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#1 Get an absentee ballot or find out if you can vote early in person.
#2 Volunteer to work in a swing state.
#3 Make a voter map of the 50 people closest to you. Get the Kerry supporters to the polls.
#4 Take election day off. Travel or make phone calls to swing states.
#5 Work your butt off! Knock on doors, make phone calls and drive people to the polls.
#6 Become a poll monitor to make sure that every vote counts.
#7 Make this your mantra, "If Democrats vote, Democrats win." Did I say work your butt off?

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Featured Article
October 2002
Why Liberals Fail

 

 

The Liberal Stigma

Most Americans would probably not describe themselves as liberals. In fact, since the word "liberal" has been consistently used by the far right as a pejorative, most people would probably shy away from applying this term to themselves.

During the cold war it was easy to liken liberalism to communism since support for social programs could be equated with the support of a communistic welfare state. When the cold war ended, liberals were portrayed as proponents of governmental regulation which was inherently bad for business and free markets. By using the premise that unbridled capitalism always resulted in the greatest good for society; labeling "liberals" as anti-business was tantamount to calling them anti-American. In some circles the term "liberal" has come to be so derogatory that it is routinely tacked on to the end of any issue to create a noun which conveys the desired negative connotation. Using this formula, someone who favors social programs, is labeled a "tax and spend liberal" who favors big government at the expense of what is best for America. Environmentalists become "tree hugging liberals", who care more about some irrelevant species than about the livelihoods of their fellow citizens.

Yet despite this type of name calling and it's attempt at demonization, a majority of Americans remain strongly supportive of the issues that the name callers would label "liberal" issues. For example, on the environment, in recent polls a clear majority support stricter enforcement of environmental laws, reject the notion that we must choose between the environment and the economy and prefer pro-environment politicians to those who support less government regulation on business. Likewise on the issue of gun regulation, 57 percent favor tougher laws and stricter regulations. On the issue of a women's right to choose, 56 percent (averaged over the last 6 years) are in favor of keeping abortion legal.
(Notes 1, 2, 3, 4)

On these and a wide range of issues, the majority of Americans favor the so-called "liberal" point of view. So how are "liberals" consistently painted as an inferior minority? What is the origin of the stigma?

Vast Right Wing Conspiracy

Most people didn't take it seriously when Hillary Clinton blamed a vast right wing conspiracy for persecuting her husband. But in fact, her suspicions were not off the mark.

During the Nixon administration the right wing of the Republican party began to change tact in how it interacted with the media, academia and business. Nixon desired a network of loyal conservatives who could be trusted to fight for his causes and help punish his enemies.

After Watergate, this burgeoning conservative network bolstered it's resources and in the years that followed, right wing think tanks received extensive financial support from conservative foundations for the purposes of establishing political operatives, influencing public opinion and infiltrating the media. While much of this work was done using existing think tanks as resources, the Coors and Scaife foundations created the Heritage Foundation in 1973 as the model for the influence peddling that was to come. By the late 70's aided by the manpower of the Christian Coalition, these groups and notably the Heritage Foundation would help elect Ronald Reagan.

During the Reagan/Bush years the conservative think tanks played a major role in stopping the Iran/Contra scandal from getting a foothold in popular opinion and they largely succeeded in their efforts to thwart investigators, ruin the reputation of journalists and destroy the credibility of Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.

After the election of Clinton, the conservatives went into attack mode. Former President Nixon personally advised members of the G.O.P. to pursue the Whitewater allegations. Richard Mellon Scaife spent 2.4 million for an investigation by The American Spectator called "the Arkansas Project". And in time, Clinton bashing which began with right wing sources such as Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and the Washington Times took root in the mainstream media.

