“No Progressive Champion”
Smart perpetrators often distance themselves from their crimes, pointing to the havoc they cause with mock disgust—as if they have nothing to do with it. Look, for example, at a remarkable formulation from the editors of the New York Times last December 26, 2010. Bemoaning the rise of the Republican Tea Party, the Times' editors wrote: "In past economic crises populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America's pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation's commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty. Now the many who are struggling have no progressive champion. The left have ceded the field to the Tea Party and, in doing so, allowed it to make history. It is building political power by selling the promise of a return to a mythic past" ("The Repeal Amendment").
This passage is empirically correct on an important matter. Much of what passes for a progressive movement in this country has surrendered the left's one-time historical mission of capturing and representing popular, working class anger. This is no small dilemma, for popular resentment—understandably widespread amidst crushing economic insecurity and savage inequalities in the U.S.—abhors a progressive vacuum. It flows into dangerously authoritarian and regressive directions without real and serious alternatives and avenues of expression on the left. As the noted left social critic Charles Derber argued in May 2010: "We [on the left] have to mobilize the majority population to recognize its own possibilities and turn up the heat…. If we fail, the Right will take up the slack and impose its monopoly capitalist will on a reluctant populace" (C. Derber, "Capitalism: Big Surprises in Recent Polls," commondreams.org, May 18, 2010). Progressives' failure to engage in serious grassroots activism and to pressure authorities from below guarantees the nation's ever-deepening drift into a chilling form of reactionary, corporate-managed authoritarianism (see Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism) that will make "American democracy" and the notion of genuinely popular governance look like distant dreams.
Check Your Own Pages
The problem with the Times editors' observation is the source—the editorial board of a leading national, agenda-setting newspaper that makes sure to discredit and downplay the left and gives outsized and favorable coverage to the Tea Party. As Ralph Nader noted in a letter to the Times, in response to the editorial quoted above: "Hello! There are plenty of distinguished progressive champions lobbying, rallying, exposing, suing, and organizing at the national, state, and local level. Yet, they have been mostly left out of the mass media, on television and radio, and in the news, feature, style, opinion, and book review pages of major newspapers, including the Times. Meanwhile, the Tea Partiers have seen their modest initiatives hugely magnified and therefore expanded by major media. This has mainstreamed the radical right, including Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Pamela Geller, as well as the most extreme neoconservatives who still receive media attention despite their deceptive, disastrous Iraq War mongering.
"Check your own pages and you will see the evidence…. After all, mass media coverage matters greatly for social and political movements" (Ralph Nader, "How the Left is Left Out," December 29, 2010).
Nader's critique is borne out by systematic content analysis of the Times' pages. The new American Tea Party first became a story on March 3, 2009, after CNBC business news editor Rick Santelli called for "a Chicago Tea Party" in an instantly famous on-air rant against the Obama administration's plan to refinance mortgages. A search of the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database shows that the term Tea Party appeared in 680 items (primarily news articles and editorials) in the New York Times between March 3, 2009 and January 12, 2011. The term "Tea Party movement" appeared in 527 Times items.
Things were very different in the Times during the same period for the following terms: labor (13 items), labor movement (20 items), strike (16 items), antiwar (25), environmentalism (85), environmental movement (47), global warming (92 items), civil rights movement (66), women's movement (42), and socialism (34)—the last generally in connection with the right's preposterous claim that Obama and the Democrats are socialists and never in relation to recent and recurrent survey findings (see Derber, "Capitalism: Big Surprises") showing that a surprisingly large segment of the U.S. citizenry actually responds favorably to the word socialism. If we extend the search back to February 16, 2003, the day after massive global demonstrations against the Iraq War, we see that the number of Times items mentioning "antiwar movement" through January 12, 2011 was still less than the ones mentioning "Tea Party movement" just since March 3, 2009.
Nashville v. Detroit
A particularly telling illustration concerns two specific events. The first national Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tennessee in February 2010 was poorly attended, with just 600 representatives from across the entire country. Exorbitant costs ($549 to attend, plus food, travel, and lodging) were a factor behind this weak showing, though a later planned national Tea Party event called "LibertyXPO" also failed to garner significant attendance despite being free (S. Mencimer, "Tea Party 'Liberty XPO' Fail," Mother Jones, September 10, 2010). By sharp contrast, the Detroit meetings of the U.S. Social Forum (USSF), a large convention of leftist activists, drew 20,000 attendees in June of the same year—a very sizable left/progressive gathering that included hundreds of workshops, major speeches, and at least one mass march. The Nashville gathering was mentioned in 20 New York Times items in 2010. The Detroit meeting was not considered part of "All the News That's Fit to Print" (the Times longtime slogan on the upper left hand of its top page) even once that year or since.
