Viewing the results of elections versus what the polls tell us what Americans want, an observer has to wonder if voters are in some kind of a stupor when elections come around. While pollsters find time after time that Americans come down in favor of things like a much higher minimum pay, affordable and available health care for all, smoothing out income and wealth inequality, continued and enhanced Social Security and Medicare, addressing climate issues now just as examples – when elections come around enough elections are won by opponents of all those issues that any possibility of having them obstructed is huge. Now enough opponents have won that many programs in place may be in jeopardy.
How did we get to a place where folks vote over and over against their own best interest? Others have taken a crack at trying to make sense of it all, so why shouldn’t I?
Let’s journey back over eighty years when a group of right wing American industrialists, wealthy individuals, politicians and military leaders attempted a coup against President Franklin Roosevelt. When General Smedley Butler blew the whistle on the coup, Congress had a a hearing. For whatever reason and despite overwhelming evidence, the conspirators were not charged. No lesson was learned and a sort of war of attrition was set in place between the New Deal (and Democrats in general) and a right wing cabal with its basis among those who plotted against FDR.
Until the early 70s this group was fairly ineffective as the middle class grew, America had a generally shared prosperity and civil rights advanced for various groups. During the presidency of Richard Nixon, Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Ernest Syndor which outlined a strategy in which businesses could bring their economic power into greater play in the political sphere. The Powell Memo was the first outline of strategies that the right wing, embodied in the Republican Party, would begin to deploy and refine in their pursuit of changing our government to one that tilted the playing field to greatly favor those with money and power.
One of Powell’s main thrusts was to use the power of the media – mostly owned by the right wing – to push their views via news reports and editorials. The Reagan presidency ended the “Fairness Doctrine” thus setting the stage for one sided broadcasting from that point forward. Media ownership quickly dispensed with responses to partisan broadcasts. This was also the beginning of mergers and takeovers in media. Independent voices in media were quickly taken over and the number of originators of news and content shrunk from the thousands to the paltry few we have today. Controlling news sources is integral to spreading messages favorable to your side. As control of our major media of the time advanced, the range of news and opinion narrowed immensely.
Americans had come to trust the independence and confrontational style of their media. That reputation continues to this day even as media has become a tool of the rich. The one chink in the wall of media the rich have built is the one that grew after the takeover of traditional media was under control. That is of course the internet. Once the power of the internet became apparent, those with the power of money have spent considerable money and time trying to take over this sector of media. That is why internet neutrality is so important for America and why its destruction is so important for those who control all other news sources. Even if the FCC finally opts for internet neutrality, those who control the machinery of the internet will do what they can to assert control.
The previous long discussion of history and media was necessary as background to show how tactics have evolved. Without the power of media control, advancing ideas that were once considered very marginal at best would have been impossible. Using the media as an integral part of of their strategy, what was once a far right wing fringe group has been able to sell a quite manipulable public on issues that actually go against their best interests.
While the coup against FDR failed, none of the conspirators were even indicted, let alone tried or convicted. Thus they were able to continue their assault on what they viewed as – well I am not sure what they thought was wrong. As noted the 40s, 50s and even the 60s were a relatively quiet time for the rich on the margin. But there were some successes, such as McCarthyism, and the election of such right wingers as Richard Nixon. Barry Goldwater became the Republican nominee in 1964. But for the most part the movement (often referred to as “movement conservative”) was under the radar. While not significant at the time, Fred C. Koch, father of Charles and David Koch, founded the John Birch Society. This was a forerunner of many of today’s right wing organizations such as the Tea Party.
The Powell memo helped coalesce and focus the various disparate right wing groups. This focus helped lead to Reagan’s election. The Reagan presidency begat policies that help the rich literally get richer and smooth the path for media consolidation. Success built on success. Media ownership created a path for the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his 3 hour daily commercial for movement conservativism. The 3 hour daily dose of movement conservativism led to the election of more and more movement conservatives to national and state legislatures – so-called “think tanks” such as the previously mentioned AEI, Club For Growth, the Heritage Institute and many more.
With all that in place, movement conservativism has refined the process of making policy. Now the process goes something like this:
Think tanks formulate ideas, talking points and slogans to push such policies.
– Lawmakers get in line and repeat over and over the talking points and slogans, no matter what the question
– Media pushes the talking points and slogans. Any contrary positions are dismissed and talked down
– Ideas are made into legislation through groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) or lobbyists in Washington
– If legislation is defeated, talking points developed that will be used to hammer opponents in elections and used by movement conservative candidates.
– Use majorities in state legislatures to consolidate power through new laws, gerrymandering and suppression of voting rights
– Build on laws with more right wing legislation.
Over the years we can see how this strategy has been used to turn the concept of progressive taxation upside down. One of the first targets was inheritance taxes. Using media and slogans about “death taxes” movement conservativism all but wiped out inheritance taxes. Thus multi billionaires can now pass fortunes over generations with little taxation. Next was to make major cuts in taxes for the rich. Creating slogans such as “trickle down” movement conservatives lowered taxes for the wealthy. Freed from having to invest in their businesses and employees to avoid taxes, we have seen an era of lowered wages and mega mergers instead of investment for growth. To push even more tax cuts for the rich, they became “job creators.” These empty slogans were pushed day and night by 95% of TV news, and thousands of corporate radio stations and a consolidated newspaper industry.
Thanks for bearing with me on this little journey through the history of movement conservativism. Paul Krugman has a much longer and more detailed study of how we got to the mess we have today in his book Conscience Of A Liberal.
So Americans seem to be in a drunken stupor. They continue to be fed drinks (lies) by the media and elect movement conservatives in a bar owned by the very wealthy 1%. Any attempt at sobering America up has been thwarted by making the tools of sobriety – the media – worthless. We still have one tool at our disposal – a neutral internet – but it is hanging by an unraveling thread. Were that to be handed over to the wealthy to run, we may have to set up the printing presses in our basements like they did in colonial days. Those presses drove an uprising against a ruling upper class in this country before.