One of the great mysteries in politics is how a country that polls well to the left of center, on an issue-by-issue basis keeps electing politicians from both parties who are to the right of center.
The Best Movement Money Can Buy
A big part of the reason is that for decades, a right-wing cabal of the uber-wealthy, in conjunction with corporations, has been working diligently to fundamentally change and control the terms of the national political debate. The Koch brothers are merely the latest in a long line of generous conservative donors that goes back to the likes of the Bradleys, Scaife, Olin, and Adolph Coors.
The extreme right has been systematic and strategic – establishing ultra conservative foundations and national advocacy groups; funding local and national think tanks, academic chairs and centers at prestigious universities and stocking them with ideologues; and – perhaps most importantly -- taking control of the media and the messages the American people receive.
Hillary Clinton was right when she said there was "a vast right wing conspiracy." Her problem is that in many ways, she’s effectively joined it.
They’ve been astonishingly successful across the board, but nowhere more so than in controlling the media and the message. Ronald Reagan – the "Great Communicator" helped the process along by eviscerating the Federal Communications Commission, and setting in place a consolidation of the media that ultimately put 90% of it in the hands of just six corporations.
Words Matter: How Reagan Helped to Subvert Democracy for Fun and Profit
And their success at controlling media outlets is exceeded only by their success in messaging. In fact, if you want to know the real answer to Thomas Frank’s question, "What’s the Matter with Kansas?" it lies in the conservative’s mastery of messaging, and the progressive’s complete and utter failure to communicate effectively.
Here again, Reagan set the tone, by cloaking amoral policies in a context of values. Get that? Gut government controls on capitalism’s excesses, celebrate greed, and declare it to be part of the "American Ideal," as you radiate joy and optimism, watching wealth trickle up from a policy called trickle down.
Conservatives have an extraordinary knack at message discipline. A stock bit from John Stewart included a montage of Republicans using identical language to explain away the fact that their policies were screwing the average American so that they could give corporations subsidies, and fat cats tax cuts.
Frank Luntz feeds the right wing winning words in memos, white papers, and weekly letters. Here’s a few classic examples:
- The Healthy Forest Initiative – A program that decreased public participation in public land use and opened up public lands to timber interests;
- The Clear Skies Initiative: Which essentially rolled back compliance timeframes for key pollutants and watered down standards on others;
- Wealth redistribution – instead of revoking generous tax cuts for the rich;
- Government control over health choices – instead of "the public option."
It goes on and on, with the ultimate purpose being the rebranding of government, and the elevation of the free market. They’ve redefined government from being the way we come together to assure the common good, to being our common enemy.
Meanwhile, they’ve simultaneously elevated corporations and the free market – which are by design, meant to exploit us and extract the maximum amount of money from us – to being our ally and savior.
Christian Sharia in the US of A
One of the most ironic features of Reagan’s presidency is that he neutered governments' capacity to impose moral or ethical constraints on the market, while simultaneously championing "traditional family values." Yeah, us common folks had to toe that narrow1950’s Christian ideal, but corporations and fat cars? Not so much.
But they got away with it because they controlled the media and the message. The astounding result of Reagan’s legacy is that today, we routinely elect men and women who hate government and know little about governance, to govern. Men and women who cynically advocate a fundamentalist Christian Sharia for the people, while taking handouts from fat-cats and corporations in exchange for supporting amoral and immoral policies that give corporations free reign and that allows the uber-rich to extract more and more wealth from the rest of us. (Check out your favorite conservative Christian candidate on https://www.opensecrets.org/ to see the full scope of this hypocrisy in action).
Why Bad Ideas and Ignoramuses Never Go Away in US Politics
Know-nothings who have been wrong about everything – like Cheney, Wolfowitz. Rice and Kristol – are still allowed to infect the public discourse with fear, hate and ignorance. Meanwhile widely discredited economic policies like trickle down, austerity and deregulation are given airtime and accepted as truth by a significant part of the electorate long after their proponents should have been shamed off the national stage.
It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way – Bernie Sanders Points the Way
The thing is, with the majority of the people embracing progressive policies, it shouldn’t be so hard to fashion winning messages. But since Reagan, the DLC gang and the likes of Hillary Clinton have hopped aboard the corporate gravy train and essentially practiced preemptive capitulation, rather than confronting the right’s lies, deceptions and distortions. The reason Bernie Sanders has gone from an unknown to leading in the early primaries is that he has taken on the likes of Luntz and the professional prevaricators with an astonishingly simple strategy – he’s told the truth, and freed himself to do so by not taking money from the plutocrats. Let’s take a look at how this changes things:
Consider the difference between "giving workers a fair share" and "redistributing wealth"
When the right talks about redistributing income, it sounds like government is taking hard-earned cash from deserving people. Sanders talks about fair pay – that is, making sure workers get a fair share in the first instance.
Here’s the facts: between 1973 and 2013, productivity rose by about 74% -- in other words, companies made about 74% more for each hour their employees worked – but employees only got 9% of gains. The rest went to the top 1%.
Or, take "Greedy exploiters" instead of "Job Creators"
The right justifies the economic rape of the worker by dubbing them "Job Creators." But a close examination of the wealth the fat cats took from workers shows that it goes into their private portfolios and stock buy-backs, not "job creation." To the extent it does get invested in expansion, most of it ultimately makes its way overseas, where companies can dodge taxes and hire low wage workers in sweat shops at the expense of domestic jobs.
The only income redistribution going on in this country is from workers, to fat cats. A little dose of honesty and reality exposes the uber-wealthy and corporate campaign contributors as greedy fat cats, not job creators.
When we look at reality instead of listening to poll-tested rhetoric, we can see that all of the progressive policies designed to constrain capitalism and assure an equitable and just economy are not only desirable, they are necessary for a prosperous society.
This same kind of sophistry infects most of our national dialogue on issues that matter. ISIS, just 20,000 rag-tag untrained troops using scrounged weapons and possessing no navy or air force, is branded as an "existential" threat to justify hugely bloated Defense Budgets. Meanwhile real existential threats like climate change are cloaked in doubt – or even banned from the public forumt – by Orwellian autocrats, who claim to love freedom and espouse "values."
The antidote to the sophistry that is Reaganism,is a politician who isn’t on the take from plutocrats. If you want to know why Sanders is rocketing up the polls, that’s it – he’s free to tell the truth, and Americans have been hungering for it.