Sell Us a Story

A Truly Terrible Record

If there was true democratic decency at the heart of the American political system, George W. Bush’s defeat in 2004 would be practically a foregone conclusion. During its narrowly and illegally attained reign, the Bush White House has overseen the loss of more than three million American jobs – a new record. The poverty rate has risen for both of the years for which we have complete data during the Bush administration, with 1.7 more Americans pushed below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level in the second of those years (2002). In the face of this mounting need, which results to no small extent form its policies, the White House has transformed a federal budget surplus into a massive, record-setting deficit that promises to cripple government’s capacity to meet the needs of all but the privileged few for an untold number of years. It has advanced gargantuan tax-cuts for the already wealthy, starving government’s ability to provide ever-more-necessary social programs and services and even “homeland security” while feeding a military machine and an imperial campaign that increases the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.

It has launched an illegal, unnecessary, expensive, and bloody war of occupation that has massively alienated world opinion and squandered the sympathy the world felt for Americans in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. The occupation has dramatically failed to live up to the White House’s grandiose promises and cost the lives of at 300 American troops, two thirds of whom have died since Bush declared the end of major hostilities on May 1, after landing on a conveniently placed offshore aircraft carrier in what The New York Times called “a powerful Reaganesque finale to a six-week war.” It has failed to turn up any substantive evidence to support the Bush administration’s hysterical, distorted claims about the threat supposedly posed by Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam’s supposed connection with extremist Islamic terror networks – mysterious menaces never taken seriously anywhere outside the United States.

Meanwhile, the Bush Team has conducted the most dangerous assault on domestic United States civil liberties to occur in half a century. It has taken the practice of political deception to new heights, so that tracking the systematic mendacity of the current White House – seen in a spectacular accumulation of false and duplicitous statements about far more than just Iraq – is a nearly exhausting enterprise (for a useful compendium, see David Corn, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception [Crown Publishing, September 2003]).

It all stands in grotesque conflict with cherished principles of the Republic, including the Declaration of Independence’s claim that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Building on that revolutionary ideal, the Constitution required the federal government, representing “We the People of the United States,” to work to “establish justice,” “promote the general welfare,” “provide for the common defense,” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” It codified charter civil liberties the Bush team is seeking to rollback, in the name of unity against external danger.

Bush’s monumental and in fact highly methodical dishonesty, it is worth noting, is technically illegal. Title 18, part 1, chapter 47, and section 1001 of the United States federal statutory code mandates fines and imprisonment up to five years for a federal office-holder who “knowingly and willfully – falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry.” The threat of being removed from office and only by election ought to be the least of Bush’s worries.

It was not for nothing, then, that American Nobel Prize winner George A. Akelof told Der Speigel last July that the Bush administration was “the worst government the US has ever had in its more than 200 years of history.”

Reasonably enough, Bush’s popularity has free-fallen in recent months. In what his political advisors call a “slump,” the president’s approval rating has plunged to 49 percent (according to the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll), a remarkable 39 percent drop from his highest rating, right after 9/11. According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, “Americans are for the first time more critical than not of President Bush’s ability to handle both foreign and domestic problems.” A majority say Bush “does not share their priorities” and a “clear majority” is “uneasy about his ability to make right decisions” on the nation’s economy. Just 38 percent of the nation’s voters now think that America is “headed in the right direction” under Bush’s watch. Fifty percent think “things are off on the wrong track,” something the Times calls a “classic danger sign for an incumbent president seeking re-election.” (Todd S. Purdum and Janet Elder, “Poll Shows Drop in Confidence on Bush Skill in Handling Crises,” New York Times, October 3, 2003, A1).

Thinking no doubt of this declining popularity and of deep related structural and political problems facing the White House, the noted left sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein thinks that “Bush’s days are numbered. He is in serious trouble, and the trouble will not go away” (“When Will Bush Fall?,” Covert Action Quarterly, no. 75 [Fall 2003], p. 3)

 Foreign Policy as Any Other Commodity: Beyond Right and Wrong

Not so fast, say key members of the political class, convinced that Bush’s real problem is merely a matter of image – a bad story line that needs to be put in a more positive light. According to leading Republican political strategist and regressive tax policy advocate Grover Norquist, Bush’s “slump” is “meaningless.” Norquist thinks that Bush and his handlers have plenty of time to construct what he disingenuously calls “a conversation with the American people” about “how much Bush has accomplished economically and how much more he could accomplish, despite Democratic opposition in Congress, if he had four more years.” (Bob Kemper, “Backers Say Bush Can Beat ‘Slump,’” Chicago Tribune October 5, 2003).

