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Commentary :: Politics
How Things Got This Bad
04 Nov 2004
Explains the decline of the Democrats over the last forty years as the result of the Republicans' success in promulgating a counter-reality that is the only reality many Americans know.
how.doc (35 k)

The victory of the 2004 Bush/Cheney ticket represents the darkest hour of the Democratic party – and of all progressive forces in America – since the Nixon landslide of 1972. What seems almost impossible to understand is how the following propitious factors - an unprecedented mobilization of the Democratic party base, astonishingly high levels of new voters, widespread anti-Bush sentiment, the amazing success of Michael Moore’s books and films, and the minimization of the Nader vote - led to no net gain in the vote for the Democratic party candidate, John Kerry, vis-à-vis that of the Republican candidate. (Indeed, it was the latter, George W. Bush, who increased his share.)
I find this outcome, I must confess, extremely improbable. There are sufficient grounds for concluding that extensive voting machine fraud took place, particularly in Florida and Ohio, where it may have enhanced Bush’s vote by as much as 5 percent. It is to be hoped that in time the full extent of voting fraud will be exposed, although one cannot expect any help in this respect from the Democratic party apparatus which, for some unfathomable reason, has refrained from making audit-less electronic voting systems an issue. But whether or not the Democrats loss in 2004 was due to Republican dirty tricks, as it was in 2000, the fact remains that for nearly 40 years the Democrats have been losing, and losing badly. Even their one big success, Bill Clinton, did not reverse the trend. Not only was Clinton himself a moderate conservative, the Clinton years saw the Republican party extend its control over Congress to the point that has now maintained control of both houses for the better part of the period since 1992.
Something is behind the remarkable success the Republicans have enjoyed over the last 40 years – something so tenacious that it has bestowed upon the worst (most ignorant, inept and unsuccessful) president in American history an increased popular mandate. In the first instance, the answer is racism. Starting with opposition to the civil rights policies of Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the Republican party became the party of the racist white southern male. Its exploitation of southern opposition to civil rights turned a part of the country that had previously been solidly behind the Democrats into a Republican party stronghold.
But something even more fundamental than the persistence of racism underpins Republican ascendancy. (After all, since the 1990s the party has been consolidating its hold in many parts of the country outside the South where racism is largely passive and certainly not an important political factor.) The secret of Republican party ascendancy, I believe, is the fact that its organs, from prestigious thinktanks like the American Enterprise Institute down to the humblest local newspaper, have stood reality completely on its head. They have invented a new counter-reality that, because it is so widely diffused by the nation’s major media outlets, has become true reality not just for conservatives, but for many people in the political center. They vote for the Republicans not because they are conservative but because Republican counter-reality is the only reality they know.
To clarify what I mean by ‘counter-reality’ I will give two examples. First, the Republicans have promulgated the myth of the ‘liberal media.’ This alleged description of reality is not just a travesty of the reality but a complete inversion of the reality. There are, in fact, scarcely any liberal media in the United States at all. Not a single major media organization – not even CNN - is genuinely and unapologetically liberal. The real liberal outlets are small circulation magazines like The Nation and Mother Jones that have a negligible influence on the political life of the country. Yet many people who are far from being doctrinaire conservatives believe that anything they hear which does not conform to the counter-reality they know comes from the biased, apparently ubiquitous ‘liberal media.’ Many politically naïve people – the kind of people the Democrats need to win over to sail to victory – therefore inhabit a world which is dominated by a rightwing hallucination.
As a second example of a rightwing hallucination, I would cite the war on terror. Most Americans take it for granted that Al-Qaeda terrorism is everything the Bush administration makes it out to be. What is at issue is only how to respond to the threat. Yet, as many people outside the United States realize, the danger from Islamist terrorism is at best severely overestimated and probably very largely bogus. The reality is that terrorism, as dramatic as terrorist events tend to be, is among the very least of our early 21st century problems. Americans face far greater dangers from other quarters, as a look at current mortality statistics shows, and it is global warming, not Osama bin Laden, which presents humanity with its most pressing challenge. But once again, a large percentage of Americans with no strong ideological bias find themselves wedded to the Republicans by a skewed perception of reality: they look favourably upon the GOP because they see it as the party of the great issue of our time.
Republican ascendancy is founded upon a mountain of errors like the two I’ve just mentioned. Not an aspect of modern life seems to have escaped the distortions of the Republican machine, down to the recent (and laughable) contention that President Clinton’s flirtation with an intern posed a danger to the moral fibre of the country. The problem for Democrats and progressives, however, is that they face not a different version of reality but that they are up against a complete inversion of reality. You can argue, and sometimes win, against people with different opinions, but you can’t win an argument with those who are convinced that two and two makes five and that anyone who says otherwise is ‘outside the mainstream' (and therefore better ignored). Even if you were patient enough to argue a political issue with a Republican voter to a successful conclusion, you would still not be able to dislodge their inverted worldview. The fact that they have assimilated the counter-reality of the Republican ideological apparatus leaves millions of entirely reasonable people squarely in the Republican camp. They remain as deaf to the pitches of Democrats and progressives as Ulysses was to the song of the sirens.
The Republican propensity to dodge reality is a subject which, to my knowledge, no one has tried to study. In my view, it represents the historical legacy of the conservative reaction against the presidency of John F. Kennedy (1961-63). No one who ever inhabited the White House was ever as much of a threat to American conservatism and corporate interests as JFK. This is because he was not the wishy washy liberal of conservative polemics, but a pragmatist whose politics were underpinned by solidly liberal values. He studied real problems and sought to come up with solutions that would work. By 1963, possessed of a ‘can do’ attitude that rejected the idea of failure, Kennedy had become a truly formidable president. With the exception of the bigots, who objected to his civil rights policies, everyone knew the country was in supremely competent hands. And that is, in short, why the corporate backers of the Republican party had to remove him from power and why the nation was devastated when they did.
After Dallas, American conservatism developed as a reaction against the kind of pragmatic – and dangerously effective – liberalism that was briefly reincarnated in Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. But negativity and contrariness wasn’t enough to halt the rise of American liberalism. What was needed was a conservative worldview that would inoculate the masses against policies that would actually improve their lives. The construction of this perverse, self-defeating counter-reality began in earnest under Nixon when, in 1972, he rejected the advice of his own panel, the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, regarding the decriminalization of marijuana. Nixon, who didn’t even bother reading the report, had his mind closed about the issue all along. Pending the release of the report, he told the press that, if the committee came out in favour of decriminalizing marijuana, he wouldn’t support it can be cited as the historical juncture at which the Republican party jettisoned reality and turned to the manipulation of perceptions of reality. The Nixonian road of conscientious ignorance and perverse policy is the road the party has taken ever since, as we know from the war on drugs, which has only created more problems than it has solved.
The political divide today is therefore between Democrats and progressives, who stubbornly (and rightly) concern themselves with real issues, and the Republicans and libertarians, who propagate a false reality as a means of avoiding real issues. As long as Democrats and progressives continue to try to address that false reality, they will fail, because it was constructed against them. In the next phase of opposition to global fascism, Democrats and progressives need to become debunkers – exposers of conservative frauds, from the myth of JFK’s lone assassin to the lie that America cannot tolerate married gays. We didn’t see Kerry and Edwards do much debunking during the campaign, and their reluctance to deflate the myths that underpin Republican ascendancy is a key factor not just in their defeat on Tuesday, but in the Democratic party’s years in the political wilderness.

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