Hard Lessons from Election 2010
Election 2010 was a victory for corporatist Republicans even more so than Tea Party radicals, a stunning resurgence for the Establishment GOP that says as much about weaknesses among Democrats and the Left as it does about strengths on the Right.
Indeed, one lesson from Nov. 2 is that the Democrats and the Left seem to have learned few lessons from the last time a Democrat was in the White House. There is a stark parallel between Bill Clinton’s pummeling in Election 1994 and Barack Obama’s “shellacking” in Election 2010.
However, there are tactical, strategic and systemic lessons that still can be gleaned from the two humiliating Democratic defeats, each coming after only two years of rare Democratic control of Congress and the White House.
First, both Republican comebacks began from their media power, whether the anti-Clinton tirades of talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh or Fox News’ Glenn Beck stirring up suspicions and hate toward Obama. Media power is now the ballast that keeps the Right’s man-o’-war sailing through occasionally rough seas.
The Right’s media clout – through well-funded talk radio, Fox News, Web sites, newspapers, magazines, books and every other communications system known to mankind – has enabled the Republicans to deploy what intelligence operatives call “agit-propaganda,” stirring controversies that rile up the public.
Not even gifted political speakers, whether the savvy Bill Clinton or the eloquent Barack Obama stand a chance against the angry cacophony that the Right can orchestrate.
One week, the Right's theme can be “Obamacare’s death panels”; another week, it’s “the “Ground Zero Mosque.” The Democrats are left scrambling to respond – and their responses, in turn, become fodder for critical commentary, as too wimpy or too defensive or too something.
The mainstream media and the progressives often join in this criticism, wondering why Obama let himself get blind-sided or why he wasn’t tougher or why he can’t control the message. For the Right and the Republicans, it’s a win-win-win, as the right-wing base is energized, more public doubts are raised about the President, and he is further diminished by all the caviling.
In this way, even though right-wing policies dating back three decades to the Reagan administration have worsened the lives of middle- and working-class Americans, millions of these average folks – especially white men – rally to support the policies that are ruining them.
While Obama, like Clinton before him, has made his share of unforced errors, the problem is much bigger than any individual politician. It is surely not enough for progressives to simply complain that the Democrats need to be more aggressive in defending their actions or explaining their plans.
The Left must recognize that it faces a structural media deficit that leaves even the most effective political speakers stammering against all the fiery accusations that can be whipped up by the Right.
So, perhaps the most important realization for progressives to gain from Election 2010 is how weak their voice is inside a national echo chamber dominated by thousands of loud voices from the Right.
And the Right makes its case to the American people day-in, day out, year-in, year-out, not just during the campaign season (though it spends heavily on that, too).
The Olbermann Case
The Left’s primary media outlet is now the evening programming at MSNBC, which is currently owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor, and which will soon be transferred to Comcast that – like GE – has other corporate priorities in Washington that Republicans can either aid or obstruct.
The recent suspension and humiliation of MSNBC’s biggest star, Keith Olbermann, for making three personal donations to Democratic candidates without first getting corporate approval, indicates the true pecking order within NBC and GE.
Olbermann and the other liberal hosts are essentially on borrowed time, much the way Phil Donahue was before getting axed in the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, when MSNBC wanted to position itself as a “patriotic” war booster.
Unlike News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who stands solidly behind the right-wing propaganda on Fox News, the corporate owners of MSNBC have no similar commitment to the work of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz.
For the suits at headquarters, it’s just a balancing act between the ratings that those shows get and the trouble they cause as Republicans reclaim control of Washington.
Because of the magnitude and intensity of the Right's media, Republicans can confidently sell a wide variety of propaganda themes to the American people. The themes might not make much sense, but they develop a ring of truth because they get repeated so often.
The imbalance has been made appreciably worse by the Left’s neglect of media, an attitude that can be traced to the 1970s when progressives dismantled much of the Vietnam War era’s “underground press” and downplayed the role of national think tanks in favor of local organizing under the banner, “think globally, act locally.”
