Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy

"Science," the Greek word for knowledge, when appended to the word "political," creates what seems like an oxymoron. For who could claim to know politics? More complicated than any game, most people who play it become addicts and die without understanding what they were addicted to. The rest of us suffer under their malpractice as our "leaders." A truer case of the blind leading the blind could not be found. Plumb the depths of confusion here.


Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:32 am


An unpleasant fact of contemporary politics is that many conscientious citizens have created their own barriers to power. They have become "citizens" of a purified form -- free to speak frankly on the public issues they value, but utterly disconnected from the power structure where those issues are decided. Disenchanted with the muck of formal politics, demoralized by the existing alignments of power, people keep their distance on principle. They do this for many good reasons, but the withdrawal itself guarantees their weakness.

In other words, citizens with the best intentions have been so battered by events that their own idea of citizenship becomes miniaturized and confused. They have been taught by the realities of modern government to do politics based on the narrow premises of interest groups, organized around isolated issues. As a result, their own experience is fractured into small pieces, their civic values divided into artificial subcategories. Many have lost the capacity to think more expansively about the possibilities of politics.

On one level, the confusion leads to a random politics of theatrical display or attempts to mimic the mass-marketing prowess of the powerful economic forces in opposition. On another level, it promotes an idealized -- an unrealistic -- conception of what individual citizens are supposed to do in order to make the system function in a democratic manner. Just as politicians evade hard choices, some engaged citizens manage to avoid their own contradictions. They fasten on moralistic themes and. pretend that self-interest is an illegitimate motive for political expression. They presume to speak for everyone, but evade the deeper conflicts of class within their own ranks.

The confusion of contemporary citizens is traceable, in part, to a surprising source -- the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was, after all, the greatest triumph for citizen politics in our time. Yet, as a powerful political experience, it left many citizens with the wrong message.


The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., still looms over the modern political landscape as the heroic model for how powerless citizens can make themselves heard. King, of course, stands in memory as the icon for a much broader political experience -- the civil rights movement and all of its disparate aspects -- in which the least-advantaged citizens rose up and changed the nation. The movement's methodologies, the moral tone and tactics were so dramatically triumphant that they are now endlessly copied and elaborated, often unconsciously, by citizens of every class and color.

The essential political fact facing black citizens was that electoral politics was a closed door for them. The civil rights agenda had some northern political support, but it was never going to win an election anywhere in the South. Indeed, both in Congress and across the southern states, the nation's formal structure of electoral democracy was the principal barrier to change -- resistance supported by racial prejudice and the indifference of the white majority. The black millions in the South were disenfranchised; the racial caste system was enforced by terror and by law itself.

So black Americans had to invent different ways to move the majority -- irregular events outside the system. At Montgomery, Alabama, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and Oxford, Mississippi, and hundreds of other places, vastly different approaches to power were tested by brave individuals and groups. Over many years, the competing approaches were refined and gradually coalesced into a cohesive political movement, strong enough to overcome the status quo. The civil rights movement, it is true, did not entirely achieve racial equality, much less economic justice for the impoverished black people at the bottom. Still, as a profound expression of the democratic promise, it surpassed anything accomplished by electoral politics in modern experience. [1]

At its core, the power of this political upheaval was rooted not in its tactics or even King's great sermons, but in what people believed about themselves. Gradually, one by one and then collectively, black people attained heightened self-awareness, and that new sense of themselves led to courageous political expression. The legislative victories they eventually won confirmed this new self-awareness, rather than the other way around. In other words, this was not the political system doing something for people. The people did this for themselves. The distinction is a crucial point to grasp -- essential to understanding the full, rich promise of democracy and also its frequent disappointments. [2]

The elusive, redeeming paradox of American democracy is that people are made powerful, despite all of the political obstacles, when they come together and decide that they can be powerful. The thought flickers like a small candle in contemporary politics, held aloft hopefully by countless advocates. Its truth is regularly confirmed in the experiences of ordinary citizens.

More than two decades after Selma and Birmingham and the other dramatic victories, a black auto worker in northern Ohio grumbled to me about the fear and passivity among his fellow auto workers.

"People don't understand," Lessly Holmes complained, "the ultimate power is in their hands."

Holmes was talking specifically about the auto workers who were unwilling to go up against General Motors, but he also spoke to the larger context of American politics. ''The ultimate power is in their hands. " His words echoed Tom Paine's famous declaration: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Lois Marie Gibbs, a leader of the grassroots environmentalists, expressed the same conviction: "People have more control than corporations if they choose to use it. The problem is getting people over that feeling that they can't change things. More and more, as people win these small fights, they do feel empowered."

The largest legacy of the civil rights movement is its power as a living example of what can happen when passive citizens mobilize themselves. It stands also as a constant rebuke to contemporary Americans: If the oppressed and isolated black citizens in the South could accomplish this, why are other Americans so inert and helpless?

Beyond the inspiration, however, the movement has probably taught a generation of Americans the wrong lessons about how to do politics. In contemporary citizen politics, it sometimes seems that people emulate the civil rights movement in order to re-create its original handicaps. Black people in the South, after all, started their struggle with the starkest disadvantages -- utterly isolated from political power, through no choice of their own. They had to invent ways to overcome those obstacles, but their tactics are now copied by people who are not so handicapped. Those who attempt to duplicate the movement's style and method usually discover the results are no longer triumphant.

King's genius, for instance, was moral theater. The civil rights movement created a drama of conflict, sometimes including civil disobedience, that compelled distant bystanders to take sides (even if only in the privacy of their own thoughts). Sweet-faced school children marching into a storm of fire hoses and police dogs presented the reality of racial segregation, via television, to even the most indifferent Americans. They could no longer claim innocence.

Once confronted by the harsh moral question, people longed to be relieved of the burden of the discomforting contradictions. The formal political system eventually responded. The civil rights movement did not defeat the local sheriffs and politicians who were enforcing segregation laws; it leveraged the national guilt.

A similar drama of moral guilt underlies much of the irregular politics that has flourished in the decades since the 1960s. From antiwar demonstrators to Christian antiabortion activists, many groups have attempted to create a moral message to incite the larger public. The approach seems especially suited to groups like the gay-rights movement -- people who were likewise reviled and isolated -- because their cause also poses an elemental demand for justice.

But moral claims become hopelessly splintered and confused when citizen groups try to channel them through the larger complexities of governance. Environmental activists may save dolphins by harassing StarKist -- dolphins, after all, are objects of universal human affection -- but public outrage is not so easily harnessed to the dense task of rewriting federal regulations or the difficult class issues embedded in government economic policy. Moral outrage simply does not reach the fine print of hollow laws or bureaucratic deal making and can be easily deflected into false victories. Meanwhile, the public audience hears so many competing moral claims, it may instead feel benumbed or skeptical.

the politics of moral drama, furthermore, leads invariably to a preoccupation with the news media -- even dependency on them -- since the political dramas will have no meaning whatever unless someone transmits them to a larger audience and to embarrassed authorities. To capture the media's wandering eye, frustrated causes find themselves escalating the terms of theatricality to the level of bizarre stunts or ersatz versions of civil disobedience. Police everywhere are now quite familiar with the routine of mass arrests and do not use dogs or fire hoses. What was once a stirring event has been reduced to a paperwork problem.

In the competition for attention, the outlandish and fraudulent drive out what is sober and real. A handful of self-styled guerrillas, one faction within Earth First!, gained far more celebrity for their vague threats of environmental sabotage than all of the substantive struggles underway by grassroots environmentalists across the country. Political voices expressing serious ideas are eclipsed by the street action that displays simple rage, since rage is always more videogenic.

Mass-media politics worked powerfully for the civil rights drama, but it is a trap for most citizens' political aspirations because it defers to someone else's judgment -- the news media's -- to decide what qualifies as authentic political expression. By depending on stunts and celebrity to attract the press and television, people are essentially surrendering to the media -- and sometimes making themselves look clownish in the process.

J. Hunter O'Dell, one of King's early lieutenants in the movement, recognized the fixation with media developing among civil rights activists and lamented the consequences.

"We all recognize that technologically this is a media age," O'Dell wrote. "But it was disastrous for us to rely primarily upon these corporate forms of mass communication to get our message and analysis out to the public.... In the end, it means a new kind of addiction to media rather than being in charge of our own agenda and relying on mass support as our guarantee that ultimately the news-covering apparatus must give recognition to our authority."

O'Dell's point is that the civil rights movement acquired its "authority" to articulate large political aspirations, not because network television came to Selma or Birmingham, but from the hundreds and even thousands of meetings in black churches, week after week, across the South over many years. The dramatic spectacles that appeared on TV were the product of those mobilizing sermons and dialogues, not the other way around.

The movement's organizing processes, O'Dell noted, contained all of the functional elements of a responsible political organization -- mass education and communication as well as continuing accountability between the leaders and the supporting throngs. "The power of any movement for democracy," O'Dell emphasized, "is always dependent on such reciprocal relations between the mass of people and their leadership."

These elements are missing, it seems, from much of the irregular citizens' politics that tries to emulate King's heroic model. Activists hold press conferences or arrange dramatic events to prod the political system. But patiently built reciprocal relationships between leaders and followers, the laborious tasks of education and communication, are often not even attempted. To be blunt, there is a hollowness behind many of the placards and politicians know it.

Succeeding generations of political activists, it often seems, copied the glamorous surfaces of the civil rights legacy -- the hot moments of national celebrity that are so well remembered -- while skipping over the hard part, the organizational sinew that was underneath. In many organizations, of course, real relationships do form and flourish, especially in the groups that arise indigenously in local communities. The further one gets from the grassroots, however, the more likely it is that national leaders are only distantly connected to their own followers or accountable to them.

Many prominent organizations, from labor unions to national environmental groups, have "memberships" that have never met and never will meet. People become "members" in many citizen organizations simply because they sent in a check -- perhaps as their own weak gesture of connectedness or just to get a young canvasser off their doorstep.

Some citizen organizations pull together impressive coalitions of allied groups that are united behind their agenda, but these coalitions exist only as lengthy letterheads. Some popular causes appear in politics (or disappear) as no more than a packet of press clippings -- news stories artfully generated by activists pretending to represent vast throngs.

Elected politicians are generally on to this. They are aware of the shallow connection in much of citizen politics and they resent it: These self-appointed tribunes can arouse public opinion on various issues, but where are their troops? Whom do they really speak for? And whom do they answer to?

The organizational weaknesses are well known to the participants of citizen politics and the subject of continual introspection and exhortation among them. To do more is necessary, they agree, and developing deeper roots consumes considerable effort. Yet the task seems overwhelmingly difficult, given their limited resources and the other obstacles. Instead, they take up one thing at a time -- one scandalous situation or another -- and dramatize it sufficiently to create at least temporary visibility in politics. Sometimes, it works.

In that regard, citizens behave like creatures of the modern governing system, as much as politicians do. The post-New Deal administrative state defines political opportunity in terms of interest groups, so, in order to proceed, citizens organize themselves in the same manner. They define themselves by the policy language of a particular issue, whether it is arms control or child care or abortion, then stand on that narrow ground. In fact, once they have defined themselves this way, they are stuck on that ground, unable to speak beyond it.

People adapted to the confines of interest-group politics find it hard to think seriously about a more inclusive kind of politics. Instead, they often nurture the frail hope that, somehow, someday, a moment of spontaneous combustion will occur in American society -- a flash of public consciousness and anger -- that miraculously produces the cohesion to unite people of diverse interests and outlooks in genuine collective action. In the meantime, waiting for the miracle, they concentrate on the small contests that might actually be won.

Spontaneous combustion is an extremely unlikely event and the model of Martin Luther King misleads his many imitators most profoundly in this regard. The purposeful cohesiveness achieved by the civil rights movement cannot be easily duplicated by others, regardless of their issue, because what naturally united people in that movement was a single overarching fact -- the fact of race. Black citizens, whether they were schoolteachers or sharecroppers, funeral directors or dishwashers, did not need to he told that they had shared interests. The fact of racial discrimination was the everyday burden in all of their lives.

If that point seems obvious, then and now, what is less obvious are the political benefits that flowed to the civil rights movement because of this unifying fact. First, there was no necessity to parse out difficult political arguments between public morality and personal self-interest: The two were fused perfectly. For black people, self-interest was inseparable from their larger moral claim, the demand for justice. Their political task was to demonstrate to the white majority that this would be true for them as well.

In his lofty manner, King actually preached to both morality and self-interest. The white South, he explained, could cleanse its soul, but it would also be freed for self-development. King was right about that in many dimensions, including the economic development of the impoverished South that, as many white southerners now recognize, was made possible by the civil rights movement. Very few other political causes, however, have the capacity to reconcile the tensions between self-interest and morality so easily or universally.

The unifying fact of race served the civil rights movement in another, even more important way -- it was the cloak that covered conflicting class interests within the movement's own ranks. All blacks, regardless of their educational or economic status, would gain something if their political mobilization succeeded. That was enough to smother difficult arguments about goals and priorities that might have divided their own ranks.

In hindsight, it has become obvious that, while all blacks benefited, they did not benefit equally. Legal liberation opened vast opportunities, North and South, for black Americans with middle-class skills and aspirations. It did little to alter the bleak prospects for millions of black citizens at the bottom of the economic ladder. In his last years, after the great legal victories, King himself turned to confront the underlying economic questions, but by then the movement was splintering. Some former allies in the white political structure turned hostile once King's sermons began to address basic questions of wealth and poverty and economic power. From the other side, the "black power" militancy derided him as a middle-class reformer who had done nothing for the truly oppressed.

Other political causes that aspire to mobilize a broad assembly of Americans face the same divisive fundamentals -- the conflicts of class, the natural tension between moral claims and self-interest -- but without the benefit of a unifying cloak. Both barriers are formidable and help to explain why so many politically alert citizens do not really try to develop a broader political base for their enterprises. To overcome these obstacles, active citizens would first have to talk out quite a lot among themselves, searching for the common perceptions that might dissolve their deep differences.

Instead, they mostly stick to their own narrow issue -- a grievance that arouses like-minded citizens -- and ride its energy as far as it will take them. In time, if they are successful, they will acquire some real influence in public affairs. But they will still not have many people marching in the ranks, a fact that every observant politician will discern.

Faced with these barriers, other citizens withdraw even further from political engagement into a kind of exclusionary fundamentalism. Enormous energy is devoted to discussing millennial visions of what the society should someday look like, but no effort is made to connect the vision with people or everyday political action.

Scores of organizations, on left and right, devote themselves to this sort of "soft" politics -- drawing up plans for the distant future, whether the focus is on moral reform or world peace or designing an economy in harmony with the natural environment. Books and pamphlets filled with their provocative ideas are produced in abundance, but mainly consumed by people who already share the vision.

To create a democratic reality with any substance, active citizens have to engage others across these various boundaries. They have to search for real bridges that connect one class perspective with another in common goals. They have to define goals that fuse the broad moral meaning of their politics with the visible self-interest of everyday citizens. This undertaking would put them at the messy center of a democratic dialogue -- the arguments between ideas and values and the real experiences of real people. It would entail taking up the burden of teaching and listening and searching patiently for collective resolutions.

Genuine democracy is very difficult to do, regardless of the issue or context, and citizens understandably shrink from a challenge that is so hard. Because it is so daunting, many retreat instead to a kind of moral high ground, from which they can implore and incite their fellow citizens, while hoping for the miraculous day when collective action might spontaneously arise.


If one single governing issue aroused general public anger and promised to unite people across party or class lines, it was the savings and loan bailout for which taxpayers were providing hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet, the efforts of some alert citizens to mobilize the anger into political action mainly demonstrated the impotence of the classic tactics of moral theater and public outrage. The Financial Democracy Campaign rallied others in coalition, staged dramatic demonstrations in dozens of cities, and testified intelligently before congressional hearings. And on the whole, it was ignored.

On Valentine's Day in 1991, the FDC demonstrators appeared on the sidewalk at chosen locations in twelve cities and began handing out heart-shaped red lollipops stamped with the message: "I'm tired of being played for a sucker." In Washington, D.C., their target was the Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency presiding over the vast billions of the savings and loan bailout. "No more sweetheart deals," the placards declared.

At several locations, a country singer identified as "S&Lvis" entertained reporters and curious onlookers with the lyrics of "Bailout Rock," a song mocking the rescue of banks and S&Ls at the expense of the taxpayers. "When the party ended and the smoke had cleared! The biggest banks were bigger, the rest disappeared."

Bureaucrats at the RTC offices in Washington came out on the sidewalk to listen and were so amused, they asked for extra lollipops to give to their colleagues inside. In Abilene, Texas, small-business owners joined the protest because their bank credit had been cut off. In Baltimore, Maryland, the low-income members of ACORN turned out to picket because of the rotten housing available to inner-city black families. In Los Angeles, hotel and restaurant union workers picketed because high-flying financial deals had destroyed many of their jobs. The financial scandals, in theory at least, represented a rare moment of opportunity for political reformers to unite people with disparate interests around a common cause.

Thanks to the Financial Democracy Campaign, Capitol Hill was flooded with brown paper bags sent in by citizens -- "Don't Leave Us Holding the Bag." The politicians, in fact, were quite nervous about the public anger -- fearful that it would turn up on election day in unexpected forms of retaliation.

None of this, however, did much to divert the political system from its usual behavior. Client-representative relationships held firm in Congress and the Bush administration. The press likewise played its accustomed role -- ignoring the citizens who were trying to be heard. The bailout agency continued to award lucrative deals to favored banks.

"The real decision making at the RTC didn't miss a beat," Tom Schlesinger, the Financial Democracy Campaign's chief organizer, conceded. At forty-two, Schlesinger had spent fifteen years of his life in the laborious politics of community organizing; he has an idealistic commitment to politics but no fanciful illusions about what lollipops and song might accomplish.

Like the civil rights movement, the Financial Democracy Campaign was attempting to foster moral education on a vast scale -- teaching scandalous facts that would mobilize the public anger. But this issue was far too complex to be captured in street theater. It was also not going to wait for Americans to wake up and get smart.

"Our objective," Schlesinger said, "is to take our slingshot and hit Goliath in the ankle or the wrist -- and then keep reloading." Then what? "Then we hammer on the people who have power in this country," he said. "As a first step, no more sweetheart deals for bankers. As a second step, reverse the drift of government policy and start making the financial system respond to what the public wants and needs from it."

Educating people on specific outrages, however, does not necessarily lead them to a larger conception of the problem or their own potential. Their anger may temporarily grow, but will remain incoherent if it finds nothing solid to attach to -- no organizational framework to provide a continuing relationship to the realms where issues are decided. Unlike many citizen activists, Tom Schlesinger understood the weakness in what he was doing.

"What we're doing is very, very far away from real power," Schlesinger said, "and is blinkered by all the habits and shortcomings we've brought with us in the last twenty years, trying to do special pleadings in grassroots politics."

Over time, he suggested, a larger political structure would have to emerge, an organizational framework that could mobilize citizens across a much broader front of issues. But no one imagined this stage of political development was at hand. Even the most engaged citizens, Tom Schlesinger observed, find it hard to think of politics in those larger terms.

"By and large, our folks don't have a sense of the main chance -- of seizing the moment and changing the country," he explained. "Obviously, some of us have grandiose thoughts like that. But given our limited tools and resources and personal shortcomings, I'll be as surprised as the next person if we even come close to changing the country."


Ralph Nader, though obviously less influential than Martin Luther King, has been another important political model for active citizens -- the man who singlehandedly inspired a generation of resourceful watchdogs for the public interest. Nader's own story provided an exemplary tale of what one person might achieve -- a solitary individual who came to Washington fresh from law school, armed only with his own intelligence and idealism. With this humble start, Nader succeeded in spawning an extraordinary system of active citizens- tens of thousands of people examining and challenging the government on behalf of consumers and the broader public interest.

Nader also relied on the media, but his basic technique was critical analysis -- assembling the damning facts about government and industry. Nader's investigations were always guided by values most Americans share -- honesty and openness, fair dealing and respect for human life -- and the shocking revelations repeatedly shamed the government. His style of dramatic exposure has been mimicked endlessly by others, including the environmental movement, and with great success.

The strength of dedicated individuals, it turns out, is not a substitute for the power of "organized people." Because of him and like-minded critics, the government reluctantly amended its processes, opening decision-making channels to citizen participation and providing more detailed accountings of its deliberations. But, as he evidence has demonstrated, the reforms did not succeed in altering the long-term balance of power. Once monied interests countered with their own escalation of political resources, citizens were trapped again in a position of weakness. Nader and other public-interest activists were depicted by business apologists as tiresome scolds.

The core of Ralph Nader's politics was an exalted idea of the individual and what individual citizens could be expected to achieve. If the government will not enforce the law, he argued, then citizens must do it themselves and become prosecutors for the public interest.

The idea is now embedded in many federal statutes. The major environmental laws all include provisions for citizen-initiated enforcement. The tax code provides bounties for those who turn up large-scale evasions. Rewards are paid to those who "blow the whistle" on cheating in government procurement. Since 1986, for instance, 274 lawsuits have been initiated by citizens charging government contractors with fraud, mainly in defense, and have recovered $70 million for the government. When the savings and loan scandals proliferated, Nader's Public Citizen proposed yet another version of the same approach -- citizens empowered to prosecute financial fraud, consumers organized as the watchdogs of financial institutions. "Citizens should insist," Michael Waldman wrote, "that they be given the tools to enforce the law themselves." [3]

The watchdog approach to politics engages the energies of thousands of citizens and produces regular victories, some of them quite spectacular. But this approach is based on an idea of citizenship in which individuals are supposed to share responsibility for fulfilling the government's duties. The idea usually defines citizens in the narrow role of aggrieved consumers and assumes that ordinary people are capable of functioning as the equivalent of bank examiners.

"It's like serving on a jury," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. "Citizens are responsible for enforcing the law -- that's citizenship.... The concept of citizen involvement means it has a purity that cannot be corrupted."

