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The War at Home
Published on Monday, May 17, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
The War at Home
by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
 

The following excerpt is from the introduction to 'Banana Republicans'.

"I'm a uniter, not a divider," said candidate George W. Bush during his 2000 campaign for president. "I refuse to play the politics of putting people into groups and pitting one group against another." This promise to be a "uniter, not a divider" was a recurrent theme throughout Bush's campaign, repeated verbatim in media interviews, fund-raising letters, campaign stump speeches and debates.

As Bush neared the end of his first term, however, evidence suggested that he had been just the opposite. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducts periodic opinion polls that compare the attitudes of Republican and Democratic voters. "National unity was the initial response to the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001," noted its November 2003 update, "but that spirit has dissolved amid rising political polarization and anger. In fact, a year before the presidential election, American voters are once again seeing things largely through a partisan prism. ... The Pew Research Center's longitudinal measures of basic political, economic and social values, which date back to 1987, show that political polarization is now as great as it was prior to the 1994 midterm elections that ended four decades of Democratic control in Congress."

The reasons for these deepening divisions are not hard to find. The voting system that brought Bush into office was seriously flawed, and he presided over an unsteady economy, soaring budget deficits, tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy, some of the worst business scandals in U.S. history and a devastating terrorist attack. As Bush prepared to run for re-election, fears of future terrorism continued to grip the nation, which had become embroiled in two overseas guerrilla wars with no end in sight. Outside its own borders, moreover, the administration's aggressive foreign policy made the United States hated and feared as never before. These conditions might seem to have presented an opportune moment for serious reconsideration of America's course and future direction in the early 21st century, and yet during the first three years of the Bush presidency, little serious public debate could be heard.

These conditions reflected the highly effective political organizing strategy of the conservative coalition that brought the Bush administration to power. The Republican party's hard right - "movement conservatives," as they like to call themselves - hold views and long-term objectives that are considerably to the right of mainstream public opinion, but they had managed to maneuver themselves into a position of control over nearly every branch of the American government. As we will explore, politics for them is not a debate. It is, quite literally, a "war by other means."

Intellectual Ammunition

During the 2000 presidential and congressional elections, every Republican member of the U.S. Congress received a free pamphlet, compliments of Congressman Tom DeLay, the party's majority whip. Written by conservative activist David Horowitz, the pamphlet was called The Art of Political War: How Republicans Can Fight to Win. It came with an endorsement on the cover by Karl Rove, the senior advisor to then-candidate George W. Bush. According to Rove, The Art of Political War was "a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield from an experienced warrior." In addition to DeLay's gift to members of Congress, the Heritage Foundation, one of the leading conservative think tanks in Washington, found Horowitz's advice so impressive that it sent another 2,300 copies to conservative activists around the country.

True to its title, The Art of Political War argues that "Politics is war conducted by other means. In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy's fighting ability. ... In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails." Moreover, "Politics is a war of position. In war there are two sides: friends and enemies. Your task is to define yourself as the friend of as large a constituency as possible compatible with your principles, while defining your opponent as the enemy whenever you can. The act of defining combatants is analogous to the military concept of choosing the terrain of battle. Choose the terrain that makes the fight as easy for you as possible."

This concept of politics as warfare is intimately connected to Horowitz's personal political roots. In the 1960s, he was a militant Marxist and editor of Ramparts, one of the most radical leftist magazines in the United States. He also lent his vocal support to the Black Panther Party, which advocated and practiced armed "self-defense" against what it viewed as the "foreign occupying force" of racist white police. After becoming disillusioned with the Panthers, Horowitz took a hard swing to the right, thereby winning the admiration of the conservatives he used to denounce. His memoir of the 1960s, Destructive Generation, was one of three books that Karl Rove recommended to George W. Bush in 1993 as Rove began grooming Bush for the presidency. Horowitz has visited Bush personally on several occasions to offer advice, beginning with Bush's days as governor of Texas and continuing during his presidency.

