Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now | The Nation


Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now

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The combination of these factors presents a problem for much of Obama's agenda as corporate America and its apologists in the media are always eager to portray almost any government program—or even necessary regulation—as the first step on the road to serfdom. Marc Morano, an ex-Senate staffer who now runs the conservative "Climate Depot," warns his fellow citizens, "The government is going to monitor where you set your thermostat, how much plane travel you do…. It's a level of control we've never even contemplated in America." So long as one is not too concerned by the veracity of one's statements, this logic can be applied to almost anything. And it is, both in Congress and on the campaign trail by politicians and pundits eager to remain in the good graces of the powerful and well-funded forces who continue to fund its propagation.


About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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One reason this problem goes largely undiscussed in the media is that it is, to a significant degree, mirrored there. Fox News is by far America's most popular cable news network and its lead over MSNBC and CNN just keeps growing. In prime time, Fox hosts regularly attract more viewers than both competitors combined. This is a matter of considerable political significance for the potential success of any progressive president because the number one cable news network in America just happens to be dedicated to a program of purposeful misinformation rather than any honest accounting of the news—"Apostles of Anger in their echo chamber of fallacies," as Charles M. Blow put it. Fox's broadcasting is deeply biased against liberals in almost every way imaginable. Fox News broadcasters regularly distort what the president says or cut away before letting him finish. They invite Republican politicians and conservative propagandists to come on and lie, outright, about both people and policy and then build on those lies to tell even larger lies. In doing so, they engage in conspiracy theories so lurid and outlandish that one is tempted to turn on The Twilight Zone for a reality check. They all but ignore Republican scandals and obsess about Democratic ones. Their hosts openly raise money for Republican causes, promote and appear at their rallies, and pass along their propaganda appeals. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee (to say nothing of Karl Rove) are paid to play presidential politics on Fox programs. The combination of commitment to right-wing politics, reach and irresponsibility is literally unprecedented in the modern age of American politics; it's as if Joe McCarthy were not just a senator but a television network as well.

By inserting the often crazy and irresponsible views of right-wing talk radio, Fox News and Tea Party agitators into respectable discourse, the Wall Street Journal is one of the most valuable weapons conservatives have in their quiver. When someone who was once as respected and admired across all political lines as Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami sounds off like Beck or Limbaugh on its pages about what he deems to be the "un-American moment in our history" that gave rise to Obama's election, this is a kind of victory in and of itself. Gone was "the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics," Ajami argued, apparently seriously, in the wake of George W. Bush's fantasy presidency. "A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies," Ajami went on; Obama interpreted the election "as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic," and "overwhelmed all restraint." The influence of this naked attempt to challenge Obama's legitimacy in so high profile a forum, together with countless other examples like it, presents a barrier to Obama and his agenda that no president has faced before. Not even the same paper's hysterical campaign against Bill Clinton can compare, because it was undertaken when the far-right media was much weaker and the MSM much stronger. (The editors followed not long afterward with another anti-Obama op-ed by page staffer Dorothy Rabinowitz titled, I kid you not, "The Alien in the White House.") While the left media structure is not as weak as it was entering the Bush years, neither can it be said to even compare with the Murdoch empire, much less the entire structure of right-wing propaganda masquerading as news. The Center for American Progress (where I've been a senior fellow since 2003) and Media Matters for America (which published my "Altercation" blog between 2006 and 2008) are just two of the many worthy efforts to inject sensible center-left policy proposals in the debate in the case of the former and to correct conservative misinformation in the latter, but added together they do not begin to approach to scale of not only Fox and talk radio but also Heritage, AEI, Hoover and the rest of the right-wing counterestablishment. Neither does the recent rise of the "netroots" online, however welcome this development may be.

Fox's role in the present political constellation was nicely captured when apostate conservative David Frum told ABC News, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox." Fox's all-but-official sponsorship of the Tea Party movement, its ginning up of anti-Obama protesters both on and off camera and the willingness of its hosts to put forth the most irresponsible kinds of allegations and accusations in an atmosphere that is already thick with the threat of violence directed toward America's first black president is a truly shocking and scary development in the history of media. That is until one spends an hour or so listening to talk radio, where the accusation that Obama is a racist, a socialist, a Marxist, a fascist and worse are not even considered controversial. The cumulative effect of these two phenomena is not easy to measure. But the consistency of the message is. Indeed, it's hard to miss. To pick just one day at random, on April 10, 2010, at 3:15, I happen to click on the Drudge Report. Here's what I saw near the top of the page:
GINGRICH: Obama 'most radical president ever'…
LIMBAUGH: Obama 'inflicting untold damage on this great country'…
MARK LEVIN: Obama 'Closest Thing to Dictator We've Ever Had'…
PALIN: Obama's 'vast nuclear experience he acquired 'community organizer'…
LIZ CHENEY: Obama Putting America on 'Path to Decline'…
HANNITY: Obama 'Is a Socialist'…
SAVAGE: 'Obama The Destroyer'…

Fox has won the cable ratings sweepstakes for more than 100 months in a row. But even without this ratings domination, the number of Americans who get their politics delivered to them by lunatics like Limbaugh and the aptly self-named Michael Savage would be decidedly worrisome. Talk radio, which is dominated by the right wing, has 48 million regular listeners, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism—which is more than twice the collective audience for the three TV network evening news shows combined, more than five times the audience of the three network Sunday news shows, nearly seven times the combined audience for cable news shows, and sadly nearly ten times the audience for NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and sixteen times the audience for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

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