Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
The problems caused by money in the system are certain to worsen in the near future as a result of the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down a century of laws limiting such corporate spending for political candidates as part of their rights to "free speech." This has opened up new opportunities for all corporations, but none so much as those working through the US Chamber of Commerce, which now acts as a middleman for many corporations looking to act without footprints. The Chamber procures advertisements that target candidates without revealing who is paying for the ads. (An administration-backed bill designed to force corporations and other donors who participate in political activity to disclose their top five donors and to agree to other disclosures in connection with expenditures prior to elections—from which strictures the Democratic leadership had already agreed to exempt the 800-pound gorilla of political intimidation, the National Rifle Association—foundered as all the other interests who enjoyed the notion of secrecy found legislators to do their bidding.) Meanwhile, immediately following the ruling, for instance, the Chamber spent at least $1 million on attack ads in the Massachusetts Senate race on behalf of Scott Brown. In an April Wall Street Journal editorial titled "New Fangs for the Conservative 'Beast,'" the far-right Heritage Foundation announced the formation of "Heritage Action" to enable its corporate contributors to apply what it calls "political heat" to those representatives who fail to toe its line.
This is known as positive reinforcement. There's the other kind, too. When Lindsey Graham joined John Kerry to author an op-ed for the New York Times calling for genuine bipartisan in support of climate control legislation, he was met with a barrage of advertisements back home, including one that asked, "Why would Sen. Lindsey Graham support new energy taxes—called cap-and-trade—that will further harm our economy and kill millions of American jobs" at a moment when economic conditions have "pushed local businesses to the brink?" Graham eventually thought better of his initial, apparently rash decision to cooperate on the legislation, and withdrew his support. And yet, in a pattern that will be familiar to students of both the healthcare and financial regulation battles, the Democrats remained committed to those aspects of the bill that had been inserted in hopes of earning the appearance of bipartisan support. (Cue the Charlie Brown football metaphor here.)
And while it may be true, as the philosopher Cyndi Lauper has observed, that "money changes everything," money is merely reinforcing other factors in the larger culture. Americans are often said to be philosophically liberal but programmatically conservative. Such tendencies are reinforced by what appears to be a historically immutable libertarian streak, coupled with a distrust of centralized power in both liberal and conservative political traditions, which considerably complicate any efforts at liberal reform.
It was the liberal hero Thomas Paine who first opined that "the government is best which governs least," and this retains a powerful appeal to many Americans regardless of the merits of any given government program. When more than two centuries later, Texas Governor Rick Perry tells his fellow Republicans that the party should search out candidates who promise to "go to Washington, DC, and try to make it as inconsequential in your life as you can make it," he is giving voice to a longtime American predisposition that can be found across parties and ideologies. An April 2010 poll published by the Pew Research Center found that just 22 percent of Americans questioned trust the "government in Washington almost always or most of the time," one of the lowest readings in half a century. This natural skepticism of government action has been reinforced during this same period by a massive ideological investment by conservative individuals and foundations—aided by global corporations—in discrediting activist government and presenting laissez-faire policies as the natural order of things. Neocon pundit Irving Kristol, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley and former Treasury Secretary William Simon made this cause a crusade through much of the 1970s and 1980s with impressive, often astonishing results. They helped channel hundreds of millions of dollars, later mushrooming into billions, into the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Manhattan Institute and countless offshoots in Washington and elsewhere to train pundits and politicians to embrace the right-wing view of economic activity. These groups and others championed the likes of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and American economist Milton Friedman to replace what had previously been a Keynesian consensus. These ideas were further disseminated by a rash of new publishing outfits, later augmented by an entire alternative media structure we now understand to be a natural part of our political and cultural landscape. This investment, present since the Carter administration, has led to a rush toward deregulation in virtually all areas of the economy under presidents of both parties. There was nothing accidental about any of this. Lower taxes, less regulation, less government: these are seen as goals in and of themselves, regardless of their impact on public policy, because they weaken government's ability to intervene in the lives of its citizens. Milton Friedman argued that "freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself." This belief leads a conservative columnist like George F. Will to support policies like the privatization of Social Security irrespective of whether such a transformation would make the program more or less effective, for "reasons [that] rise from the philosophy of freedom."
Indeed, the entire edifice of "supply-side economics" was constructed and promoted with this goal in mind. As Irving Kristol admitted in 1995, he "was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities." What were these possibilities? To attack the "fundamental assumptions of contemporary liberalism that were my enemy…. Political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government." Conservative ideologues have simultaneously launched a rearguard action against previous Democratic administrations' achievements for the well-being of millions of Americans through positive interventions in the economy. FDR's New Deal, Truman's New Deal, JFK's New Frontier and LBJ's Great Society are reinterpreted to fit them into the new paradigm. An extreme example of this is the victory of the conservative Christian majority on the Texas school board to rewrite American history to downgrade the importance of virtually every non–right-winger who has ever had any impact on American life, including most particularly union organizers and opponents of economic centralization. The results of this deliberate dumbing-down of children in Texas and elsewhere will not be visible for years, but it is not difficult to see the results of the right-wing campaign throughout our political discourse. Over and over during the raucous healthcare town hall meetings in the summer of 2009, citizens would stand up and scream some variant of "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." At one such meeting Representative Robert Inglis (R, South Carolina) noted, "I had to politely explain that, 'Actually, sir, your healthcare is being provided by the government'…. But he wasn't having any of it."