Like Norquist, fellow Republican strategist and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich thinks the Bush administration’s only real problem is bad performance on “the communication side.” As an example of what needs to be done, Gingrich cites the administration’s failure to take full public relations advantage of the preliminary report issued two weeks ago by Bush’s chief weapons hunter David Kay. Never mind that Kay’s report showed that no WMDs had been found in Iraq, contradicting Bush’s main argument for invasion. The real point that the Bush Team should have grabbed on, Gingrich thinks, was evidence that Saddam had a small surviving weapons program and hoped to have a bigger such program at some point in the future – hardly the stuff behind a case for “pre-emptive war.” (Kemper, “Backers Say Bush Can Beat Slump”)

Of course, by “conversation” and “communication,” Norquist and Gingrich hardly mean democratic and open-ended discussion. They mean propaganda, defined usefully by the late Australian social-psychologist Alex Carey as “communications where the form and content is selected with the single-minded purpose of bringing some target audience to adopt attitudes and beliefs chosen in advance by the sponsors of the communications. ‘Propaganda,’” notes Carey, is very different from education at its best, whose “purpose is to encourage critical inquiry and to open minds for and against any particular conclusion, rather than close them to the possibility of any conclusion but one.” (Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty).

The notion that Bush just needs better public relations to get his political groove back found support in a recent commentary by New York Times political correspondent Elisabeth Bubmiller. In preparing a September 28th Sunday Times “Week-in-Review” thought-piece titled “In a Democracy, the President is Salesman in Chief,” Bubmiller asked a curious collection of “historians, advertising executives, pollsters and Democratic and Republican image-makers” how Bush might overcome the declining popularity of his foreign policy. Her research turned up an interesting “consensus: Mr. Bush has to do a better – or at least a more extensive job – of selling Americans on Iraq and the American occupation, no matter what anyone might think of the policy itself.” What is this “consensus” but a modern-day endorsement in what George Orwell termed “doublethink” – “the power to hold two contrary beliefs in one mind simultaneously and accepting both of them” and the readiness “to forget any fact that has become inconvenient” to the all-knowing party in high-state power.

It’s all, the experts told her, about product marketing, with citizens relegated to the role of consumers – not active participants – in relation to the commodity known as public policy. “I don’t care if the public is buying an automobile, a drug that cures allergies or a foreign policy,” responded Donny Deutsch, a New York advertising executive. “It’s basically ‘Give them the facts’” Regarding the monstrously immoral and illegal invasion of Iraq, Deutsch said “forget whether this was the right or wrong move, and in their hearts most Americans were behind it. Good selling starts with complete candor.” By “complete candor,” Deutsch means the Bush Team should admit “they were unprepared for the problems of the occupation.” By “give them the facts,” we can be sure, he hardly means that Bush and his handlers should tell the full truth and nothing but the truth behind and about the invasion of Iraq.

 Tell Us a Nice Story: “Everything That Happened Yesterday is Irrelevant”

The most chilling, openly Orwellian remarks recorded by Bubmiller came from G. Clotaire Rapaille, who Bubmiller describes as a “French-born medical anthropologist who has done psychological consumer research for clients like Seagram, Proctor and Gamble, and Ford” (an imposing resume!). Rapaille has a different take on how Bush might overcome his terrible record to score his first victory in a presidential election. “Everything that happened yesterday,” Rapaillle claimed, consistent with standard totalitarian doctrine, “is irrelevant.” Rather than focus on past mistakes – being unprepared for the difficulties of the occupation – Bush’s publicists should, Rapaille thinks, create friendly in-the-moment story lines about individual Iraqis who are now free to pursue their purely personal, private dreams: a young Iraqi child who wants “to study” and “become an engineer;” “a young [Iraqi] woman who wants to be married and have children;” a “guy who wants to start a shop to repair cars.” “Right now,” Rapaille told Bubmiller, “it’s not that the president is not good, it’s that the story is bad.” (Bubmiller, New York Times, September 28, 2003, sec. 4. p.1).

Rapaille warns the White House against selling their occupation with “statistics” about tedious stuff like the number of schools and hospitals being built in Iraq. That sort of material is “kind of boring,” says Rapaill, who is attuned to the rampant social and political Attention Deficit Disorder and related entertainment addiction spread amongst the populace by MTV and the like. “The important thing,” Bubmiller learned from Rapaille, “is to tell a story.”

