The Resistance Gap: On Media, Time, and the Curious Absence of Riots

Like many left and liberal writers and activists, I often cite polling data showing that majority U.S. public opinion on numerous key policy issues is well to the left of actual (not-so public) U.S. policy and the nation’s two dominant business parties.  I use this data to argue that the U.S. is not a conservative and imperialist country when it comes to the actual populace, a very different category than the nation’s political class.  The survey findings show that that most Americans hold egalitarian social beliefs and back a large number of progressive policies.  The popular U.S. majority supports universal government-mandates health care, a reduction of corporate power, and the rollback of imperial militarism.  It supports a peace dividend: the cutting of the Pentagon budget in favor of policies and expenditures to reduce poverty, mitigate socioeconomic disparity, and otherwise address pressing social needs (Adams and Derber 2008, pp. 67-75; Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2004; Street 2008B; Bartels 2008; Chomsky 2006, 205-250; Hacker and Pierson 2005).


“Taken literally,” the liberal Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels notes in his book Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, the survey data implies “an astonishing level of public support for what would have to be a very radical program of social transformation,” including the outlawing of inherited wealth and of social and economic advantages based race, gender, ethnicity, and intelligence (Bartels 2008, pp. 130-31).





“Firmly in the Hands of a Moneyed Oligarchy


But so what?  No such program is slightly entertained by U.S. policymakers and politicians. The progressive policy attitudes and social egalitarianism captured by opinion researchers are not remotely reflected in government behavior. As John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney note, “The United States, despite its formally democratic character, is firmly in the hands of a moneyed oligarchy, probably the most powerful ruling class in history” (Foster and McChesney 2009, p.7). Registering the disproportionate influence exercised by the rich, U.S. politics advances and underwrites deepening poverty and the ever-deepening concentration of wealth and income.  It under-taxes the opulent Few and their corporations and it favors employers over workers and unions.  It privileges insurance and pharmaceutical corporations over the health care needs of the majority, denies coverage to 47 million, and provides inadequate and over-expensive care to many more. 


It advances an expensive global militarism that values global hegemony over survival (Chomsky 2003) and mires the U.S. in criminal colonial occupations.  It disregards international law and civilized norms, claiming that America’s supposed inherent and “exceptional” greatness and benevolence entitles the U.S. to do as it pleases on the global stage.   And it diverts billions of dollars from potential investment in social needs to a giant “defense” (empire) budget that pays for two mass-murderous occupations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) along with 761 military bases located in more than 130 countries imperial weapons and the constant preparation for war.  Coming in at $1 trillion (by the measure of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s National Income and Product Accounts) in 2007, U.S. “defense” spending outweighs domestic U.S federal expenditure on education by more than 8 to 1; income security by more than 4.5 to 1; nutrition by more than 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; and job training by 32 to 1. The U.S military budget accounts for more than half all discretionary U.S. federal spending and nearly half the military spending on the planet.



The People as “Ignorant and Meddlesome Outsiders”


Mass protest would seem to be indicated as new President BarackObama’s passionate promise of democratic “change we can believe in” translates into the escalated and monumental bailout of the wealthy while the gargantuan “defense” budget (at least $1 trillion a year) remains beyond question and the rising problem of poverty remains buried at the margins of “mainstream” political discourse. The “world’s greatest democracy” grants its populace no meaningful control over the nation’s financial institutions even as vast public monies are handed over the very investment and banking houses whose reckless conduct in service to the rich and powerful Few drove the economic system off the cliff. As the distinguished left intellectual Noam Chomsky notes, “If the government – in a functioning democracy, the public – does not have a degree of control, the banks can put the public funds into their own pockets for recapitalization or acquisitions or loans to government-guaranteed borrowers, thus undermining the alleged purpose of the bailout.  This is what has happened, though details are obscure because the recipients refuse to say what they are doing with the gift from taxpayers.  Indeed, they regard the question as outrageous…” (Chomsky 2009).