Of course, Horowitz is not the only disillusioned leftist from the sixties. What makes him significant is that his militancy has remained constant, even as his worldview has changed. In a strange way, he remains a Leninist, right down to his appearance (balding, with a Lenin-like goatee). He even continues to offer Lenin's words as advice. "You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in a political debate," he explains in The Art of Political War. "You can do it only by following Lenin's injunction: 'In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent's argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.'"

Field Marshall Norquist

Grover Norquist is another prominent leader in the conservative movement's political war. "I would call him our field marshal," said Horace Cooper, a former aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Norquist helped the Heritage Foundation write Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." His most important contribution, however, has been coalition building. Since 1992, he has hosted Wednesday morning meetings in the Washington, DC office of his organization, Americans for Tax Reform. The Wednesday meeting pulls together the heads of leading conservative organizations to coordinate activities and strategy. "The meeting functions as the weekly checklist so that everybody knows what's up, what to do," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a conservative pollster and regular attendee.

George W. Bush began sending a representative to the Wednesday meeting even before he formally announced his candidacy for president. "Now a White House aide attends each week," reported USA Today in June 2001. "Vice President Cheney sends his own representative. So do GOP congressional leaders, right-leaning think tanks, conservative advocacy groups and some like-minded K Street lobbyists. The meeting has been valuable to the White House because it is the political equivalent of one-stop shopping. By making a single pitch, the administration can generate pressure on members of Congress, calls to radio talk shows and political buzz from dozens of grassroots organizations."

Norquist's coalition advocates abolishing taxes, especially estate taxes and capital-gains taxes. Regulations they want abolished include minimum-wage laws, affirmative action, health and safety regulations for workers, environmental laws and gun controls. They also support cutting or eliminating a variety of government programs including student loans, state pension funds, welfare, Americorps, the National Endowment for the Arts, farm subsidies, and research and policy initiatives on global warming. Even well entrenched and popular programs such as Medicare, Social Security and education are targeted for rollbacks, beginning with privatization. Most members of the coalition are anti-gay and anti-abortion, although Norquist has made an effort to recruit gay and pro-choice Republicans.

Norquist's political leanings were cemented in his youth by reading anti-communist tracts such as Masters of Deceit by J. Edgar Hoover and Witness by Whittaker Chambers. During the 1980s, he visited battlegrounds in the Third World to support anti-Soviet guerrilla armies. In Africa, he assisted guerrilla movements backed by South Africa's apartheid regime - Mozambique's RENAMO and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola, for which he worked as a lobbyist in the 1990s. Among the memorabilia in his Washington office, a prominent photograph shows Norquist holding an AK-47 in Afghanistan - a memento, not of the recent war, but of the 1980s when he and other Reagan conservatives backed the mujahideen in their guerrilla war against the occupying Soviet army. If it troubles him that the mujahideen went on to become the organizing base for Al Qaeda, he has never said so publicly.

The connecting thread between these foreign adventures and the conservative movement's domestic issues is the idea, also born in the Cold War, that all government is somehow like the Soviet bureaucracy and that government programs aimed at promoting the general welfare are therefore "creeping socialism" that must be fought with the same ferocity with which the cold warriors countered revolution in countries like Angola or Mozambique. Norquist has declared that his goal is "to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

This is also the logic behind the name of Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform. "It's not just because taxes are irritating and unpopular and all that," says journalist Elizabeth Drew, who profiled Norquist extensively in her book, Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America. "He has a long-term view, which is the lower the revenues that the government takes in, the less spending it will be able to do, the less money will go to the groups that he sees as the base of the Democratic party and its power - the teachers' unions, welfare workers, municipal workers and so on. This is a big, long-term war. It's total. It's Armageddon. And I have to say that the people on the right, I think, have thought this through much more than their opponents on the other side who really don't much know what they do and how the opposition thinks and are just waking up to it."