But the scrapping of promising media outlets – from Ramparts magazine and Dispatch News in the 1970s to shuttering Air America Radio just this year – has cleared the way for the Right to sell the electorate on conservative, anti-government positions without much resistance.
In this media age, it has turned out that prolific propaganda often can trump door-to-door organizing. This fall, some union activists noted that when they were canvassing at the homes of their members, they could hear the TV in the background tuned to Glenn Beck at Fox News. [For more on this imbalance, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
Where the People Stand
Some on the Left refuse to accept this analysis, insisting that the American people are already much more leftist than is generally believed. All it would take, this counter-analysis goes, would be for Obama and the Democrats to issue a clear clarion call for progressive action and the people would follow.
But what has been clear in most recent national elections is that the Right can usually dictate the media narrative in favor of the Republicans, and Democrats – at least across large swaths of the country – assess their constituents as generally hostile to progressive ideas.
That was true again in Election 2010 when the dominant narrative was that Obama had pushed a doctrinaire leftist agenda – health care, economic stimulus, financial reforms, auto bailouts, etc. – that provoked a right-wing uprising among the voters, most visibly through the Tea Party rallies.
Progressives respond that this narrative is nearly upside down, that Obama’s real failure was his lack of audacity in pressing for more aggressive policies and his readiness to compromise excessively in a futile bid to gain some bipartisanship from Republicans.
While there is truth to the Left’s perspective, there can be no doubt that the dominant media analysis coming out of Election 2010 is that Obama must “turn to the center” and try harder to cooperate with Republicans, even as their leaders declare that their ultimate goal is his defeat in 2012.
Whenever Obama shows any resistance to this “turn-to-the-center” mantra, the news media’s bigwigs are quick to conclude that “he still doesn’t get it.”
Meanwhile, Obama has sought to fend off this mainstream criticism by promising to renew his efforts to reach accommodations with the Republicans on key issues, such as their demand that all of George W. Bush’s tax cuts be continued, including those for the richest Americans.
Obama’s doing this even though there is still no sign that his outreach to Republicans will be reciprocated.
Taking note of this behavior, some progressives accuse Obama of spinelessness or a personal insecurity that desperately wants acceptance from the ruling class. But there is still the fact that the Left lacks the institutional artillery to give Obama and other Democrats enough covering fire to give them hope that they might survive the endless, withering assaults from the Right.
So, there is this imponderable: Are the Democrats naturally cowardly or is their cowardice a natural reaction to the Right’s muscle and the Left’s weakness.
That question has, in turn, sparked bitter infighting between some progressives who feel Obama is simply gutless and his defenders who feel the Left ignores the harsh political realities he faces.
Yet, whichever way one answers the question, it’s clear that the Democratic debacle of Nov. 2 was one more reminder of the imbalance in the nation’s media and how that undercuts progressive causes.
Timidity in High Places
Faced with a hostile political/media environment, Democratic candidates for re-election chose to shy away from a full-throated defense of their policies, opting instead for a mix of mushy language, distancing themselves from Obama, and negative campaigning against their Republican rivals.
That timidity and negativity, in turn, demoralized both progressives and the idealistic young who wondered if there was any value in supporting Democrats. A new question from the press corps was whether Obama had lost his mo-jo.
But from the point of view of Obama and many congressional Democrats, there was little choice politically but to finesse. Though the Left might believe in a silent majority of American progressives, the polls show that the nation generally defines itself as center-right.
If those opinion polls are correct – and if the Right gets to control the political narrative – then Obama's election in 2008 election could be seen more as an anomaly based on his personal charm and a reaction to the failures of the Bush administration than a fundamental shift in national attitudes.
In other words, there remains a difficult task ahead for progressives if they want the American public to rally behind their agenda over the next two years. It can’t be assumed that somehow the voters will simply “get” the wisdom of progressive ideas, especially in the face of the Right’s sophisticated – and unrelenting – agit-prop.
To make matters worse, many Democrats (and some progressives) tend to see themselves more as analysts than battlers. When talking about Election 2010, Washington Democrats frequently framed the contest as minimizing their losses, not expanding their majorities.