Meanwhile, Obama’s economic stimulus plan contains no measures seriously advancing the universal health insurance program he campaigned on. Nor does it include any effort to pass the critical and overdue labor law reform (the Employee Free Choice Act) he promised his many union supporters during the presidential race. Badly damaged by a vicious 1990s welfare “reform” (slashing) that Obama has repeatedly praised as a great policy success (see Obama 2006, p. 256 for one example), the nation’s public family cash assistance system is unable to match the rising destitution across America (Deparle 2009) even as the new chief executive and the rest of the liberal Washington establishment prepares a new level of welfare for Wall Street (Krugman 2009).


This is all a problem, one would think, in a nation whose founding document declares that government derives its just powers only from the consent of the governed.  But it’s consistent with what Noam Chomsky calls the “normal workings of state capitalism. The ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’” – the citizenry – are supposed to be “satisfied with ‘necessary illusion’ and ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’ [i.e., the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mantras of hope and change. P.S.], as the distinguished moralist Reinhold Niebhur explained.” (Chomsky 2009)


Smart U.S. politicians like Niebhur-fan Barack Obama (Brooks 2007) know they would have little chance of winning and keeping higher elected office if they seriously championed the U.S. majority’s progressive policy preferences and egalitarian beliefs The “deeply conservative” Obama (MacFarquhar 2007, Street 2008, Street 2008A) would never have been permitted to make a serious presidential run if the U.S. ruling class had reason to believe he shared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. hopes for what King considered the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” questions “the radical reconstruction of society itself” beyond “the triple evils” of economic exploitation, racism, and militarism (King 1969).  The corporate and imperial gatekeepers of U.S. Superpower are not in the business of handing over the world’s most potent office to true-progressive opponents of Empire and Inequality, Inc. (Street 2004, 2008A). 


“Blacklisting Progressives”


Consistent with the political class’s wishes, Obama and his centrist handlers have “blacklisted progressives” (Sirota 2009) from key policy roles in his administration.  As veteran left-liberal Washington- and Obama-watcher David Sirota notes, the venture capitalist Leo Hindery – a top economic advisor to presidential candidates John Edwards and (later) Obama – was banned from serious consideration for a top economic post in the new administration because he is “one of the few business leaders to use his wealth to challenge deregulation, corporate trade deals, and anti-worker policies” and “dared to clash with the same Wall Street Democrats whose corporate-backed policies destroyed the economy.” Hindery committed the unpardonable sin of standing “in opposition to Obama’s top [corporate-neoliberal] economic advisors, many of whom were associated with The Hamilton Project, an economic think-tank that was the inheritor of former Treasury Secretary [and former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert] Rubin’s generally pro-trade positions.”  As Sirota usefully elaborates:


“…the Hindery scalping is only one chapter in what has been one long narrative arc whereby economic progressives have been deliberately shut out of top administration jobs. Just step back and think about it for a minute: Amid a stable of eminently qualifiedand well-respected progressives like James Galbraith, Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman and Larry Mishel, Obama has chosen [corporate neoliberal] Rubin sycophants like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to run the economy – the same Larry Summers who pushed the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act [a New Deal measure that mandated the separation of investment and commercial banking], the same Geithner who masterminded the kleptocratic bank bailout, the same duo whose claim to fame is their personal connections to Rubin, a disgraced Citigroup executive at the center of the current meltdown. And the list of Rubin sycophants keeps getting longer, from Peter Orszag to Jason Furman.”


“Its the same in other key regulatory positions, as free market fundamentalists who created the problem take the helm of the regulatory agencies they tried to destroy. Indeed, the only movement progressive in a top economic position is Jared Bernstein, and he was relegated to an amorphous job in the Vice President’s office.”


“And now we see that’s not an accident [1]. Though Obama won states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana on promises to challenge Wall Street and reform our trade policies, there has been a deliberate and calculated effort to stack the administration with the very Wall Street Democrats who created the problems he lamented, and shun those who have been fighting the good fight.” (Sirota 2009) [2]





This is terrible, of course. But what about all the progressive sentiment out there, captured in the hopeful survey data? Why doesn’t the remarkable gap – chasm, really – between democratic claim and corporate-imperial reality spark significant mass rebellion inside the U.S.? 