The intent is certainly noble, but the net effect may be further dislocation in the relationships between government and citizens. Once the responsibility for enforcement is shifted to private citizens, some agencies are happy to let them do the hard work of challenging violators. When public-interest lawyers win a court order for enforcement, the political heat is directed at them, not at the government officers who failed to do their duty in the first place.

Furthermore, only a relative handful of private citizens are equipped to carry out this form of citizenship -- those with the leisure time and professional skills. Once again, the less educated and less articulate, the people who must spend their energies supporting their families, are left out.

The notion that citizens will bring "purity" to government is another problem: Some do and some don't. Any mechanism created for citizen participation will also be available for manipulation by any other interest group, whether its motives are self-interested or public- spirited. If everyone has to be a watchdog in order to make government work, then the foxes will also volunteer to serve.

The public-interest movement, in fact, revived the civic values of the Progressive reformers from early in the century (reformers who were themselves well-educated middle-class professionals and managers). They distrusted politics in general, just as Nader does, and wished to keep government insulated from its messy influences. The Progressives tried to create a sanitized democracy that would adhere to principles of good government, but they were disdainful of the party mechanisms that gave ordinary people representation in the debate. Their high-minded brand of individualism became a weak substitute for collective accountability.

In public-interest lawsuits, the inevitable bargaining over final decisions often gets left to the capable few who have the capacity to undertake this work, especially those people with law degrees. Whether virtuous or otherwise, these agents bring their own particular values to the table and their own class biases, which mayor may not harmonize with the larger public that cannot be present and has lost reliable representation.

Nor should citizenship require people to do the government's work for it. Government, in theory, is constituted to do the things that citizens individually cannot do for themselves, including making the laws and enforcing them. Assigning that function to individuals is not a solution to the democratic problem, but a subtle form of resignation -- another way of accepting that the political system will never perform responsibly and that citizens will never be able to make it do so. If ordinary people are supposed to do the work of government, why, they may ask, are they paying taxes?


Citizens remain weak because their inherited ideas of how to do politics allow them to evade the class conflicts within their own ranks. The environmental movement, though its broad values are almost universally shared by the public, is unable to mobilize its potential impact because it cannot resolve its own differences.

The movement is splintered into many different pieces, including different social classes that do not even talk to one another, much less try to work out a common political agenda. On one end are Ivy League lawyers, urbane and well educated and completely comfortable in the inner circles of government. On the other end are the thousands of home-grown neighborhood activists, utterly skeptical of government and engaged in "rude and crude" politics at the factory gates.

A few years ago, Lois Marie Gibbs of the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes tried to build some bridges across this social chasm. She organized a series of roundtable discussions and invited thirty or so community activists from the grassroots to meet with Washington-based lawyers and lobbyists from the so-called Big Ten, the leading national environmental organizations.

"It was hilarious," Gibbs said. "People from the grassroots were at one end of the room, drinking Budweiser and smoking, while the environmentalists were at the other end of the room eating yogurt. We wanted to talk about victim compensation. They wanted to talk about ten parts per billion benzene and scientific uncertainty. A couple of times, it was almost war.

"We were hoping that, by seeing these local folks, the people from the Big Ten would be more apt to support the grassroots position, but it didn't work that way. They went right on with the status quo position. The Big Ten approach is to ask: What can we support to achieve a legislative victory? Our approach is to ask: What is morally correct? We can't support something in order to win if we think it is morally wrong."

Most of the citizens drawn into grassroots environmental activism are unusual; they come from the social ranks that are least active politically, people who are poor or who are familiarly described as "working class." On the whole, these "middle Americans," as sociologist Herbert J. Gans called them, are the most disaffected and culturally inclined to practice "political avoidance." They are wary of elections and formal politics and even large civic organizations, cynical about government at all levels. Instead of political activism; Gans noted, they normally concentrate their energies on nurturing and defending their own small, private spaces -- family or church or immediate neighborhood. [4]

On the other hand, most of the citizens who lead the major environmental organizations are the offspring of the affluent managerial class, people who feel at ease in the higher realms of politics and skilled at the rationalistic policy analysis. Many are idealistic professionals, committed to large intellectual conceptions of the environmental problem but not personally confronted by the risks of poisonous industrial pollution.

These class distinctions were playfully delineated by Outside magazine when it published a consumer's guide to the environmental movement. Citizen's Clearinghouse: ''Typical member: quit the church choir to organize toxic dump protest." Natural Resources Defense Council: "Typical member: Andover '63, Yale '67, Harvard Law '70, Pentagon anti-war marches '68, '69, '70." Environmental Defense Fund: "Typical member: lawyer with a green conscience and a red Miata." Conservation Foundation: "As connected as they come and is quite friendly with many less-than-pure corporations like Exxon and Chevron." [5]

The environmental movement is a complicated spectrum of tastes and aspirations, ranging from the aesthetics of bird watchers to the radicalized politics of angry mothers. All share a generalized commitment to the environmental ethic, but have very different conceptions of what that means and how to accomplish their goals. These differences are rooted in their economic classes. An environmentalist who graduated from an Ivy League law school is more likely to believe in the gradual perfectability of the legal system, the need to legislate and litigate.

However, if one lives on the "wrong 'side of the tracks," downwind from toxic industrial fumes, these activities look pointless and even threatening. The idea of passing more laws seems a futile diversion. There are already plenty of laws. The problem is political power. "It's not illegal to build an incinerator and it's not illegal to poison people," Lois Gibbs said. "Poor people know that they need to organize and fight to win." [6]

The corrosive consequence of this underlying conflict is lost political power -- a popular cause that is unable to realize its full strength because it cannot reconcile its own internal differences. "It does hurt us," Gibbs agreed, "because we don't have any people lobbying on the Hill, while the Big Ten lobby could turn out the people -- if they were connected to the grassroots. But they don't have the constituency we have. They don't want to dirty their hands, dealing with these people from the grassroots."

Some leaders in the major environmental organizations recognize the same dilemma. Richard Ayres, chairman of the Clean Air Coalition formed by the Big Ten groups, sees Washington-based lobbyists like himself trapped between the grassroots demands for fundamental change and a political system that will not even consider them. The Big Ten works for incremental victories and, when even those are watered down by Washington politics, the grassroots activists become even more disenchanted. Young people sign up for Greenpeace, not the Audubon Society.

"If the central government won't respond to a situation, it drives the moderates out," Ayres said. "People far from Washington are saying we ought to be doing recycling and changes in the production processes that will prevent pollution. But we're caught in the middle, having to say: 'We can't do that. Congress won't touch it.'"

Major organizations in Washington cannot easily align with the fervor of the grassroots environmentalists: This would threaten their own standing within the political establishment. When a GE lobbyist wanted to cut a deal on CFCs in the new clean-air legislation, he phoned a lobbyist from the NRDC to see if his organization would go along with the compromise. That's real power -- having a putative veto on insider negotiations -- but it is usually quite limited. The Big Ten groups have such influence only so long as they adhere to the constricted terms of the Washington regulatory debate.

"If I represent an industry, I can always get into the argument in the Executive Branch or Congress by nature of the fact that I have money," Curtis Moore, former Republican counsel for the Senate environmental affairs committee, explained. "But if you're an environmental group, you can't get into the argument unless they want to let you in. And they're not going to let you in if they think you're crazy, if you don't think in the same terms they do. So you have to sound reasonable or you won't even get in the room. And you don't find many people in the major environmental groups who are willing to be seen as unreasonable."

Moore's point is crucial to understanding the compromised performance of citizen politics. The admission ticket to the debate is: "You have to sound reasonable. " The broad ranks of citizens whose own views have become "radicalized" by experience, as Lois Gibbs put it, will always sound "unreasonable" to the governing elites. They not only won't get a seat at the table, but may conclude that the Big Ten environmentalists are in collusion too, bargaining settlements with government and business behind closed doors.

Grassroots leaders, for instance, attacked the League of Women Voters for accepting grants from Dow Chemical and Waste Management to finance educational projects on hazardous wastes. The LWV in New England sponsored a series of conferences at which environmentalists and business representatives discussed their differences on key policy issues, but community-based leaders were not invited. "We were told that grassroots people are too ignorant or too hysterical to be able to participate meaningfully," Lois Gibbs complained. [7]

The grassroots suspicion of collusion between big-name environmentalists and industrial polluters is not entirely imaginary. When the CEO of Waste Management wanted to lobby EPA Administrator Reilly in 1989 to block state-enacted restrictions on hazardous wastes, he arranged a breakfast meeting through a mutual friend -- the president of the National Wildlife Federation. The industry lobbyists warned Reilly that a "balkanization" was being fostered in many states by the grassroots agitation for tougher restrictions and the federal agency must "make its presence felt." Reilly, himself the former president of the Conservation Foundation, obliged. [8]

Class conflict is, of course, a persistent theme in popular politics throughout American history. Differences of culture and class have always set citizens against one another, separating the people who, in theory, ought to be allies. Racial antagonism remains the most divisive barrier between people, white and black, who have common interests. Differences of region and religion are now much less influential than in earlier eras, but the differences of income and economic perspective are greater now than they were a generation ago. The inability of people to confront and overcome the class biases that divide them is one of the oldest failures of American democracy.

Eras of popular reform usually fail to produce genuine change, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has argued, because they nearly always embody unnatural marriages of conflicting class interests. "Middle upper strata [of citizens] may have an ideological commitment to political reform, but they also have an economic interest in not permitting reform to alter significantly the existing distribution of income and wealth," Huntington wrote. "The poorer classes, on the other hand, may have an interest in substantial economic change, but they lack the ideological motivation to make that change a reality and, indeed, they are mobilized for political action by appeals to values which guarantee that major economic change will not become a reality." [9]

Citizens from the lower economic ranks seek to preserve the independence of their own community institutions and are skeptical of grand causes that intrude, especially if these seem to be controlled from above. Middle-class reformers, on the other hand, are willing to use governmental power on behalf of good-government reforms, but not in ways that will change power relationships in the economic order. "Upper-class and upper-middle-class hypocrisy combines with lower-class cynicism to perpetuate the status quo," Huntington concluded.

This bleak view wrongly presumes an endless stalemate for democratic possibilities, but it does accurately describe the present reality, both in the environmental movement and in many other public-spirited reform campaigns. Middle-class reformers, whether they are environmentalists or consumer advocates, tend to focus on perfecting the processes of government, not changing the underlying arrangements of power. Grassroots advocates have the advantage of being able to see the underlying power realities more clearly and are therefore willing to confront power directly. But they are handicapped by their own lack of access to the debate -- and their "unreasonable" attitudes.

The other great obstacle within the environmental movement has been the inability to reconcile bedrock tensions between its moral claims and economic self-interest. The civil rights movement could finesse this conflict because of the unifying fact of race. The environmental movement has mostly tried to smother it with righteousness. Everyone wants to advance the environmental ethic, of course, but the underlying conflict is about jobs and profit and economic growth versus environmental protection. This is not a question the mainline organizations have wished to face directly, nor have many of the grassroots advocates.

Penny Newman, a community activist who led the fight against the notorious Stringfellow acid pits in Riverside, California, observed: ''Too often the only time community-based environmentalists meet the workers is when we are protesting against corporate practices and the workers are bused into public hearings to advance the company's agenda -- so that the company can orchestrate the conflict between workers and the community."

In the Los Angeles basin, for instance, enforcement of the increasingly stringent air- pollution standards needed to free that city of its terrible smog will directly threaten scores of furniture-making factories that release highly toxic fumes in the air -- and also employ seventy thousand workers, most of them Mexican-Americans. The companies, especially smaller firms that cannot afford new emissions-control systems, threaten to close down and move their production to Mexico. Some of the upper-class environmentalists regard this as an acceptable solution since, after all, many of the furniture workers were themselves migrants from Mexico. Send them all back to Mexico -- the jobs and the people.

Again, low-wage workers wind up paying the price for everyone else's well-being. Groups like the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles are trying to mobilize an alternative approach that speaks for both the low-income communities and their workers -- that represents both their environmental complaints and their economic interests.

"Industry begins the battle with a captive army of workers whose livelihoods are in some way dependent upon the production of toxics and who are predisposed to believe company claims that environmentalists are well-to-do, anti-working-class crybabies," wrote Eric Mann, director of the Los Angeles Strategy Center. "Workers may argue in turn that if life is reduced to a battle between one self-interested force (the environmentalists) attempting to take their jobs versus another self-interested force (corporate management) attempting to 'save' their jobs, then they have no other self-interested option but to side with corporate power." [10]

Community organizers in many places are trying to break out of this self-defeating conflict by synthesizing the community's overall concerns -- the right to protection from industrial poisons and the requirements for promoting stable economic prosperity. This approach entails a much more complicated politics, of course, but it has the virtue of facing the buried conflicts more honestly.

An environmental politics grounded in the perspectives of communities would undoubtedly lead to different kinds of public policies -- transitional assistance to threatened workers or small businesses, for instance, or government-sponsored centers for treating hazardous wastes in a serious manner. It would encourage people to ask the larger strategic questions about the production processes themselves. It would assume from the start, as grassroots activists say, that the poisonous stuff should not be dumped in anybody's backyard.

If any of the major environmental groups were to realign their own politics with these positive energies emanating from the grassroots, they would necessarily have to rethink their own policy priorities and methods -- and listen respectfully to what these people from the communities are trying to say. Inevitably, this would put at risk the environmentalists' good standing as "reasonable" participants in Washington politics. But they would also discover a source of new political strength -- the power that comes from real people.


There is one other, distasteful explanation for why many citizen organizations, including the major environmental groups, are disconnected from the politics of ordinary people and hesitant to advocate far-reaching solutions. That explanation is money. Many citizen groups depend on tax-exempt contributions from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals to finance their political efforts. The dependency guarantees that they will never move beyond a purified version of citizenship. In truth,' much of what passes for "citizen politics" on both right and left would disappear if the wealthy benefactors withdrew.

Under the federal tax code, tax-exempt grants are fully deductible for the donors only if the recipients stay clear of partisan politics, and many organizations accept these limitations on their politics. They may develop "educational issues" or create "civic projects" for citizens, but they cannot take these concerns into the arena of accountability that matters most to those in power -- elections. Thus, the tax code itself fosters a limp kind of interest-group politics for citizens -- the same splintering that in government has proved so debilitating to democracy.

The law thus draws an unnatural circle around the political ambitions of citizens at large -- especially the citizens who are the weakest and most dependent. Every organization that relies on tax-exempt contributions lives constantly with the complications of what it can or cannot do; many flirt at the edges of what the Internal Revenue Service would allow. "Every local project that I've ever been involved in," community organizer Arnie Graf said, "has had a lawyer who was a friend and was always telling us, 'Oh, my God, you're going to get in trouble. You say you're nonpolitical but look what you're doing.'"

The tax-exempt financing provides still another means by which wealth -- including corporate wealth -- defines the political agenda for others. In the arena of public affairs, private wealth exerts enormous influence over the scope and direction of what citizens will undertake because the giving is conditioned by the giver's own sense of what is an appropriate political cause. Though a few foundations are famous for launching provocative and even radical causes, the overall effect of political charity, as one might expect, is mostly conservative -- guaranteed to preserve the status quo. Charity is another form of political power.

Many citizen organizations expend enormous energy packaging "proposals" that will appeal not necessarily to people at large, but to foundation officers and very wealthy citizens. These projects will be accountable not to rank-and-file members but to the sources of financing.

Corporations, including the major polluters, have discovered, for instance, that they can buy into the environmental movement itself through tax-deductible contributions to the mainline organizations. Waste Management, Inc., the largest waste-disposal company and a company frequently fined for its environmental violations, has donated more than $1 million to various environmental groups in recent years. The company's generosity bought its CEO a seat on the board of the National Wildlife Federation. The National Audubon Society, which got $135,000 from Waste Management, expected its corporate gifts to top $1 million in 1989, up from $150,000 a few years earlier. The Conservation Foundation received money from Chevron, Exxon, General Electric, Union Carbide, Weyerhaeuser, Waste Management and a long list of other corporations during the year before its president, William Reilly, became EPA administrator. [11]

Naturally, the companies depict these gifts as a tangible way to affirm their commitment to the environment, but in the usual manner of Washington connections the money also builds political bridgeheads -- access to the opposition camp. Some of the Big Ten groups are leery and keep their distance from certain corporations; others take the money and curry favor with the corporate donors.

"American philanthropy is a system of 'generosity' by which the wealthy exercise social control and help themselves more than they do others," wrote Teresa Odendahl, an anthropologist who examined the lives and attitudes of several hundred wealthy philanthropists. Most major contributors, she found, are guided by a very narrow conception of democracy and "do not believe that the common people constitute the source of political authority." [12]

To escape from dependency, citizens would have to learn to depend on their own financial resources (as some already do) or to take only contributions that impose no limits on their political vision. Ultimately, only a general reform of the fraudulent distinctions in the tax code will remove the special political influence that private wealth derives from its charity.

In any case, money is never going to be a reliable source of political power for unorganized citizens. The other side will always have more of it and politics based on the generosity of others can never attain maturity or independence. The political strength of citizens can only be aggregated by assembling the collective aspirations of the many into a coherent, reliable whole. This is the daunting challenge of democracy and it is difficult to do in any era. But it is not impossible.

In fact, there are many citizens who are already doing this in different parts of America and with 'tangible success. They are building their own political organizations and formulating their own political agendas and acting on them. They are accumulating real power because their political aspirations have been authenticated. not by experts or opinion polls, but by the authority of real people.
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The maldistribution of power in American politics -- embedded in the governing processes, reinforced by inequalities of private wealth, protected by the existing relationships -- is not the last word. In scattered places, a vibrant minority still believes in the idea of democracy and acts as though its promise is still possible to fulfill. Where would one find these faithful? In the most unlikely places.

Some are in the drug-ridden neighborhoods of Queens and the South Bronx or the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Some are in the Mexican-American neighborhoods of East Los Angeles. Others live in the west side wards of San Antonio and the black neighborhoods of Houston and the border towns strung across south Texas. Some are in Jersey City and Baltimore, Memphis and Prince Georges County, Maryland, suburb to the nation's capital.

They are not running anyone for public office or even thinking about doing it. For them, democracy means building their own political organizations, drawing people together in a relationship that leads to real political power. In a sense, they are reinventing democracy from the ground up, starting in their own neighborhoods.

In Brooklyn, people first came together in 1978 as East Brooklyn Congregations, sponsored by Catholic and Protestant churches, a synagogue and two homeowners' associations. After years of patient conversations and thousands of meetings, they were, among other things, building homes for real people. Their Nehemiah project has built two thousand moderately priced houses in Brooklyn. Their accumulated political clout arranged a patchwork of public and private financing that provided low monthly mortgage payments for the buyers.

In Southern California, three allied organizations turned out seven thousand people to lobby Sacramento in a successful campaign to push up the state's minimum wage.

In Texas, a statewide network of ten such organizations has won state legislation for health care for the indigent and $100 million in financing to build sewer and water systems for impoverished migrant-worker settlements in the Rio Grande Valley.

In Baltimore, a citizens' organization called BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) canvassed neighborhoods on their political priorities and drafted its own agenda for the city -- education, housing, jobs -- then collected endorsements from seventy thousand citizens. One political candidate embraced BUILD's agenda as his own and he became the first black mayor of Baltimore.

These victories and many others, though real and substantial, do not quite capture the essence of what these people are attempting: the reconstruction of democratic values in their own lives. Jan Wilbur, a leader in a multiracial Houston organization known as TMO (The Metropolitan Organization), expressed the idea at a meeting of the ten allied Texas groups:

"While the Founding Fathers spoke those values, they did not live out those values. What we're trying to do has never been done before. We're trying to make those values that we've heard all our lives into something real. That's radical and new."

Father Leo J. Penta, a priest who is active in the East Brooklyn organization, described the organizing process as "weaving a network of new or renewed relationships" among alienated and powerless people. The undertaking begins, he said, with "the wounded and struggling institutions which mediate relationships: families, congregations, churches, workers' organizations, civic and cultural associations." The objective is "to establish islands of political community, spaces of action and freedom in the sea of bureaucrats, political image mongers and atomized consumers." [1]

Skeptics, of course, dismiss this sort of politics as hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the age of mass media and high-tech campaigns. But what these people from different parts of America have come to understand is a basic idea nearly lost in American democracy: Politics begins in personal relationships. Indeed, without that foundation, politics usually dissolves into empty manipulation by a remote few. People talking to one an other -- arguing and agreeing and developing trust among themselves -- is what leads most reliably to their own political empowerment.

That is the core of what's missing. In an earlier era, the kind of community organizing these people have undertaken would have aroused immediate suspicion and probably hostility from existing political parties. But that no longer happens. Arnold Graf, an organizer who helped to launch several of these organizations, described the reality:

"When I'm out organizing in a community, I always feel like I'm in a vacuum. There's nothing to hook up to. There's no political party or labor movement. We're trying to imagine what all those organizations would do for people because none of them exist. People are just out there -- lost.

"In places like San Antonio or Baltimore, we are as close to being a local political party as anybody is. We go around organizing people, getting them to agree on an agenda, registering them to vote, interviewing candidates on whether they support our agenda. We're not a political party, but that's what political parties used to do."

All of these organizations and a number of others are linked by a national organization and a common heritage -- the inspiration of Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation. Alinsky created a national team of organizers in 1940 to help low-income communities discover their own political power. He is another important model for contemporary citizen politics, like King or Nader. The community-organizing approach to politics lost favor after the 1960s, partly because the federal government borrowed loosely from Alinsky's ideas and corrupted them in the "community action" programs of the war on poverty. The notion that the government could sponsor citizen organizations in opposition to itself -- or that entrenched power would allow them to succeed -- was a doomed concept from the start.

A University of Chicago sociologist, the charismatic Alinsky developed his own version of "rude and crude" politics during the 1930s and, for several decades, showed poor people in Chicago and other industrial cities how to use confrontational strength against City Hall and the political establishment. Alinsky-style organizations multiplied for a time but many did not endure, especially after his death in 1972.

