the polls while progressive voters largely stayed at home, actually began with a rant by a commentator on a Right-wing media outlet, Rick Santelli on CNBC. It was mobilized, promoted and actually organized by hosts on talk radio and Fox News, who used their media power not only to get the troops to show up for Tea Party rallies but also to, shall we say, be generous in their estimates of the numbers who actually turned out. The Tea Party movement was certainly a genuine grass-roots phenomenon, but it was the torchbearers on talk radio and Fox News that ignited their prairie fires.
Before the election, I wrote an editorial in this space saying that the number one priority of what's left of the American Left should be to use economic boycotts and all other legal means available to drive talk radio and Fox News off the air, and scare the corporate media back to their old position of promoting capitalism in general without pushing the interests of one capitalist party over the other. Without that, no progressive revival will be possible in the U.S. – or, indeed, in the rest of the world, where ruthless Right-wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi are exporting the propaganda tactics that have swung American politics so far Right-ward and remaking western Europe and the rest of the world in our Right's image of vicious, exploitative, anti-human, anti-survival lassiez-faire capitalism.