Even though many of the stories and innuendos about Clinton were spurious, the attack financed and spun by the far right paid off in largely discrediting him. In his recent book "Blinded by the Right" David Brock admits fabrication and embellishment in his "Troopergate" articles for The American Spectator which directly helped spur the investigation into Clinton's sex life. Yet while the suspicions and innuendos about Clinton were being repeated in the mainstream press, the onus was completely on Clinton to prove he was innocent after already being found guilty by the right wing influence mongers.
(Notes 5, 6, 7)

Changing Politics, Changing Perceptions

If the right wing machine had not perfected their craft so well, it is unlikely that Bush Sr. would have made it through his first term because of the implications of the Iran/Contra scandal. Instead the efforts of conservative groups were so successful in controlling the spin that Bush's administration was largely unscathed and it is doubtful that Iran/Contra seriously hurt Bush Sr.'s reelection. Bush Sr. was not reelected in part because of the economy, but it is important to note that Bush Sr. lost in a three way race, with Ross Perot likely siphoning off many potential Bush votes. Yet perhaps the most important factor in Bush Sr.'s defeat was that Bill Clinton ran as a centrist, thus offering the electorate a different set of choices. Given the opportunity to vote for a Democrat that often sounded like a Republican, many voters may have figured that they were getting the best of both worlds and took a chance.

As important as Clinton's centrist stance was to his election, his run from the center helped confuse the playing field in U.S. politics. By not taking tough stands on traditional Democratic issues, he helped reinforce the already growing notion that all politicians were alike. By instilling in his colleagues the idea that taking a centrist stance was the way to stay in power, Clinton influenced Democrats to sound more like Republicans and this made it harder for the public to tell the difference between the two parties.

Yet the right wing voices in the media may have been even more crucial in the shift towards the center. The dominance of conservative media had the effect of changing many people's perceptions about America as a whole. In viewing events and issues through the lens of the media, it would be easy to believe that the country had become more conservative than it really was and accordingly many people may have drifted toward the center themselves. As a result, politicians who perceived such a shift in their constituencies may have simply decided on the need to go along for the ride.

Voter Disenfranchisement (media influenced, government controlled and self-inflicted)

There were three main candidates which shaped the 2000 presidential elections. Al Gore had over 26 years of full time elected public service, had written books, was well versed on the issues and was intelligent. George Bush had almost 6 years of part time elected public service, he preferred watching sports to reading, was virtually clueless on the issues and was not the brightest bulb (but he seemed likable). Ralph Nader had numerous years of non-elected public service, had written books, was well versed on the issues and seemed intelligent.

What angered the Democrats most about Nader was when he repeated over and over again that Bush and Gore were the same. Of course Nader used the Bush/Gore comparison to gain the greatest political impact, since he was already courting some of the most disaffected among the electorate. Yet while it was true that Republicans and Democrats had grown too similar, Nader's insistence that Bush and Gore were the same, even though their qualifications where so drastically different; still seemed outlandish, if not dishonest.

Although during the 2000 election Nader provoked the ire of many people that formerly supported him, he has remained unrepentant of his campaign statements. When attacked for presumably helping Bush win the Whitehouse, Nader has responded that Al Gore lost the race all by himself; that essentially it was his race to lose; implying that only a complete idiot could have lost against such an unqualified challenger.

To counter Nader's argument, one must only look at the media coverage during the campaign to suggest the opposite: that Gore didn't have a chance from the start; that from the very beginning of the campaign, the smallest aspect of Al Gore was analyzed, magnified and distorted. Stories about how Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet or to have discovered Love Canal, even though they were based on misquotes, played into the opposition's hands and circulated for weeks. In the weeks before the election, Al Gore was painted as someone who at the minimum could not control his exaggerations and he was often depicted as an outright liar.