In this and other ways, the Times has tended to make left criticism of the Obama administration invisible. Here is a revealing and all-too-typical passage from a New York Times editorial on Obama's much ballyhooed speech to the Muslim world in the capital of Egypt on June 4, 2009: "Before Thursday's speech, and after, Mr. Obama's critics complained that he has spent too much time apologizing and accused him of weakening the country" (June 5, 2009). As far as the Times' editorial board was concerned, "Obama's critics" amounted to the Republican Party and the right-wing Fox News and talk radio crowd. A number of left writers and commentators made criticisms of Obama's Middle East policy and Cairo speech that had nothing to do with claims of excessive "apology" or "weakening" the U.S. Obama's foreign policy critics on the left, such as Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, John Pilger, Stephen Shalom, and Steven Zunes, among others—indiscernible and/or irrelevant as far the Times was concerned—had entirely different problems with Obama's address. They noted, for example, Obama's failures to seriously acknowledge the basis for Palestinian and Arab anger with Israel and to seriously advance alternatives to Israel's criminal occupation and to the apartheid-like regime Israel imposed on the Palestinian people.
There are many similar examples in other policy areas. Hard-right Republican assaults—some shading quite far into the crackpot, hateful, and conspiracy-oriented fringe—are given regular and respectful coverage. During the "health care debate" of 2009 and early 2010, the Times gave abundant and largely courteous coverage to absurd right-wing Tea Party/Republican claims that Obama's health "reform" was a radical, "big government" assault on American liberty, replete with massive, deficit-driving expenditures certain to destroy prosperity. The widespread and reasonable left and popular critique of the Democrats' health care bill as a giveaway to the big insurance and drug companies and their Wall Street investors was comparatively invisible. Progressives' demand for single-payer ("improved Medicare for All") government health insurance, or at least a robust public option, paled in the Times' coverage in comparison to the right's outrageous and bizarre charges.
The "Anti-Establishment" Tea Party Myth
Besides magnifying the Tea Party phenomenon and downplaying left activities, the Times has tended to treat the Tea Party with excessive and undue respect. With writer Kate Zernike in the lead, the Times has tended to portray the Tea Party as an authentic, popular, and grassroots social and political movement against the American two-party establishment. The Times' website officially and somewhat ironically defines the Tea Party as "an antigovernment, grass-roots political movement that began in 2009 and went on to become key to the Republicans' successful bid to take control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections." The Tea Party is none of these things, as Anthony DiMaggio and I show in Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, forthcoming in May 2011). The Tea Party phenomenon is a fundamentally elitist, racist, top-down, Republican-coordinated front for an ever more right-wing Republican Party. As progressive journalist Adam Bessie wrote last September: "The Tea Party mythology—that it is a grassroots, 'insurgent' movement bent on overthrowing the 'establishment'—has taken root in the corporate and even independent liberal media…which [advanced] this conservative manufactured myth that the Tea Party is separate from the Washington establishment, that it is 'fighting' the beltway…that Tea Party candidates are outside of the political establishment. In simply reporting the Tea Party as a separate entity from the Republican Party, many media sources have helped perpetuate the false notion that its leaders represent a new political movement. In even using the brand 'Tea Party' we perpetuate the idea that it is not the same old Republican Party" (A. Bessie, "Media Spreads Tea Party Leaders as 'Anti-Establishment' Myth," Media-ocracy, September 20, 2010, www.media-ocracy.com).
"Pragmatism" Over "Ideology"
One can search Times editorials and op-eds in vain for calls for the revival and expansion of authentic and popular social movements of the left in the United States. You will, however, find more than a few calls for the Obama administration to respect its promise of conciliatory, centrist, "pragmatism" and to reject the call of "ideology," meaning the left ideology that the Times and other mainstream journalists mistakenly associate with Barack Obama. This tone, too, was set early on. Two and half weeks after Obama's election to the White House, the leading Times presidential correspondent, David Sanger, noted with approval (November 22, 2008) that "Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues" (with "ideologue" taken to mean anyone left of militant corporate neoliberals like Obama's top economic advisor Lawrence Summers). Times columnist William Kristol responded to Obama's election by crowing that the U.S. remained "a center-right country" and applauding Obama's selection of the conservative Democrat Rahm Emmanuel as White House chief of staff, an indication that "Obama's not going to be mindlessly leftist" ("GOP Dog Days?," November 10, 2008).