The Industrial Areas Foundation lived on, however, and contrary to popular impressions, it has flourished, though its methods are now quite different. During the two decades when conventional politics was atrophying, the IAF organizations began to grow rapidly as its conception of democracy spread to more and more communities. IAF organizers launched a dozen or so organizations between 1973 and 1985, then doubled that number in the next five years. It now has twenty-four organizations in seven states, encompassing twelve hundred congregations and associations with nearly two million members, plus another five or six communities that are in the formative stages. By 1996, it hopes to be operating in fifteen or sixteen states. [2]

Alinsky's radical conviction is still the core premise. He believed that the ignored and powerless classes of citizens are fully capable of assembling their own power and leading their own politics. But the modern IAF has transformed Alinsky's fractious style into a deeper and more patient understanding of human nature. It does not start out with a "policy issue" or political purpose. It starts with conversations in people's homes. It does not spring itself on a city or town, but begins by establishing relations with the enduring community institutions that people rely on -- churches and synagogues and civic associations, from Catholic bishops to black Baptist ministers. The modern IAF, unlike Alinsky, espouses a political doctrine that is rooted in the language of the Gospels.

Edward T. Chambers, an Alinsky protege who is now IAF executive director, explained the approach to the Texas Observer:

"Our culture is very simple. We' start with family, a congregation. We start with the teachings of the Bible. We start with basic values that are given us. Then we try to practice a genuine democracy -- not the artificial democracy of the sound bite."

What exactly does that mean? "You believe that men and women are the most precious treasure this country has," Chambers said, "and the most important thing we can do is to develop them, let them grow, let them flower, let those talents flourish." [3]

This version of democracy still makes house calls -- thousands of "house meetings" held in private homes -- where organizers get to know people and their ideas for the community and, in passing, scout for those who will become the community's leaders. The organization, as it develops, gives the people a regular place to meet and discuss their ideas with others -- a place that belongs to them, not to someone else. Conventional politics no longer fulfills either of these functions, but then neither do most of the prominent organizations in citizen politics.

In other words, this politics starts with people -- not scandalous revelations or legislative crusades, not candidates or government agendas, but ordinary people. The overriding political objective, whatever else happens, is to change the people themselves -- to give them a new sense of their own potential.

One Alinsky principle, known to all IAF members as "the Iron Rule," is frequently invoked during their meetings: "Never do anything for someone that they can do for themselves. Never." The organizations, for instance, are launched with financial aid from the sponsoring parishes and churches, but the members must immediately develop their own capacity to be self-sustaining and financially independent.

Their concept of the political arena echoes the theology of Paul Tillich -- a realm ruled by both power and love. "The world as it is -- that's power," said Ernesto Cortes, Jr., the lead organizer for the IAF Texas network. "The world as it should be -- that's love."

A citizen schooled in democracy understands that he or she must live comfortably with both forces. "We learn that power and love go together," Cortes explained, "that they are conjugal, that they both come of the need to form relationships." In a sense, that is a more erudite way of saying that self-interest and competing moral claims must become fused in order to produce effective political action. The definition also provides a way to escape the confinements of "purity" that the modern political culture has taught citizens to accept for themselves. [4]

This language has a resonant quality for contemporary America because, in general, Americans are obsessed with the question of "relationships." The bestseller list is dominated by how-to books on the subject; television talk shows and popular experts endlessly examine the dimensions of personal loneliness, alienation, addiction and the frayed bonds of kinship. The popular obsession with relationships, however, is usually grounded in a narrow and egotistical context -- repairing one's relationships with husband or wife or lover, with children or parents, even with one's own true self.

The IAF theology of politics asks people to think of relationships in a context larger than themselves. Politics, after all, was originally understood as a process through which people would work out the terms for living with one another -- the shared rules and agreed-upon commitments of the social order. A successful family that is bound together by trust and loyalty and mutual purpose can be thought of as an intense microcosm of a larger society that has developed the same capacities. If families are wounded and struggling in modern America, so too is the political order.

The two realms -- the personal and the political -- are, in fact, intimately related, since much of what decimates contemporary family life originates in the matters that are decided by the larger political realm. The isolation that haunts Americans in their social lives is not really very different from the alienation that also undermines American politics. It is possible that Americans will be unable to repair their damaged personal relationships without eventually facing their deteriorated political relationships too.

"What we're trying to do," said Ernie Cortes, "is to draw people out of their private pain, out of their cynicism and passivity, and get them connected with other people in collective action."


On a weekend in June 1990, 150 community leaders from across the state of Texas met for a day and a half in a San Antonio hotel to discuss and refine what they called their "vision paper" on public education. The first draft had been written a year earlier, based mainly on experiences in Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and other places where IAF groups were working with school systems and particular schools on various self-improvement projects. The San Antonio meeting was one in a series of continuing deliberations, intended to sharpen the document further.

The meeting had a second purpose, which was to ratify plans for a huge statewide convention in October when the Texas IAF network would turn out ten thousand people and formally declare itself" a new power in Texas public life." It had taken sixteen years to reach this point, starting in 1974 with a feisty San Antonio organization called COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service). COPS endures and is now the largest and most experienced among the Texas network's ten organizations. The rally would also mark the fiftieth anniversary of Saul Alinsky's creation, the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Statewide candidates from both parties would be invited to attend the celebration and experience an "accountability night. " This is an IAF ritual in which the politicians are required to sit and listen, while citizens stand at the rostrum and do most of the talking. The network's agenda, including the education "vision paper" and others on jobs and housing, would be made public. Both Republican and Democratic candidates would be asked to endorse it.

"You really feel empowered when you see the politicians come to our accountability night," Marilyn Stavinoha of San Antonio explained to some women from Dallas. "Instead of politicians talking to us, we talk to the politicians."

At the planning meeting at San Antonio, community leaders would talk earnestly about these matters for many hours, but not in a manner likely to excite much outside interest. Democracy at this level is simply not very newsworthy. It lacks the sense of conflict that makes "news" in other political arenas, the stories of winning and losing. No angry voices are ever raised. The people arrive at a consensus on things, yet there are never any votes taken -- no climactic moments or soaring orations, no drama whatever. That is not what these people come for nor what they take home.

Before the community leaders convened, Ernie Cortes gathered the seventeen other IAF organizers, who are each responsible to specific communities, for a pre-meeting meeting to critique the preparations. Afterward, the organizers would meet again to critique the meeting's outcome. In IAF doctrine, the organizers submit to a self-conscious process of arduous accountability. Where are people? Do they understand? Do they really agree?

Are the organizers comfortable, Cortes asked, with the quotas assigned to each organization for getting people to the October rally? As he went down the list, the quotas elicited some groans and sarcastic asides, but no dissent. Transporting thousands of citizens across the vast state of Texas is itself a formidable task, but IAF would have to fill the arena in San Antonio (or make it seem full) for its rally in order to make its point.

"The question is how much do we want to put in this," Cortes said. "It means raising money. It means building momentum. It means this would be our big political event of the year, where we literally use all of our political capital to get the candidates to the meeting." An organization-by-organization tally of what seemed doable produced a total of eighty- eight hundred. "Okay, that's short," he said, "but that will be hard to do."

What do the organizers think of the new draft of the "vision paper" on education? Sister Pearl Caesar, a nun who is an organizer for the Metro Alliance in San Antonio, thought it was very good. "It tells you where we want to go," she said. Others were mildly critical. Too wordy, too repetitious, too specific.

Cortes explained the purpose once again. "The reason we're doing this document is to have a tool to build a constituency at the local level, " he said. "The audience is you, the key leaders in the organizations, educators and others around the state, legislators and editorial writers. None of these are original ideas. It's a synthesis, but it's an implicit attack on some things."

Ernie Cortes, one might say, is a mellower, Mexican-American version of Saul Alinsky. He has the same charismatic quality -- a mixture of the cerebral and the tough -- but Cortes seems less brusque and manipulative than the legendary Alinsky. His manner is more patient with other people and, indeed, more democratic. A few years ago, Cortes was awarded one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" fellowships and he has become a minor legend among political activists because of his brilliant organizing work in Texas. Slightly balding and pot-bellied, with stringy gray hair, he often has a scowling expression that can seem, oddly, both menacing and sweet.

Ernie Cortes likes to think of himself as a teacher. He dropped out of graduate school at the University of Texas to become a political organizer among migrant workers in the Rio Grande Valley, but he lives for ideas as well as action -- a rare type in politics who devours books on an awesome scale (history, economics, philosophy, politics). Cortes sees the IAF organizations as a university for the people -- a school for democracy where they learn how the world around them really works. [5]

Politicians in Texas probably see the organization in a less benign way. The IAF network is a strange new force in their midst -- potentially capable of disrupting their own power relationships because it includes so many real people. Something is being built in Texas politics that does not respond to the usual alignments of money and influence. The politicians may not understand the theological talk about "love and power" but, when IAF speaks to power, they listen respectfully. After all, those are live voters going to all those IAF meetings.

When IAF started in San Antonio in 1974, its style was by necessity hard-nosed confrontation. Andres Sarabia, a computer technician at the local Air Force base who became the first president of COPS, described the anger felt by the powerless Mexican- Americans on the west side of town. The city was run by the anglos on the north side and the west side's most modest pleas for public service -- street lights or decent drainage -- were ignored by City Hall. ''I'm not a Republican or a Democrat," Sarabia still likes to say. ''I'm Angry with a capital A." [6]

"The issue then was recognition," Sarabia recalled. "We were considered Mexicans. There was a statement made: 'Leave them alone, they're Mexicans. They'll be dead in six months because they'll get drunk and kill each other. They can't organize themselves.'"

To get the establishment's attention, COPS organized "tie-up" actions at banks and department stores -- overwhelming clerks and tellers with a flood of Mexican-American customers. "People would try on clothes and fur coats and not buy anything -- even the sisters," Sarabia remembered. "They had fun. People used to have fun at these actions. It struck me as tragic -- here we are doing this to have fun."

The local business elite eventually got the message and, sure enough, City Hall did too, but only after some brutal conflicts. The people who held power accepted that the Mexican- Americans on the west side would have to be given a share too. Over the years, COPS has won many issues and lost some, but its presence fundamentally redirected the flow of political power in the city.

As the people won tangible victories through their new organizational power, they also recognized the connection with electoral power. The voter turnout among Mexican- Americans in San Antonio has risen steadily ever since -- a fact that contrasts with those campaigns of empty exhortation mounted periodically by national foundations to encourage voting.

"You have to teach people at a very local level that voting makes a difference right in their own neighborhoods," Cortes said. "In that sense, we are doing what a political party used to do -- giving people a reason to vote. " In 1981, for the first time, the inner-city wards of San Antonio outvoted the anglos on the north side.

The other IAF organizations that developed later in Texas were usually less confrontational than COPS because the word spread among Texas politicians that it was easier to talk with these people than ignore them. "When somebody is willing to deal with you, for you to be confrontational, you're being a bully," Cortes explained. "We're trying to teach people politics. Politics means negotiating and being reciprocal and thinking about the other person." [7]

Nevertheless, entrenched political power usually does not yield recognition without a fight, whether in San Antonio or East Brooklyn or El Paso. When Ernie Cortes was organizing along the border, someone fired a shot into his home one night. Utility companies warned their employees not to mess with these new-fangled political organizations. The Houston Post ran a series of stories "exposing" the dangers of these agitators.

"We go right for the center of power -- governance -- and there's always someone in power who fights you very hard and they get nasty," Arnie Graf explained. "Once you fight for three or four years -- and I mean really fight and things get really tense and polarized -- then it's easier to get to the table and negotiate things. Once you have that fight, then they look at how to accommodate you."

Of the 150 community leaders who gathered in San Antonio to discuss the "vision paper" on education, many had already been through such "fights" to establish their own presence in local politics. Others were still learning the rudiments of power. The hotel conference room was nearly filled with IAF people who had come from all over Texas. They are known simply as "key leaders" in their community organizations -- black, white, Mexican- American, middle class and working class and poor. There appeared to be more women than men, with a few priests and nuns and black ministers scattered among them. After the greetings, Cortes immediately called a fifteen-minute recess so the groups could caucus their own members. When the meeting resumed, a roll call of the organizations followed -- a procedure that used up most of the evening.

City by city, town by town, leaders introduced their delegations and designated members delivered progress reports on local projects. Fort Bend Interfaith had persuaded local school superintendents to let them do a school-by-school assessment and so far they had talked with forty principals. El Paso reported good news (a higher number of students who achieved a B average) and bad news (the business community was very slow in raising the money promised for scholarships).

Valley Interfaith, representing border towns such as Brownsville and Harlingen, had raised more than $10,000 from member dues -- twelve dollars a family. Dallas Interfaith, still in the formative stages, had signed up fifty-one sponsoring congregations, with financial commitments of more than $100,000. Port Arthur, with seven black delegates present, was just beginning the same arduous groundwork and eager to learn from the others.

Jean Marcus gave a more detailed account of the "parental empowerment" project that ACT (Allied Communities of Tarrant) had pursued in Fort Worth schools for four years. "We've become active on eight campuses," she said. "We have schools with a lot of very low-achieving students and we have schools with high levels of violence. Without parental involvement, we aren't going to be able to turn those schools around."

At the middle school where ACT first concentrated, the children's achievement scores had already risen from last in the school district to third. "We help the parents to identify their self-interest," Marcus explained. "They already know more than they think they know about what's wrong with the schools. As they become more active in the schools, parents become more active in the community at large."

The organization is also a university, as Cortes said, and the next day the 150 leaders were taught a succinct history of public education in America, from Horace Mann's "common school" to the "factory model of schools" that has prevailed in the twentieth century. Sonia Hernandez, a former leader of COPS and now a national education consultant, was the teacher, providing a larger framework for people to think about their own schools and the troubling questions about whether their own children are being prepared for the work of the future.

Schools are also about political power, Hernandez explained. "If teachers don't have power," she said, "guess who else doesn't have power -- parents. So we wind up in conflict with each other and neither of us has the power to change things."

The review of the education document was, above all, orderly and good-natured. Each delegation was given responsibility for a particular section and they studied it overnight, then came forward the next day to comment and lead the discussion. The contents of the "vision paper" were a collection of old and new ideas about school reform, ranging from school-based management to greater parental involvement to new methods for accountability.

Some people wanted a stronger "moral statement" in the preamble. Others worried that the emphasis on "competitiveness" sent the wrong message to kids. A spirited exchange developed on the nature of work in the future and whether schools were preparing children for the next generation of jobs.

Father Rosendo Urrabazo, a key leader from San Antonio, brought the discussion back to its central purpose -- political action. "We have people trained now so they feel comfortable going into City Hall and talking to the officials," he said. "But they don't feel comfortable going into the schools. What we did in City Hall, we have to do now in the schools."

The only discordant note was quickly smothered by Cortes. A priest rose to speak in behalf of the "school voucher issue" -- a means of providing public financing for struggling parochial schools -- and one mother seconded his plea. The public schools are hopeless, she said, and parents need help getting their kids out of them. Cortes responded with a soliloquy on Thomas Jefferson and the need for a unifying "common culture" in America -- a diversion that seemed to close the subject.

Outside in the lobby later, Cortes bluntly warned the priest to back off, lest he provoke an argument that might break up the multidenominational coalition. "I told the monsignor it was not in his interest to push the voucher issue," Cortes said, "because we would have to fight him on it. The first thing we have to do is demonstrate our commitment to the common school, to preserve the common culture, or we're going to wind up with a fractured, two-tiered country and that won't be good for any of us."

The "voucher issue" was not mentioned again. Strange as it might seem to anticlerics, an organization that is greatly dependent on the Catholic church was deliberately deflecting a political issue that is most important to the church-in order to preserve its broader political purposes. Such trade-offs are the natural consequence of collective conversation.

When the education discussion concluded, Cortes reminded the delegates: ''This paper is not finished. Go back to your communities and review it. Form an education committee and critique it and come back to us. Are we on the right track in developing a teaching document for ourselves to use?"

Meetings, then more meetings, hours and hours of talking and listening --the process of building political relationships can be almost as exhausting as tending to personal relationships. But the IAP's procedures for fostering deliberation clearly succeed for these citizens. The San Antonio meetings posed a tantalizing question: Is this what the dialogue of a genuine democracy would sound like?

The discussion certainly did not resemble the fractious debates of a town meeting, where everyone pops off on whatever subject moves them. There was no debate to speak of. The format was highly structured and, ultimately, designed to avoid random digressions and encourage consensus. Ernie Cortes was the principal teacher, but also essentially the leader. One could imagine that an audience of hyperactive citizens, full of strong opinions and personal agendas, might rebel impatiently.

Yet it seemed to work. At least, the process worked for the people who were in the room, who had come great distances to join this discussion and dozens of other meetings like it. What did they get from the exchange? A sense of participation and also a sense of sharing in power.

The format, for one thing, is subtly but rigorously all-inclusive. One way or another, before the discussions were over, literally all the people in the room -- even the most awkward and shy -- were required to be on their feet, facing the entire assembly to make some small contribution to the dialogue, if only to give their names and express solidarity with what their own community leaders had said. For the inexperienced and least articulate, the meeting itself was the teacher.

Beyond the personal transformations, the dialogues also yielded the feeling that something important had been accomplished. Agreement had been reached on important matters. The participants knew that they had collaborated in developing a consensus with very different people from many different places and that the consensus would be put to political use in the future.

The "relationships" that have formed around a set of political ideas will be more important than the details, for as these people understand, the relationships are the source of their political power. It was the desire for this consensus, not a thirst for conflict, that brought these people to the meeting. Year after year, it is why they keep coming back.

On October 28, the months of meetings and countless hours of talk came together in an impressive demonstration of political purpose. The arena in San Antonio was filled with ten thousand people, the newspapers reported, and respectful politicians attended to hear from the people. "Coalition Jells into New Force," one headline declared. "Meeting Signals New Texas Politics," said another.

Clayton Williams, the Republican candidate for governor, did not show (though he met separately with the network's leaders). Ann Richards, the Democratic candidate and the eventual winner, did appear and enthusiastically endorsed the IAF network's agenda on education, housing and jobs. Richards promised, as governor, to consult them regularly (and, once in office, she has).

Were the headlines right? Was this new political force for real? Ernie Cortes demurred slightly.

"If I believed my press clippings, I'd say we are a major political factor," Cortes said. "Off the record, I'd say we're not quite there yet. But I believe we're on the threshold. It's in the interest of the political establishment to let us look strong, so they don't look too greedy. It's not in their interest to let us be so strong that we can stop them from doing what they want to do. We haven't got that kind of power yet. But I think we can get it."


The resonant language of love and power, the earnestness and dedication of the IAF organizations, tempts some to romanticize these citizens into something more than they are. The IAF organizations, from East Brooklyn to East Los Angeles, are succeeding on their own terms, but they are still a long, long way from the centers of power. Their politics delivers on its promises to people and that is why these organizations survive and flourish. But there are still many, many obstacles before them.

These citizens have not overcome all of the barriers to democracy but, one by one, they are at least trying to confront some of them in a straightforward way. They may reasonably be regarded as a living model for the democratic promise not yet realized in America. It is also not unreasonable to imagine them as the vanguard, perhaps one of many, for the restoration of American democracy.

The skeptical questions about a politics that originates with people are obvious. Door-to- door politics takes time, for instance, years and years of it, but established power does not wait for citizens to get themselves in motion. This tension is felt by the IAP members themselves: Their organizing processes cannot be rushed without subverting the integrity of the human relationships, yet political events are deciding important questions right now.

In a society conditioned by technology to expect instant responses, the IAF methodology assumes that human development requires patience. Their strategy for gaining political power requires, above all, heroic patience and an abiding optimism about the country -- a belief that gradually, community by community, the public's voice can be reconstructed in American politics.

In the media age, that approach is widely regarded as obsolete -- even reactionary -- since it ignores the reality of mass-communications technology and its supposed blessings. But the IAF groups stubbornly insist that the only way to overcome the alienation fostered by the modern political culture is by doing politics the old way -- face to face, precinct by precinct. But can the politics built on personal relationships ever make itself heard in the clamor of mass communications? The IAF has not, as yet, found a way nor has it really tried, since it does not wish to dilute its deeper purposes by getting drawn into "sound bite" politics.

The quality that makes the IAF organizations so distinctive is their relentless attention to the conditions that ordinary people describe in their own lives. Their authority is derived from personal experience, not from the policy experts of formal politics. Most other varieties of citizen politics start at the other end of the landscape -- attaching to the transient storms of "public opinion" or "policy debate" that play out abstractly on the grand stage of high-level politics. IAF gives up short-term celebrity on "hot issues" in order to develop the long-term power of a collective action that, is real.

In fact, because of its obvious strength, IAF is frequently invited to join the coalitions assembled by other citizen groups for campaigns on major national issues, but it nearly always declines, partly because of what IAF leaders see as hollowness in many of those campaigns: Real people are absent from the ranks. The IAF leaders are also wary of using their people as fodder in someone else's crusade. Other citizen groups typically try to form working alliances with the politicians in power and generally define their Own goals in terms of what seems possible within the reality of Washington politics. These practical compromises, IAF leaders believe, effectively cut out the "unreasonable" voices of people at the community level.

"We have to build a strong constituency of people who care about things that are important and who free themselves, both spiritually and practically, from either party so that both parties will want them," Cortes said.

Like all other citizen politics, the IAP organizations face the daunting barriers of class conflict and racial differences, but at least they are confronting those obstacles in different ways. The organizing successes to date confirm Saul Alinsky's original conviction -- that the poor and powerless can be drawn out of their passive anger and mobilized into effective political action -- but it is not yet clear that the same techniques would succeed with other kinds of communities. The process, after all, mainly teaches racial minorities or low-income neighborhoods the sense of political entitlement that already comes naturally to the white middle class and upper middle class -- a belief in one's right to be heard on public issues, the self-confidence to speak for oneself.