The media largely took an opposite tact with Bush and some would say they coddled him. No one in the media asked hard questions about Bush's character, background or qualifications. The problem with Bush's SEC filings on his sales of Harken stock was already a known fact. The likelihood that Bush went AWOL from the National Guard and the extent of his past drug problems had long been strong suspicions. But no reporter ever asked Bush anything difficult. On the contrary, if the media ever distorted Bush it was almost always to his advantage. For example, the stories about Bush's mangled use of the English language were almost always accompanied by reassurances that despite his grammar, his meaning was usually clear. And almost from the onset, the public was assured that despite Bush's ineptitude on domestic issues and his ignorance of foreign affairs; he would be able to compensate by gleaning seasoned advisors from his father's administration.
(Note 8)

In the aftermath of the election and the debacle that took place in Florida, Bush immediately had the upper hand because his campaign had already assembled a legal team based on his campaign's analysis that Bush might win the popular vote, but not win the electoral college. But even though the contest was ultimately decided on so-called "legal" grounds, the media coverage combined with the efforts of the influence peddlers in Washington may have played an even more decisive role in the endgame.

The unfolding scandal in Florida became a battleground for the public's perceptions and from the beginning most of the media seemed to make the assumption that Bush had won unless the Gore team could prove otherwise. Bush supporters holding Sore/Loserman placards were among some of the first images broadcast into people's homes. Conservative pundits cited polls, which later turned out to be internet polls in which anyone could vote numerous times, and claimed that the majority of Americans wanted closure as soon as possible. Countless Republican officials including George Pataki, Rudy Gulliani, Marc Racicot and Christie Whitman were paraded on television to show the strong support of the establishment for Bush. At the same time Gore supporters were told that they were cry babies and sore losers and that they should "just get over it".

It's hard to conceive that anyone living in America is not familiar with at least some of the reasons for the problems in Florida. Everyone has heard about the antiquated voting equipment and the confusing ballots which caused many to lose their votes. Probably a smaller number of people may have learned that the rate of spoiled ballots in minority precincts was ten times that of white precincts and that optical scan voting systems were set to reject invalid ballots in white precincts, while this feature was disabled in black precincts. Yet even a smaller number still may have heard about the creation of the list of over 60,000 felons who were ineligible to vote that turned out to be 95% wrong, thus disenfranchising tens of thousands of voters. But although Florida's failed electoral system was crucial in giving the election to Bush, there was another extremely important factor that has gone mostly undiscussed, except by Nader bashers; and this is that so-called "liberals" failed to band together in their common interest and vote as a block.
(Note 9)

By citing that Bush "officially won" Florida by only 537 votes, it's been easy for angry Democrats to point fingers at Nader and make the plausible argument, that many of the 97,488 votes he received in Florida came from potential Gore voters. Yet it's surprising that no one ever mentions the 562 votes for Harris, the Socialist Worker's Party candidate or the 622 votes for McReynolds, the Socialist Party candidate or the 1,804 votes for Moorehead, the Worker's World Party Candidate. The amount of votes these candidates received might seem trivial when compared to the 5,963,110 votes that were cast by Floridians, but with Bush being declared the winner by only 537 votes, any one of these other minority candidates could be blamed for being the spoiler, almost as easily as Nader.
(Note10)

The high stakes of the 2000 Presidential election seemed clear to many people as soon as Bush Jr. was named the Republican candidate. In noting how high the stakes really were, many analysts and activists pointed to the likelihood that a Supreme Court Justice would retire during the next presidential term and many feared that a Bush presidency would be a decisive factor in overturning Roe v. Wade. Environmentalists pointed to Bush's involvement in the oil industry and to his pro-business/anti-environment positions while he was Governor of Texas. Others simply pointed to the people that Bush would likely appoint to key positions and warned us that it would be the Reagan administration all over again.

From many angles and many interests there were calls for voter solidarity to block Bush from the Presidency. Initially many people had hoped to convince Nader to not campaign in close states. Yet Nader's final campaign stop on the night before the election was in Florida. Had the Florida election system not failed, Gore would have been president. Had Nader and perhaps other candidates relented, Gore would have been president.