It’s good and important to know that the people’s policy preferences are to the progressive portside of their plutocratic “leaders.” But why doesn’t the regular and absurd violation of those preferences by arrogant elites claiming to govern in the name of the populace spark more popular revolt? Why isn’t the U.S. “an organizers’ paradise,” as the opinion data seems to suggest it should be?  Why don’t majority egalitarian and progressive policy sentiments translate into mass progressive politics (more than merely electoral) in the U.S.? 


Why don’t Americans’ progressive policy and social attitudes feed coherent popular left-ideological identification? Why do most Americans label themselves as “moderates” or “conservatives,” not leftists or even just merely liberals?  Why don’t objectively left policy beliefs translate into self-consciously leftist self- and group-concepts on part of any but a small minority in the in the U.S.?


Why no – or so little – social unrest? Where are the great street demonstrations, protests, strikes, and marches that would seem to be required by a government that is “firmly in the hands of a monied oligarchy”?


You don’t have to be a revolution-craving “hard-left” radical to wonder at the absence of protest.  In an article based on an interview with the venerable liberal-left political scientist Sheldon Wolin, journalist and author Chris Hedges notes that “street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland.” 


“The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest,” Wolin said Hedges recently asked him why the U.S. has “not yet seen rioting or protests.” (Hedges 2009).


“On my computer upstairs,” the liberal Public Broadcasting System (PBS) talk-show host and former Lyndon Johnson White House aide Bill Moyers observes, “I have a lot of photographs from around the world this week, of protests, demonstrations of people who feel desperate in the midst of economic collapse and calamity. And they’re taking to the streets. We don’t see that in this country.”


Moyers wonders how “Washington” will “ever get the message” on the need for progressive change “unless they feel the pulse of people who are saying we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.” (Moyers 2009)





A careful and systematic attempt to explain this resistance gap – itself a core component of the democracy gap (since power elites feel free to defy public opinion without fear of popular rebellion) – could easily fill a book.  The book’s chapters could discuss: how the American political and party system prevents the emergence of any serious electoral choices beyond a narrow, business-friendly spectrum; the comparative historical weakness and late emergence of central  government power relative to the development of private and corporate power in the U.S.; the distinctive challenges and employer-driven atrophy of the American labor movement, which currently enlists less than 13 percent of the U.S. workforce; the powerful roles that racial and ethnic division  and occupational segmentation and related patterns of spatial segregation and sprawl play in preventing popular movement-building and consciousness; the epic mass incarceration and lifelong criminal marking of a vast swath of the black population (the leftmost and most volatile segment of the citizenry); the depth and degree of religious sentiment and fundamentalist theology in the U.S.; the critical role that the American Empire and the related doctrine of American Exceptionalism [3] plays in trumping populist sentiments with nationalist identity and fear and in making it difficult for ordinary people to process evidence of U.S. criminality in the global arena (see Derber and Magrass 2008, pp. 19-82  for instructive reflections)


The imagined volume might also address the role that elite U.S. politicians and their skilled marketers and their media allies play in using “emotionally potent oversimplifications” and “necessary illusion” – carried perhaps to new heights by “the Obama phenomenon” (Street 2008) – to trick citizens into thinking that candidates and elected officials are really on the people’s side, consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism”(Hitchens 2000, pp. 17-18)[4]. 


I have no intention of writing such a book. That is a project for which I lack the necessary time, energy, and (since the subject matter can often be more than a little depressing) spiritual fortitude.





I would, however, like to highlight three interrelated factors that are a crucial part of how we might explain (in the interest of overcoming) the resistance gap. 


