Published on Sunday, July 21, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
Connect the Dots for a Disturbing Picture
by Todd Gitlin
NEW YORK -- There's been a lot of talk recently about connecting dots--at least when the enemy is terrorism. Connecting the dots: That's what the FBI, CIA, NSA and the rest of the so-called intelligence agencies failed to do before Sept. 11. Important facts got to somebody's files, but the crucial work of interpreting them, of connecting them to other important facts, never happened, and so the full picture remained hidden. Thanks to whistle-blowers and belatedly mobilized members of Congress, the difference between dots and pictures is now well understood.
But let's look at our other current troubles. There are plenty of other dots going unconnected, seemingly isolated facts about current and future hazards of every variety--corporate corruption, economic fragility, ecological damage, alliance ruptures, foreign policy calamities. But these many vexations are not, in fact, disconnected. At the heart there is a pattern. The big, unacknowledged picture is this: The people in power represent an economic clique whose interests are only superficially tied to the well-being of the country as a whole. In collusion with their delighted big-money supporters, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their Cabinet-level entourage spent years lining their pockets with sweetheart loans, option deals and golden parachutes from oil companies and other related industries. They built political careers thundering against regulation, fueled by a cozy camaraderie with Enron and like companies that grew fat on--surprise!--deregulation. In office, these men make energy policy in cahoots with their ultra-wealthy sponsors, a club of very special Americans whose membership list they still keep secret. They consistently fight to secure America's energy dependency on oil and related fuels. Toward that end, defying the understanding of virtually everyone else in the world, they have denied the existence of global warming, willfully distorting the scientific evidence. When its own government scientists sounded alarms, the Bush posse dismissed them as ''the bureaucracy" and kept galloping down the oily path toward even more catastrophic global climate changes associated with petroleum dependency.
These bullheaded good old boys prate about patriotism but see no problem with moving corporate headquarters offshore to avoid taxes. They prate about fiscal responsibility yet guarantee vast deficits by protecting billionaires from inheritance and other taxes. They declare war on terrorism yet arrange buddy-buddy deals with the same Saudi ruling caste that turned a calculated blind eye to Al Qaeda and America-hating madrasas. They talk ''under God" but they walk under oil. Is the pattern not obvious? These are the leaders who are going to lead America out of grave trouble?
Democrats have a golden opportunity now to pound the podium and make a case to the nation that the interests in power--the interests who won a minority of the ballots cast but a majority of the Supreme Court during the 2000 presidential election--cannot be relied on to solve problems that their entire careers were devoted to creating. These interests are in revolt against plain American value and virtue. Even the honest men and women among them cannot muster the resolve to reform--their thinking is too deeply molded by the lives they've led.
Lifelong defenders of subsidized laissez faire for the wealthy who can afford the price of the ticket (remember the savings and loan rip-offs?), averse to the enforcement of public justice for everyone else (remember Ronald Reagan's ''government is not the solution; government is the problem"?), they are true believers in the superior rights of people like themselves. Now, late in the game, they dress up and pretend to be sheriffs, but they are more in the mold of trickle-downer Herbert Hoover than of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who understood that capitalism had to be saved from capitalists.
We might properly ask, where were the Democrats when the clique was mobilizing to win back the White House in order to push for yet more deregulation? The man who, more than anyone else, drew the necessary diagram to connect the dots was not Al Gore but the underappreciated political theorist (and Hollywood filmmaker) Rob Reiner. After the Republican convention of 2000, where African Americans trotted out on stage far outnumbered African American delegates, and self-congratulation about ''diversity" was the order of the day, it was left to Reiner to make the elegant point that the Republicans truly did believe in diversity: After all, they nominated executives from two different oil companies.
Was it not obvious once you heard it?
But Democrats were timid about pressing the point. It wouldn't sound nice. It would sound like, well, too anti-business, too liberal, too 1960s or otherwise retro. The hard-charging Dow, they thought, would undercut their point.
Anyway, the Democrats were too compromised. They had made too many of their own deals with the oil-deregulation-and-book-cooking complex. After President Clinton and Gore tried to tamper with their entitlements and prerogatives early in their first administration, only to get slapped down, the top Democrats convinced themselves that corporate growth (never mind who kept the books) was the emolument not only for America but for global inequality across the board. Feeling middle-class complacency, under pressure from hate-mongering Republicans and an unrelenting press, Clinton and his party decided they could not do better than believe in Wall Street.
The approach worked--for as long as it worked. But they spent far more time catering to the tycoons than doing right by the teachers and cops and firefighters, who, we now understand, are the real heroes.
Now, the Democrats need to do more than win the votes for this or that new corporate regulation. They need to move beyond merely feeling smug about how the Republicans have sabotaged themselves. They need to confess their own sins--as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has done. But even more, they need to back the Republicans into their chosen corner. They need to connect with the healthy side of American skepticism. They need to be thunderous and clear on the essentials.
If the Democrats forfeit the opportunity now handed them to connect all the flaming dots, they are truly as flabby, corrupt and venal as Ralph Nader says.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives."
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times