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Bush & the Rise of 'Managed-Democracy'

By Robert Parry
February 12, 2005

When conservatives talk of George W. Bush’s “transformational” role in American politics, they are referring to a fundamental change they seek in the U.S. system of government in which the Republican Party will dominate for years to come and power will not really be up for grabs in general elections.

Under this vision of a “managed-democracy,” elections will still be held but a variety of techniques will ensure that no Democrat has a reasonable chance to win. Most important will be the use of sophisticated propaganda and smear tactics amplified through a vast conservative media infrastructure, aided and abetted by a compliant mainstream press.

This concept also might be called the “Putin-izing” of American politics, where one side’s dominance of media, financial resources and the ability to intimidate opponents is overwhelming – as now exists in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. Crucial to Putin’s political control is how the major Russian news media fawns over the Russian strongman, a former KGB officer.

In the United States, the conservative/Republican consolidation of power is not yet complete. But it appears clear that the traditional checks and balances, including the national press corps, are now so weak and compromised that they won’t present any meaningful resistance. That means new strategies must be devised and new institutions must be created if this one-party-state future is to be averted.

The rapidly expanding conservative news media already is an extraordinary powerhouse, extending from TV to newspapers to talk radio to magazines to the Internet. Nothing of a similar size exists on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum.

So mainstream U.S. journalists intuitively understand that their careers require that they not get in the way of the conservative juggernaut. CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan, who resigned Friday night after coming under attack from right-wing bloggers for an off-hand comment blaming U.S. soldiers for killing some journalists in Iraq, is only the latest to learn this hard lesson. [More below.]

Mythical Pendulum

Four years ago, some hopeful political analysts predicted that the rightward swing of the media pendulum, which so bedeviled Bill Clinton in the 1990s, would lurch back leftward once Bush took office in 2001.

These analysts foresaw the news media assuming its traditional adversarial role regardless of which party held the White House, tough on Democrats and tough on Republicans.

But no self-correction ever occurred. Instead, as Bush enters the fifth year of his presidency, major news outlets are continuing to swing more to the right.

For example, NBC News anchor Brian Williams represents an even more compliant figure toward Bush than did former anchor Tom Brokaw, who himself often acted like a cheerleader for Bush’s policies. After Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Brokaw sat among a panel of former U.S. military officers and proclaimed, “in a few days, we’re going to own that country.”

Williams is even more gung-ho and more pro-Republican. Williams, who built his reputation as an MSNBC anchor in the 1990s with harsh coverage of Bill Clinton’s scandals, has made a point to curry favor with conservatives, stressing that he is a big fan of right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

“I think Rush has actually yet to get the credit he is due because his audience for so many years felt they were in the wilderness of this country,” Williams told C-SPAN interviewer Brian Lamb in December 2004. “I think Rush gave birth to the Fox news channel. I think Rush helped to give birth to a movement. I think he played his part in the [Republican] Contract with America. So I hope he gets his due as a broadcaster.”

Williams added that when he worked in the White House press room, he would join with his “friend Brit Hume,” now a Fox News anchor, in citing alleged examples of liberal bias by “you members of the perhaps unintentionally liberal media.” [C-SPAN’s Q&A, Dec. 26, 2004]

Having come of age in a Washington media environment where flattering the Right was a guaranteed way to protect your career, Williams understands that he helps himself by siding with conservative media figures. By contrast, it would be unimaginable that a new network anchor would declare that he had joined, say, Air America’s Al Franken in calling out reporters for alleged conservative bias.

Patriotic Fervor

And the continued rightward swing at General Electric’s NBC is being replicated across the “mainstream” news media. During the Iraq invasion in spring 2003, for instance, CNN fell over itself to be almost as super-patriotic as Fox News. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Empire v. Republic.”]

During Campaign 2004, CNN also gave crucial, credulous coverage to the smears against John Kerry’s war record from the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Though the New York Times and other major newspapers eventually discredited the attacks, the intense coverage on the cable news outlets – competing with Fox to publicize the anti-Kerry allegations – marked an important turning point in the campaign. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Reality on the Ballot,” “Bushes Play the ‘Traitor’ Card,” and “It’s the Media, Stupid!”

While no one at CNN suffered for buying into bogus Swift Boat charges against Kerry, CBS rushed to fire four “60 Minutes” producers when they came under conservative criticism for their handling of disputed memos about how Bush had blown off his National Guard duty in the 1970s. As part of the fallout from that flap, Dan Rather – long a bete noire of the Right – agreed to step down as evening news anchor. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bush Rule of Journalism.”]

Even clumsy phrasing in off-hand remarks can lead to the sudden end of a mainstream journalism career, once the conservative media infrastructure becomes engaged.