One of the many reasons Americans with progressive policy attitudes don’t protest more is that the nation’s dominant information systems simply don’t report the shocking (one would think or at least hope) extent to which U.S. policy and societal arrangements violate the U.S. populace’s beliefs. As Robert W. McChesney noted in a brilliant 1997 pamphlet titled Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, meaningful participatory democracy requires “an effective system of communications” that accurately “informs and engages the citizenry,” encouraging their intelligent involvement in political life. Individual rights and collective needs cannot be adequately protected and advanced when the people lack sound political information. How are the people supposed to act to make “their” government behave decently in international affairs (as Americans tell pollsters they want) when they are not adequately informed about the extent of criminality and immorality at the heart of U.S. foreign policy and when they are fed a diet of foreign policy “news” and commentary strictly crafted and systematically filtered to fit the “American exceptionalist” notion that the U.S. is always or at least fundamentally a great “force for good in the world” (to quote both John McCain and Obama during the 2008 campaign)?


The individual body cannot respond adequately to a threat of injury – an incoming punch or projectile, for example – if its mind does not transmit the information of impending harm.  In a similar way, the body politic and its popular majority cannot respond to threats to democracy if its information centers do not adequately communicate the authoritarian dangers. 


The need for accurate, un-biased information is especially urgent for viable democracy in a large and complex modern society like the United States, where the scope and scale of political and societal affairs is so vast and multifaceted as to be beyond immediate observation. (McChesney 1997, pp. 6-7)


The need goes shockingly unmet in the U.S. for reasons that are less than surprising.  For some time now the U.S. has been the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society in the industrialized world. The top 1 percent controls 40 percent of U.S. wealth and 57 percent of claims on wealth (interest, dividends and the like), leaving the remaining 99 percent to fight it out for less than two–thirds of the nation’s net worth. The top 10 percent owns more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s politicians and policy makers (Democrats as well as Republicans).  The American (and global) Few’s assets critically include the 10 media corporations that together owned more than 50 percent of all U.S. media (print and electronic) at the end of the last century.  The leading firms included Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Seagram, News Corporation (Murdoch), General Electric, AT&T-TCI, and Sony.


Dominant U.S. media is not simply or merely beholden to the capitalist and imperial establishment through advertising. It is a key and (with its chilling capacity to influence hearts and minds, to shape popular perceptions of “reality”) powerful part of the business establishment. And, as Chomsky once observed, expecting NBC News (owned by the leading “defense” contractor General Electric) to give an objective and un-biased account of domestic and world affairs would be like expecting General Motors’ company newspaper to give a truthful and detached account of working conditions in its automobile plants. GM’s company paper is a form of propaganda meant to sell that corporation’s values and agenda to its employees. It is a mechanism for manufacturing consent within and to the firm.


The evening news on NBC (General Electric), ABC (Disney), and CBS and the rest of the corporate media is usefully seen as a company paper writ large.  It naturally seeks to sell the broader American business elite’s agenda and values on a society-wide basis (along with a vast array of consumer goods and services and a way of life that fits mass consumerist imperatives). It is a critical means for the manufacture of mass consent to the imperial profits system.


Being owned and operated by the capitalist oligarchy, a group that naturally loathes substantive (beyond formal)democracy, dominant U.S. media predictably fails to adequately report the degree to which American politics and policy defy the majority’s progressive social-democratic and anti-imperial sentiments.  It routinely conveys false and deceptive information (Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” the “crisis of Social Security,” the alleged grave threat posed by “welfare queens,” and the like) and portrays regressive, authoritarian, and imperial policies (the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, tax cuts that primarily benefit the rich, and so on) as advancing democratic ideals,


More than failing to note the democracy gap, moreover, the dominant U.S. media does not generally report the existence of progressive majority opinion in the first place. It thereby leaves untold and isolated millions – generally unconnected by social movements – of Americans to falsely think that their progressive policy and societal views are oddly eccentric, just privately held, and not widely shared.


