If there is a silver lining to the debt limit crisis — and it's a big if — it would be that the extremism of Republican agenda has finely become visible to a larger number of Americans. It is time to recognize what it means to face a determined ideological bloc. And what it means to fight back.
While New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently described the Tea Party as an American Hezbollah, Islamic terrorists would not have much clout without their funders in Saudi Arabia and Iran. So, too, the Republican right would be impotent without its behind-the-scenes creators. A small number of incredibly wealthy businessmen — the principle beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts — have created an ideological machine determined to destroy government. Taking our country back, restoring pragmatism over ideology, and making government function requires making the deep pocket money men (and they are mostly men) visible and identifying their cause with the looting of the country.
The debt limit gridlock is simply the latest episode in a war on government that has been thirty years in the making. Many of us dismissed the genial, misguided Ronald Reagan as an aberration. We saw the Gingrich revolution as self-destructive and easily contained. We cheered in 2006 and 2008 as we reached that the conclusion that Bush, with his unnecessary wars and the financial crisis that was the predictable consequence of mindless deregulation, had discredited the Republican brand. Some of us voted for Obama over Hillary because we thought that with Bush and political maestro Karl Rove out of the way, Obama could transcend the partisanship of the Clinton years.
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We were wrong. What we failed to recognize is the engine of Republican extremism is not Reagan or the second Bush or Gingrich. Nor is it some authentic voice of the Christian right or the disillusioned working class on the American “street.” The engine of conservative ascendance is the ideologically driven money men who have built a single-minded political machine in the United States. In “Winner Take All Politics”, political scientists Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker date the conservative rise to 1978, two years before Reagan. They identify conservative success with the ascendance of the Chamber of Commerce, which became a vehicle for right-wing business interests. They report that since the consolidation and channeling of conservative funding, Republicans have won an astounding 85% of closely fought contests. Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and New Deal 2.0 pundit Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist at U Mass, Boston, documents the effective sale of Congress to special interests. The Congressmen who raked consumer advocate and should-be populist hero Elizabeth Warren over the coals were the paid shills of the big banks she was willing to confront. Membership on financial services committees is now the product of the right campaign contributions. While public outrage may have led to the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, it did nothing to contain the alliance of lobbyists and business friendly Republicans (along with more than a few Democrats) working overtime to water it down and block its implementation.
In the meantime, the Republicans have launched a campaign to rig the political system. Their campaign against unions is a campaign against the last remaining source of institutional support for Democrats. At the same time, they are engaged in a wholesale initiative to make it harder to vote. Who is most likely to be affected by these measures? The answer is clear: the poor, the young, the less educated, recent immigrants, in short, those mostly likely to be Democrats and most likely to be the victims of tea party budget cuts.
The Supreme Court is no different. The rule of law is all but dead in America. The same group that funded the Tea Party and the congressional financial services committees has stacked the Court and blocked Obama appointments everywhere else. While commentators focus on issues such as abortion or campaign finance, the Supreme Court reaches its ideological height in its consistently pro-business decisions. Three of the Justices (Scalia, Thomas and Alito) are the most extreme justices since the twenties. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy are only slightly behind. Together, the five have produced a series of nakedly partisan 5-4 votes.
So how are we (everyone to the left of Paul Ryan) to respond? In the New York Times this weekend, pollster Stanley Greenberg depressingly observed that the public gets it — and the public response has been neutralized by the right wing ideological campaign. The public gets that Wall Street runs the country. The public gets that no one represents their interests. The public gets that both Bush and Obama serve corporate interests first. And the public responds — incredibly to some of us — by believing that government is the problem. As Tom Frank explained in “The Wrecking Crew”, the point of this ideological campaign is to prove to the public that government can't work and there is no better way than to make sure it doesn't. So how to respond?
Greenberg argued that Democrats should adopt sensible policies to limit campaign contributions, tax lobbyist expenses, simplify the tax code, add fees to financial transactions and limit CEO compensation and executive bonuses. I wish! To accomplish these objectives, Greenberg needs a party that is not beholden to the same interests. To get there requires taking a few pages from the Republican playbook. Republican success has come from playing on the fears of the American public, making “liberal” a naughty word, and discrediting government especially when it works. According to independent observers, Obama's stimulus package saved jobs and probably prevented a worldwide depression; yet, most Americans think it was a failure. How do we combat propaganda? The answer requires seeing what we are up against and responding in turn.
