Imagine if the reigning American media-politics culture approached U.S. policy and society with the same criteria it applies to other countries and governments. Dominant American media regularly evokes moral outrage in response to crimes perpetrated by official enemies like Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Libya. By contrast, it has little to say about Washington’s mass-murderous bombing and drone-missile demolition of wedding parties, schools, and hospitals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or about the fact that three million Iraqis died prematurely because of the United State’s criminal invasion and occupation of their country (2003-present) – an ugly little detail deemed unfit to print in the New York Times’ recent front-page reporting of the following remarkable comment from Barack Obama’s “defense” secretary Robert Gates: “Iraq has been an extraordinary success story for the United States military.”1 The torture and murder of democracy and social justice activists continues free of significant or outraged comment from North American media and political elites in Honduras, site of a vicious right wing coup that the Barack Obama administration briefly pretended to oppose and then sharply supported.2
“The People Need Real Change”
Double standards are also clear in how the dominant media describes the internal politics of different nations. Here is a passage on the struggle for democracy in Egypt on the front page of the Times last Friday:
“‘The people need change, real change,’ Mr. [Sherif] Nafie [a teaching assistant in Cairo University’s journalism department] said…. ‘People are anxious that this post-revolutionary moment will end without them gaining their rights,’ said Ehab al-Kharat, a psychiatrist organizing a new party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. “
“‘It is the first time in Egyptian history that people are taking part in running their own institutions and organizations,” he said. “Democracy is not just about electoral ballots and politics at the national level — it is about how you run your organization, how you run your small neighborhood, it is about having a say in every aspect of your life. ‘ ”
“The problem, as both he and Mr. Nafie noted, is that Egyptians lack experience in the give and take of democracy, so the push for change is marked by accentuated hostility and mistrust.”3
“The Wealthy Call the Tune”
Poor Egypt — its struggle to achieve “American-style democracy” will be long and hard! The Times had nothing to say about the critical role that U.S. foreign military and economic “assistance” has long played (to this day) in deterring democracy in Egypt, across the Middle East, and indeed throughout the world. At the same time, the Times report reflected the deeply entrenched and reflexively expressed assumption that American citizens (very few of whom have ever been consulted about U.S. sponsorship of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and elsewhere) enjoy functioning democracy. But do they?
Contrary to the dominant notion of U.S. as a center right country, Americans hold a slew of progressive and democratic opinions. A vast amount of polling data contradicts the widespread assumption and dominant media trope that the United States is a “center-right nation”— even a conservative country. National opinion polls suggest that Tea Partiers are clearly projecting their values upon a largely reluctant public, which views the lack of government support for progressive policies, rather than “big government” itself, as the major problem plaguing the political system. Public opinion is quite progressive in terms of majority support for social democracy and the left hand of the liberal state :
* Sixty-nine percent of U.S. voters agree that “government should care for those who cannot care for themselves” (Pew Research, 2007).
* Fifty-four percent of voters agree that “government should help the needy even if it means greater debt” (Pew Research, 2007
* Fifty-eight percent believe the U.S. government should be doing more for its citizens, not less (National Elections Survey, 2004).
* Twice as many Americans back more government services and spending (even if this means a tax increase) as do those who support fewer services and reduced spending (National Elections Survey, 2004).
* Sixty-four percent of Americans would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for all U.S. citizens (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, May 2007).
* Sixty-nine percent think it is the responsibility of the federal government to provide health coverage to all U.S. citizens (Gallup Poll, 2006).
* Eighty percent support a government-mandated increase in the minimum wage (Associated Press/AOL Poll, December 2006).
* Eighty-six percent want Congress to pass legislation to raise the federal minimum wage (CNN, August 2006).
* Seventy-one percent think that taxes on corporations are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007).
* Sixty-six percent think that taxes on upper-income people are too low (Gallup Poll, April 2007).
* Fifty-nine percent are favorable toward unions, with just 29 percent unfavorable (Gallup Poll, 2006).
* 61 percent of Americans support the right of public sector unions to exist and collectively bargain on behalf of government workers (USA Today-Gallup, 2011).