That media also tells the people that their beliefs and hopes are embodied and expressed in the rise of politicians whose (corporate-crafted) electoral ascendancy proves that democracy really does exist in the U.S.  – a recurrent theme in the Obama election and inauguration, consistent with his claim on the night of his victory: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…..who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." 


Of critical significance, dominant U.S. communications systems drastically under-report popular resistance when it does occasionally break out. Popular protests are dismissed and ignored by the corporate media, as occurred when hundreds of thousands of Americans marched in advanced against the illegal invasion of Iraq.  When tens of thousands of workers and activists marched against corporate globalization and faced off against out-of-control police in Seattle in the fall of 1999, the dominant communications authorities gave the remarkable events far less coverage than they did to what corporate media considered a far bigger story at the time: the tragic crash of John Kennedy Junior’s personal airplane into the Atlantic Ocean.


The protest coverage that does take place in dominant media typically over-focuses on isolated incidents of protestor violence (the occasional smashed window or overturned car) at the expense of protesters’ specific political demands. There is disproportionate attention to some protestors’ appearance (“dirty” and “ragged”) and little if any serious attention to the specific issues, concerns, recommendations, and vision.  The protestors appear as little more than nay-sayers, nattering negativists who have no positive, forward-looking ideas and advance no alternatives. Thus, the global justice movement has been routinely misrepresented as “anti-globalization” (see Street 2003 for one small but instructive episode) in dominant U.S. media.


Mass protests overseas, like the ones that have recently occurred in France and Greece (site of a major and prolonged Left rebellion, still ongoing) are minimized and often out-and-out ignored in American “mainstream” media.


This all helps the state “ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during the [2008] Democratic and Republic conventions.”  It also helps prevent protests from gaining momentum and spreading across the nation as during the 1960s. “The ways they can isolate protest and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable,” Wolin notes. (Hedges 2009)


 “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it,” James Madison once noted, “is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both” (quoted in McChesney 1997, p.6).





Given the “fourth estate’s” predictable failure to properly inform the citizenry, it’s up to the populace itself to educate itself about current events and how to understand them.  You have to do it yourself.  But who has leisure of time for taking on what amounts to the part-time job of digging beneath the lies and deletions of corporate and state media and propaganda to get to the real story of, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, Social Security, tax policy, why people are protesting U.S. policy at home and/or abroad, the corporate-friendly Obama phenomenon, and so on? The United States has the longest working hours in the industrialized world (Schor 1992).  Its exhausted, overworked populace (which also loses vast stretches of time to deadly commutes) is hardly in a position to break through the deceptions and omissions of the nation’s Orwellian communications authorities.


Itself partly a reflection of the decline of the American labor movement, rampant overwork is typically discussed in “mainstream” (dominant)  media (when it is mentioned at all) as a personal and family health and stress issue.  It is most definitely that but it also and just as importantly a democracy issue (Street 2002; Alperovitz 2005, p.38). 


This is how the working hours and leisure issue was understood by the early U.S. labor movement, for which the employers’ control of workers time amounted to a new form of  slavery (“wages slavery”) and for which time – working hours –  was actually the first important issue.  “Eight Hours for What We Will” (the slogan of machinist Ira Steward’s Eight Hour Movement after the Civil War) was about popular governance and the democratic ideal (Montgomery 1967).


Leisure is a democratic necessity. It takes a reasonable amount of time to learn and contextualize the heavily corporate-spun issues.  It takes time to engage in the difficult work of building grassroots social movements and struggles for a more responsive and democratic political culture beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered election spectacles. .