By itself, the personal enhancement of the disaffected classes is valuable, but insufficient. Alinsky himself conceded, late in life, that "even if all the low income parts of our population were organized -- all the blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian poor whites -- if through some genius of organization, they were all united in a coalition, it would not be powerful enough to get significant, basic, needed changes." [8]

Unless an organization can learn to build bridges across the class divide, it will never attain the kind of political girth that might threaten the status quo. In various places, IAF organizations are already at work on the bridge building. Some of the Texas organizations, for instance, are truly diverse, with memberships that leap across the usual lines of race and class. Many white middle-class members, drawn by their Christian or Jewish faith and progressive civic values, have a conscience-driven commitment to their communities and a sense that this is the only politics that produces anything meaningful.

Cortes does not think the IAF Texas network will achieve full status as a major power in the state until it succeeds at creating a presence among the white blue-collar workers in East Texas and elsewhere -- people who have common economic interests but are in social conflict with blacks and Hispanics. The organizers are looking for such openings.

In Phoenix, Arizona, the IAF organization (Valley Interfaith Project) was deliberately founded across class lines -- bridging both sides of town. It encompasses Hispanic neighborhoods on the south side of the city and white working-class and professional neighborhoods on the north side. Many white people are drawn to participate, organizer Peter Fears explained, by a sense of the deteriorating quality in their lives -- crime and pollution, overdevelopment, traffic jams and the rest. The good life is crumbling and, unless citizens mobilize themselves, the political order will do nothing to stop it.

Such organizing ventures will seem wildly idealistic to cynics who are familiar with the present context of racial and class antagonism in American politics. Still, American political history suggests that this kind of politics, difficult as it is, is the only kind that leads to genuine change. Eras of great reform usually began with the emergence of new political demographics -- either newly arrived immigrants who finally found their voice in American politics or large sectors of citizens who had been held down by the system. Their political strength crystallized when they bonded with others unlike themselves with shared political goals.

In history, it is the least powerful, the outsiders, who have often been the principal agents for democratic growth. Therefore, if democratic regeneration is to occur in the years ahead, it is likely to be led by people such as these -- women and men who are now the weakest and most disregarded citizens, the politically orphaned -- rather than by middle- class reformers with professional skills. Mexican-Americans or blacks, Asian-Americans or working-class whites -- these are the people most injured by the decay of democratic representation and the people who have most to gain by restoring equity to politics. It is perhaps the case that the democratic promise waits for them.

One other crucial barrier stands in the way of groups like the IAF: They cannot at present reach beyond their own boundaries. Vibrant democracy has always been easier to accomplish in localized settings, closest to the people, but that is not sufficient to address the present breakdown. In order to imagine a restored democracy, one has to imagine a politics beyond cities and states that can speak convincingly to the national government in Washington.

In other words, how can people create a political presence that links them to large and complicated issues like taxation or the savings and loan debacle? The IAF organizations, like almost everyone else in America, are a long way from establishing that kind of link to power, though they are taking small, careful steps toward the higher realms of politics.

This is absolutely essential. The harsh fact is that the fundamental well-being of San Antonio or East Brooklyn is not determined at City Hall or even ultimately at the state legislature in Austin or Albany. The fate of these communities, their families and parishes, is embedded in a web of distant governing decisions in Washington where elite influence is concentrated.

In their cautious, deliberate manner, the IAF organizations are trying to develop channels with which to speak in unison on larger national or regional questions. For the last couple of years, Andres Sarabia and key leaders from the other cities have been meeting regularly in Washington with their congressional delegations, exploring the landscape of national legislative politics, trying out modest proposals and establishing relationships with those in power.

These contacts are only a first step and IAF now intends to expand its national base more rapidly. Cities in virtually every region of the nation have urged the organization to come in and help repair local politics: The pace of growth depends partly on recruiting able organizers who truly grasp the human dimensions of this politics. Arnie Graf, who is recruiting for the expansion, explained the strategy:

"Generally, our hope is that by 1996 we would be in twice the strategically located states as we are now and that would give us the capacity to develop either the regional or national base to look at national policies. If we were in the right fifteen or sixteen states, we wouldn't have to be in all fifty states. That would give us enough clout to be able to affect policies, whether it was through political parties or corporations."

With Texas, Arizona and Southern California already well launched, for instance, when IAF adds a presence in Colorado and New Mexico, it will have the beginnings of a common regional base -- one that can talk collectively to the region's congressional delegations and also to economic enterprises based in the Southwest. At the very least, it will have a platform larger than the boundaries of communities or even states. Coherent and authentic citizen politics takes time.

What would the IAF communities talk about if they develop a strong voice in national politics? Organizers already know the answer, because the same concerns arise again and again in community dialogues. These are: the terms of work and wages, the precariousness of family incomes.

"In some areas, where there is no hope, we've brought people a certain measure of hope," Arnie Graf reflected. "However, we're not bringing them better incomes. It's our feeling it's all going to be short-lived if we can't do something about getting people a family wage that's livable. What is the wage that a family needs to survive and live well? We have to aim at the incomes of families. We know this about ourselves: We have to look at the large issues and we can't do that from a seven-state base."

Ernie Cortes envisions that, as the Texas network develops a stronger presence, it can begin addressing large economic issues from the perspective of workers. Some of the ideas may be small and pedestrian, some may be large and radical.

"We can then raise questions about work, which raises questions about investment patterns," Cortes said. "Can we create some fundamental institutions that allow reinvestment in communities? If we all come to a conclusion that the cost of capital is a serious impediment to economic development, then we're going to have to have a new institution to provide low-cost capital.

"People also ought to have some say-so about the conditions in which they work. One of our ambitions down the road is to create some workers' associations that would deal with issues like job safety and workmen's compensation. We don't want to get under the NLRB, but we think we're in a position to negotiate with corporations about an American perestroika. We are talking now to a major company about restructuring work, with schools in the plant. Workers need to be paid in accordance with the things they control. They get demoralized when they have no control and produce lousy products. If you have intelligent management of the economy, these things are possible."

These political ideas are all cast well into the future, not tomorrow or next month, not even next year. But they exist as possibilities -- a political program that goes to what most people would say is the heart of the matter, work and family and incomes. The fact that some citizens are getting a handle on politics in order to force these matters into the political debate is perhaps the most hopeful evidence of all.

If they succeed, they will inevitably confront the underlying power relationships in government and, thus, provoke stern resistance. But what makes these ideas plausible, if they do someday invade the narrow national debate surrounding government, is that they will not enter as abstract policy prescriptions. They will have originated from the experiences of real people and real people will be gathered behind them.


The tragic quality of contemporary democracy is that circumstances have alienated the most conscientious citizens from the principal venue for speaking to power -- elections. Even the most active citizens' groups have lost faith in the idea that elections are the best means for making government accountable or advancing the public's aspirations.

American democracy is thus burdened with a heavy irony: The nation is alive with positive, creative political energies, yet the democratic device that grants citizens their sovereignty is moribund. Elections exist like a vacuum jar at the center of the political disorder: the most interesting and important action flows outside and around them.

When citizens set out to influence governing decisions, they usually begin with the assumption that electoral politics is inoperable or a trap. The three popular models for citizen politics -- Saul Alinsky, Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- all began by distancing themselves from the most direct and legitimate source of political power. This is a fundamental handicap.

Most of the barriers to electoral politics are well known: the daunting cost of entry, the disconnectedness of mass-media political messages, the manipulative marketing techniques of campaign strategists and, above all, the gargantuan flood of money that pays for all these. Mere citizens -- even if they recognize a plausible motive for participating in this contest -- will find very little they could afford to contribute. Political power, as Ernie Cortes likes to say, comes from either "organized money" or "organized people." In the electoral arena, the money is organized, the people are not.

The citizens who do exert important influence on elections are usually organized around the most narrow objectives and often then in a defensive crouch. The National Rifle Association is famous for exerting negative influence because the issue of gun control arouses deep emotions and class resentments that mobilize its members. The NRA can frighten incumbent representatives, with both its votes and its money, though it cannot legislate much in a positive manner. The antiabortion forces, likewise, rallied crucial swing votes on the margins of close contests and that was intimidating to many elected representatives, until the tide turned against them. The League of Conservation Voters and other environmental groups exert some electoral influence by targeting their campaign contributions on worthy contestants. The pro-Israel lobby works its will much more powerfully in the same manner.

The entry points for citizens, in other words, are quite narrow: either through money, the more the better in order to compete with other interests, or through an intensely organized focus on a single issue. Elections do not work for those who are unwilling or unable to squeeze through those gates. For those who wish for a broader dialogue between the governed and the governors, the electoral route seems barren.
All the electoral barriers are real and formidable, yet they do not fully explain the vacuum. In many instances, it is not simply that active citizens are shut out, but also that they have deliberately chosen to stand apart. The formal handle exists for citizens who wish to share in the governing power, yet many shrink from using it. Why do they turn their backs on the lever that is available and potentially the most powerful?

The blunt answer in some instances, of course, is that, if they participated in elections, they might lose. For some frail causes, it is wiser to stand aloof, claiming to represent the people's unrealized political aspirations, than to submit those claims to an up-and-down vote by secret ballot. Opinion polls, whose results are easily manipulated, have become the surrogate elections for groups that do not wish their true strength to be tested with the voters.

In other cases, the investment of time and energy in the tedious mechanics of the electoral process itself often seems counterproductive -- not the best use of people and limited resources. In San Antonio, for instance, COPS put together the equivalent of a full-scale precinct organization in order to campaign for a citywide referendum on reforming city council districts. It won the referendum, but the organization was exhausted by the effort. "It's very mechanical," said Arnie Graf, "and it doesn't get at what politics is really about. It doesn't allow people to talk about the broader issues."

A less tangible, but possibly more important factor that separates citizens from electoral politics is their own sense of purity -- the conviction that elections are corrupting (or at least perceived as corrupt by the general public) and that righteous causes will lose their glow if they become entangled in the fortunes of mere politicians. For years, people have implored Ralph Nader to run for office -- if only to provide a substantive alternative to the dross of party candidates -- but he never took the suggestion seriously. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, explained why:

"Ralph's presumption is that, if he runs for office, he would lose power because he would then become dependent on the political processes and so forth. So he's willing to rely on less resources and be called a 'national nanny' and lose some battles in order to remain independent."

Sister Christine Stephens, an IAF national organizer and a leader in the Texas network, expressed a similar reluctance; "We think the work of being a citizen is too important to be corrupted by [electoral] politics. Once the person gets in there, they can be corrupted. Even the best people will lose their soul. The most we can do is keep a countervailing force to keep the balance even."

Nader, nonetheless, took a first, exploratory step into electoral politics in the early presidential primaries of 1992 -- offering voters in New Hampshire and Massachusetts a chance to protest the regular order by voting for him. "I am campaigning for an agenda, not for elected office," he said. Many more such ventures, led by many different insurgents, would be needed to restore the public's voice in elections.

Electoral politics, in its present format, reduces the role of citizens by attaching them to a single candidate's fortunes, not to a political program they helped develop. ''I'm not interested in teaching people how to be appendages in anybody's movement," Ernie Cortes said, "because, in the final analysis, a political campaign is a movement. It's built around a single candidate. It will evaporate when he or she gets elected."

On a local level, the IAF groups move deftly around the edges of elections with their "accountability nights" and politicians usually get the message; These are real voters facing them. IAF does not run candidates or endorse them, but it does register people to vote and those voters do not need a TV commercial to learn that a candidate has ignored the community's agenda. If citizen organizations create a new framework for how people think about politics, Cortes argues, then electoral results will follow, not the other way around.

The objections all have practical validity to those citizens struggling to generate an authentic politics. To working politicians, however, the reluctance of citizens seems overly precious -- people who want to have it both ways. They wish to influence government, but not to get soiled by the muck of politics. They want to become powerful in the public arena, but without themselves being responsible for the awesome machinery of government. A purified citizen who is above electoral politics, one might say, is someone who has not yet come to terms with the psychological burdens of accepting responsibility for the government's coercive powers.

The disjunction between voters and elections is itself a central element of the democratic problem -- another expression of the damaged relationship between people and authority. Elections are the most visible, most legitimate means of maintaining those relationships and the only sure way to establish accountability to the governed and to develop a general trust in those who are given the power to govern. People who want responsible government are bound to be disappointed so long as they turn away from this central mechanism of power.

A genuine democracy will not likely develop until the two realms are reconciled -- the irregular citizens and the formal structure of power. After all, like the two-way mirror, democratic accountability runs both ways -- between those in power and those who put them there. This requires a reliable organizational framework that at present does not exist -- a viable political party that provides the connective tissue between the people and the government.

Conceivably, the steady development of citizen organizations like IAF may eventually create a workable substitute and heal this breach. It is not far-fetched, for instance, to imagine that a decade hence a broad alliance of citizen-based political organizations may have formed that can effectively exercise the power of "organized people" once again in elections. The vanguard is visible now. In the best circumstances, this enterprise will take time -- years of patient rebuilding by people everywhere.

In the meantime, the machinery of power is held comfortably in other hands. The principal political institutions that dominate conventional politics -- the two major parties and the media -- once provided the connective tissue that linked citizens to government but, in different ways, each has abandoned that responsibility. It is to those familiar structures of politics that we will turn next -- the main institutions that surround both the electoral process, where the power to govern is legitimized, and the governing process, where the power is exercised. Each of these, in different ways, has lost its connection~ to ordinary citizens and each has gravitated toward the powerful elites that dominate the politics of government.

The models of democratic politics that some citizens at large have already created mayor may not succeed someday in salvaging democracy. But, in the meantime, they exist as a living rebuke to the important political institutions that have failed.
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:41 am




The empty space at the center of American democracy is defined ultimately by its failed political institutions. At the highest level of politics, there is no one who now speaks reliably for the people, no one who listens patiently to their concerns or teaches them the hard facts involved in governing decisions. There is no major institution committed to mobilizing the power of citizens around their own interests and aspirations.

The principal mediating institutions of politics do still function in a formal sense, of course, but in different ways each has lost the capacity to serve as authentic connective tissue between government and citizens. In different ways, the major political parties and the news media have instead gravitated toward another source of power -- the elite interests that dominate government.

This section directly confronts the failure of those political institutions and explores why each, in its own way, falls short in its responsibility to democracy. The analysis begins with the hollow reality of the Democratic party and how economic interests that are most hostile to the party's main constituencies manage to influence the party's direction from the top down. Chapter Twelve, "Rancid Populism," examines the Republican party and how its mastery of modern communications enables it to hold power with an illusory program based on alienation and resentment.

The press fails its responsibility too and Chapter Thirteen, "Angle of Vision," explains the deep economic and social transformations that led the "news" away from the people it once spoke for and into alignment with the governing elites. The political impact of the mass-media culture, explored in Chapter Fourteen, "The Lost Generation," is more paradoxical and, in some ways, more hopeful. While television trivializes complex political action, its imagery is also relentlessly populist in its directness -- and brutally accurate in its own unsettling manner.

The empty space left by the failure of these mediating voices has been partially filled, however. It is held by the powerful political organizations called corporations. The final chapter of this section, Chapter Fifteen, "Citizen GE," illustrates the institutional reality of corporate power by examining the awesome reach and capabilities of one corporate political organization, the General Electric Company.

The distorted power relationships that dominate government and have cut out citizens are embedded in all these political institutions. At its core, the democratic problem is a problem of institutional default on a massive scale.


The Democratic party traces its origin, with excessive precision, to the twenty-third day of May in 1792 when Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to George Washington. His letter described political alignments that were already visible in the young Republic -- the yeomanry versus the Tory financiers. Jefferson urged President Washington to rally the people in a party that would defend democracy against the corrupt ambitions of monied interests. His text is uncannily appropriate to the politics of the late twentieth century. [1]

While historians recognize the letter as a milestone, it was Andrew Jackson, thirty years later, who mobilized the constituencies of farmers, workers and merchants into a vigorous, effective political party known forever after as the Democrats. The dual heritage is observed by party stalwarts every year at their Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners.

If Jefferson's letter is taken as the true birthday, then the party would celebrate its bicentennial in the presidential election year of 1992. When this point belatedly occurred to some staff officials at the Democratic National Committee, they began to discuss what they might make of the event. The Democratic party's perennial disorganization has always been part of its charm. If the Republicans were approaching their bicentennial, they would have already sold ads to the Fortune 500 for a souvenir program guide.

The discussion at the Democratic National Committee followed these lines: If the Democrats were to stage a two hundredth birthday spectacular, whom should they invite? Naturally, staff officials thought first of the direct-mail lists stored in computers -- the people who give money to the party more .or less regularly. Then, of course, they would include all the elected officials, state, local and national, who call themselves Democrats. Why not, someone suggested, also invite the many thousands of people who are active in party affairs -- the "regulars" who serve on county committees or tend to the mechanics of election precincts or campaign operations, the legions of people who faithfully rally around the ticket?

But, it was asked, who are these people? Where are their names and addresses? The DNC staffers searched the party's files and discovered that such lists no longer exist. The Democratic party headquarters did not know the identity of its own cadres. It no longer kept the names of the people who ostensibly connect it to the millions of other citizens who are only nominally Democrats, by virtue of registration. The DNC could not even say how many Democratic "regulars" there are.

Thirty years ago, lists of names -- county by county, ward by ward -- were the muscle of party politics and a principal source of power. Many were hacks and ward heelers, hanging on to public jobs by doing political chores, but many were also skillful organizers at the humblest level, adept at pulling people into politics by talking to them, listening to them. Political careers, from the courthouse to the national legislature, even the White House, were built on these cadres.

The old lists presumably still existed, but not at party headquarters. They were believed to be in permanent storage at the National Archives -- boxes and boxes of index cards from the 1950s and 1960s with the names and addresses of the people who, in that day, made the party real. In the age of television, big money and high-tech candidacies, the "regulars" of party politics have been rendered irrelevant.

The Democratic party, as a political organization, is no longer quite real itself. The various strands of personal communication and loyalty that once made it representative and responsive to the people are gone. It exists as a historical artifact, an organizational fiction. Its inherited status -- "the oldest political party on earth" -- is the principal basis for its influence, since any candidate who calls himself a Democrat will automatically enjoy certain legal privileges not available to unaligned opponents.

The party's preferred status in the electoral arena is no longer justified, since the Democratic party no longer performs the basic functions of a political party. It acts neither as a faithful mediator between citizens and the government nor as the forum for policy debate and resolution nor even as a structure around which political power can accumulate. It functions mainly as a mail drop for political money.

"If you go to the voter files and ask people who are registered Democrats if they are party members, they wouldn't know how to respond," Michael McCurry, communications director at the DNC, said. "They don't go to any meetings or participate at all, except maybe -- maybe -- to vote." While 42 million Americans are registered as Democrats, many of them would vigorously deny that they are "party members." Like candidates who run on the party label for convenience, voters would say their registration is a matter of historical necessity, not conviction. Since the two major parties, given their preferential status, are bound to dominate the outcome of elections, one might as well sign up as a Democrat or a Republican.

If one inquires further about the true membership of the Democratic party, a reasonable surrogate is provided by the people who contribute money regularly, sending in their checks year after year, whether for $25 or $1,000. "If you're willing to part with your hard- earned cash in exchange for a newsletter or whatever, that probably qualifies as party membership," McCurry said. "Of course, the number of people who actually go to meetings and take part in debate is much smaller."

By that yardstick, the national party of Democrats is a very small organization indeed -- roughly 100,000 people. The DNC knows the number with some precision because 100,000 is the normal response rate for its direct-mail solicitations. It sends out about 400,000 letters to the names in its computer files and usually gets money back from about one fourth. In presidential election years, the response goes up sharply -- 350,000 in 1988 -- but even that group is preciously small for a nation with 180 million adults. Amnesty International, by comparison, has 450,000 dues-paying members in the United States, whom it keeps engaged in tangible political activities such as its letter-writing campaigns.

The Republican National Committee has a much broader popular base750,000 contributors in 1989, 1.2 million during the '88 election season -- but even the GOP numbers are unimpressive for a national political party.

The IAF network of community organizations represents 400,000 families in Texas alone and counts more than 2 million in its nationwide base of organizations. The National Rifle Association, with 2.5 million dues-paying members, is larger than both major political parties combined. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a lobbying group for the elderly, has 10 million members (who each pay ten dollars in dues). Its larger rival, the American Association of Retired Persons, has 32 million members (who pay five dollars a year). The National Parent-Teacher Association has 6 million members. The AFL-CIO unions have 14 million members. The Roman Catholic church, the largest organization in America, has 55 million members.

America, in other words, is a nation of active joiners and givers, as it always has been, and Americans will part with their dollars rather freely if given a plausible reason to do so. They just don't give their money to political parties.

What is it that makes these other organizations different and more convincing to people? Some of the organizations promise to provide direct political representation, a voice in the larger arena on specific matters. Unlike the Democratic National Committee, most know the names of their own cadres and can turn out their troops, quickly and massively. Some of the organizations provide people with valuable services, from economic protection to spiritual solace, from informative newsletters to insurance coverage. One way or another, all of these other organizations promise to take responsibility for their adherents.

The Democratic party does not really make that promise, aside from the rhetorical flourishes in its direct-mail solicitations. Given its weakened vitality, the party would perhaps not be believed if it did. Instead, the Democratic National Committee promises to pursue a narrower goal -- winning elections for Democratic candidates. That objective no longer excites most Americans, not enough to open their checkbooks.

The most revealing fact about the Democrats' "party members" is their age. Among the DNC's 100,000 regular contributors, the average age is seventy years old. On the whole, these elderly loyalists are the remnants of the old "regulars" -- people who probably formed their attachments to the Democratic Party forty or fifty years ago, when it stood for a clear set of ideas and represented well-defined segments of the American public. "The thing that is frightening," McCurry said, "is that it's old and getting older."