First, we need to put a face on the enemies of the Republic. The true powers behind the throne are the money men. The Koch Brothers, leading right wing funders, are finally becoming visible. They own the largest privately held energy company in the country, with over $100 billion in revenues. It is one the country's ten top contributors to air pollution and a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The Koch Brothers fund a largely invisible network of think tanks, political front groups and advocacy organizations that have opposed Obama Administration initiatives from health care to the stimulus package. Charles Lewis, of the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity, reported that the “sheer dimension” of what the Koch Brothers spend sets them apart. “They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. . . .They are the Standard Oil of our times.” Where do all those tax cuts go? We should emphasize just how much the tax cuts increase the Koch Brothers' ability to game the political system to insure their unaccountability.
Right up there with the Koch Brothers is Rupert Murdoch. He has finally registered in public consciousness as a result of the scandals in Britain. His minions illegally tapped the phones of the royal family, the opposition Labor Party, missing children and 9/11 victims, all while he supped with the Conservative Prime Minister. What he has done in the US is comparable. He single-handedly funded the creation of Fox News, the primary source of information for 64% of the tea party and the single entity outside of the Bush Administration itself most responsible for the war in Iraq. He subverted the Wall Street Journal from a reputable, conservative, financial publication to an ideological force. Murdoch undermines reputable journalism everywhere he goes and insulates his media empire from effective oversight (or enforcement of the criminal law). His creations are much more effective than Pravda (the Soviet newspaper and propaganda arm) ever was. We must start by making these men and similar funders the face of conservative extremists. Conservative Republican and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Romer is running for the Republican Presidential nomination by disavowing large contributions. He is close to invisible in the polls. We should make visible the obvious — every other Republican candidate is a stalking horse for the financial sector.
Second, we need to discredit the extremists as extremists. The Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch society are appropriately viewed as wingnuts. The Tea Party should be seen in the same league. Imagine if Democrats threatened the country's credit rating to pursue an unachievable ideological agenda. They would be called traitors; Vice President Joe Biden finally called them “terrorists” but only behind closed doors. The Tea Party has held the country hostage to a manufactured crisis designed to prove their ideological purity. At best, they are partisans who put their ideological commitments ahead of the country's. More systematically, they serve the interests of those who would destroy government effectiveness. John McCain, now that he has been safely reelected for what is likely to be his last term, has been one of the more effective voices against them. They deserve to be discredited permanently.
Third, the only way to discredit them is to link the money men to the extremist policies. Progressives are proud of their video showing the Republican attack on Medicare as the equivalent of pushing Grandma off the cliff. Their far more effective refrain is the one that links sacrificing Grandma to tax cuts for the wealthy. The refrain could be done through fill in the blanks. The Republicans want to sacrifice Medicare to protect tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republicans want to fire teachers to promote tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republicans want to slash Social Security to promote tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republican held the debt limit increase hostage to their efforts to protect tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republicans, whatever they do, are beholden to the money men the country should love to hate.
Fourth, the Democrats need to claim credit for government’s genuine accomplishments. The public believes that Social Security and Medicare are successes. Somehow, it thinks that the extension of Medicare to more people is socialism. Obama failed to put an effective government (and Democratic) label on the programs that in fact produced the most results — the jobs created by the stimulus for government infrastructure, the federal funds that staved off the need for state layoffs, etc. In Kansas, Republican Governor Brownback and Republican Senator Pat Roberts are claiming credit for a new federally funded Bio-Defense Facility even as they bash federal spending. Either the federal government should be getting credit for the facility or it should be on the chopping block.
Fifth, the Democrats need an overriding agenda. An easy one is the need to rebuild community and equality. Impressive empirical studies suggest that inequality necessarily undermines community health. It results in writing off large numbers as chronically unemployed, mentally ill, likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and effectively unmarriageable. It also makes it easy for those with six figure bonuses to escape accountability. The right wing extremism machine is possible only because the Koch Brothers can amass fortunes worth over $35 billion between them.
I am not optimistic. Naomi Cahn and I wrote a book on the family called 'Red Families v. Blue Families'. We expected it to appeal to family law scholars and women's groups. Instead, we received immediate attention from conservative family institutes. We were eventually invited to speak by same-sex marriage advocacy organizations. We never heard much from the feminist left. At first we were mystified. Then we realized that while there is a well funded network of right wing think tanks, the organized left — and much of the center — has starved on the vine for lack of funds. Same-sex marriage passed in New York State because Republican funders, who identify with their gay sons and lesbian daughters, supported the cause. Efforts that require limiting the influence of the billionaires we have empowered and insulated from accountability face an uphill struggle.