“Solidarity is a Banished Word”


But back to corporate media, that “reality”-filtering institution before which so many Americans collapse at the end of long working day and commutes. Meaningful democracy also requires a sense of community between individuals – a sense that each individual’s well-being is positively connected to the common good.  A democratic political culture cannot take root in a society whose members are simply out to serve their “narrowly defined self-interests” (McChesney 1997, p. 6).  Popular participatory democracy is impossible when the people have no sense of shared needs, solidarity, and obligation. It cannot flourish in a society where people have been turned into “disconnected, apolitical individuals” (quoted in Lavigna 2002), as the Latin Americanist scholar Cathy Schneider described Chileans after a U.S-sponsored coup the democratically elected government of Marxist Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 (Latin America’s 9/11). Under the reigning authoritarian-neoliberal cultural doctrine of what we might call the post-Chilean 9/11 era [5], the populace must be “taught,” in Susan George’s words, “to believe that we are not citizens or members of a social body but discrete, individual consumers. We are entirely responsible for our own destinies and if we fall by the wayside for whatever reason—illness, job loss, accident, failure, whatever—it’s our own fault….We have no responsibility for other people either. Solidarity is a banished word. …. That’s the essence of the neo-liberal spirit: ‘You’re on your own’ …”


”If you are well-schooled in neo-liberalism,” George adds, “you will never join a social movement, never engage in a struggle against an unjust action of the government, never contribute to an effort to protect the natural world because not only will you make a fool of yourself, not only will your effort fail…” (George 2008)


George’s description of neoliberal canon captures much of the essence of what one can see on American television. Self is God and purely individual life strategies reign in the corporate-crafted mass culture that brings us “Survivor,” “American Idol,” Dr. Phil, Suzie Orman, Dr. Laura, NBC’s vapid “Today Show” (where small bits of packaged news and weather are surrounded by longer segments on how to “reverse the effects of aging,” shop for clothes more efficiently, and manage one’s personal stock portfolio) and the highly advertised state lottery systems, which  teach their disproportionately working and lower-class customers a number of false and reactionary lessons, including the following:


* Great wealth is a matter of pure chance, not a product of structural inequality.


* “Anyone can play” and “anyone can win” in the “level playing field” that is the American “land of opportunity.”

* Acquiring great individual wealth is the central purpose of human experience and the best thing that could happen to someone.


* People don’t need to join together and fight for social justice but should focus their hopes instead on individual advancement.


* The best response to alienation in the (tyrannical capitalist) workplace is to escape it, not to organize with your fellow workers to create more equitable, participatory and sustainable work environments (Nibert 2000, pp. 187-205).


These themes and more are reproduced by the popular NBC game and reality show “Deal or No Deal.” 



Shaming Progressive Sentiments in Entertainment Media  


It’s not just the “hard” news media that works to marginalize solidarity, resistance and protest and dissent. “Soft” entertainment media does it too. In a recent episode of the “George Lopez Show” (designed to provide some of the same assimilate-to-the-American-corporate-state role for Latino Americans that "The Cosby Show" tried to play in relation to black Americans during the 1980s), the main character’s (Lopez’s) daughter was made to look silly for being opposed to George W. Bush’s War on Iraq. The chauvinistic suburban thug played by Jim Belushi in the ABC sit-com “What About Jim” receives a hearty shot of canned laughter after he says the following in response to his wife Cheryl’s comment that “maybe” the U.S. president should have to go fight in wars he orders others to fight: “you’ve been talking to the lesbian at the beauty shop again.” Cheryl’s radical-sounding moment passes quickly, never to return.


There used to be a mock-leftish character in an ABC sit-com called “Dharma and Greg.”  It was “Dharma’s” father – an officially bizarre and burned-out hippie from the 1960s.  He made occasional accurate observations on various authoritarian absurdities of American imperialism and capitalism. The point of his character: he was a ridiculous buffoon who should never be taken seriously.


In one episode of the NBC sit-com “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” years ago, the show’s main character Will Smith (a young inner city black male sent by his poor Philadelphia mother live with the family of his wealthy black uncle in a hyper-affluent West Coast community) was visited by a radical aunt who had once been a member of the Black Panthers. The aunt briefly influenced the impressionable young “Prince” to dream of becoming an activist for racial and social justice. But her character quickly devolved into a ridiculous Stalinist caricature. Will Smith awakened to the fact that his boring bourgeois uncle took the proper step to a respectable adulthood by becoming a corporate lawyer.

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