Thomas "Lud" Ashley, a former liberal Democratic congressman from Toledo, Ohio, and now president of a powerful financial lobby, the Association of Bank Holding Companies, reminisced gloomily about what has been lost -- the party's mediating capacity with citizens. The American system is no longer a democracy, Ashley attests, because "democracy is based on accountability and it's not there now.

"It may be nostalgia, but, when I was elected [in 1954], we didn't count on television," the former congressman reflected. "We counted on what had existed for one hundred years -- a political organization. Toledo wasn't Chicago, but we had precinct captains and twenty- two ward chairmen and there were monthly ward meetings that you went home and talked to. They were robust, well-attended meetings -- half business, half social. The business took forty-five minutes or an hour and then it was 'let's get into the beer.'"

"What you talked about wasn't how much you'd done about getting somebody's goddamn Social Security check or getting their uncle into the Veterans Hospital. What you talked about was public policy. What people thought about things. What they wanted done. Like, are the blacks going to move into the Polish neighborhood? Or why are some federal funds going to the downtown area when they are needed in the neighborhoods? These were Polish, Hungarian, Czech communities and there was a helluva lot of interest in what was going on in eastern Europe.

"Certainly, Vietnam was a ball-breaker. I was pro-Johnson at the time and, Christ, I had my head handed to me. For the first time in twelve years in Congress, I was booed and hissed and practically driven from the hall. So I just had to look at the War from the standpoint of my constituents. That's real accountability and I responded. I had to -- if I was going to run again.

"There's no longer the necessity for that. There's no political infrastructure to go back and report to. Members go back now and report on TV. And the local press doesn't have the slightest idea of what you're doing on public policy unless you get caught in a scandal."

The modern Democratic party does provide modest mediating services to a limited number of citizens, but only in relation to the amount of money contributed. The DNC operates an elaborate hierarchy of "donor councils" for individuals and political interests who wish to buy memberships in' the party -- $1,000 for young people, who are mostly former congressional aides active as junior lobbyists; $15,000 for corporations that want to belong to the Democratic Business Council; $5,000 or more for the wealthy individuals and lobbyists who wish to serve on the National Finance Council. The Democratic Labor Council is for unions, who are still the party's most important financiers. The most gilt- edged circle is composed of the party's three hundred "trustees" -- people who give or raise $100,000 each.

In exchange, these citizens are provided social entree to the Democratic leaders in Congress, influential committee chairmen and their key staff officials. "We like to think we give very significant benefits," said Melissa Moss, one of the DNC's fund-raising officials. "We have an annual meeting where we cover very substantive issues, roundtable discussions, quarterly meetings in the Capitol with congressional leaders. What we try to do is have a flow of ideas and let them have input into the key players, People are motivated for many reasons. Obviously, there are lobbyists who want to have as much contact as possible with key members. Others are private citizens who just want to be active."

The Democratic National Committee is weak because it performs only one function that matters to other politicians: It holds a national convention every four years to nominate someone for president. Even that event has lost most of its meaning, since nominating conventions are no longer suspenseful dramas. Because of state primaries and the decline of powerful local organizations, the outcome is already decided weeks or months before the delegates arrive to cast their votes.

Still, this is the only moment when the Democratic party exists tangibly as a national organization, and the convention gives the DNC leverage over the independently constituted state parties: If the states want their delegations seated at the national convention, they must pick them according to the national party's rules, The rules are decided, ultimately, by the 404 members of the Democratic National Committee, most of whom are longtime party activists, state chairs or people closely identified with labor, racial minorities and other constituencies that still regard the DNC as an important place from which to influence the party's direction.

Most of the state-party structures, though once important power centers themselves, are now as atrophied as the national organization. "A lot of state parties have devolved into dinner committees or debt-management committees or very small-bore local operations to pick judges and that sort of thing," said Paul Tully, the DNC's director of organization. A few states have stronger organizations -- Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, New York -- but none is what it used to be.

The power of the state parties was gradually enfeebled by the same forces that weakened the national party -- social changes that broke up the old neighborhoods and new electoral techniques that enabled individual candidates to invent their own self-centered political parties. The influence of television, among other agents of social change, obliterated the ability of the party "regulars" to mobilize voters and, in that sense, liberated politics from the control of the old machines.

But, in exchange, television politics requires huge amounts of money. Thus, a candidate who knows how to get his own money is free to design his own political agenda, however vacuous, and sell it to the voters, however deceitfully, and enter public office without any obligations to the permanent political structures -- local, state or national parties.

Every state as a result now has "networks" of money and activists assembled around individual politicians -- senators or governors who reached public office largely on their own. New Jersey has a Bill Bradley network for the senator. In Texas, there is a Lloyd Bentsen network. In Virginia, there is a Chuck Robb network. These personal affiliations are much more potent than the formal party organizations and cooperate with the party only if it serves their leaders. For the last few years, under DNC Chairman Ronald H. Brown, organizer Paul Tully has been working on fostering a higher level of mutual enterprise -- encouraging the states to build cooperative campaign machinery that works for the whole ticket.

"We act as a cajoler, seducer, nudge, donor," Tully said. "The old DNC was tied to an age when the old urban organizations were the center of things, with close ties to the AFL- IO. The DNC was the traffic cop among the big fiefdoms, rather than an organization that created its own agenda. It did what we call 'glue politics' or somebody else might call 'grease politics.' Even in a much more homogeneous party like the Republican party, there's a constant adjusting process that goes on, among personalities and so forth. But by necessity, that's inward looking. That's not looking at voters and elections and the problems of the country."

If the national committee functioned as an outward-looking agent, trying to connect with voters and their problems, it would probably be more reform-minded (and liberal) than the Democratic party reflected in Congress. Many of the DNC's members came of age in the 1960s and entered political activism through civil rights or the antiwar movement or the presidential campaigns of Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. They started out, like Tully, as insurgents against the old order. If they had the power to do so, the membership of the Democratic National Committee would likely commit the party to a much more aggressive agenda than the one the public now hears from congressional Democrats.

But they do not have the power. The DNC, because it does not attempt to connect with people in any meaningful way, is utterly dependent on the politics of money. The party headquarters is located on the top floor of the Democratic party's building on Ivy Court, a few blocks from the Capitol, but it is not the most important entity in the building. Downstairs are the congressional campaign committees, one for the Senate and one for the House. Both raise far more money and are directly connected to real power -- the incumbent members of Congress. Why should a lobbyist dump a lot of money on the national committee, when he can give it straight-out to the people who will decide his issues?

"The congressional party is the only lifeline we've got to money and legitimacy," Mike McCurry explained. "The DNC -- the party as a party -- does not have an independent base it can rely on. So whatever we do on substantive issues is done with a very close eye to what the reaction of the congressional leadership will be. Because they can shut us down very quickly." [2]

In fact, when DNC Chairman Ron Brown intruded on some issues in a way that was offensive to the Democratic leaders in Congress, he was told, rather harshly, to back off. Brown declared his strong opposition to the Republican proposal for cutting the capital- gains tax -- a perfectly orthodox position for the party of working people -- and Representative Daniel Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, reacted angrily. Rosty stayed away from the DNC's fund-raising dinner, a nasty signal that communicated his disapproval to every tax lobbyist in town. Brown was, likewise, rebuked by the party's Senate majority leader, Senator George Mitchell, and Senator Bentsen, chairman of the Finance Committee, when the DNC aggressively embraced another idea that might appeal to average voters -- cutting the regressive payroll tax for Social Security.

Everyone understands the power relationships: The congressional leaders control access to the money because of their intimate relationships with lobbyists and interests. If the Democratic party began to act like a real political party, the money would be cut off.

"A DNC chairman who gets a little too far out front," McCurry said, "can get slapped around."


When political polls ask voters to describe the Democratic party, the most frequent answer is "the party of average working people. " That used to be the overwhelming response, expressed by 50 percent of the electorate, but according to McCurry, this is now an answer given by only 13 percent. Still, it remains the single strongest element in the party's public identity.

The Democrats might more accurately be described now as "the party of Washington lawyers" -- lawyers who serve as the connective tissue within the party's upper reaches. They are the party establishment, to the extent anyone is, that has replaced the old networks of state and local political bosses. But these lawyers have no constituencies of their own and, indeed, must answer to no one, other than their clients.

Democratic lawyers who have reached this plateau are mostly veterans of past administrations or old presidential campaigns, though some served as aides to key congressional leaders. They move easily in and out of the various power centers in the Democratic Congress, dispensing political advice on the direction of the party and specific issues and also distributing that important commodity -- campaign money. Many major law firms have formed their own political action committees, so that the various strands -- party strategy, issues, money -- conveniently come together in one location. These lawyers speak, naturally enough, with a mixture of motives -- for the good of the party, presumably, but also for the benefit of the clients who are paying them.

Thomas "Lud" Ashley, the former Ohio congressman, speaks of this realm with some contempt, though he functions comfortably within it himself. Ashley served twenty-five years in the House, in the time when local political organizations still had vitality and elected representatives were compelled to listen to them. That system of accountability, he observed, has disappeared and the well-connected law firms have become an unsatisfying substitute.

"Tommy Boggs practically invents a fundraiser for someone and then he invites the member of Congress to attend," Ashley said. "There are half a dozen law firms in town that do that -- raise money and lobby. If you ask who is the Democratic party, it's those law firms. Either they go to the members and offer to raise money or the member goes to them and says, 'I'd appreciate it if you will handle my Washington fund raising,' and the collection is all taken care of for the member.

"You put the money out and you collect at the other end. You have access and more than that. Access is really a cowardly word because the legislation is the bottom line. Believe me, the money is not directed at access. It's directed at the bottom line."

Has the party of Jefferson and Jackson been reduced to the political machinations of six Washington law firms? Not quite, but Ashley's point is only modestly exaggerated. When I asked other old hands in Washington to take a stab at naming "the six law firms" who form the establishment of the Democratic party, none of them hesitated or argued with the premise. They had only marginal disagreements about which firms ought to be included.

The ubiquitous Robert Strauss of Akin, Gump, a Texan who was party chairman in the mid-1970s and U.S. trade representative in the Carter administration, was on everyone's list. The news media dubbed him "Mr. Democrat" and often seek his thoughts on party affairs, though Strauss is closer to the Republicans in the White House and to Republican corporate interests than to any bread-and-butter Democratic constituencies. His firm represents everything from Drexel Burnham Lambert to the Motion Picture Association of America, from McDonnell Douglas to AT&T. When George Bush appointed him ambassador to Moscow in 1991, it was widely understood that Strauss would be busy arranging deals for American business to develop markets and resources inside the newly liberated republics.

Others on the list of Democratic influentials would include Tommy Boggs, son of the late House floor leader, and his firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow (Ron Brown, the party chairman, is a lawyer-lobbyist in Patton, Boggs); Harry C. McPherson, Berl Bernhard and Lloyd C. Hand of Verner, Liipfert, law partners who served in government during the Kennedy-Johnson era; J. D. Williams, former Senate aide from the early 1960s, and his firm of Williams and Jensen; Charles T. Manatt, a Californian appointed national chairman by Jimmy Carter, and the Los Angeles-based firm of Manatt, Phelps; Patrick J. O'Connor, a former party treasurer and "money guy" for Hubert Humphrey, and the Minneapolis- based firm of O'Connor and Hannan.

To be less arbitrary, the list could be expanded to include selected influentials from other law firms -- Stuart E. Eizenstat, who was Carter's domestic policy advisor, or Joseph A. Califano. Jr., who was Lyndon Johnson's, or Richard Moe, who was Vice-President Walter Mondale's chief of staff, and some others. Older lawyers like Lloyd N. Cutler or Clark Clifford have been influential insiders for so many years that they have acquired the patina of statesmen, although the elderly Clifford looked more like a statesman-fixer, thanks to the BCCI banking scandal.

"Those guys really are the establishment," Mike McCurry said, "and the establishment argument is: Don't rock the boat, stay in the mainstream where everything flows smoothly."

Their accumulating political influence is largely a matter of default -- reflecting the decline of other structures within the Democratic party. Stuart Eizenstat, the former Carter aide, explained:

"If you ask me where the power centers are in the party, my answer is there aren't any. They don't exist. There's an utter vacuum of power. The New Deal coalition no longer exists. All that's left are small pieces -- a small Jewish piece, the black piece and small intellectual-labor pieces."

Ambidextrous lawyers try to fill the breach. Eizenstat, for instance, lobbies for clients and also works energetically in the role of party advisor. Among others, his Atlanta-based firm, Powell Goldstein, represents high-tech companies, housing developers and the major banks (including Lud Ashley's trade association). Eizenstat sees the political counseling as his conscientious duty to the party, not as a means of enhancing his influence, but the two roles inevitably enhance each other.

"I've spent the last two days calling as many leadership people as I could, advising them on how to handle the budget summit," Eizenstat said. "I do my piece and others do theirs, but it's extremely diffuse. I'm constantly asked privately to come to the Hill and work on things. I worked on [George] Mitchell's maiden speech as majority leader. I worked on [House Speaker Tom] Foley's state of the union response. Dick Gephardt [House majority leader] sends me drafts of his speeches."

While he is on the phone with the key players, Eizenstat sometimes does bring up other matters -- the particular political interests of his clients. "I had to make some calls for high-tech clients and get a sense of what impact the budget process will have on them," he said. "I said, as I always do, that I'm calling on behalf of such-and-such client. Then I say: I want to take my lobbyist hat off and say, 'Here's where we ought to stand as a party on this budget situation.' I don't feel any qualms about doing that."

Eizenstat is perhaps more sensitive than most to the potential for conflict, but he does not regard this as a problem for the Democratic party. "I've felt I could take my client hat off at any time and give my unvarnished views," he said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a relationship between my advice to the Democratic party and my client list."

Eizenstat's client list, nonetheless, does sometimes put him on the opposite side of issues that matter greatly to important Democratic constituencies. When organized labor was pushing for a workers' right-to-know law on toxic chemicals, Eizenstat lobbied for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), trying to weaken the measure. "That did raise some hackles with the AFL-CIO," he conceded. "I didn't oppose the bill, I tried to improve the bill." [3]

When Congress enacted the new clean-air legislation aimed at acid rain, Eizenstat represented an Indiana public-utility company, one of the sources of the pollution. The company, Public Service Indiana, liked his work so much that it made him a corporate director. "Now we've got a good one-two punch on the board of directors," a PSI official said, "good Republican clout and great Democratic clout." [4]

When public-interest reform groups urged Democratic senators to stop the White House's secret manipulations of regulations at OMB, Eizenstat lobbied to kill the measure. He represented a business coalition including aerospace, electronics, construction, computers, the NAM and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. When the largest commercial banks pushed for further financial deregulation, Eizenstat lobbied on their behalf. His firm's banking clients include Chase Manhattan, Citizens & Southern of Atlanta and the Association of Bank Holding Companies, the trade group for the major multinational banks.

Eizenstat's client list is typical of the influential Democratic lawyers, though he is perhaps more punctilious than some others about avoiding the more flagrant intraparty conflicts. It is quite routine for these important Democratic advisors to represent Republican corporate interests on economic issues in opposition to Democratic constituencies. Except for a few labor-union accounts, these lawyers do not speak for the "average working stiff" because they have been hired by his boss.

Tommy Boggs made his reputation as an effective lobbyist in the late 1970s when he persuaded Congress to provide a loan-guarantee bailout for Chrysler, a cause pushed by the United Auto Workers as well as the company. A decade later, Boggs was on the other side -- representing Japanese auto imports. The Automobile Import Dealers Association successfully hammered Chrysler and the UAW on trade issues and its Autopac pumped $2.6 million into 1988 congressional races, money that Boggs helped direct to the right places. "We basically pick our customers," Boggs explained, "by taking the first one who comes in the door." [5]

When the United Mine Workers confronted Pittston Coal in its 1988 showdown strike over health benefits, J. D. Williams of Williams and Jensen championed the company side. The Pittston strike was pivotal in the coal industry because the company had walked away from the industrywide contract obligations with the UMW and, if Pittston won, other companies would likely follow. Williams and Jensen, flanked by influential Republican lobbyists, became a clearinghouse for the coal industry, whose ultimate objective was to strip retired coal miners of guaranteed health benefits. Williams and Jensen financed an ostensibly objective study by an independent research institute to attack the soundness of the mine union's pension fund. As J. D. Williams once joked to an audience of fellow lobbyists: "If I get desperate enough, I can usually argue a case on the merits." [6]

When many active party members at the grassroots were campaigning against human-rights abuses in Central America, the Democratic firm of O'Connor and Hannan was doing political public relations for ARENA, the right-wing party implicated in the "death squads" of El Salvador. The firm's lobbying was designed to keep foreign aid flowing to the right- wing government, and it succeeded, despite the murder of six Jesuit priests by the Salvadoran military. Local Democrats. on the Minneapolis City Council were sufficiently offended by the connections to cancel the city's legal contract with O'Connor and Hannan. [7]

Bob Strauss, because his firm is so large and diverse, is often in a position where he seems to be counseling both sides in the political debate. As a high-minded statesman, "Mr. Democrat," Strauss played the advocate's role for raising taxes and cutting federal benefit programs and coaxed the two parties to come together for their grand budget summit. But, while Strauss played statesman, his law firm was busy lobbying specific tax issues on behalf of selected industries, from alcoholic beverages to mutual insurance companies. Indeed, while Strauss served on the National Economic Commission, two of his own clients, AT&T and Pepsico, filed comments with the same blue-ribbon group. The law firm dismissed any possibility of conflicting loyalties. "Strauss is clearly doing this as a public servant," his partner, Joel Jankowsky, explained. [8]
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PART 2 OF 2 (CH. 11 CONT'D.)

On trade issues, the lines of loyalty become particularly tangled. When the Democratic party geared up to enact tough trade legislation, hoping to defend American jobs, influential lobbyists like Strauss were advising the party's leaders on the broad politics of the issue, while their firms simultaneously represented the Japanese manufacturers who stood to lose if the legislation proved to be too tough. Fujitsu, the computer maker, paid Akin, Gump nearly $2 million over three years to assure that it would not be one of the losers.

For that matter, the party's national chairman, Ron Brown, also lobbied the 1988 trade bill on behalf of twenty-one Japanese electronics companies -- Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Toshiba and others. As party chairman, Brown has continued as an active member of Tommy Boggs's firm, while insisting he does not personally lobby the government for the firm's clients. [9]

The most notorious episode in which the party's lawyerly establishment ganged up on one of the party's major constituencies involved Frank Lorenzo's campaign to break the labor unions at Eastern Airlines. With a cynical understanding of how Washington works, Lorenzo deployed a virtual galaxy of Democratic influentials as his lawyers and lobbyists, hired to fend off the political counterattacks from the machinists', pilots' and stewardesses' unions. Lorenzo's team included J. D. Williams, Berl Bernhard, Robert Strauss and Tommy Boggs. David Sawyer, campaign consultant to many Democratic candidates, took care of the advertising campaign against the unions. For good measure, Lorenzo hired three former aides of Senator Teddy Kennedy, hoping to influence an important labor ally.

For all that, the Democratic lobbyists did not prevent Democrats in Congress from enacting labor-backed legislation to force Lorenzo into mediation. But the lobbyists won anyway -- by persuading the Republican president, George Bush, to veto the bill. In the end, after Lorenzo racked up $12.7 million in legal bills, his hardball antiunion tactics failed. Eastern Airlines was destroyed and thousands of jobs along with it. The Democratic lawyers and lobbyists had to go to bankruptcy court to collect their fees. [10]

The political clout of the well-connected lawyers is actually strongest on the many public matters where no such visible conflict develops. As Lorenzo's fight demonstrated, they cannot always prevail if they go head-to-head against a fully mobilized constituency like organized labor. But they act like silent watchdogs for various economic interests on a vast range of public issues where citizens are not aroused -- insuring that Democratic lawmakers do not intrude on their clients' turf.

If one asks, for instance, why the Democratic party never did anything during the 1980s to confront the various abuses and instabilities unfolding in the financial system, a power analysis of the party establishment might provide the answer. These Democratic lawyers and lobbyists represent many diverse sectors of the economy, but none more comprehensively than banking and finance. The nation's leading banks and brokerages have assembled a formidable team of Democrats to protect them from hostile legislation:

Bob Strauss (Drexel Burnham, Morgan Stanley, Texas S&Ls), Chuck Manatt (California S&Ls, the California Bankers Association, First Bank System), J. D. Williams (First Boston), Richard Moe (Morgan Guaranty), Berl Bernhard (Investment Company Institute, the trade group for the mutual-fund industry), Joe Califano (Bankers Trust, Fannie Mae), Stuart Eizenstat (Chase Manhattan, Association of Bank Holding Companies), Lloyd Cutler (Citibank, Bank Capital Markets Association), O'Connor and Hannan (Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, Securities Industry Association), Tommy Boggs (American Express, Bear Stearns, Chicago Board Options Exchange, Paine Webber).

Given their client list, one may assume that these party advisors were not counseling the Democratic party to make a political issue of the reckless behavior that characterized Wall Street in the 1980s. They did not urge Democrats to go after Michael Milken's junk bonds and the leveraged buyouts that cannibalized companies or the gutted financial regulations that produced bank failures and taxpayer bailouts or the high interest rates and debt crises that devastated small business, farmers, labor, housing and manufacturing.

One may reasonably assume that, whenever the subject of these financial disorders came up in private political discussions, the lawyers faithfully defended the behavior of their clients and the status quo that proved so costly to the nation. These party counselors would have no incentive to address the financial disorders or even acknowledge that they existed, since their own clients were profitably engaged in exploiting the disorderly conditions. The power to define the outlines of a public problem, as we have seen in other matters, is usually the power to define its solution. The power to keep an issue off the public agenda is just as valuable.

The financial system was further protected by its money, which many of these same lawyers routinely dispense to Democratic campaigns. Anomalous as it may seem, Wall Street is a major source of financing for the party of working people. "Harry Horowitz was Michael Milken's money guy," a congressional staff aide explained, "and, if you started looking in everyone's Rolodex, you'd find Harry's name in every one of them. Because he was the guy you went to when you wanted Drexel's help raising money. The financial industry has this whole infrastructure of money people -- and it's the easiest, quickest way to raise $250,000."