It’s a frightening way to think about “democracy,” betraying a view of the American citizenry as infantilized rabble, fit to be silenced with pleasing little political bedtime stories. “Mr. President, can you sell, I mean tell, us a story?”

No, Mr. Rapaille, the president is “not good.” As Eliot Weinberger notes in the latest Covert Action Quarterly, the current White House “is, quite simply, the most frightening administration in modern times, one that is appalling both to the left and to traditional conservatives. This junta is unabashed in its imperialist ambitions; it is enacting an Orwellian state of Perpetual War; it is dismantling, or attempting to dismantle, some of the most fundamental tents of American democracy; it is acting without opposition within the government, and is operating so quickly on so many fronts that it has overwhelmed and exhausted any popular opposition.” It “is an American government unlike any other in this country’s history, and one for whom democracy is an obstacle” (Weinberger, “What Happened to America?,” CAQ, no. 75 [Fall 2003], p. 2).

The history that Rapaille would like to delete from public recollection, ala Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, includes Bush’s perpetration of the single highest crime on the books of post-Nuremberg international law: the gratuitous, thoroughly unwarranted invasion of another country that posed no threat and the related murder of more than 8000 Iraqi civilians along the way.


The Corporate-Entertainment State and Other Contextual Factors

Are Norquist, Gingrich, and Bubmiller’s informants correct to think that the Bush campaign can shape “the conversation” to make the current very bad presidential incumbent viable in 2004? The unfortunate noir answer, contra Wallerstein, is yes, though understanding why involves placing their story-telling project in a broader context than Bubmiller appreciates. A key contextual factor is of course money – the spectacular amount of cash required to hire the public relations specialists and rent the exorbitantly expensive media time needed to saturate the masses with the proper, carefully crafted set of narratives and messages that masquerade as a “conversation” in America’s “democracy.” Here we should note that Bush is setting new fundraising records: so far contributors have already given him $85 million (see http://www. whitehouseforsale.org/), much which will be spent enabling Bush to exercise his free speech rights in a way calculated to drown out the free-speech rights of those closer to the truth about his vile reign.

Another factor is fear, the cultivation of hysteria about terrible Evil Others poised to strike new blows against the American people. The key idea here, which is also straight out of Orwell (and the Reagan White House), was at the heart of chief Republican strategist Karl Rove’s strategy in the mid-term (2002) elections. It matches a key warning made by James Madison, who noted in 1799 that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” (James Madison, “Political Reflections,” February 23, 1799, quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” CATO Policy Report (March/April, 2001), p. 12, available online at www..cato.org/pubs/policy_report/v23n.2/madison.pdf). It is to divert the domestic population from their declining, unjust socioeconomic and political situation, exacerbated by Bush policies, with spectacular, media-choreographed campaigns against supposed hideous threats from frightening foreign lands. It is to convince Americans to cower under the (supposed) protection of the presidential military umbrella and to subordinate their democratic/dissenting instincts to the deadening “unity”-enforcing imperatives of the permanent National Security State.

The need to undertake such campaigns is certainly a primary and ugly lesson of Bush’ nearly three years in power. His approval ratings, after all, have essentially fallen to where they were before an all-too real danger from abroad surfaced in the skies above New York City and Washington D.C., sending 3000 Americans to their death and Bush into 20 months of political heaven.

Here again, Team Bush has reason to smile. Bush’s Iraqi WMD claims may have taken a hit, but there’s reason to think he can sell terrible new threats, pretend and/or real, thanks in part to recent US actions – most notably, the invasion of Iraq – that increase the likelihood of significant new terror attacks on Americans at home and abroad.

Also worth noting, Republicans are boring from with the state legislatures to apply the dark lessons of Florida (2000) by working quietly to pare down voter- registration rolls. They are attempting especially to eliminate African-American voters, who have a nasty habit of voting for the wrong party, and who have been systematically saddled with felony records – cause for various degrees of voter disenfranchisement in more than 30 states – over the course of a savage, Republican-led 25-year campaign of racially disparate mass arrest and incarceration, conducted under the aegis of the “War on Drugs.”

Meanwhile, Bush and his handlers can count on civic exhaustion from overwork (Americans work the longest hours and enjoy the slightest vacation time in the industrialized world), and watered-down coverage of current events by a corporate-state media that refuses to tell the truth about the danger the Bush administration poses to society at home and abroad.