The Debate Club

Whereas Republicans see politics as a war, strategists for the Democratic Party tend to see politics as a debate. And at that level, they think they have been doing pretty well. According to Stanley Greenberg, who was Bill Clinton's pollster, the Democratic and Republican parties have been trapped in "the politics of parity" ever since Eisenhower's election in 1952 ended Democratic dominance and began "a half century that no party would dominate." As an example of this parity, Greenberg points to the 2000 presidential election, in which voters split almost evenly between George W. Bush and Al Gore, with Gore actually winning a narrow majority in the popular vote. "The loyalties of American voters," Greenberg concludes, "are now almost perfectly divided between the Democrats and Republicans. ... The two parties are so evenly matched that the slightest shift in the political winds could blow the balance."

Other Democratic strategists, notably John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, see bright prospects for the party's political future. Their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, looked at the growing influence of Democratic-leaning voter blocs - minority voters, women and educated professionals - and predicted that "Democrats are likely to become the majority party of the early twenty-first century."

Some of this analysis is valid. Over a period of decades, for example, polls have regularly shown that a majority of the American people support the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which left the choice on whether to have an abortion up to a woman and her doctor. On the environment, more than 70 percent of the American people believe that the burning of coal, oil and other fuels is responsible for global warming, and roughly the same majority supports the Kyoto Protocol and other international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions. In a 2002 Gallup poll, more than half of respondents said they were concerned about water, soil and air pollution, damage to the earth's ozone layer and the loss of tropical rain forests. Majorities of 70 to 80 percent support higher emissions and pollutions standards for industry, spending more government money on developing solar and wind power, and stronger enforcement of environmental regulations. Although terrorism and the war in Iraq have recently become significant public concerns, by far the most enduring concerns expressed in opinion polls are the economy and jobs, followed usually by health care, education and national defense. On the issue of health in particular, Democrats enjoy a clear advantage over Republicans. Surveys consistently show that most Americans want an expandedgovernment, in the form of a tax-financed universal health-care program - an idea that Republicans consistently oppose and that liberal Democrats have supported. If politics were simply a matter of debate over policies, therefore, Democrats would appear well-positioned to defeat their Republican rivals.

The Fight Club

Whatever advantages the Democrats might enjoy in theory, Republicans have achieved victory upon victory in practice. The 2000 elections gave the Republican Party the White House, a razor-thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and a 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate. By 2002, the GOP was able to consolidate its control of the House and achieve a majority in the Senate. It already controlled the Supreme Court, with Republican appointees comprising seven of the nine justices who sit on the court. This gave the Republican Party majority control of every branch of the federal government for the first time since 1932.

The situation for Democrats didn't look any better at the state level. The 2002 elections, noted Denver Post reporter James Aloysius Farrell, "marked a tectonic and largely unheralded shift in the American political landscape. For the past half-century, Democrats dominated the state legislatures - in the mid-1970s by 2-to-1 ratios in the number of overall legislative seats. But when the dust settled after the 2002 elections, Republicans had emerged on top." Norquist celebrated this victory by telling Farrell, "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals - and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship." He added, "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape" (an axiom that he attributed to one his mentors, former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich).

At the end of 2003, Republicans held a 28-22 majority of state governorships. They also controlled more state legislatures than Democrats. In 22 states, Republicans controlled both the state senate and state house of representatives. Democrats enjoyed similar control in only 16 states, with control split between the two parties in 12 others - the first time that Republicans have had a significant advantage in state legislatures since 1952. According to conservative writer Bruce Walker, the shift of power at the state level reflected a long-term "disintegration of Democrat power in state legislatures. Twenty or thirty years ago, 'Republican state legislative strength' was an oxymoron. While Republicans won national elections and even controlled the Senate for six years under Reagan, Democrats totally dominated state legislatures."

Republican domination of all these political institutions has created secondary synergistic effects that further strengthen the party's hold on power. Its dominance in the U.S. Supreme Court and its control of the Florida governor's mansion helped give George W. Bush the White House in 2000, even though Al Gore received a majority of the popular vote and irregularities dogged the Florida recount. Increased power at the state level has also enabled Republicans to push through electoral redistricting in several states, further solidifying the party's power at the national level. "In crafting its agenda for economic reform," Norquist wrote in June 2003, "the Bush administration has the luxury of being able to think and plan over a full eight years. ... This guarantee of united Republican government has allowed the Bush administration to work and think long-term." Republicans, he predicted, "are looking at decades of dominance in the House and Senate, and having the presidency with some regularity."