"The dependence on Wall Street money really suppresses argument," Mike McCurry explained. "If you have come back from your fifth fundraising trip of the year, where you schlepped up and down Wall Street with your tin cup, then you listen to these guys making their arguments about the efficiency of financial deregulation and so forth, you begin to say, yeah, they've got a point."

The influential law firms are only part of the money network, of course, but a growing segment. Legal Times found that by 1988, 157 law firms had established their own PACs. Common Cause estimated that the Washington lawyers in both parties have spread around nearly $5 million in recent years. More than 70 percent of each major party's contributions now come from corporations, according to Charles R. Babcock of The Washington Post. [11]

The most pernicious effect of campaign money is probably not on the legislative roll calls, but in how money works to keep important new ideas off the table -- ideas that might find a popular constituency among citizens, but would offend important contributors. Robert Shrum, a campaign consultant to many Democratic candidates, has witnessed many campaign-strategy sessions where new ideas were discreetly buried.

"It costs so much to get elected and re-elected," Shrum said, "that the system inhibits anyone from taking positions that will be too controversial and will make it more difficult to raise money. Do people in a campaign say that directly? No. What they say is: 'What's the responsible position on this issue?' That's a code word for fund raising. Even when it's not consciously used as a code word, that's the effect."

However, the process of giving and getting the money is more casual than many critics imagine and generally not defined by concrete bargains of quid pro quo. A congressional aide described a typical transaction:

In the morning, one of these Democratic bank lobbyists called on the senator's staff to plead the case for repealing federal regulations on commercial banks. Since the senator is a liberal Democrat and, as the lobbyist knew, almost certain to oppose the banks, the conversation was strictly informational and relaxed. In the afternoon, quite by coincidence, the senator's staff telephoned the same lobbyist, in the process of trying to raise campaign money for a struggling congressional candidate, an underfunded challenger who was not likely to win.

Though he had no interest in the race, the lobbyist cheerfully agreed to make a contribution and even volunteered to call some other Democratic lobbyists to raise money. It was no big deal, just a bit of back scratching among people with mutual political attachments. The exchange was done, not in return for particular favors, but "for the good of the party."

The popular image of rank bribery misses the supple essence of how political money works. Though explicit bribery does sometimes occur in these transactions, the exchanges are more routinely among friends -- not buyers and sellers, but people with shared interests in the long-run political prospects.

The way to understand political money is to think of it as building "relationships." Just as the IAP community organizers try to weave new political relationships through personal contact and meetings, the lawyer-lobbyists use their money to nurture their relationships with politicians and party. Nobody is buying anybody -- these are old friends. When money passes among friends, they need not ask what it is for. It is for friendship -- the bonds of loyalty and trust.

None of these various political transactions poses any questions of legality or even personal ethics for the Democratic lawyers themselves. This is how they make their living; political influence is what they sell to their clients.

The ethical problem belongs to the Democratic party. Relying so intimately on Washington lawyers for the party's sense of direction necessarily obscures the grievances of distant constituencies. It blocks awkward questions about large public problems that involve private clients -- who is being served and who is being injured? -- and leads the party off toward harmless distractions. For disappointed constituents, who are distant and unorganized and unrepresented, the arrangement understandably smells like betrayal from the top down.


Because it operates without a superstructure based on organized people, the Democratic party has ceded another important function of political parties to organized money -- the process of developing the big ideas that will form the party's public-policy agenda and campaign strategy. In theory, the two are the same: A political party is supposed to find out what its adherents want as a program for government, then translate those goals and ideas into slogans that will communicate them to the electorate and persuade a majority of voters.

In Democratic circles, the process mostly works backward. Party leaders talk obsessively about how to package the right slogans -- the words and phrases that might have won the last election -- but they seem awkwardly shy about developing the content of how they would actually govern. The confusion is natural for• any party out of power, denied the centralizing focus of the presidency, but for Democrats it is compounded because they still do hold power in Congress -- where every splinter of congressional influence clings to its own narrow governing agenda.

Practically speaking, informal exchanges among the party's congressional leaders are often the only time when the party attempts to devise a "national program" of policies and election themes. Even this process is quite random, driven by the need to prepare important speeches or party responses to the Republican president's initiatives. Many voices will be heard in these discussions, from the AFL-CIO to the Black Caucus, but the inner circle of consultants always includes "party elders" like Robert Strauss or Stuart Eizenstat or Richard Moe.

"A set of players always put themselves in play on the words that are going to come out of Tom Foley's mouth," said one party strategist who participates himself. "Eizenstat and Moe and these other guys will show up and you don't know whether it's their clients talking or their intellectual vanity or their own presidential strategic knowledge. They always give the same advice: 'Don't cut defense because you'll look soft on defense.' 'Don't try to do anything big because you'll look like big spenders.' This reflects the limits of their imagination, not crass motives."

The Democratic establishment is understandably burdened by its own past and tends to dwell on what went wrong in the last presidential election: The Republican party has accumulated a thick stratum of experienced managers from winning campaigns for the White House (the late Lee Atwater, the 1988 campaign manager, counted more than twenty-five people in the Bush campaign who had each worked in at least three presidential contests). The Democratic party leadership, meanwhile, is counseled mainly by people who devised strategy for the losers. They worked in the White House when Lyndon Johnson launched the war in Vietnam. They helped Jimmy Carter design his re-election strategy. They were advisors to the disastrous campaigns of 1984 and 1988.

Preoccupied with their old mistakes, they dwell upon the value-laden issues -- race, crime, abortion, national defense -- that drew millions of Democrats from the ranks of the white working class to the Republican ticket. What they seldom discuss, however, is a coherent economic program and the issues relevant to work, wages and the precarious living standards of ordinary families. New policies in these areas would give disaffected Democrats a real reason to vote Democratic once again, but would also conflict with the interests of the financially powerful important clients.

Beyond the level of these informal conversations, the larger task of policy formulation for the Democratic party is mostly left to others -- the private realm of think tanks and sponsored research. Washington is a perpetual stage for self-important conferences and policy bulletins, announcing "new ideas" or exhuming old ones, debating ideological distinctions or proposing new language that might connect with the public's anxieties.

These materials are rich in intellectual argumentation and statistical proofs, but inclined toward an abstract, rhetorical version of politics. They provide the fodder for an enjoyable kind of parlor politics -- a running debate that attracts scholars and journalists and some politicians. But the participants tend to view politics pristinely, as an earnest search for correct ideas, not as the fierce struggle for power.

Everyone might be said to have a voice in this dialogue, given the variety of think tanks and front groups. The Children's Defense Fund mobilizes for children. The Economic Policy Institute articulates economic ideas and arguments on behalf of labor. Inevitably, however, the process of policy formulation is dominated by wealth. It requires lots of money, so monied interests naturally can do more of it.

"I call it America's second party system," said political scientist Thomas Ferguson. "All of the thinking about policy that political parties are supposed to do has been off-loaded onto the foundation world. It's very expensive. You have to have a pile of money, you have to be able to maintain it over time. Left-liberal organizations depend on tax-exempt money too, so there's no longer an independent base in the American public for formulating policy ideas."

In theory, as Ferguson pointed out, a political party is supposed to help ordinary citizens overcome these cost-of-entry barriers. The cost of gathering information and developing policies is prohibitively high for most citizens; when the party assumes the responsibility, it spreads the burden among many and thus reduces entry costs for all. American political parties instead delegate the policy process to others, letting them pay for it and, therefore, shape it.

In addition to the established think tanks, most of the "policy commissions" created in recent years to feed new ideas to the Democratic party were invented and manned by figures from the old establishment. The policy papers they produced were predictably unprovocative, reflecting the conservative reflexes of their patrons. Their bland ideas proved to be highly perishable. One of these groups, the Center for National Policy, was run by Kirk O'Donnell, former aide to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who after the 1988 election left the center to work as a lobbyist in Bob Strauss's law firm. Working for Akin, Gump would be "most exciting," O'Donnell declared with unintended irony, because the law firm's policy agenda "is as broad as the center's." [12]

The lawyer-lobbyist establishment launched a more ambitious effort to redirect the Democratic party when Robert Strauss and others raised corporate money to finance the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of elected politicians dedicated to returning the party to the "mainstream." The council promoted southern business conservatives like Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Charles S. Robb of Virginia as presidential prospects and issued policy papers on what it deemed to be "mainstream" ideas.

The boundaries of the "mainstream" were defined by the DLC's donors from corporate America -- ARCO, the American Petroleum Institute, Dow Chemical, Prudential Bache, Georgia Pacific, Martin Marietta and many others. At its 1990 conference in New Orleans, as Paul Taylor reported in The Washington Post, the audience was decidedly not enthusiastic when some speakers called for tax cuts for working people, since the majority of the conference audience was composed of corporate lobbyists, many of whom were not even Democrats. [13]

The DLC's main objective, however, was an attack on the Democratic party's core constituencies -- labor, schoolteachers, women's rights groups, peace and disarmament activists, the racial minorities and supporters of affirmative action. Its stated goal was to restore the party's appeal to disaffected white males, especially in the South, but the DLC discussions did not focus on the economic decline afflicting those citizens. Instead, it promoted the notion that Democrats must distance themselves from the demands of women or blacks or other aggrieved groups within the party. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and his provocative economic agenda aimed at workers, white and black, was a favorite target of the Democratic Leadership Council and, on Capitol Hill, the DLC was sometimes waggishly referred to as "the white boys' caucus."

Thus, in addition to all its other organizational weaknesses, the Democratic party is divided by nasty ideological combat between the party's Washington elites and its rank-and-file constituencies -- the people at the grassroots who are most active in Democratic politics. The establishment's quarrel was with the party's own voters. The people they belittled as "activists" and "interest groups" were the very people who cared most intensely about public issues and who formed the faithful core of the party's electorate, win or lose.

The Democratic establishment did not wish to initiate a dialogue with these citizens, only to make them go away or at least keep their mouths shut. The party elite had no intention of sharing its own policy deliberations with Democrats at large or trying to re-engage people in governing politics by rebuilding the organizational connections that have been lost. The elites wished only to form a governing consensus around the supposed "mainstream" -- their mainstream, the one they have already formulated in Washington.

The stubborn and resourceful citizens at the grassroots remain a nettlesome presence in Democratic politics because they do sometimes succeed in disrupting the high-blown policy consensus formed by the elite circles. Be cause they are real voters and capable of mobilizing other real voters, they Can sometimes compel the politicians to address their cause, especially in party primaries when the voter turnout is so weak.

The despised activists are like the organizing cadres of the old politics, except that these new "regulars" operate freelance across the electorate. They, are detached themselves, without any formal party structure for debate and compromise, without any way to form relationships of accountability and shared responsibility with those in power.

Their sort of active engagement was once regarded as an asset, the kind of indigenous energy that a functioning political party sought out and nurtured. In the contemporary Democratic party, the "regulars" at the grassroots are regarded as an impediment to governing.


Nothing is likely to change until people decide to change it. This is a truism of democracy, but it has special application to the deterioration of the Democratic party and, ultimately, to the deeper dimensions of decay in the governing processes. If the public's voice has been lost, it cannot be restored without a political party to speak for it. Citizens cannot hope to rediscover their connection to power without exercising the collective power that is available to them through elections.

None of the deeper problems of government described in this book, whatever plausible solutions may exist, are likely to be addressed until this sort of political development occurs. Someone will have to invent a genuine political party that takes active responsibility for its adherents. This is an awesomely large project, of course, for it literally means trying to construct piece by piece, in the fractured modern society, the personal and institutional relationships that might draw people back into the process of democratic governance.

The Democratic party, given the legacy of Jefferson and Jackson, seems a likelier candidate for this sort of renewal. Its advanced state of deterioration makes it vulnerable to change. The Republican party, on the other hand, contains its own reform energies and also has a better intuitive grasp of modern political circumstances. Neither party, however, is going to undertake this regeneration on its own -- since democratic renewal would radically threaten all of the existing power relationships in American politics.

To visualize what is required, contrast the hollow organization called the Democratic party with the vibrant and fast-growing political organizations that the Industrial Areas Foundation has fostered in Texas and Brooklyn and Baltimore and many other places. Imagine, for instance, that the Democratic party decided to do for people what the IAF organizations have already succeeded in doing -- that is, talk with people face-to-face and listen seriously to what they say about politics.

The political parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the empty politics of TV commercials, but nothing on authentic human conversations. Imagine, for instance, if the Democratic party devoted a few million each year to party building from the ground up -- talking and listening to real people in their communities, hiring organizers to draw people out of their isolation and into permanent relationships with organizations that would speak for them, that they themselves could steer. Imagine if some of the patience -- and the respect for ordinary people -- of the IAF's organizations were borrowed by the Democrats.

If a political party started such a dialogue with people in many places, it would no doubt hear the hot discontent of unfiltered public opinion on virtually every subject (including the complaints recounted in this book). This would not exactly be news to elected politicians, since they already collect that information continuously through polling and focus groups and other techniques. But opinion polls and even focus groups are marketing techniques, not conversations. They are designed, not to produce responsive government, but to manipulate voters and harvest enough votes to win elections.

In order to be genuine, a renewed political party would have to start the dialogue with a radically different purpose -- taking responsibility for the party" s adherents, rather than simply winning elections for the party's candidates. Winning elections and attaining power is essential, of course, to achieving anything for people, but the integrity of a political organization is determined by which of these goals it puts first. As most people understand, the Democratic party (and the Republican party, as we shall see) is now devoted mainly to using people as a means to its own end -- winning the elections. Not surprisingly, once people see through this, they do not stick around to become loyal cadres for the long term.

Aggregating the political power of organized people requires an institutional commitment to remaining loyal to them, a commitment they can believe and trust. That would necessitate building a permanent, enduring presence with intimate ties to citizens and communities, not an organization that comes and goes in election seasons. It would require an organization that delivers something real in return for the people's presence.

What would a real party give people? A forum for democratic conversations, a place to say things about public concerns and a place to teach about them, a structure around which political consensus could develop its power. Ultimately, it would also have to promise something larger -- a viable channel by which these voices could be carried upward in the structures of power and taken seriously. A political party with these qualities would not have allowed the savings and loan disaster to be evaded, then dumped on the taxpayers. A political party committed to its own adherents would not have stood by silently while elected politicians jimmied the tax code to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

The old party system, of course, was itself far short of genuine democracy, often corrupt or closed to outsiders. But, before its neighborhood cadres were eclipsed by television and big-money politics, they did provide real connections for many people. The party's organizational strength drew upon the permanence of church and neighborhood and union affiliations and other secondary mediating institutions that are now weakened too. Creating a new place for people in politics, one that is truly open to all, is now much harder to accomplish, given the alienation and social distance that have developed.

But no one really knows what might come forth from citizens if a political party set out to create a serious structure for communication and accountability, since neither major party has ever tried it. Judging from the enormous political energies already randomly at work around the nation, the cynics might be surprised by who turns up at the meetings.

Most people, understandably, will not come just to hear more talk. To be real, the party would also have to begin doing real things for people -- even the kind of humble services that ward heelers once provided constituents, though these chores would not necessarily involve the usual patronage and street repair issues.

A local political organization might, for instance, undertake the responsibility of overseeing federal law enforcement in its community -- assuming the role of permanent watchdog and thereby spreading the costs among many people. Do the federal agencies actually enforce the labor and environmental laws in the community or don't they? If not, why not? It would be most disruptive for a local political party to start asking such questions or showing up at all those regulatory hearings alongside the citizens who are trying to get the government to listen.

Or a local party might become a willing civic agency that volunteers to assist a community with its tangible problems, large or small. Millions of citizens, for example, lack health- insurance coverage for emergencies; the party might arrange pool coverage for those who need it. Labor unions help their young members find bargain rates for mortgages; a political party could do the same. In recent years, the Industrial Areas Foundation's network of community organizations has built four thousand homes across the nation for people who could not previously afford to own one. If that seems trivial compared to the scale of the nation's housing crisis, it is four thousand more homes than the Democratic party has built.

At the Democratic National Committee, Mike McCurry once urged his colleagues to undertake what he calls the "service approach" to politics. He envisioned a national party that would help state and local organizations engage themselves in the most pedestrian civic enterprises -- from helping the PTA with its book sale to cleaning up abandoned buildings to working at a car wash for the church remodeling fund. The idea, he said, would be to foster a permanent pool of volunteers called Democrats "so that when people are trying to accomplish something, they would say: Call the Democrats, they always have people."

McCurry's colleagues didn't get it. "Their reaction," he said, "was, 'What would that have to do with winning a campaign? Why should we go out and do bake sales with the Girl Scouts when our problem is getting votes?' If it's not hard-core politics, they're not interested."

The deeper obstacle to reforming the Democratic party from the ground up is that no one who now shares power in the party structure, however marginally, will be in favor of it -- not elected senators and representatives who are secure in their seats, not the lawyer- lobbyist establishment in Washington, not major constituencies like organized labor nor even many of the reform groups that surround the party and interact with it.

All of these players have their own discontents and insecurities with the present arrangement, but none has much incentive to seek radical changes. Expecting them to lead the way to democratic renewal is asking them to put their own power at risk, to make themselves accountable to other citizens in new and potentially threatening ways.

Real change, if it comes at all, would likely have to originate with angry outsiders, the citizens who are willing to attack the status quo on its own ground and create an alternative example of how democratic politics ought to function. This makes the challenge even more daunting, of course, because all the usual barriers argue the impossibility of such an undertaking. The history of third parties in American politics, for instance, is that they do not gain power, though they do sometimes create important momentum for new ideas and aspirations. The accumulated protections of incumbent Democrats, from the special- interest money to the campaign laws that favor them, are all formidable barriers to insurgents, whether they attack from inside or outside the party.

The vulnerability of the Democratic party is obvious, however, in terms of the party's own atrophied organizational structure. There are no people left. In many locations, the party organization is tended by a graying cadre of aging loyalists who perform the mechanics and not much else.

The seeds of insurgency are also visible and scattered throughout the party in many places. They are the people who have come into party politics as outsiders -- especially women, blacks and Hispanics -- and who want the Democratic party to become something more than a mail drop for corporate donations. They are the restless dissidents in organized labor who are fed up with feckless Democrats who take labor's money, then abandon workers on the key economic issues. If the Democratic party regenerates as an organization, it will likely occur because those people have decided to seize control and raise their own concerns to higher visibility.

"In most parts of this country," McCurry said, "anyone who walked in the door with enough people could take it over and do what they wanted. The oldtimers would probably welcome the new blood because they're dying off themselves."

If people undertook such challenges and won control of the county committee, what would they win? Not much of anything, in present terms, since the local and state party organizations have no power either. The only purpose would be to make those organizations into something different -- real assemblies of people. Elected Democrats, kept in power by their own political networks, might well react indifferently or hostilely at first. But they would be compelled in time to listen respectfully to a party organization that begins to speak authentically for their own constituents.

Despite the conventional wisdom, my own analysis is that the political status quo is also highly vulnerable to a concerted electoral assault from citizens. The rising popular resentment aimed at all elected incumbents demonstrates the potential for such an effort.

Certainly, many incumbents do feel insecure, despite their comfortable victories in the past. In the 1990 elections, for instance, some senators and representatives who had grossly outspent their opponents by margins as large as eight to one or ten to one found themselves in dangerously close contests, winning by a few thousand votes over unknown opponents.

All politicians, regardless of their ideology or personal competence, understand the same basic thing about power: Losing the election is what matters in politics. Everything else is mood and methodology and fine talk. Any force that threatens politicians with defeat or even raises the percentage of risk can accumulate power.

If not losing the election means raising lots of money in advance, then power flows to the sources of money. If not losing means yielding to the specific demands of a single-issue organization, the gun owners or retirees or antiabortion forces, then those groups will gain some power. If• not losing means responding to the agenda proposed by a democratic organization of voting constituents, then most incumbents will try to respond to that too -- if not for lofty democratic reasons, then because they do not wish to become former incumbents.

Political power, in other words, flows to the new margins -- to the new voters or interests that intrude on the status quo. They may not yet represent a majority but their assembled numbers can force a decisive shift in political behavior if they threaten to disrupt the settled assumptions about what wins or loses an election. This effect is especially true for elections in a representative assembly like Congress, though obviously less so in the broader national contests for the presidency.

In Congress, the power exerted by a relative handful of intruders radiates rather quickly through the entire membership as other politicians calculate the implications for themselves. In my observation, nothing captures the attention of senators and representatives more firmly than the shock of seeing four or five of their colleagues blindsided in an election -- defeated by a popular issue no one had anticipated or by an assembly of citizens no one had taken seriously. Typically, regardless of party or political persuasion, the members try to adjust quickly to this new threat, if they can, so that they will not be the next target.

In other words, politicians do respond to the danger posed by newly engaged voters, if only to protect themselves. Conscientious citizens, entering the electoral arena in a purposeful way, would have to pick their shots carefully, but they would not have to organize the entire Republic in order to begin leveraging change in the political system.

The truly difficult part would be to develop focused political objectives that resonate authentically with the army of fed-up citizens -- the political ideas that people could call their own and would march behind confidently. In order to accomplish that, citizens would have to get serious about power themselves. Do they really want to be engaged with governing power and take some responsibility for it or don't they?
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:45 am


The contemporary Republican party seems brilliantly suited to the modern age, for it has perfected the art of maintaining political power in the midst of democratic decay. The party of Lincoln has become the party of mass marketing, applying marketing's elaborate technologies to the task of winning elections. From this, it has fashioned a most improbable marriage of power -- a hegemony of monied interests based on the alienation of powerless citizens.