What the right has done right, the left has not even begun

Liberals fail because they have no direct means of influencing popular opinion and taking command of the political dialogue. For this reason, the left is relegated to playing defense while it is the conservatives who get to ask most of the questions and create most of the agendas.

The effort to shape the political agenda and shape public opinion by conservatives over the last 30 years has cost millions of dollars which was readily supplied by conservative foundations. At the same time, nothing comparable was spent by the foundations in support of the left. This is largely because most of the foundation money given to "liberal" causes is offered for the purposes of social programs and when grants are earmarked for media or influence building, they are primarily given to grassroots organizations. On the other hand, many right wing foundations offer nearly all of their grants for the purposes of opinion building, policy development and agenda setting. This results in a disproportionate amount of money being supplied directly to the conservative media. For example in the period from 1990-1993, $2,754,263 of grant money was given to just four conservative media outlets and during the same period only $269,500 or 1/10th of that amount was given to the top four progressive media outlets.
(Notes 11, 12)

The influence by the right in manipulating the media has been further aided by the mergers of media companies into giant conglomerates. In 1982 there were 50 corporations that controlled more than half of U.S. media holdings. By 1986 that number had shrunk to 29 and by 1993 the number was only 20. By 1997 there where only nine mega-corporations, which dominated most of the world media. Notable on this list is self-described conservative Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation which owns among other things, the Fox News channel that unabashedly features only conservative voices and only tolerates dissent from easy to defeat "straw men".
(Notes 13, 14)

The advent of fewer and fewer major media companies reinforced the stranglehold that the right already had on the free flow of information. Fewer media companies resulted in fewer editors, fewer writers, fewer voices and ultimately less dissent. This has resulted in the even greater complicity of the remaining media with the right wing influence brokers. The continuing prospect of less go-betweens and fewer voices has made the job of right wing groups all that much easier. The combined effect of centralized media ownership and right wing influence in the media is perhaps one of the greatest crises facing modern democracy.

The far right in America has played its cards well. They have been succeeded in making their agendas sound better than they really are and part of their method has been to stay in attack mode and make their enemies seem worse than they really are. These are the same people who have given us such terms as "pro-life", the "marriage penalty", the "death tax" and "tree-hugging liberal"; all catchy phrases deftly manufactured to further their agendas.

The conservative right has been diligent in promoting it's vision and it has succeeded in building an empire. So far their crowning achievement has been in the installation of Bush Jr.; an occurrence that could not have happened without them. It's clear that Bush's support by this group cannot be ignored by Bush himself and accordingly he has spent nearly all of this administration rewarding them.
(Notes 15, 16, 17)

Although perhaps less than 10% of the population are members of the far right, their combined effort through the influence of right wing foundations, think tanks and media was directly responsible for handing Bush the prize. The Bush tax cut, the breakdown of environmental sanity, the simple minded foreign policy of military dominance, the doctrine of unilateralism, the attempt at faith based initiatives and the attempt to pack the courts with conservatives have all been preliminary efforts by Bush to reward his sponsors for a job well done. If roughly 60% of the population is "liberal" on the issues, then the 10% which thrust Bush into power has succeeded at exerting a tremendous amount of power over the majority.

Yet no matter how much money, planning and intelligence the ultra-conservative right wing has been able to muster, they could not have succeeded on their own. First they wisely spent their money on influence building and second they were able to communicate to the rest of the Republican party. the need for unity both in the battle for opinion and at the polling booth.

Liberals fail because they have not succeeded in making a convincing appeal to their base for unity over the long term. Even though the majority of Americans remain "liberal" on the issues, they usually fail to bridge the gap between their differences or create coalitions based upon the relatedness of their common cause. For this reason, although single issue politics may be effective for the purposes of lobbying and legislation; single issue politics, abstracted from the larger picture, fails to draw the left together in the desire to create a unified agenda.