The shift to Republican control has also extended the party's fund-raising advantage, and as former California State Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh once observed, "money is the mother's milk of politics." To give just one example of how funding trends have shifted, tobacco industry contributions to politicians prior to 1990 were split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. As Republicans have increasingly dominated traditionally tobacco-friendly states in the South, industry funding has swung accordingly. From 1991 to 1994, Republicans received 62 percent of the industry's political contributions; from 1995 to 2000, they received 82 percent. Similar trends have occurred in other business sectors. In 1990, agribusiness gave 56 percent of its contributions to Republicans. By 2002, that figure had climbed to 72 percent. During the same period, contributions to Republicans from the defense industry went from 60 to 69 percent; from construction, 53 to 65 percent; energy and natural resource extraction, 53 to 65 percent; finance, insurance and real estate, 48 to 58 percent; healthcare, 48 to 65 percent; transportation, 53 to 71 percent; other businesses, 59 to 65 percent. The only business sector to buck the trend was communications and electronics, which increased its giving to Democrats slightly, from 58 to 61 percent.

One-party dominance has also muted political debates that would have otherwise greeted many of the actions of President George W. Bush. The presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush and Bill Clinton all had to contend with opposition from at least one other branch of government, and the resulting hearings in the House of Representatives or the Senate fueled controversy and media coverage. With the same party controlling all branches of government, there has been minimal public debate over the policies of the current Bush administration, even as it has launched two wars, reversed long-standing policies on worker safety and the environment, and cut taxes for the rich while 2.7 million private-sector jobs have been lost and the number of unemployed Americans has increased by more than 45 percent under its watch.

Although Republicans frequently complain about the "liberal bias" of the news media - the so-called "fourth branch of government" - the reality is that conservatives have become increasingly influential within the media, with overwhelming domination of talk radio and a preponderant advantage on cable television, if not on the broadcast networks. In November 2003, conservatives demonstrated their power to influence the media agenda when they mounted an organized outcry that succeeded in killing the CBS network's broadcast of a docudrama about the presidency of Ronald Reagan. CBS yielded, according to conservative U.S. News & World Report columnist John Leo, because "the conservative media world is now good at gang tackling. From Matt Drudge's Drudge Report(which framed the issue of the miniseries) to Fox, the bloggers, talk-radio hosts, and the columnists, everybody piled on." A couple of weeks later, by contrast, there was no comparable outcry when the History Channel marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy by airing a documentary which speculated that Lyndon B. Johnson had helped plot the assassination. The documentary drew angry condemnation from Johnson's family and former staff members, but otherwise there were virtually no public objections to its broadcast.

The Permanent Warfare State

The Republican Party's successes have not come quickly or easily. For more than four decades, conservatives have worked to build a network of grassroots organizations and think tanks that formulate and promote conservative ideas - a process that we describe in Chapter One, "The Marketplace of Ideas." Conservatives are now enjoying the fruits of this long-term investment. Unhappy with what they regard as the "liberal bias" of the news media, they have attacked from both the outside and the inside, building their own, unabashedly conservative media such as talk radio and Fox News at the same time that they have systematically set about promoting the careers of conservatives within the mainstream media - a strategy that we explore in Chapter Two, "The Echo Chamber." They have built ideological alliances between industry, government and regulatory agencies, further blurring the lines between each, with consequences that we examine in Chapter Three, "The One-Party State." And although the entertainment industry may be more liberal than, say, the tobacco or construction industries, Republicans have been more effective than Democrats at capitalizing on the ways entertainment has transformed politics - the 2003 election of Arnold Schwarzenegger being a recent case in point, as we shall see in Chapter Four, "Pumping Irony." But they have also understood that politics involves more than dominating the news cycle or influencing public opinion, and they have not hesitated to use hardball tactics in pursuit of power. Blacks and other minorities consistently vote Democrat, so in response - as we show in Chapter Five, "Block the Vote" - Republicans have developed techniques for suppressing voter turnout in minority communities or have used old-fashioned gerrymandering to effectively marginalize minority votes. Notwithstanding their stated aversion to "big government," now that they have become the government they have not hesitated to expand its powers in precisely those areas that are most threatening to individual freedoms, through the USA Patriot Act and other measures that authorize spying on citizens and detentions without trial. The likelihood that those powers will be abused has increased, moreover, as the conservative movement accuses its ideological adversaries of "treason," "terrorism" and "un-Americanism," threatening long-standing traditions of tolerance and diversity. We discuss these trends in Chapter Six, "Traitor Baiters." In sum, the direction in which forces in the GOP are moving looks - at times absurdly, at times ominously - similar to the "banana republics" of Latin America: nations dominated by narrow corporate elites, which use the pretext of national security to violate the rights of their citizens.