The Bush junta is also relying on the powerful authoritarian ideological sleep mechanisms of the ubiquitous corporate entertainment empire – a factor that tends to be underestimated in left analyses of how the media “manufactures consent.” The Bush War Party has been just as significantly enabled by the dominant media’s powerful, narcotic “entertainment” component as by its “news and information” wing. The former, which claims the lion’s share of cable-television and satellite-dish spectrum, conditions millions of Americans to adopt a privatized and depoliticized world view that subtly, almost unconsciously confers control over – and even interest in – politics and policy to a supposedly “expert” power “elite.” Just as significantly loaded with politically relevant material as the more transparently political news media, American corporate entertainment culture works to turn public citizens into apathetic, atomized, self-obsessed consumers and policy spectators – passive observers of current events. It eviscerates core connections between private difficulties, social structures, and public policies and threatens to create a brave new world in which facts become irrelevant and news censorship becomes practically unnecessary: there’s no need to censor material that the masses have no inclination to concern themselves with in the first place


 Jefferson’s Wolves: 2004 and Beyond

Thanks to the horror that is the Bush administration, it goes almost without saying that progressives have no choice but to work for a presidential candidate who can defeat the Cowboy in 2004. Faced with a real-life presidency that threatens to set humanity back decades in the struggle for peace and justice, we have no business launching third- and fourth-party candidacies or refusing to support any of the Democratic candidates but Kucinich (certainly the best in the field from any minimally left moral and political perspective). The differences between, say, a Dean or a Kerrey or a Clark and a Bush are nowhere near as great as they ought or need to be, but they are not insignificant within the currently dominant system of deeply concentrated economic and political power, where one “small” decision in Washington DC can produce mass misery at home and/or abroad.

Having said that, let it also be said that we must also look beyond 2004, towards the creation of a new politics in America: a genuinely popular one where money, image, corporate power and the aristocratic crafting of mass consent and apathy are not permitted to so easily trump democratic principles and sentiments, including basic respect for fact over fiction. Only in such a political milieu would the appalling presidential record recounted at the beginning of this essay mean that we can confidently proclaim “Bush’s days” as “numbered.” In an age when a morally illiterate, hyper-narcissistic, and blood-soaked Hollywood action hero can use his accumulated financial and related mass-cultural celebrity capital to become the freely elected Governor of a key and massive state like California, all bets are off on whether democratic common sense can ever hold the day again in the United States.

Much of what needs to be changed is structural in nature: the removal of private money from public elections, the granting of free media time to candidates, the introduction of proportional representation in legislative races (so that 20 percent of the vote might translate into 20 percent of the representatives), the introduction of instant run-off procedures in the presidential race (so that a third-party left candidate might run without fear of thereby throwing the reigns of monumental domestic and global power to a dangerous gang of monsters like the Bush Team), the abolition of the Electoral College (without whose democracy-diluting role Bush would not have been “elected” in 2000), the repeal of felony disenfranchisement laws (whose savage abuse in Republican-controlled Florida also cost Gore the presidential race of 2000) and the like.

Another part of what needs to be changed, however, is a matter of popular attitude and sentiment. Reflecting decades of relentless commercial and mass-cultural carpet bombing, ordinary Americans have an insufficient degree of respect for their own moral, intellectual and political capacities. They exhibit a shockingly over-easy willingness to see politics as a once-every-4-years (or once-every-1460 day) proposition and to surrender their claim – their hard-fought birthright, really – to a regular, engaged, informed presence at the heart and soul of the polity. These are dangerous habits, when the big-money powers that be are hard at work every day “taking the risk out of democracy” (to use Carey’s excellent phrase), with the help of morally vapid experts in mass thought-control – veritable modern day Orwellians – like Norquist and Rapaille and their revolting ilk.

In the end, however, it’s up to the American people. It is a useful time, perhaps, to recall Thomas Jefferson’s prophetic comment to Edward Carrington from Paris in the late 1780s. “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs,” Jefferson warned, “you and I and Congress and Assemblies and Judges shall all become wolves,” pillaging the public purse and sickening the republic with selfish, aristocratic impunity (in Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It [New York, NY: Vintage, 1967, reprint of 1948 edition], p.33].

We’re dealing with an especially bad pack of such wolves today. They are roaming the corridors of domestic and global high-state power, with tragic consequences at home and abroad. We cannot be satisfied just to send the current Texan-led pack scurrying from the White House in 2004. Jefferson’s wolves will only return again and again, in more sheepish clothing perhaps, unless and until the people become truly “attentive to the public affairs” and empowered in the execution of their public desires.

 Paul Street ([email protected]) s a social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of “More Than Entertainment: Neal Gabler’s Life the Movie and the Illusions of Post-Ideological Society,” Monthly Review (February 2000): 58-62.


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