Creating "liberal" unity is further complicated by the efforts of third parties. Few true "liberals" would argue that the Democratic drift toward the center is not troubling, but unless third parties can organize more than a protest vote, the influence of third parties on American politics is potentially even more problematic. This is simply because the American electoral system is winner take all proposition and whoever comes in second or third gets nothing. If American politics had a form of coalition government or a provision for run off elections, the advent of a strong third party would make more practical sense. But under the current system, the only way that a third party could share power is if there were more major divisions in the electorate than exist at present.
(Note 18)

Third parties make a lot more sense on the local level where the issues are clearer and the electorate is more attuned to local needs. Yet on the national level, in a winner take all system, unless "liberal" third party voters can band together in the support of common issues, they cannot help but perpetuate the dominance of an opposition which is likely to work against the things in which they believe. In the aftermath of the 2000 elections, it seems very likely that at least some of the voters in Florida who voted for the candidates of the Socialist party, the Socialist Worker's party or the Worker's World party or the Green party would have preferred a Gore presidency to the one they got.

The past is prologue, the future is up to you

The combined effect of centralized ownership and right wing influence in the media is one of the greatest crises facing modern democracy. Notably this has resulted in invalidating part of the first amendment. Already there is no such thing as the freedom of the press. The press is no longer free; it has already been bought and paid for.

It is encouraging that more and more people are beginning to grasp the extent of the media's distortion. The next logical step for the left would be to begin to do what the right has done so well; to pool it's resources, to form coalitions that work together toward common goals and become proactive about influence building and motivating their base.

The 2002 elections will be a referendum that will create an impetus for political power no matter who wins. If the Democrats take additional power, it will be a referendum against Bush's agenda and although no one should believe that a Democratic win by itself will create a more idealized form of government, at least it may be a way to undo some of the damage that has already been done. If the Democrats keep the Senate but do not retake the House, it will be a referendum on the relative approval of the Bush administration and we can expect to see more of the same stealth tactics and creative agenda setting which has already given the extreme right so much of what it has wanted. If the Republicans take control of both houses, this will be a referendum that our government has not gone far enough towards the right and it will give Bush a virtual blank check to reward the extreme right 10% as quickly and as extensively as possible. If you are among the approximate 60% of the population that is "liberal" on the issues, I can guarantee that you won't like this last option one bit.
(Note 19)

- Dean Heagle ©2002


NOTES

(Note 1) Survey Shows Pro-Environment Candidates To Do Well in 2002 Elections
(Note 2) Analysis from 23 polls debunks common misconceptions about voter attitudes toward environmental issues by Lisa Wade Raasch and Teresa Purcell
(Note 3) ABCNEWS.com Poll
(Note 4) ABORTION: Recent public opinion polls
(Note 5) Bill Clinton vs. the Right-Wing Machine by Robert Parry
(Note 6) Democrats' Dilemma: Deeper than Al Gore by Robert Parry
(Note 7) David Brock & the Watergate Legacy by Robert Parry
(Note 8) Al Gore v. the Media by Robert Parry
(Note 9) Greg Palast reporter for the Guardian newspapers and BBC Television's Newsnight.
(Note 10) 2000 OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL GENERAL ELECTION RESULTS Election Date: 11/7/00 Source: State Elections Offices
(Note 11) Foundations for a Movement: How the right wing subsidizes its press By Beth Schulman
(Note 12) Funding the Right by Matthew Freeman and Rachel Egen
(Note 13) The Global Media Giants: The nine firms that dominate the world By Robert W. McChesney
(Note 14) The 50, 26, 20... Corporations That Own Our Media By Ben Bagdikian
(Note 15) Bush Score Card of Evil (day to day listing of Bush's actions)
(Note 16) Natural Resources Defense Council (day to day listing of actions on the environment
(Note 17) National Organization of Women (Bush's record on women)
(Note 18) How The Greens Have Helped The Republicans Take The Center by Robert E. Crawford
(Note 19) Stampeding the Herd by Gene Lyons

 

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