David Horowitz's notion that politics is "war conducted by other means" inverts a statement originally made in 1832 by the German military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz stated that "war is merely the continuation of politics by other means." In this original formulation, war was one among multiple methods by which competing nations might resolve their differences. Clausewitz's original statement allowed for the possibility that differences could also be resolved peaceably, which of course he preferred. Without a political purpose, moreover, war becomes "pointless and devoid of sense." Accordingly, Clausewitz wrote, "No one starts a war - or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so - without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."

Standing Clausewitz on his head, as the Republican right has done, leads to radically different and dangerous conclusions. If politics is merely the continuation of war, then war becomes the norm, and peaceful politicking becomes simply a temporary maneuver aimed at gaining battlefield advantage. The political arts of compromise, negotiation, dialogue and debate - even culture itself - become mere weapons with which to destroy your enemies. And since war is the norm, there is no need to worry about whether to start one. War already exists, and the point is simply to win or at least keep fighting. (Understanding this mentality may help explain why the Bush administration showed so much enthusiasm for initiating war in Iraq as part of a broader "war on terrorism," while displaying little interest in exit strategies or clarity about what it intended to achieve.)

When one party is able to impose its will without consulting others, the temptation is to run roughshod over the opposition - especially when it sees politics as a form of warfare. During late 2003, for example, the GOP developed a proposal for Medicare reform, which included the most sweeping changes since the program's establishment in 1965. Drug companies and private health-care plans - strong financial backers of the party - stood to benefit financially from the reform proposal, and the Republican leadership simply ignored opposing viewpoints. House Democrats were excluded from the conference committee reconciling the House and Senate versions of the Medicare bill. When the House vote on the bill began on November 22, 2003, it faced defeat by a two-vote margin, as a number of the Republican Party's own congressmen refused to support its $400 billion price tag. Desperate to win, the GOP leaders held open the vote (normally a 15-minute procedure) for nearly three hours, the longest House roll call ever. In what has been called "the most efficient party whip operation in congressional history," GOP Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Speaker Dennis Hastert, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and even President Bush used the prolonged roll call - from 3:00 a.m. to almost 6:00 a.m. - to persuade dissenting Republicans to change their votes. According to outgoing Michigan congressman Nick Smith, the "persuasion" included offers of assistance (by some accounts, including $100,000 in contributions) for his son's upcoming campaign. When Smith refused to change his vote, fellow Republicans taunted him, saying his son was "dead meat."

The metaphors that guide politics have consequences that affect us all. The notion that politics is a process by which a community governs itself leads to radically different consequences than the notion that politics is a form of war. One assumption leads to civil debate, negotiation and compromise, while the other leads to incivility and a no-holds-barred approach that shreds moral restraints and institutional safeguards. Treating politics as war may be an effective way to win power, but it has rarely succeeded as a philosophy for wise governance.

 John Stauber is Co-Author of: 'Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America Into a One-Party State' (2004) Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (2003) 'Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future' (2001) Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (1997) Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (1995)

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