* Fifty-two percent generally side with unions in labor disputes, whereas just 34 percent side with management (Gallup Poll, 2006).
* A strong majority of American voters think that the nation’s “most urgent moral question” is either “greed and materialism” (33 percent) or “poverty and economic injustice” (31 percent). Just 16 percent identify abortion and 12 percent pick gay marriage as the nation’s “most urgent moral question” (Zogby, 2004). Thus, 64 percent of the population thinks that injustice and inequality are the nation’s leading “moral issues.”
* Just 29 percent of Americans support the expansion of government spending on “defense” (a curious term for the Pentagon, which accounts for nearly half of the human race’s military spending and maintains more than 1000 military bases spread across more the 120 nations the world over). By contrast, 79 percent support increased spending on health care, 69 percent support increased spending on education, and 69 percent support increased spending on Social Security (Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Views,” 2004)
* Seventy-eight percent of Americans support using “tax dollars…to help pay for…food stamps and other assistance to the poor,” while 80 percent support appropriating tax funding for “retraining programs for people whose jobs have been eliminated” (National Inequality Survey, 2007).
* 67 percent of adult Americans support “having a third political party that would run candidates or President, Congress, and state offices against the Republicans and Democrats” (CNN/Gallup/USA Today 1999).
But so what? In the U.S. today, politics often seems to be little more than how it was described by the Progressive Age American philosopher John Dewey: “the shadow cast on society by business.” Actual public policy moves in very different, often enough diametrically opposed directions from mere public opinion in “the world’s greatest democracy.” Contrary to democratic theory’s identification of government with the people (the popular majority), none of the opinions bullet-pointed above seem to matter all that much when it comes to policy. As the former Times columnist Bob Herbert recently and quietly noted in his very last column for the nation’s “newspaper of record,” the nation’s “levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want” in the U.S., Herbert candidly acknowledged – a remarkable statement. “The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance…Ordinary Americans have no real access to the corridors of power, but you can bet your last Lotto ticket that your elected officials are listening when the corporate money speaks.”
That is a remarkable statement nearly two-and-a-half years after a presidential election that Herbert and many other establishment liberals hailed as a victory for progressive transformation. The American people in 2008, like the Egyptian people today, wanted “change, real change” – something that Obama’s advisors anticipated well in advance as a problem requiring the proper elitist “expectation management” and “expectation calibration” – tasks that Obama’s advisor Samantha Powers called “essential at home and internationally” in February of 2008.5
The Obama administration quickly and boldly became a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight, its epic undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the stealth power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.” [5A] As Bill Greider noted in The Washington Post early in the Obama presidency, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”[5B] The “right people” are found among an elite segment within the top 1 percent that owns roughly 40 percent of America’s wealth and a probably larger share of its “democratically elected officials,” making the U.S. by far and away the industrialized/post-
“If it Were Only Republicans Out to Destroy Us”
At least now Americans get to learn Greider’s “blunt lesson” with Democrats at the nominal helm of the corporate-managed fake democracy. It’s an essential tutorial on the richly bipartisan nature of state-capitalist rule that holds special for “millennial” (18-29 year old) voters and citizens, for whom the election of John McCain would have reinforced the notion that American empire and inequality is just all about Republicans being in power.
The lesson has been deepening this year. Claiming falsely that the American people spoke in the Republicans’ electoral triumph of November 2010, the ever more right-wing Obama has made a number of moves calculated to win the more heartfelt allegiance of top business players. He has continued his pattern of coldly disrespecting his liberal and progressive “base” (comprised of people that Obama’s initial chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel called “fucking retard[s]”) by agreeing to sustain George W. Bush’s deficit-fueling tax cuts for the rich beyond their original sunset date of 2010. Accepting the false business and Republican Tea Party claim that “overpaid” public sector workers are a leading force behind rising government deficits and economic stagnation, Obama ordered a two-year freeze on federal worker salaries and benefits. He published an Op-Ed in the plutocratic editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal – an essay that praised “free market capitalism” as “the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known”) and said that government often places “unreasonable burdens on business” that have a “chilling effect on growth and jobs.