Right-wing bloggers and Fox News claimed the scalp of 44-year-old CNN executive Eason Jordan, who resigned Feb. 11 after coming under attack for an off-the-record comment he made at a conference in Davos, Switzerland, about the high number of journalists killed covering the Iraq War.

Jordan disputed a characterization that journalists killed by U.S. troops were “collateral” victims, which normally would mean that they died when bullets or bombs fired at an enemy target went astray. At least nine of 54 journalists killed in Iraq the past two years were the victims of American fire, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. [NYT, Feb. 12, 2005]

Jordan’s point apparently was that U.S. troops had aimed at some of these journalists, though possibly not knowing they were journalists, and thus the dead journalists shouldn’t be categorized as “collateral” victims. Though Jordan’s point may be correct, the conservative media jumped on any suggestion that a CNN news executive was blaming U.S. troops for intentional misconduct – and CNN’s top brass quickly caved.

The Bush Standard

This conservative influence also has been apparent in mainstream print publications, which held Bill Clinton and Al Gore to strict standards of honesty during the previous administration but look the other way or volunteer excuses when Bush is caught in a lie.

For instance, after Bush’s State of the Union address, a Washington Post editorial recognized the obvious – that Bush was “flat wrong” when he asserted that Social Security “will be flat bust, bankrupt” in 2042. But in line with what might be called the “Bush Standard,” the newspaper felt compelled to make excuses for him.

“A bit of hyperbole in the cause of generating responsible action on Social Security isn't the worst sin that is apt to be committed in the course of the coming debate,” the Post said about Bush’s declaration, which ignored the fact that even after the Social Security trust fund is exhausted, the system could still pay more than 70 percent of benefits. [Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2005]

By contrast, during Campaign 2000, the Washington Post and other major news outlets accused Gore of a serious character flaw – some even questioning his sanity – when he made alleged misstatements. No apologies were in order, even when it turned out that the news media was exaggerating Gore’s supposed exaggerations. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. the Media.”]

Even then, in 2000, the “Bush Standard” was in place. While pouncing on every questionable comment by Gore, the national press corps gave Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, pretty much a free pass for false or misleading statements, such as when Cheney falsely claimed about his success as chairman of Halliburton that “the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

War on Terror

Since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, key elements of the major news media have increasingly demanded consent around Bush and his policies, a pattern that continues as Bush enters his second term.

After the Iraqi elections and Bush’s State of the Union address, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, penned a column berating Democrats, including John Kerry, calling them “Bad News Donkeys” for not showing enough enthusiasm for Bush and his policies. Hiatt likened the Democrats to the sad-sack character Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. [For details see Consortiumnews.com’s “Washington’s Ricky Proehl Syndrome.”]

Yet, while commentators expect Democrats to praise Bush, the major news media acts as if Republican disdain for Democrats is the natural order of things. There was barely a peep of media objection on Jan. 20 when triumphant Republicans jeered John Kerry when he joined other senators at the Inaugural platform on Capitol Hill.

But it’s not only Democratic politicians who can expect rough treatment these days.

The Bush administration continues purging civil servants who question the president’s policies. For instance, Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer in the Justice Department’s ethics office, found her career derailed after she urged some limits on the harsh questioning of John Walker Lindh, an American who was caught with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Radack said her job evaluation went from positive to negative after she sent e-mails that challenged the hard-line interrogation techniques favored by then Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff, now the incoming head the Department of Homeland Security. Even after leaving the government, Radack was pursued by administration officials who caused her to lose a private-sector job when they told her employer that she was under investigation.

“I was retaliated against for doing my job,” Radack said. [Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2005]

Money Matters

But the Republican strategy goes beyond simply making examples out of anyone who crosses this new power structure. The plan calls for irrigating the conservative propaganda vineyards with rivers of cash while draining resources that otherwise might be available to liberals and Democrats.

That’s why Bush’s second-term proposals often have a double purpose, both advancing conservative ideology and diverting financial resources to Republicans and away from Democrats. In conducting this modern political warfare, the conservatives see themselves as an army guaranteeing its own supply lines while destroying its enemy’s logistical base.

So, in the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s, an early conservative battle cry was “de-fund the Left,” which meant denying government money to programs administered by liberal organizations. Labor unions, which generally support Democrats, also came under sustained attack.

Today, the Bush administration is seeking enactment of “tort reform,” which would limit the size of damage awards and thus punish lawyers, another financial pillar of the Democrats. The Republican assault on traditional Social Security also fits into this strategy by cutting an important financial bond between Democrats and senior citizens.

On the other side, Bush is pressing for policies that will give as much money as possible to his private-sector allies who can be expected to reinvest some of it in the Republican Party and the ever-expanding conservative infrastructure.

