How Did We Get Here? Politics in the Age of the Koch Brothers and #OWS

Here’s a video shot at the University of California-Davis. It shows Lt. John Pike of the UC-Davis police sauntering up to students associated with the Occupy movement and pepper spraying them, before backing slowly away in a heavily armed phalanx while demonstrators and onlookers chant “shame on you”:

I take this moment as emblematic of our current political situation. It is a situation in which about 2/3 of Americans sympathize with the Occupy movement’s call for greater economic equality, but only half that number approve of the protests themselves, and no political party does anything to address the growing inequality. It’s a situation, too, in which administrative leaders at all levels seem happy to tolerate police violence, which the right-wing media, led as ever by Fox News, presents as necessary and even heroic.  The people are angry, but they’re wary of those who demonstrate on behalf of their interests, and the political elites prefer to address the situation with violence rather than reforms. How did we get to this sad state of affairs?

The answer, I think, has to do with changes in the attitudes of our various elites over the past few decades.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when elites from various fields — politics, business, finance, labor, journalism, religion, academe — would gather together and attempt to ameliorate whatever social and economic problems seemed of pressing importance. And they would gather in something like a spirit of enlightened self-interest, if not exactly of disinterest, trying to take a look at problems from a point of view other than that of immediate self-advancement. This, anyway, is what George Packer claims in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. Knowing a little bit about the history of social elites and their relation to the notion of disinterest or impartiality, I’m inclined to agree with him. Here’s what Packer says about the various American elites in the postwar era:

…the country’s elites were playing a role that today is almost unrecognizable. They actually saw themselves as custodians of national institutions and interests. The heads of banks, corporations, universities, law firms, foundations, and media companies were neither more nor less venal, meretricious, and greedy than their counterparts today. But they rose to the top in a culture that put a brake on these traits and certainly did not glorify them. Organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, and the Ford Foundation did not act on behalf of a single, highly privileged point of view — that of the rich. Rather, they rose above the country’s conflicting interests and tried to unite them into an overarching idea of the national interest. Business leaders who had fought the New Deal as vehemently as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now fighting health-care and financial reform later came to accept Social Security and labor unions, did not stand in the way of Medicare, and supported other pieces of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. They saw this legislation as contributing to the social peace that ensured a productive economy. In 1964, Johnson created the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to study the effects of these coming changes on the work force. The commission included two labor leaders, two corporate leaders, the civil rights activist Whitney Young, and the sociologist Daniel Bell. Two years later, they came out with their recommendations: a guaranteed annual income and a massive job-training program. This is how elites once behaved: as if they had actual responsibilities.

This establishment really does represent an accommodation of different elites to one another: business and finance came together with leaders of what Chris Hedges has called “the liberal class”: a group consisting of “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic party, the arts, and labor unions” (his book on the fate of these elites, The Death of the Liberal Class, makes chilling reading). Together, the moneyed elite and the liberal class worked out ways of sharing wealth and solving social problems that, however imperfect, kept the fabric of society together. The liberal class could feel it had delivered some justice to the disempowered, and the moneyed interest could rest assured that, with enough soup in every bowl, radicalism had been headed off (indeed, as Hedges notes, one function of the liberal class has been to “discredi[t] radicals within American society who have defied corporate capitalism and continued to speak the language of class warfare.” With the great mass of people placated, radicals discredited, and the position of business and finance secured (at a moderate cost) a social compact was maintained. This is not to be sneered at: the years prior to the war had shown the world (especially Europe) what the failure of social compacts, and the legitimization of certain kinds of radicals, looked like. No one wanted to go back to those days.

The postwar arrangement, Packer notes in passing, didn’t delivery for everyone: if you were African-American, or a woman, you’d probably find those postwar years something less than Edenic. I’d add other groups to Packer’s list, especially gay people, who are only now beginning to gain something like equality and something like a public voice. But for many people, the establishment seemed to deliver a decent life, with relatively secure employment and relative egalitarianism, with inexpensive public universities, and wealth far less polarized than it is today (we’ve gone from a postwar 40:1 CEO-to-worker pay ratio to a ratio of more than 400:1).

(If you are interested in the first modern instance of an amalgamation of different elites and their cultivation of an ethos of relative disinterestedness, you might want to read the bits about Addison, The Spectator, and the class dynamics of eighteenth century England in this post).

In Packer’s view, the old establishment, with its alliance between moneyed and liberal elites, came to an end for two reasons: the “youth rebellion and revolution of the 1960s” and the economic troubles of the 1970s, brought about by “stagflation and the oil shock.” Here, I think, he’s only partially right, and very light on detail. It’s certainly true that the student and New Left movements of the 60s (and, I would add, the 70s) challenged the old establishment. But Packer neglects to say why: it was the draft and the war, certainly, but it was also the coming into the public sphere of all the social groups the old establishment had left out: African-Americans, women, gay people, and others. They rightly questioned the representativeness of the old elites, and they rightly saw that, whatever degree of disinterest informed elite decisions, it masked a preference for whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality. The demands of repressed groups for representation, though, led to a backlash, as the established elites, and many of the non-elites benefitting from the old social compact, felt threatened. The moneyed elites that already felt they’d been asked to share a great deal resented being asked to share with even more people (“What! First the G.I. bill and now urban renewal on top of that?!”), and the hard-working white male non-elites sensed that their small privileges were under threat. This, I think, is the nature of the undermining of the old establishment during the 60s and 70s. When the oil shock came along, further undermining confidence in the old compact, it simply presented an opportunity for already existing cracks to widen.

As the fissures in the old compact widened, elites lost faith in the process of working together in relative disinterest for the good of all, and America began to resemble something more like the Hobbesian state of nature, with the war of all against all. Here’s how Packer describes the oil-shock era and the subsequent end of a relatively disinterested establishment:

[The oil shock] eroded Americans’ paychecks and what was left of their confidence in the federal government after Vietnam, Watergate, and the disorder of the 1960s. It also alarmed the country’s business leaders, and they turned their alarm into action. They became convinced that capitalism itself was under attack by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, and they organized themselves into lobbying groups and think tanks that quickly became familiar and powerful players in U.S. politics: the Business Roundtable, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Their budgets and influence soon rivaled those of the older, consensus-minded groups, such as the Brookings Institution. By the mid-1970s, chief executives had stopped believing that they had an obligation to act as disinterested stewards of the national economy. They became a special interest; the interest they represented was their own. The neoconservative writer Irving Kristol played a key role in focusing executives’ minds on this narrower and more urgent agenda. He told them, “Corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested.”

Among the non-disinterested spending that corporations began to engage in, none was more interested than lobbying. Lobbying has existed since the beginning of the republic, but it was a sleepy, bourbon-and-cigars practice until the mid- to late 1970s. In 1971, there were only 145 businesses represented by registered lobbyists in Washington; by 1982, there were 2,445. In 1974, there were just over 600 registered political action committees, which raised $12.5 million that year; in 1982, there were 3,371, which raised $83 million. In 1974, a total of $77 million was spent on the midterm elections; in 1982, it was $343 million. Not all this lobbying and campaign spending was done by corporations, but they did more and did it better than anyone else. And they got results.

If you remember the Carter administration, you remember what the end of the establishment looked like: bipartisanship came to an standstill in Washington, and it remains stuck in that mode today. And the moneyed elites ceased to see their well-being tied to that of the nation as a whole: their interest was self-interest plain and simple, without the amelioration of any enlightenment. There’s a sad irony to all of this, in that the break-up of the old elites, and the airing out of their smoke-filled rooms, didn’t lead to greater egalitarianism. “Getting rid of elites…” says Packer, “did not necessarily empower ordinary people.” Indeed, when “Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and Walter Wriston of Citicorp stopped sitting together on Commissions to Make the World a Better Place” and began “paying lobbyists to fight for their separate interests in Congress,” says Packer, “the balance of power tilted heavily toward business.” And there it has stayed, as indexes of wealth distribution and worker productivity and tax policy make plainer and plainer every day.

The massive, well-organized deployment of enormous sums of money by the business and (especially) the financial elites have in large measure made American politicians, regardless of party, into the tools of the wealthy elites: Bush cut taxes on the very rich to near-historic lows, and the right-wing Roberts court more or less legalized political bribery in the Citizens United decision, but it was Bill Clinton who began the deregulation of Wall Street that led first to massive profits for the few, then to an terrible crisis for the many, and it was Democrat Chuck Schumer who kept capital gains taxes so low that most hedge fund managers pay taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. The Koch brothers and those of their ilk don’t consider themselves stewards of national well-being, not really: they consider themselves people who have a right to buy the means to rig the system ever-further in their favor. For them, this is simply their prerogative. Acting on this presumed prerogative has made them very wealthy, but it has also made their whole class less and less legitimate in the eyes of the public, despite the constant drumbeat of political advertisements and the far-from-disinterested vision of events presented on Fox News and other corporate media platforms.

The liberal elites — mainline churches, universities, elements of the media, labor leaders — have been complicit in these sad developments. Unable to ameliorate the naked self-interest of financial and corporate elites, they have clung to their own small privileges while no longer serving a useful role.  They simply do not deliver for the broad population as they used to do, and in failing to do so they have become despised by many in the working and middle classes. As Chris Hedges puts it,

The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as corporate power pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded. The death of the liberal class means there is no check to a corporate apparatus designed to enrich a tiny elite and plunder a nation…. It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.

That’s a difficult pill for many of us to swallow, but it does explain some of the most notable political developments of our time. It explains the urges behind the Tea Party (which saw itself as an outsider movement, at odds with all elites, but was co-opted almost from the start by the moneyed elites). And it explains what’s been happening these past two months in New York, in Oakland, in Chicago, and in towns and cities across the country. The Occupy Wall Street movement can be seen as several things. It can be seen as a desperate move for political expression by those who see the failure of all elites to even try to stop the erosion of the social and economic position of the vast majority of Americans. It can also be seen as an attempt to wrest the old liberal classes away from their complicity with the now-completely-dominant moneyed elites — to revitalize a liberal class on its deathbed. It can also be seen in a less charitable light: I recently saw a nephew of mine and his friends disparage the Occupy movement as “a hipster convention” of people who looked like they were “in line for the latest iPhone.” I think this is wrong, but I see where it comes from: it comes from the correct perception that the old liberal elites (“a hipster convention” signifies this class) have been more concerned with their petty privileges (“the latest iPhone”) than with delivering for the millions of Americans whose relative position has been steadily degrading for decades. I like to hope that the Occupy movement can both give expression to the political needs of the many, and can give the old liberal class the backbone it needs to stand up to the ever-expanding domination of American life by a tiny financial elite.

If we don’t have this hope, what’s left?


MoveOn t-shirt celebrating Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the U.S.


by John Halle

Who Got it Right?

A common lament among progressives involves those who got it wrong-in many cases, disastrously wrong-walking away from their collisions with reality not only with their reputations untarnished, but actually rewarded in the form of increased access to circles of political power and media influence.

Parade examples include liberal hawks Michael O’Hanlon, Thomas Friedman, Peter Beinart and others, not to mention Hillary Clinton whose enabling of the Iraq disaster is taken as a prime qualification for being placed at the foreign policy helm.

Matched with them is a similar collection of elite technocrats from the Robert Rubin circle such as Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner joined by Fed chief Bernanke now being provided the opportunity to run the economy into the ground a second time, while their enablers in the media-the most conspicuous being CNBC hypemaster Jim Kramer continue to enjoy the status of financial gurus.

All this is always good for a few chortles from the gallows from what passes for the left and maybe boosts our morale-something we need a lot of now.

Unfortunately, we can only go so far with this before realizing that the laugh is also on us.

For just as the establishment right and center got Iraq and the economy wrong, the establishment left was indulging in its own fantasy world, and it was one which is now coming to bite us on the proverbial ass, namely the fantasy of Barack Obama.

Plenty of ink has been spilled in recent weeks about “misjudgments” which caused the left to swoon over a candidate who rejected virtually the entirety of what the left (by any reasonable definition) believes.  And even more anguish is caused by the grim reality that Obama is now acting on his deepest beliefs: expanding the war on terror, torpedoing banking reform, extending Bush tax cuts, while demanding fiscal austerity in the midst of what appears to be a second great depression.

How We Could Have Known

How could we have known? The answer is that we could have if we had listened.

For there were those who were speaking up but our alleged “reality based community” refused to hear them. Their voices were, quite literally, censored and those raising them were, figuratively speaking, disappeared.

As should have been obvious then and is painfully obvious now, left outlets ranging from the Nation to In These Times to the American Prospect passed over virtually all discouraging words during the campaign denying them access lest they threaten to put a damper on the party atmosphere deemed necessary for selling the Obama product.

The establishment left media was complemented by the progressive blogosphere which reached clinical levels of delusion during the campaign.  In dealing with dissenting voices,  passive censorship was replaced with the iron fist of repression.  At what have now become known as “access blogs” such as Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars, and Democratic Underground,  those suggesting that the Democratic nominee was anything less than a messiah were subjected to vicious personal attacks, troll rated and in short order summarily banned from discussion boards.

Rather than revisiting the Zombie-like behavior of much of the left during this period, well documented by the Onion, it is by this point probably best forgotten.

What is important now is where we are going-whether the left has learned from its absurd dalliance with a smooth talking Chicago neo-liberal and is now capable of the requisite level of skepticism in our dealings with him as chief executive and the objectively reactionary policies of his administration.

A Tale of Two Professors

As an indication of the distance we still have to travel, it is instructive to focus on a single comparison between two Ivy League professors who made their views known on the Obama phenomenon during the 2008 campaign.

One of these is UPenn Political Science Professor Adolph Reed whose experience goes back to Obama’s much hyped days as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Far from being favorably impressed, in a Village Voice column from 1996, Reed noted the latter’s “vacuous to repressive neo-liberal politics” and presciently described these as “the wave of the future.” This future would arrive in 2008 when right wing governance and ideology were successfully marketed to progressives by establishment liberals as “transformative leadership.”

Among those selling the Obama product most successfully was another Ivy league Professor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton.     In increasingly high-profile appearances, Harris-Lacewell repeatedly compared the Obama campaign to iconic moments in the civil rights movement such as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.  Once the Obama administration assumed office, apologetics for neo-liberal rhetoric smoothly transitioned to apologetics for the implementation of neo-liberal policies.  These required some logical contortions and more than a little cynicism.  Thus, in a stunning Martin Luther Day King posting at the Nation, Harris-Lacewell chose to focus on instances of King’s dealmaking, personal failings and sell-outs of core constituencies.  The conclusion, according to Harris-Lacewell, was that the comparison of Obama and King remained in force: “extraordinary change can be achieved even through imperfect leadership . . .  wholeheartedly groping toward better and fairer solutions for our nation.”

It would seem that very few leftists remain who are willing and able to accept the Polyannish equation of the current occupier of the Oval Office with the author of the Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Nor would many grant the benefit of doubt that Obama’s “gropings” are anything other than simple pay-backs to his primary constituency, the Wall Street brokerage houses, megabanks, insurance companies, energy consortia, and lobbyists who financed his campaign.  Given this emerging consensus, one might have expected that Harris-Lacewell’s commentaries would be seen as having a limited shelf life while Prof. Reed’s inconvenient truths would be recognized for what they are: as what we needed to hear then-and need to hear now.

But nothing of the sort has occurred. Prof. Harris Lacewell remains a guest frequently encountered not only on the liberal wing of the corporate media represented by MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman but at seemingly authentic alternative left outlets such as Laura Flanders’s GritTV.  More disconcertingly, a continuing flow of Obamapologetics will likely be offered through Harris-Lacewell’s recently announced “Sister Citizen” to appear weekly in the Nation, an editorial decision which will reduce the contributions of iconic left columnist Alexander Cockburn to once a month.

In contrast to this upward trajectory, Reed remains at his post at Penn, his book on the Obama phenomenon eagerly awaited by a few followers but otherwise a largely invisible prophet undeserving of honor, at least as far as the establishment left is concerned.

An Honor Roll

These two academics are, of course, not the sole representatives of their respective positions with respect to the Obama phenomenon.  Harris-Lacewell, while perhaps more enthusiastically fellative than most was different only in degree from Michael Moore, Thomas Frank, Katha Pollit, Michael Tomasky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill Fletcher, and numerous others from whom one would have hoped (if not expected) to have asked the right questions and prepared the left for the outcome we are now facing.

Furthermore, while Reed was the earliest to sound the alarm, there were others attempting to do so, among them Paul Street whose widely ignored Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics anticipates some of the arguments which will appear in Reed’s forthcoming book.  Another was the trio of Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford and Margaret Kimberly at the Black Agenda Report, whose on the ground experience with Obama mirrored that of Reed and led to nearly identical warnings to the left. From his Washington perch, Sam Smith of the Progressive Review saw the light in the tunnel as the oncoming train which would materialize as did former NY Times correspondent, Chris Hedges whose views on this and other matters has by now relegated him to non-person status.  Finally, there was Nader’s Vice Presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez whose entry into the race was announced by an impressively researched bill of particulars published in Counterpunch.

These are a few entries deserving inclusion on an all-too-short honor role.  The point here is that, rather than being rewarded for being right, these figures remain on the marginal fringes of left discourse.

In other words, those who got it wrong dictate not only destructive neo-liberal administration policies from the inside, but how these are to be opposed (if at all) by a left which should have long since been on the streets as if our lives depend on it.

That they do, perhaps more than at any time in our history, should be obvious to anyone with their eyes open.

–John Halle

John Halle is a former alderman for the city of New Haven, Connecticut, and is on the faculty at Bard College in New York State where he teaches music theory and is active as a composer.

This piece was first published in Corrente on March 1, 2010.

To see other political writings by John Halle you can visit his website