Instead of calling on voters to throw out Republicans for sabotaging jobs programs during a painful recession, Democrats set their goal at holding decreased majorities. That left voters with the unappetizing image of more bickering like they had witnessed in 2009 and 2010, not exactly inspiring.
When I asked a longtime Democratic operative why the Democrats didn’t simply call on voters to elect more progressive Democrats – so, for instance, a public option might be added to the health-care law or a stronger jobs program might pass – I was told that Democrats then would have opened themselves to ridicule from media pundits because everyone knows the president’s party almost always loses seats in the first mid-term.
But why, I wondered, do the Democrats worry more about some pundits sniggering on Election Night than possibly rallying the progressive base to fight for more seats?
Similarly, some on the Left seemed content to sit in the stands and jeer the politicians on the field, rather than mix it up in a practical fashion to, say, fight for meaningful action on the existential threat from global warming. Some progressives even seem more interested in maintaining their political purity than making the compromises that might help save the planet.
Facing More Disappointment
Now, given the new Republican majority in the House and the stronger GOP minority in the Senate, progressives are likely to be further disappointed over the next two years. And a more deeply discouraged Left is likely again to want to punish Democrats for not enacting a progressive agenda. Obama will be further criticized for not effectively using the Bully Pulpit.
Some on the Left will drift further away from the real world, dreaming of a parliamentary system where third parties can do some good, rather than America’s winner-take-all system where third parties just siphon off votes from the closest political grouping – as Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did in 2000, helping put George W. Bush in position to steal the White House from Al Gore.
Dissension and disillusionment, of course, fit neatly into the Republican strategy for regaining total control of the federal government in 2012.
But if the Left finally gets serious about investing in a media infrastructure that will talk regularly with the American people – offering factual reporting as well as an honest debate about the nation’s problems – Obama and the Democrats might begin to feel a stiffening of their spines. This happened during Bush’s second term with the brief rise of Air America Radio.
But there is little hope for changing the current political dynamic if most Americans only hear an endless repetition of Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” mantra.
The truth is that government, despite its many faults, is the only force strong enough to demand any accountability from corporate power. Weakened unions and isolated Individuals simply can’t do it.
An effective progressive media could explain that what the Republicans, the Tea Partiers and the right-wing media are really offering is the subjugation of middle- and working-class Americans to giant multinational corporations -- achieved by hobbling, hamstringing and hog-tying the only possible champion for average folk, a democratized and energized government.
But that message barely exists in the current debate raging across the country, a discussion which the Right has framed as the need to rein in Big Government. The only question is to what degree.
The volume of money that the Right has poured into media also has tilted the mainstream press corps rightward, both to avoid harsh attacks from right-wing anti-journalism attack groups and to offer soft landings to journalists who lose their mainstream jobs. Ex-NPR commentator Juan Williams is not the only one who craves a $2 million parachute from Fox News.
I realize that many on the Left will dismiss even the possibility that anything – even a robust media infrastructure challenging the propaganda from the Right – will make the Democrats and the national press corps behave differently.
In this view, Obama and nearly all Democrats are themselves corporatists who only talk a mildly progressive game to capture some votes every election cycle. The vast majority of mainstream journalists are already deemed sell-outs.
There are surely reasons to believe those points. Some of Obama’s miscalculations – like the decision to retain George W. Bush’s military high command, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates – appear to have been self-inflicted wounds.
According to Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, the incoming president acted on his own in convincing Gates to stay on, a decision that left Obama vulnerable to being mouse-trapped into an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, one of the key factors in the Left’s anger and disillusionment. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How Bush Holdovers Trapped Obama.”]
Obama also allowed the health-care debate to drag on long past his initial timetable because of his quixotic quest for the support of Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine.
But the Left will never find out if there is a realistic political option within the Democratic Party if there is no commitment to building media and other messaging operations at both local and national levels to explain the value of progressive proposals.
And the hard reality is that other possible Left strategies – from third parties to street protests to romantic notions of “revolution” – have shown little or no promise either, in large part because progressives remain largely outside the national political debate.
By definition, popular movements must be able to move the people.
Ironically, it has been the corporatist Republicans and their right-wing allies who have taken this truth to heart.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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