As men of commerce, Republicans naturally understood marketing better than Democrats, and they applied what they knew about selling products to politics with none of the awkward hesitation that inhibited old-style politicians. As a result, voters are now viewed as a passive assembly of "consumers," a mass audience of potential buyers. Research discovers through scientific sampling what it is these consumers know or think and, more important, what they feel, even when they do not know their own "feelings." A campaign strategy is then designed to connect the candidate with these consumer attitudes. Advertising images are created that will elicit positive responses and make the sale.

To understand the basic approach, one has only to watch an evening of television, not the programs but the commercials. There are wondrous things to behold on TV -- cars that turn into sleek panthers and stallions, or that take off and fly like jet airplanes. Beers that magically produce jiggling young women in bikinis. Basketball shoes that allow small boys to soar like gazelles. There are patriotic soaps and talking toilets and phallic deodorants. In this dimension of reality, a presidential candidate who is actually a cowboy on horseback seems quite plausible.

The essential transaction in modern marketing is that most products are separated from their intrinsic qualities -- since most brands are basically not that different -- and imbued with fabulous mythical attributes that attract buyers. Consumers understand (at least most do) that cars will not fly and that underarm deodorants do not increase sexual potency. Still, the advertising's fantasies provide as good a reason as any to choose one brand over another that is just the same.

"Increasingly people buy a product not because of its benefits but because they identify, or strive to identify, with the kind of people they think use it," Karen Olshan, a senior vice- president of BBDO, explained to a business-magazine writer. Paula Drillman, executive director of strategic research at McCann Erickson, emphasized that consumer emotions are a more reliable basis for selling than the "rational benefits" of the product itself.

"Rational benefits are vulnerable," she explained, "because with today's technology it's easy to knock off a competitor's innovation quickly or play on his marketing turf. Emotional bonds, on the other hand, are hard to break." [1]

The same logic has now become the prevailing rule for political competition in the media age. Campaign consultants and managers describe the electoral process in the same dispassionate -- and amoral -- terms. Elections are for selling, not for governing and certainly not for accountability. The selling depends, not on rational debate or real differences, but on concocting emotional bonds between the candidate and the audience.

"We had only one goal in the campaign and that was to elect George Bush," Lee Atwater, Bush's 1988 campaign manager, told The New York Times. "Our campaign was not trying to govern the country."

"Campaigns are not for educating," GOP consultant Douglas Bailey told The Washington Post. "They're for linking up with the public mood." [2]

No one gets educated in election seasons -- neither voters nor candidates -- because provocative new ideas may disrupt the formation of emotional ties. Discussing the actual content of governing issues simply complicates the message. "Pollsters are so good that it is possible to know at every minute what people think," Doug Bailey told a Washington seminar. "No political leader needs to guess at what the people think about any issue and, therefore, there is no need ever to go out and lead." [3]

In this realm, Democrats have had to overcome certain cultural disadvantages. Their political experience originates., for the most part, in old-fashioned organizational settings, labor unions or protest movements or good-government causes. Republican managers came from backgrounds in public relations, advertising and corporate management, all of which are familiar with the contours of advertising messages. Democrat Mike McCurry described his party's handicap: "Our idea of politics is to go out and build coalitions among different groups and so you don't get 'Big Think.' You get 'Big Think' from the corporate culture of mass communications."

Much of what currently passes for strategic planning within the Democratic party is actually a forlorn discussion about how to emulate the Republican party's mass-marketing skills. As Democrats learn to catch up, the content and relevance of election campaigns naturally becomes even less satisfying to those expecting a serious debate about governing agendas. The conduct of contemporary electoral politics is like what would happen if an automobile company decided to fire its engineers and let the advertising guys design the new model. The car they package might sell. It just wouldn't run very well.

The familiar problems that afflict political campaigns and elicit much earnest commentary in the news media -- the mushrooming costs and the rise of negative "attack" ads -- are actually mass-marketing problems that originate in the domain of commercial advertising. In the last decade, according to The Wall Street Journal, the average cost of a thirty- second spot on prime-time television went from $57,900 to $122,000 -- even though the networks' primetime audience was shrinking. A major advertiser like Budweiser beer spent three dollars a barrel on its marketing in 1980 -- and nine dollars a barrel ten years later., This marketing inflation swallows up campaign treasuries too and puts an even higher premium on a candidate's ability to raise money.

Given the soaring costs, every commercial advertiser is haunted by the same question about the TV spots: Is anyone actually getting the message? The American audience is now overwhelmed by random bursts of advertising -- 300 messages a day for the average consumer, 9,000 a month, 109,500 a year. A TV spot may be shocking or funny or even visually beautiful, but it won't sell anything if the viewer cannot even remember the name of the sponsor. One survey found that 80 percent of viewers could not remember a commercial's content one day after seeing it. Some corporate sponsors are now using encephalograms to measure the brain waves of sample viewers in order to find out which commercials actually agitate the psyche; perhaps brain scans will be the next emerging technology in political campaigns as well. [4]

Politicians face the same dilemma as the beer industry: They are spending more and more money on messages that get weaker and weaker in terms of eliciting a reliable response from voters. That is the primary reason for the proliferation of negative ads in campaigns -- the need to be heard, not the declining morals of candidates. Negative attacks are more exciting and, therefore, more memorable to viewers. They deliver provocative information that is more likely to stick in the minds of the audience -- the buyer-voter who is besotted each evening with glossy appeals for his loyalty. Politics is merely following the negative trend in commercial advertising, where more and more companies are sponsoring their own "attack ads" on the competing products.

"Given the distaste most voters have for politicians," Democratic consultant Greg Schneider explained, "it is immeasurably easier to make your opponent unacceptable than to make yourself acceptable."

Exhortations to conscience from the press are not likely to reverse this trend. So long as political communication depends so singularly on expensive mass media, the competition for attention will drive the most high-minded candidates to explore the low road -- because it promises a more efficient use of scarce advertising dollars. Republican campaign managers seem to understand this better than Democrats,' especially during presidential campaigns.

As an organization, the Republican party shares many of the Democrats' problems: a client-based Washington establishment, a very weak party structure and the same preoccupation with political money. Republicans also lack connective tissue -- people in communities who are reliably linked to the people in power. Paul Weyrich, a conservative reformer who is president of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, remarked: "The difficulty with the Republican party is that in large areas of the country, it doesn't exist."

But the Grand Old Party is more successful than the Democrats at raising political money and at deploying it. "The Republican National Committee has more influence than the Democratic Committee," said lobbyist Chuck Fishman, "because it puts together more money and assistance for campaigns. Industry gets calls. Then Republicans in Congress are invited to the industry dinners. You're getting the money and they're getting your vote and everybody's happy. That doesn't happen at the DNC."

The Republican party is less burdened than Democrats by the ethical implications of these money transactions. After all, it is the party of business enterprise. From Lincoln forward, it has always defended propertied wealth and corporations against the political claims of workers and others, so there is not the same tension of implicit betrayal when Republicans collect huge treasuries from business interests or wealthy individuals and institutions. Indeed, if the Republican party exists mainly to defend and enhance the monied interests, it has been a spectacularly effective political institution in recent years.

The more challenging question about the Republican party is how it manages to accomplish this -- since the political results seem to pose a democratic contradiction. It wins national elections, often overwhelmingly, yet it is the party that most faithfully represents the minority, namely wealth holders. The Republican hegemony of the 1980s demonstrably benefited the few over the many -- in private incomes and tax burdens, as well as in the distribution of public services. Yet its electoral success was undiminished, at least at the presidential level.

Nor can the contradiction be explained as public ignorance, since the public knows that the GOP is the party of money. In a New York Times/CBS survey, conducted in the midst of the 1988 presidential election, 64 percent of the electorate identified the Republican party as the party of the rich. Only 20 percent said it treats all classes equally; only 9 percent described Republicans as the party of the middle class. Furthermore, most people seem to have a roughly accurate sense of what Republican economic policy accomplished during the 1980s. They at least know their own tax burden grew while corporations and the wealthy enjoyed huge tax cuts. [5]

How does the GOP overcome this handicap? The Democratic party helped substantially by retreating from its own position as the party of labor and the "little guy." When there are no dramatic differences of substance between two candidates or two parties, the impact of the fantasy qualities concocted in TV ads grows even stronger. After all, one deodorant is pretty much like any other. The buyer who relies on sexy advertising images to choose his deodorant is not different from a voter who chooses a candidate on the same basis. Since the politicians all sound alike, he may as well vote for the guy with all the American flags.

Republicans have also succeeded through marketing themes that connect powerfully and positively with the deepest national values: patriotism; America's singular sense of itself in the world; our faith in individual work and enterprise; our abundant optimism. This success, however, still does not get at the heart of the explanation.

The party of money wins power in national elections mainly by posing as the party of the disaffected. From its polling and other research data, it concocts a rancid populism that is perfectly attuned to the age of political alienation -- a message of antipower. "I think power is evil," said Lee Atwater, the Republican campaign manager who became national party chairman. The basic equation of Republican success, he explained in an interview shortly after the 1988 election, is: "us against them."

"Simply put," Atwater said, "there is constantly a war going on between the two parties for the populist vote. The populist vote is always the swing vote. It's been the swing vote in every election. The Democrats have always got to nail Republicans as the party of the fat cats, in effect, the party of the upper class and privilege. And the Democrats will maintain that they are the party of the little man, the common man. To the extent they're successful, Republicans are unsuccessful." [6]

The term "populism," so abused in modern usage, is now applied routinely to almost any idea or slogan that might actually appeal to ordinary people. In history, the Populists of the late nineteenth century constituted a specific citizens' movement that was rich in democratic promise and farsighted ideas. Calling themselves the People's party, the farmers of the South and Middle West revolted against both major parties and the emerging dominance of corporate capitalism. They fell short of power themselves, but their far-sighted ideas lived and many were subsequently adopted in government. By that historical standard, there is very little in the trivial sentiments of modern politics that qualifies as genuinely "populist." [7]

When the term is used now, it usually means to convey not ideas, but a political mood -- resentment against established power, distrust of major institutions and a sense of powerlessness. In this period of history, it is perhaps not an accident that so many of the effective political managers are southerners. The South understands alienation better than the rest of the nation. Feelings that were once peculiar to a single section of America -- the defeated region within the nation -- have now taken over the national mood. The winning strategies of modern Republicans owe more to George Wallace than to Barry Goldwater.

Uniting alienated voters into political coalition with the most powerful economic interests has a distinctly old-fashioned flavor of southern demagoguery, since the strategy requires the party to agitate the latent emotional resentments and turn them into marketable political traits. The raw materials for this are drawn from enduring social aggravations -- wounds of race, class and religion, even sex.

The other party's candidate is not simply depicted as unworthy of public office, but is connected to alien forces within the society that threaten to overwhelm decent folk -- libertine sexual behavior, communists, criminals, people of color demanding more than they deserve. The Republican party, thoroughly modern itself, poses as the bulwark against unsettling modernity. The TV political hucksters, utterly amoral themselves, promise to restore a lost moral order.

None of this is ever said very directly but is communicated superbly in the evocative images of TV commercials -- pictures that do not need words. The method might seem overly coy to an earlier generation of racial demagogues, but the meaning does not elude an audience fully experienced at reading symbolic images on TV.

George Bush's "Willie Horton" became the topic at every dinner table in 1988, just as Atwater hoped, and was actually the most interesting event in the long, dreary presidential campaign. Is this an issue of prison furloughs for convicted murderers or is it really about black men raping white women? Two years later Senator Jesse Helms won re-election in North Carolina with a devastating commercial called "White Hands" -- white hands replaced by black hands. Is this an argument about affirmative-action "quotas" or is it really about white people who resent uppity black people? No one can ever settle these arguments, any more than one can prove that the Budweiser commercials exploit adolescent sexual craving to sell beer.

These Republican messages build bridges across class lines. They give people who are not themselves well-to-do and do not share the economic interests of traditional Republicans a reason to join the party of money. The Republican party cannot win without them, as it well knows, so it must assemble a set of ideas that will attract millions of voters from the lower middle stratum of the economy -- disaffected Democrats with conservative social and religious values -- who are persuaded to see their old party as "them" and the GOP as "us."

The millions of Democrats drawn to the Republican ticket in the 1980s "are always looking for a reason to come home," Atwater explained. "If they could maintain that, well, you know, finally here's a Democrat, not a lot of difference between him and Bush, they could say: We get to vote Democratic again. So we felt like, if we didn't get out and draw the differences, we'd lose. " The differences between Michael Dukakis and George Bush were the hot images constructed for the 1988 campaign -- the "Harvard-boutique liberal" who was soft on Willie Horton and didn't even believe in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Race is only one of the bridges, though surely the most powerful. A generation ago, the alien force threatening American values was communism, and the GOP, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, sought to expose the "traitors" lurking within the society -- mostly, it seemed, within the Democratic party. In the turmoil of the 1960s, the bridge was expanded to include drugs and crime and the disturbances of cultural change. In the 1980s, all those themes endured and Democrats were portrayed, not simply as wrongheaded opponents, but as enemies of the-American way of life.

"Now we have a way of dividing America," Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House Republican whip, told The Washington Post. He was referring to the "value-laden" issues of crime, drugs, education and corruption, which he attributed to the failures of Democratic liberals. "These people are sick, " he told The Wall Street Journal. "They are destructive of the values we believe in." [8]

The basic problem with the Republican electoral strategy is that it does not have much to do with governing, especially at the federal level. American politics has always been rich in demagogic diversions and empty appeals to nativist emotions; both parties share that history. The modern Republican hegemony, however, is most striking in the divergence it fosters between elections and governing.

Millions of voters are persuaded to cross the bridge, but they do not get much in return on the other side. Once in power, the Republican government serves the traditional Republican economic interests. The aggravations of modernity, meanwhile, persist. The fears of crime and race and decaying moral values do not abate. They merely accumulate for exploitation in the next election.

Much of what agitates the disaffected voters is either beyond the reach of the national government or contrary to the Republican purposes. The president, it is true, may introduce a "crime bill" or announce a "war on drugs" or criticize a new civil rights measure designed to protect racial minorities. But the governing responses to these public anxieties are mostly symbolic, like the TV ads that stimulated the emotional connections in the first place. Politics speaks to these social concerns endlessly, but it cannot deliver much that would actually change things without intervening profoundly in the private social fabric -- which the Republican government has no intention of doing.

To act seriously would mean provoking a serious opposition among other party constituencies -- especially the young people who are voting Republican in impressive numbers but have libertarian views on the social issues. Pornography cannot be banished without a change in the meaning of the First Amendment; abortion cannot be fully prohibited without an amendment to the Constitution. The first "war on drugs" was launched by Richard Nixon in the early 1970s and lasted for several years; it petered out when law-enforcement officers started arresting the children of prominent Republicans.

The Republican hegemony, therefore, depends upon a more subtle form of betrayal. The party's method deliberately coaxes emotional responses from people -- teases their anxieties over values they hold important in their own lives -- but then walks away from the anger and proceeds to govern on its real agenda, defending the upper-class interests of wealth and corporate power. Government, as we have observed, is assumed to be rational and expert; the raw emotions of people are unscientific and distrusted.

The Republican government, aside from empty gestures, has no serious interest in resolving the anger it has aroused. After all, popular anger is the political commodity that it uses, again and again. Everyone in Washington understands this, Democrats and Republicans alike, and there is a professional admiration for the way in which Republicans ignite bonfires of public passion, then coolly walk away from them, without repercussions. George Bush ran against the "Harvard-boutique liberals," then appointed Harvard people to six Cabinet-level positions, plus many other second-rung government jobs. No one really minds. Everyone knows it was just a slogan.

The reason the Republicans succeed at this may be that cynical citizens do not expect much more from politics. Certainly, most voters who took the bait do not express great surprise when a succession of Republican governments fails to deliver meaningful responses to their discontent. Voters, as savvy TV viewers, are perhaps wise enough to understand that the pictures that aroused their emotions have no real connection with governing decisions, that nothing much will actually happen in Washington to deal with their fears or anger. Possibly, people are entertained by Republican politics in the same way they are entertained by the mythological qualities that emanate from the commercial advertising. If all politicians are alike, corrupt and unreliable, you might as well vote for the one who got the patriotic music right, the one who at least talked about your anger, your fears.

People know elections, like television commercials, are not real. All that the campaign images provide them is an imagined moment of aroused feeling -- a transient emotional bond with those who will hold power, a chance to identify with certain idealized qualities, but not an opportunity to connect with real governing power. If manipulated voters do not feel cheated, it is because the Republican party gives them a chance, as the perfume commercial says, to "share the fantasy."


"Ralph Nader and I rode on the same airplane recently and we talked at length and we agree about everything," said Paul Weyrich, a leading figure among the social conservatives in the Republican coalition. "Nader and I have the same contempt for officeholders and the process by which both parties get together and screw the public. Unlike most Washington-based people, we are in constant touch with the grassroots. Nader and I spend about half of our time on the road and, as a result, we know what the little guys are thinking.

"Both Nader's base of support and mine, though ideologically different, are the lower middle class. The difference is their perception of who's responsible for the mess. Nader's people would tend to blame big business and corporations. My people would tend to blame government and maybe labor unions. My view is they're all to blame."

Paul Weyrich, a conservative Catholic from Wisconsin, is one of those who helped build the bridges that led millions of working-class Democrats into the Republican party, and he now recognizes their growing sense of disenchantment. As founder of the Free Congress Foundation in the early 1970s, Weyrich mobilized both Catholics in northern cities and southern Protestants, evangelicals and fundamentalists, around conservative social issues- abortion, pornography, family and others.

"My father tired a boiler, shoveled coal in a Catholic hospital," Weyrich said. "He was a German immigrant. My relatives worked in foundries in Racine. I understand these people, I know the language they can understand. They felt invaded by societal forces -- liberal forces, future shock. They felt threatened and threatened enough to become active and to switch parties."

The "populist" swing vote has been critical to the Republican hegemony. Lance Tarrance, a GOP pollster from Houston, studied the Republican electorates in the 1984 and 1988 presidential elections and described their ideological and social components: 67 percent were establishment conservatives with orthodox probusiness views, 26 percent populist, 7 percent libertarian.

But the Republican coalition is under strain from two sources: the disenchantment sown by nearly two decades of unfulfilled rhetoric on the social issues and the glaring divide of economic interests. Weyrich, among others on the right, thinks it is vulnerable to breakup.

"The country-club Republicans can't win without these people," Weyrich said, "but now, all of a sudden, the party is reverting to its old ways and they're heading for a real disaster, believe me. I just spoke to thirty-five clergy in San Diego and, boy, were they tough on the Republican party. 'They just use us. They trot us out every four years for presidential elections, but they don't include us in government. Well, if that's the way it is, we will take a walk.'"

"You have the country-clubbers re-emerging to take over the party and to produce candidates who don't relate to working-class conservatives. This is much more than a single issue like abortion. It's really a class issue.... George Bush has been decent to me, but the party operatives in the states look upon Bush's victory as a restoration of the pre- Reagan Republican party. These are the very people who gave Republicans the name of the 'rich man's party' and go around babbling about capital gains and stuff like that. They make cultural conservatives feel unwanted."

Having exploited the antiabortion movement for fifteen years, Republican strategists began backing away from it in 1989 when they discovered that the electoral benefits of the issue were abruptly reversed. Once the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court actually threatened to recriminalize abortion (and Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia were torn up by the issue), the GOP rhetoric "hanged. The party that had for a decade imposed the antiabortion litmus test on both its candidates and all new federal judges suddenly announced that it was now a "big tent" -- open to diverse views on the subject. Having teased racial resentments in 1988 with Willie Horton, George Bush ended up signing the new civil rights bill in 1991. The religious right, already weakened by internal problems, began to feel orphaned.

While the social issues evoke the strongest emotions, the unnatural nature of the Republican coalition is exposed most clearly on the economic questions of government. In the abstract, the social conservatives have the same ideological disposition toward unfettered business enterprise and smaller government that is espoused by orthodox Republicans. In the practical terms of their own class interests, however, these voters are often on the opposite side from the Republican orthodoxy.

They distrust big business more than government. Tarrance found, for instance, that 85 percent of the populist voters in the Republican presidential electorate supported the labor- backed measure on plant closings -- a notification law that Democrats enacted over White House and business opposition. Among the Republican populists, 56 percent said they want more government loans for college students, not fewer. Paul Weyrich's legions come from more or less the same precincts in America as Lois Gibbs's grassroots environmentalists and they too are the victims of the unenforced federal laws on industrial safety or toxic pollution.

Notwithstanding their populist phrasemaking, most conservatives in Congress faithfully vote for the business position on these divisive issues and others. Republican politicians, for instance, talk endlessly about their devotion to protecting the family (and sometimes even describe Democrats as antifamily), but most of them voted against family rights and for corporate rights when the choice came down to that. The parental leave measure that Democrats pushed for working mothers and fathers was vetoed by Bush as an excessive intrusion on management practices; the profamily conservatives (including Paul Weyrich) limply went along with the business argument.

The deeper split in Republican ranks is about money. "Republicans didn't just suppress the conflict, they camouflaged it," political analyst Kevin Phillips said. "One of the great successes of Reaganomics was selling these things like tax cutting under a populist flag, as if everyone would benefit."

The character of Ronald Reagan -- particularly his videogenic skills -- was important in obscuring the corporate power in the GOP. "Reagan was critical," Weyrich said. "He did not strike social conservatives as being owned by those big business people. Reagan was 50 percent different from the old Republican party, he had elements of populism. Democrats never attacked Reagan on that. If I were them, I would have said, 'This guy may have come from a small town, but remember who owns him -- General Electric and all that.'"

Democrats, if they had the will, could still break up the Republican coalition, Weyrich believes, by defining a stark opposition to Republican economics -- in particular, on the trade issue and foreign competition, the continuing loss of American jobs and spreading foreign ownership of American real estate and companies. "Democrats can sound macho if they attack on that issue because it makes them sound like nationalists, but they don't seem to have it in them," Weyrich said.