Times columnist David Brooks lectured the incoming Administration that anything more than marginal fiddling with existing institutions would "freak out" the nation's conservative and centrist majority and disrupt the nation's "fiscal foundation." Brooks hoped that the Obama administration "understands" it "cannot impose an ideological program the country does not accept." He meant a "left wing agenda," something that the militantly centrist Obama team explicitly rejected (and had from the start) even though the populace supported much of what "mainstream" media and political culture smear as "left extremism" in the realm of policy. Brooks argued that it was an election of "the middle," with "no sign" of "a movement to the left." This despite polls showing that Obama gained popularity because of his identification with policy positions identified with the left: withdrawal from Iraq, retreat from war as an instrument of policy, universal national health insurance, and a reduction of corporate and big money power on U.S. politics and society (D. Brooks: "A Date With Scarcity," November 4, 2008; Brooks, "Change I Can Believe In," November 7, 2008).
We Can Only Hope
It is true that a number of Times columnists, most notably Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, have repeatedly (and quite futilely) called for Obama and the Democrats to act to some degree like "the progressive champion[s]" that the Times editors recently claimed to desire. Krugman has penned numerous incisive liberal-progressive critiques of the (predictable and predicted) right-center drift of the corporate neoliberal Obama economic policy. Herbert has passionately and eloquently bemoaned the Administration's and the Democratic Party's (predictable and predicted) abandonment of the poor and working classes amid corporate and Wall Street profits. But neither of these or other Times columnists have seen fit to call for the building, re-building, and expansion of the sort of genuinely grassroots and opposition working class movements and politics that would be required to compel business-captive politicians and policy-makers to pursue progressive measures.
Here, again, the tone was set early. In an essay foolishly titled "Franklin Delano Obama" six days after the 2008 election, Krugman (a supporter of "fighting" John Edwards's outwardly economic-populist campaign through the Iowa Caucus) dreamed about "Mr. Obama's chances of leading a new New Deal," something he thought would "depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives," Krugman counseled, "can only hope that he has the necessary audacity." Subsequently, Krugman wrote that, "We can only hope that our leaders [starting first of all with Barack Obama]…carry through with real [financial] reform" (November 10, 2008; April 27, 2009).
This is a rather pallid and pathetic perspective, reflected well in the sad look in Krugman's eyes when he appears in yet another "Public" Broadcasting System news spot to whine again about Obama's rightward tilt. As the late radical U.S. historian and activist Howard Zinn once reminded progressives: "There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens." As Derber has observed, "The leading agents of significant policy change in U.S. history have not been parties glued to the next election, but social movements that operate on the scale of decades rather than two- and four-year electoral cycles. Political parties have historically become agents of democratic change only when movements infuse the parties with their own long-term vision, moral conviction, and resources" (C. Derber, Hidden Power, 2005).
Worthy and Unworthy Dissent
The marginalization of the left that Nader abhors fits well with Zinn's analysis of what he called "the unreported resistance" (A People's History of the United States). Genuinely popular oppositional activity, Zinn observed, tends to be deleted from dominant media coverage because it challenges existing domestic and imperial hierarchies and refuses "to surrender the possibility of a more equal, more humane society." The forgotten and censored social movements of past and present might be labeled "unworthy protests," following the dichotomy drawn between "worthy" and "unworthy victims" by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). In detailing the ideologically biased coverage of U.S. global policy and foreign affairs in dominant American media, Chomsky and Herman showed how people killed and injured by U.S. and U.S-allied violence go mostly unreported and un-mourned in American mass media. They are unworthy victims as far as the reigning media authorities are concerned. By contrast, the victims of officially designated "enemy" violence—real or imagined—receive extensive attention and their fate is the subject of strong moral outrage and serious investigation. They are worthy victims.
We might designate U.S. antiwar, anti-empire, and social justice activists and demonstrators as officially unworthy dissenters in dominant media coverage. They lack respectable status in the reigning communications and ideological systems because of their challenge to domestic and imperial power structures and doctrines. By contrast, faux-populist astroturf groups that conform to the needs and views of the rich and powerful receive much more extensive and favorable coverage and commentary. The corporate-backed and corporate mediated Tea Party phenomenon is a graphic example of the sort of "movement" that falls within the spectrum of acceptable (worthy) "dissent" and thus receives deceptive designation as a genuine social protest expressing real popular anger.
Paul Street is author of many articles and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2008); The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and the forthcoming Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio).