I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, June 30, 2006


By Barbara O'Brien

It's the end of June, so I hope to wind up this month as a guest blogger at Unclaimed Territory -- thank you, Glenn, for the opportunity -- with a big-picture hypothesis of Why We're Screwed.

For a moment step back from political issues and parties, including our much-beloved debate on whether Democrats are salvagable or hopeless, and consider the political culture of the United States. By "political culture" I mean citizens' shared cultural values and beliefs about the role of government and how political processes -- such as election campaigns or how we discuss political issues -- are supposed to be conducted. Political culture also helps us reach consensus about, for example, the legitimacy of political institutions and appropriate distribution and use of power.

Political culture differs from political ideology in that people within a political culture can disagree about what they think government should do, and why it should do it, yet agree on the basics of how government should function and how the political life of the nation should be carried out. I found diverse definitons of political culture on the web, including "the attitudinal and behavioural matrix within which the political system is located." That works for me.

Certain conditions of political culture are essential to support democratic government. As explained nicely in this Wikipedia article (emphasis added):

For countries without a strong tradition of democratic majority rule, the introduction of free elections alone has rarely been sufficient to achieve a transition from dictatorship to democracy; a wider shift in the political culture and gradual formation of the institutions of democratic government are needed. There are various examples, like in Latin America, of countries that were able to sustain democracy only temporarily or in limited form until wider cultural changes occurred to allow true majority rule.

One of the key aspects of democratic culture is the concept of a “loyal opposition”. This is an especially difficult cultural shift to achieve in nations where transitions of power have historically taken place through violence. The term means, in essence, that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values. Political competitors may disagree, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge the legitimate and important roles that each play. The ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate. In such a society, the losers accept the judgment of the voters when the election is over, and allow for the peaceful transfer of power. The losers are safe in the knowledge that they will neither lose their lives nor their liberty, and will continue to participate in public life. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.

Here's the big-picture hypothesis: American political culture is so sick and contaminated that it no longer supports the processes of democratic politics and government.

This is not to say these democracy in America has already failed. Sheer inertia has kept the rituals of democracy and the processes of government lumbering along. It takes either a long time or a lot of force to stop a really big mass that’s been in motion for a while.

But a political culture utterly inhospitable to rational political discussion, as ours has become, cannot support democratic decision making. And a political culture in which large factions of people do not agree on matters of political legitimacy or appropriate distribution and use of power is cruisin' for a bruisin'.

How America's political culture became contaminated is too big a topic to explain fully in a blog post. But very basically, I blame two factors that have been interacting for the past fifty years or so. One is the rise and dominance of mass media. The other is a radical right-wing political coalition that has used mass media and other institutions to dominate the nation's political discourse and, eventually, take control of two out of three branches of our federal government. And they're working hard to take over the third.

Although it’s never been perfect, once upon a time American political culture supported democratic processes. But now many of our civic institutions are controlled by right-wing extremists who do not respect our traditional political culture or the values of democracy. Although they pay lip service to the ideals of democracy, what drives them is the acquisition of power and the implementation of their extremist agenda by any means necessary. If rules must be broken and democratic processes subverted to achieve their goals — so be it.

And, increasingly, political legitimacy is whatever the Right decides is legitimate. The Right does not recognize opposing points of view as, say honest disagreements about policy. The Right considers opposition to its point of view to be illegitimate and even treasonous. The current outcry from the Right about yesterday's Hamdan decision provides a perfect example of this.

Paul Krugman recognized what was happening and wrote about it in the introduction to his book The Great Unraveling. He explained that, throughout history, reasonable people accustomed to political and social stability have failed to recognize the danger of emerging radical movements — until the stability is lost. Ironically, Krugman says he came to understand this from reading Henry Kissinger’s Ph.D. thesis. As Krugman explained in a Buzzflash interview,

… reasonable people can’t bring themselves to see that they’re actually facing a threat from a radical movement. Kissinger talked about the time of the French Revolution, and pretty obviously he also was thinking about the 1930s. He argued that, when you have a revolutionary power, somebody who really wants to tear apart the system — doesn’t believe in any of the rules — reasonable people who’ve been accustomed to stability just say, “Oh, you know, they may say that, but they don’t really mean it.” And, “This is just tactical, and let’s not get too excited.” Anyone who claims that these guys really are as radical as their own statements suggest is, you know, “shrill.” Kissinger suggests they’d be considered alarmists. And those who say, “Don’t worry. It’s not a big deal,”are considered sane and reasonable.

Well, that’s exactly what’s been happening. For four years now, some of us have been saying, whether or not you think they’re bad guys, they’re certainly radical. They don’t play by the rules. You can’t take anything that you’ve regarded as normal from previous U.S. political experience as applying to Bush and the people around him. They will say things and do things that would not previously have made any sense — you know, would have been previously considered out of bounds. And for all of that period, the critics have been told: “Oh, you know, you’re overreacting, and there’s something wrong with you.”

The ascension of the radical Right occurred over many years, and their takeover of government — a slow-motion coup d’état — happened gradually enough that most of us didn’t comprehend what was happening. America has been challenged by radicalism before, and always it has come back to the center soon enough. (And by “center” I mean the real center, where liberalism and conservatism balance, not the false “center” of today that would have been considered extreme conservatism in saner times.) I do not believe the coup is a fait accompli; the Right is not yet so secure it its power that it has dropped all pretense of honoring democratic political process. They’re still going through the motions, in other words. But this time I do not believe America will come back to the center unless a whole lot of us grab hold and pull at it. Hard.

How do we do that? First, we have to get our bearings and remember what “normal” is, which is going to be hard for the young folks whose memories don’t back back further than the Reagan Administration. Just take it from an old lady — what we got now ain’t normal.

Second, I argue that media reform is essential to all other necessary political reform. Until people outside the radical Right and the elite media-political establishment are able to take part in the nation's political discourse, not much can be accomplished.

For example, many progressives have concluded it is pointless to support Democrats, because as soon as a Democrat gets inside the Beltway his spinal column is ripped right out of him. Time and time again, we’ve seen Democratic politicians make grand speeches to their liberal constituents, but once we get them elected they do little more than offer ineffectual objections to the ruling right-wing power juggernaut. At best. At worst, they vote with the Right out of some screwy notions about political expediency. And we’re all sick of this.

But I say that progressivism’s salvation will not come from any political leader or party, Democrat or otherwise. Progressivism will only be saved when we can effect change in our political culture so that progressive ideas can get a fair public hearing. And this brings us to the necessity of media reform.

No matter what progressive legislators might want to accomplish, they are helpless to do much until progessive policies have solid popular support. You build popular support for policies by talking about them to the American people. And for the past fifty years or so, that means being able to make your case in mass media, particularly television.

Now, tell me — when was the last time you watched a substantive, factual, civil discussion of progressive ideas on national television?

Take health care, for example. For years, we progressives have wanted some kind of national health care system, maybe single payer, maybe a combination of public and private systems, but something that would scuttle the bloated, failing mess we’ve got now. Many polls indicate that a majority of Americans are deeply concerned about health care in this country. Yet it is next to impossible to present progressive ideas about health care reform to the American public through mass media. Even on those programs allegedly dedicated to political discussion, as soon as a progressive gets the phrase “health care” out of his mouth, a chorus of rightie goons will commence shrieking about socialized medicine! And then the allotted ten minutes for the health care segment is up; go to commercial.

And that’s assuming a real progressive is invited on the program at all.

So even though a majority of the American people sense that something is wrong with our health care system, and think something needs to change, they never hear what the options are through mass media. Probably a large portion of American voters don’t realize that the U.S. is the only industrialized democratic nation with no national health care program. They never hear that, on a purely cost-benefit basis, we have about the worst health care system among nations affluent enough so that most citizens own a microwave. All Americans ever hear is that Canada has national health care and that Canadians have to put their names on waiting lists to get services, and ain’t that awful? OK, but what about the thirty-something other nations with national health care systems that don’t have waiting lists?

Bottom line: The Right figured out how to use mass media to make its point-of-view dominant and shut out the Left. Thus, radical right-wing views are presented as “conservative” and even “centrist,” even though a whopping majority of the American public doesn’t agree with those views. Through media, the radical Right is able to deflect attention away from itself and persuade just enough voters that Democrats are loony and dangerous. And maybe even treasonous.

And if just enough voters aren’t persuaded — well, there are ways to deal with that, too. But media consumers aren’t hearing much about that, either.

Because media is the dominant political force of our time, media reform is an essential part of the cure. It’s not the only part — reform is required along many fronts — but without media reform, we’re bleeped. But please note that by "media reform" I don't mean just making current media structures nicer. I think we've got to break up the dominance of the current mass media establishment, and blogs and new technologies will be part of the solution.

Mass media has contributed to the erosion of democracy in other ways. The cost of mass media election campaigns has created a self-corrupting system. Even the most idealistic politician must go begging to special interest groups to raise the money necessary to win elections. This has given us representatives who are more responsive to campaign donors than to constituents. Breaking up the two-party system is not going to solve this problem, because third-party candidates would get caught in the same trap.

If we’re going to restore the United States to functionality as a democratic republic, our primary goal is to heal the national political culture. Otherwise, it won’t matter which party we support or how many elections we win, because the patient — democracy in America — will still be dying. But if we can heal the culture, the job of reforming other political institutions — like the Democratic and Republican parties, if you like — will be easier. In the next few days I plan to post on The Mahablog in more detail about what we can do to heal America's political culture, and you are welcome to drop by. Suggestions are welcome.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean we can ignore elections until we fix culture. In the short term, anything we can do to take power away from the Right will help make other reform more possible. That's why, I think, supporting Democratic candidates in the November elections is an essential tactical step, even though by itself Democratic majorities in Congress won't fix our political problems.

All human institutions are imperfect, and institutions that survive through many generations, like the United States government, will go through cycles of corruption and reform. Often idealistic people will point to the corruptions and the many ways our nation has fallen short of its ideals and argue that the patient isn’t worth saving. I, however, take the Buddhist view that all compounded things are imperfect, but that’s how life is, and it’s our duty — to ourselves, our ancestors, and our descendants — to make the best of it. Not making the best of it is not, in my view, a desirable alternative.

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