For instance, Social Security “privatization” would funnel trillions of dollars into the U.S. stock market and thus put more money in the hands of Wall Street investment firms, which already are big underwriters of the Republican Party.

Under Bush’s “faith-based initiatives,” taxpayer dollars already are flowing into coffers of right-wing religious groups, which, in turn, turn out their followers as Republican foot soldiers. Iraq War contracts worth billions of dollars have gone to friendly military contractors, such as Halliburton.

Democratic 'Enfeeblement'

Though rarely discussed on the pundit shows, this Republican financial/political strategy is widely recognized by operatives on both sides of the political aisle.

According to a Washington Post article by Thomas B. Edsall and John F. Harris, both Republican and Democratic strategists agree that one of George W. Bush’s unstated goals is “the long-term enfeeblement of the Democratic Party.”

The Post article adds, “a recurring theme of many items on Bush’s second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say.”

The article quotes conservative activist Grover Norquist as saying that if Bush’s proposals win passage, “there will be a continued growth in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves Republicans, both in terms of self-identified party ID and in terms of their [economic] interests.” [Washington Post, Jan. 30, 2005]

Norquist, who often compares notes with Bush’s White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, has long understood this crucial intersection of money and the building of an enduring conservative infrastructure.

In the 1980s, Norquist was a leader of the College Republicans when they were getting subsidies from the secretive fortune of Sun Myung Moon, a South Korean theocrat whose organization has a long track record of illicit money-laundering. Moon was pumping tens of millions of dollars into American conservative organizations and into the right-wing Washington Times.

Some Republicans raised red flags, citing Moon’s history of brainwashing his disciples and his contempt for American democracy and individuality. In 1983, the GOP’s moderate Ripon Society charged that the New Right had entered “an alliance of expediency” with Moon’s church.

Ripon’s chairman, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, released a study which alleged that the College Republican National Committee “solicited and received” money from Moon’s Unification Church in 1981. The study also accused Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media of benefiting from low-cost or volunteer workers supplied by Moon.

Leach said the Unification Church has “infiltrated the New Right and the party it wants to control, the Republican Party, and infiltrated the media as well.” Leach’s news conference was disrupted when then-college GOP leader Grover Norquist accused Leach of lying.

For its part, the Washington Times dismissed Leach’s charges as “flummeries” and mocked the Ripon Society as a “discredited and insignificant left-wing offshoot of the Republican Party.” [For details on Moon’s ties to the GOP and the Bush family, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Over the next two decades, with billions of dollars from the likes of Rev. Moon and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media infrastructure grew exponentially, becoming possibly the most potent force in U.S. politics.

When the Right’s Mighty Wurlitzer powers up, it can drown out almost any competing message and convince large portions of the U.S. population that fantasies are facts, explaining why so many Americans believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and that Saddam Hussein collaborated with al-Qaeda in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Norquist and other savvy conservatives also understood that the political corollary of feeding billions of dollars to right-wing organizations was starving liberal groups of money. In the mid-1990s, after the Republicans gained control of Congress, Norquist vowed that “we will hunt [these liberal groups] down one by one and extinguish their funding sources.” [National Journal, April 15, 1995]

Democratic Response

Though this conservative writing was almost literally on the wall, many American liberals and Democratic leaders in Washington failed to recognize or react to this danger. To this day, many remain in denial, hoping that the mythical pendulum will finally swing back in their direction.

Indeed, the varying degrees of alarm among Democrats over this historic Republican consolidation of power have defined the deepening rift between the Democratic base around the country and the Democratic leadership in Washington.

While the Democratic base sees a life-or-death battle over the future of democracy, the Democratic leadership generally favors a business-as-usual approach that requires little more than tweaking the party’s rhetoric and upgrading campaign tactics to better target Democratic voters.

Many in the Democratic base, however, believe a more drastic redirection is needed, including both a more aggressive explanation of Democratic values and a crash program to build a media infrastructure that can compete with the many giant conservative megaphones in TV, print, radio and the Internet.

This desperation explains the passionate grassroots support for the selection of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as the new Democratic national chairman. Dean is seen as willing to challenge Bush and build a more populist political apparatus.

The enthusiastic response from many Democrats to the emergence of liberal talk radio is another sign of how the rank-and-file favors an in-your-face style when confronting Bush and the Republicans. The uncompromising content of Al Franken’s Air America show or Ed Schultz’s program on Democracy Radio reflects a determination of the Democratic base to get back on the political offensive.

But the big political question remains: Have the liberals waited too long to begin competing seriously with the conservatives in the crucial arena of mass media?

Or put differently, are Bush and the conservative movement already in position to lock in their now-overwhelming advantage in media/political infrastructure before the Democrats and liberals get their act together? Has the age of “managed-democracy” – and one-party rule – already arrived?


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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