The Democrats' reluctance is not simply a matter of will, of course, but of corporate political influence. In that regard, the Democratic elites and the Republican elites look very much alike. But the Republican party elites -- lawyers, lobbyists, corporate managements, fundraisers -- are even closer to the multinational corporations and foreign interests than the Democrats.

For that matter, social conservatives have themselves been quite timid about confronting the economic questions that matter greatly to their own people. Cultural conservatives have published various essays on the "social function of property" and endorsed the idea of increased health and safety regulation, but the leaders have not directly challenged the corporate agenda or its dominance of the Republican party. [9]

A profamily politics that is unwilling to challenge corporate politics is never going to amount to much, since business practices and prerogatives define so many elemental realities in everyday family life. The social conservatives have defined a cramped box for themselves: They are a faction that cares intensely about sex, religion and family (domains that government will always be loath to regulate), but they are unable to speak to the issues of wages, working conditions and job security (family matters on which the government does have the power to make a difference).

A conservative profamily critique of business, as Weyrich acknowledged, is also partly inhibited by money -- the funds that flow to right-wing organizations from corporate contributors. Notwithstanding its role as "populist" spokesman, Weyrich's organization, for instance, has received grants from Amoco, General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank and right-wing foundations like Olin and Bradley. Even the righteous voices of the right are constrained by financial dependency.

"We have to coexist with these people [the Republican fundraisers] because if they put out the word that you're not reliable, your contributors will go away," Weyrich said. "If those guys say Weyrich is a lunatic, they can cut off a portion of your funds."


When Lee Atwater was dying in 1991, he undertook a self-accounting and delivered a remarkable public report. "I committed myself to the Golden Rule," he wrote in Life magazine, ". . . and that meant coming to terms with some less than virtuous acts in my life." Atwater apologized to old adversaries, including Michael Dukakis, whom he had injured with his harshly negative style of politics. He expressed gratitude to old enemies, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, for the human comfort they extended in his hour of crisis.

Atwater's most touching regret, however, was about the spirit of the Republican era he had worked to create. "My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a little brotherhood," he wrote. "The '80s were about acquiring -- acquiring wealth, power, prestige, I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty."

"It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don't know who will lead us through the '90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul." [10]

Vague misgivings about what the Republican hegemony has wrought were already spreading through circles of party activists before Atwater stated them so poignantly. Kevin Phillips produced a devastating delineation of who won and who lost from Republican economics in The Politics of Rich and Poor, a book that made the facts too clear to be easily denied.

The consequences of Republican rule seemed to be provoking a mild sense of guilt in the ruling party. The Heritage Foundation, source of so many right-wing legislative ideas, began to express an interest in designing social programs that might actually help people. Jack Kemp, former congressman and now HUD secretary, announced his department would conduct its own "war on poverty. " Policy staffers at the White House took up an old New Left theme from the 1960s -- "empowerment" -- and promoted it as the new slogan of thinking conservatives. Empowerment for whom? For the people!

These Republican expressions of solicitude for the losers Were touching in their own way, for they suggested a remarkable innocence about their own party and how it works. Despite a decade of contradictory evidence, many Republicans still liked to think of themselves as a party of ideas and ideology -- the place where robust intellectual debate among conscientious conservatives hammered out the program for governing.

Their egotistical presumption was that, now that the Republican party had completed the main business of straightening out the American economy, it would generously turn its attention to mopping up the casualties. From the evidence of the 1980s, this faith in conservative ideas is most naive. While the Reagan era celebrated conservatism and wore its maxims like political armor, the way the GOP actually governed suggested a quite different understanding of what motivates the party.

The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Wherever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients' needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served.

The most fundamental ideological contradiction of the era was the extraordinary explosion of federal deficits and debt during the Reagan years and continuing under George Bush. Nothing else conflicts more profoundly with conservative beliefs about government, for the GOP was always the party of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility (and indeed still limply claimed the mantle). Yet, twelve years after coming to power under Reagan, the supposedly conservative government produced an annual federal deficit of $390 billion.

When all of the fanciful economic argumentation is stripped away, the enormous deficits were provoked by the regressive tax cuts for business and wealthy individuals and by the rapid buildup in defense spending. Both of these actions served important clients in the Republican hierarchy, the defense industry and the wealth holders, and served them well.

Conservative anguish about the deficits was never sufficient to produce the painful action' of actually reducing them, for that would have required the Republican White House to sacrifice its own clients. A third alternative -- cutting Social Security and domestic social programs -- was more appealing to Republicans, but Democrats were defending those clients and, as budget director David Stockman learned to his sorrow, Republicans were never very serious about this possibility anyway. "I have a new theory," Stockman declared bitterly in 1981. "There are no real conservatives in Congress." [11]

Conservative ideology opposes federal regulation of private enterprise, and the Reagan era advanced the cause of deregulation on many fronts -- mostly by making irregular deals with specific industries that amounted to de facto decisions not to enforce the law. Nevertheless, in case after case, when industries pleaded for new federal regulation as a way of preempting meddlesome state governments, the conservative government swung around to the other side and decided in favor of federal regulation.

The true loyalties of the Republican regime were demonstrated most vividly in the continuing series of financial crises. When the small farm banks in the Midwest began to fail in greater numbers in the early 1980s, the Republican administrators articulated a laissez-faire response: Let the marketplace work its will, however painful. But when Continental Illinois, eighth-largest bank in the nation, failed in 1984, the same Republicans agreed that this bank was "too big to fail," and they came to its rescue with a multi-billion- dollar bailout. Subsequently, in case after case, the largest banks in Texas, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere were saved from failure and their largest depositors were protected from loss, while smaller institutions were allowed to disappear.

When some of the largest commercial banks in the nation (fine old Republican names like Chase Manhattan 'and Citibank) were threatened with insolvency, George Bush's White House urged federal bank regulators to bend the rules, and its domestic agenda was preoccupied with enhancing the profitability of banks. When the big money is in trouble, the Republican party finds itself acting like a compassionate liberal.

The Republican governance, in sum, could not be described as conservative in any historical sense of the word. Taken all together, the Republican policies more nearly resembled a right-wing version of the New Deal-intervening massively on behalf of worthy clients. In practical affairs, the government functioned according to principles that were closer to the liberal government of Franklin Roosevelt than to conservative creeds espoused by Robert A. Taft or Barry Goldwater. The difference with FDR's New Deal was, of course, fundamental: The modern Republicans intervened, not on behalf of struggling labor unions or distressed sharecroppers or the destitute elderly, but in order to assist the most powerful enterprises in the economy.

To understand the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter), it is most efficient to look directly at the clients -- or as political scientist Thomas Ferguson would call them, "the major investors." On that level, the ideological contradictions are unimportant. Political parties do function as mediating institutions, only not for voters.

Ferguson, a University of Massachusetts professor, analyzes political parties by identifying the major sources of their financing-the individuals from finance and industry who naturally have the greatest stake in influencing government decisions. "The real market for political parties," Ferguson says, "is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state.... Blocs of major investors define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate." [12]

Thus, in terms of governance, the most meaningful (and interesting) action of American politics is the continuing flow of rivalries and agreements among the contending power blocs in the private economy, not the shifting allegiances among groups of voters.

The Reagan-Bush governance, in Ferguson's portraiture, has been a running contest between two blocs of business interests with very different objectives in government policy. The "protectionists" are centered in old industries, textiles and steel for instance, that are traditionally Republican and anxious for help in the domestic markets. The "multinationals" are manufacturers and bankers as well as exporters, high-tech firms, oil companies, defense manufacturers -- all interested in an aggressive global policy.

The list alone makes it clear which group has more girth and political power, but the Republican regime attempted to serve both blocs, when there was no irreconcilable conflict between them. "In effect," Ferguson wrote, "the Reagan economic coalition always had a huge seam running down its middle ... the 'Reagan Revolution' was a giant banner under which two columns marched in different directions." [13]

For the Republican old guard in heavy industry, the party in power mainly provided temporary relief from long-standing aggravations -- relief from imports, from organized labor, from government regulation and, of course, from federal taxes. The severe recession of the early Reagan years was devastating to manufacturing, but it also smashed labor unions and provided the opportunity for corporate restructurings, free of restraints from the workers. By 1985, the Reagan administration focused its diplomatic energies on driving down the dollar's foreign-exchange rate and, thus, launched an export boom for the domestic manufacturers -- just in time for the 1988 election.

For the multinationals, from Boeing and Citibank to Exxon and General Electric, the political goals were much more substantial and even historic -- maintaining America's role as manager (and occasionally enforcer) in the emerging global trading system anchored also in Japan and Germany. Dating from the New Deal era, multinational corporations and investment banks had once been aligned with the Democratic party, then the party of free trade. In Ferguson's telling, American politics got interesting in the 1970s when the multinationals shifted their allegiance to the GOP.

They have been well served by the new alliance. The U.S. buildup of armaments, which they had promoted, would be a significant token of leadership resolve to the competitor nations who were also allies (as well as an abundant source of contracts for the defense companies). The multinational financial institutions, banks and brokerages, benefited enormously from the rising dollar -- and even from. the accumulating deficits -- because both produced expanded financial activity as the bankers recycled U.S. debt to Japanese lenders. The Third World debt crisis, though it threatened the overexposed banks, became an opportunity for the U.S. government to beat down the resistance in the developing countries to American ownership and deregulated economies.

While the Republican government extended trade protection to some of the old-line industrial sectors, its main energies were devoted to the multinationals -- defending and extending their prerogatives in the global trading system. The close working relationships the Reagan and Bush administration formed with Japan and Germany were integral to this objective -- their governments wanted much the same outcome. But the U.S. strategy gradually turned into dependency, as America's financial position weakened and the nation became indebted to its economic competitors.

Quite apart from the economic injury done to individual classes of citizens, Republican governing -- by and for the "major investors" -- has not led to the general prosperity and economic stability described in the conservative rhetoric. On the contrary, while each influential sector gets what it wants, the economy overall has sunk deeper into debt and failures, dependency and competitive disadvantage.

In other words, what Lowi called "interest-group liberalism" has been transformed by Republicans into what might be called "interest-group conservatism." From labor law to financial regulation, conservatives use the governmental forms invented by liberal reformers to serve their own client interests. Liberals have difficulty coming to grips with this since the economic interventions on behalf of selected sectors or enterprises are consistent with their own governing philosophy.

The deleterious effects are visible for the nation as a whole. The short-run demands of elite interests do not add up to a workable scheme for governing the economy on behalf of the nation's long-term well-being. The powerful win their narrow victories; the country loses. So long as this system is the core of how the government decides the most important questions, ordinary citizens will find ample justification for their discontent.

Organized money versus organized people -- the only way to break out of this governing system is, again, to imagine a democratic renewal that brings people back into the contest. Thomas Ferguson, though quite pessimistic about the prospects, described the outlines of the solution:

"To effectively control governments, ordinary voters require strong channels that directly facilitate mass deliberation and expression. That is, they must have available to them a resilient network of 'secondary' organizations capable of spreading costs and concentrating small contributions from several individuals to act politically, as well as an open system of formally organized political parties.

"Both the parties and the secondary organizations need to be 'independent,' i.e., themselves dominated by investor-voters (instead of, for example, donors of revokable outside funds). Entry barriers for both secondary organizations and political parties must be low, and the technology of political campaigning (e.g., cost of newspaper space, pamphlets, etc.) must be inexpensive in terms of the annual income of the average voter. Such conditions result in high information flows to the grassroots, engender lively debate and create conditions that make political deliberation and action part of everyday life."

Those "conditions" for effective citizen control of government are what is missing from both political parties and from American democracy. So long as citizens remain unorganized, they will be prey to clever manipulation by mass marketing. So long as people must rely on empty TV images for their connection to politics, then, as Ferguson concluded, nothing can "prevent a tiny minority of the population -- major investors -- from dominating the political system."
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:48 am


If the political parties were real and functioned reliably on behalf of people, then the news media would matter much less in politics. But the distinctive quality of our contemporary political landscape, as everyone recognizes, is the rising influence of the press and television as principal gatekeepers for the dialogues of political debate. What matters to the press matters perforce to politicians. What the press ignores, the politicians may safely ignore too. What the newspapers tell people, whether it is true or false or cockeyed, is what everyone else must react to, since alternative channels of political information are now weak or nonexistent for most Americans.

The power of the press is another source of popular discontent, since these private corporate organizations seem to have an unchecked influence over the direction of public affairs. The glare of media can wrench politics this way or that, from trivial distractions to important exposes, but politicians and many citizens resent the arbitrariness of the choices. Who elected the reporters and editors? Why should they be able to set the political agenda according to their own peculiar tastes and interests?

That familiar complaint is not the heart of the matter, however. The press has always served American democracy as an important and controversial mediating voice for citizens, a corrective mechanism that both speaks to power and sometimes checks its abuses. What may really distress citizens in contemporary politics is that, for all the clamor of the news, the mechanism is not functioning, at least not for people distant from power.

Like the other primary political institutions, the press has lost viable connections to its own readers and grown more distant from them. Because of this, it speaks less reliably on their behalf. As an institution, the media have gravitated toward elite interests and converged with those powerful few who already dominate politics. People sense this about the news, even if they are unable to describe how it happened or why they feel so alienated from the newspapers that purport to speak for them.

This chapter sets out to explain the deeper economic and social forces that caused this to happen. The story is a kind of illustrated tour of how the rich, contentious variety of the free press has been transformed into a voice of dull sameness, a voice that speaks in narrow alignment with the governing authorities more often than it does in popular opposition. In its own way, the press has also failed its responsibility to democracy.


The city room of the Cincinnati Post, where I worked as a young reporter a generation ago, was a comfortably chaotic place, with the desks jammed together in clusters and stacked with piles of old newspapers. In some ways, it resembled an industrial space more than a business office, for pneumatic tubes and piping were exposed overhead and the wooden floors were swept and wet-mopped like a shop floor. People worked in shirtsleeves and the large windows along one wall were always open in summer since the building was not air-conditioned. The Post's composing room was adjacent to the editorial department, a few steps away through an open portal, and the heat and hot metal fumes from the printers' typecasting machinery sometimes drifted into the newsroom.

The reporters were mostly Irish, German Catholic or Jewish, Cincinnati's leading ethnic groups, with names like Halloran, Rawe, Hirtl, Feldman and Segal. There were also a few "country boys" from across the river in Kentucky. These reporters affected the wisecracking irreverence expected in newspapering (and a few were closet alcoholics), but most were churchgoing, family men.

They were smart and resourceful in their work and their quickness was regularly tested by the newspaper's relentless deadlines -- eight editions each day, starting early in the morning and running until the "stocks/racing final" in late afternoon. A fire department bell in the comer sounded the fire alarms for the entire city and someone on the city desk would count the bells to determine the location.

Few of these reporters (or their editors, for that matter) had been to college; it was unnecessary for newspaper work in those days. They typically started as "copy boys" and relied on their own wit and common sense to become "journeymen." They also knew quite a lot about Cincinnati, Ohio. Most had grown up there and some remained in the neighborhoods and parishes of their childhood. There was no social distance between the newsroom employees and the Post's printers and pressmen -- they were all working class. Some printers and reporters drank together or went to the same churches. Some reporters and editors had cousins or brothers working in the back shop.

Two decades later, I was working in a very different newsroom on a much larger newspaper in a more important city. This city room was furnished with endless carpeting and sleek lines of color-coded desks, potted plants and glass-box offices, climate-controlled air and computers. The newsroom at The Washington Post might have passed for an insurance office or the trading room of a Wall Street brokerage. But it was different, above all, because it was staffed with a different class of people. The reporters and editors at The Washington Post, with few exceptions, were college graduates and many (like myself) had graduated from the most prestigious Ivy League universities -- Harvard, Yale and even Princeton. Some held graduate degrees in law, economics or journalism.

Reporters at The Washington Post spoke -- and could report and write -- with a worldly sophistication that would have benumbed (and probably intimidated) the old hands I had known briefly at the Cincinnati Post. These educated reporters were "smarter," but only in the sense of knowing many more things about the world, more "serious" only in that chasing fires was no longer what mattered to newspapers. In culture and incomes, The Washington Post reporters were securely middle class and above, well read and well paid. They did not know any of the printers or pressmen who worked downstairs, much less socialize with them. Some had only the dimmest notion of how their own newspaper was produced each night.

The contrast I am making between these two experiences provides a metaphor for what happened generally to the press over the last thirty years. In the broad sweep of the last generation, educated young "journalists" displaced the quick-witted working-class kids who had merely been "reporters." A trade that had once been easily accessible to the talented people who lacked social status or higher education was converted into a profession. This did not happen only at top-rank newspapers like The Washington Post, but generally throughout the news media, even at the smallest small-town dailies. Journalism became a credentialed discipline that spawned its own educational system and categories of specialization and, eventually, its own celebrity.

What happened in newspaper city rooms -- the upward mobility that transferred the work from one class to another -- was not so different from what happened in some other fields over the last several decades, except that the political implications are more profound. The press is a commercial enterprise, but its function is integral to the political life of every community and, ultimately, to the nation's politics.

As a young reporter, without knowing it at the time, I was glimpsing the end of something important in American public life and the beginning of a broad social transformation, in which I would be a minor participant. Because I was personally involved, readers will recognize that it is especially difficult for me to be objective on the subject of the media. But I am describing the outlines of the transformation, not to indulge nostalgia for my own youthful experiences, but to try to explain what it is about the modern media that so regularly disappoints citizens -- and to get at why the press, for all of its accumulated sophistication, falls short in its own responsibility to democracy.

The truth is that the Cincinnati Post of the 1950s was not a very good newspaper, especially by latter-day standards. In my youthful enthusiasm, I would have strenuously denied this at the time; I worked there two summers during college as a "vacation replacement" (before the loftier term, "intern," had been invented) and was enthralled by the place. As a newspaper, nonetheless, the Post was parochial and shallow, with a short attention span and a charming randomness in its coverage. Its front page was dominated by the "breaking news" of violent crimes or large calamities -- industrial fires and plane crashes. It specialized in stories of impish surprise -- little bits of human comedy that had no larger purpose than to startle or amuse or warm the heart. Except for war and major earthquakes, it did not care greatly about the rest of the world.

The Post was imbued with an uncritical hometown pride and obsessed with establishing a "local angle" to the news, however tenuous. When the Andrea Doria sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1956, an enterprising rewrite man managed to interview several of the rescued survivors by ship-to-shore telephone (an amazing feat of technology, we thought then). Since these people were Cincinnatians, the Post's banner headline smugly proclaimed that the sinking of the Andrea Doria was actually a Queen City story.

For all its shortcomings, the Cincinnati Post had one great redeeming quality. Like its reporters, the newspaper was frankly and relentlessly "of the people" and it practiced a journalism of honest indignation on behalf of their political grievances. Some of these were pedestrian complaints and some were quite shocking abuses of public office. But there was never any doubt in the tone and style of the Cincinnati Post that it meant to speak for a certain segment of Cincinnatians -- mainly those who did not have much status or power themselves. When the Post took up their cause on some matter, it would hammer on it day after day, story after story, until someone in authority responded.

This focus came naturally to the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. Along with Hearst, Pulitzer and a few others, E. W. Scripps had invented the format for the working people's newspaper at the turn of the century. The "penny press" was cheap and sensational but also served as an implacable civic troublemaker. The Scripps-Howard lighthouse insignia still proclaims a resonant credo for democracy: "Give light and the people will find their own way."

In Cincinnati, the Post's daring investigative reporting early in the century broke up the old Republican machine. The newspaper has championed reforms of municipal government that endure. In a town that is naturally conservative and Republican, the Post was liberal- Labor and mildly Democratic, though it mainly saw itself as a reform-minded watchdog. When one reporter nervily asked the managing editor about his own party affiliation, he replied: ''I'm a Democrat when the Republicans are in and a Republican when the Democrats are in."

Like other institutions of that era, the newspaper reflected the sensibilities and biases of its audience. The Post spoke up for civil rights long before racial equality became a national cause, but there were no black reporters in the city room and there was not much coverage of the black community either. Women were mostly confined to the women's pages or took the role of "sob sister," writing syrupy prose about the bleeding-heart side of the news. The newspaper was seldom critical of the police because the reporters and photographers were very close to the police. It wasn't just that the cops fixed their parking tickets: In the larger scheme of things, policemen were on the same side as the reporters. They were working class too and some of the cops were relatives.

The Cincinnati Post's various qualities made an especially strong impression on me, I suppose, because I came to its city room from the other side of town-the comfortable Republican suburbs of managers and professionals -- where families invariably read the Times-Star, the Taft family newspaper, which was reliably Republican and conservative in its perspective. During my summers at the Post, I was given a brisk, egalitarian education in social reality -- the human dimensions of a city that I hardly knew existed. Where I grew up, labor unions were the dull-witted behemoths who were destroying the American economy; now I was working among engaging, clever union people who routinely volunteered as generous instructors in their craft. As readers may infer, the Cincinnati Post taught me things as deep and lasting as what I learned during the school year at a prestigious eastern university.

As the city room's most junior reporter (still called a "cub" in that day), I was frequently sent out on the nastiest, least desirable assignments -- bloody accidents or second-rate homicides -- and, for the first time, I saw the grimmer precincts of the Queen City, white and black. My political education involved not only encountering the fetid slums and poverty, but also coming to terms with the passivity and powerlessness among the people who lived there. I was sent out to do stories on obscure neighborhoods with no other purpose than to demonstrate that the Post cared about them.

In other words, the Cincinnati Post, like many other similar newspapers in other cities, deliberately cast itself as a representative voice. In imperfect fashion, it functioned as an important strand in the community's web of political accountability, alongside political parties, unions and civic associations. It unabashedly identified with the people who were least likely to be heard on public issues and those citizens were invited to identify with it.

Most of those working people's newspapers are gone now, eliminated by the forces of a shrinking marketplace. The daily newspapers that were closed during the last thirty years were mostly afternoon papers, the ones tailored to blue-collar folks who went to work too early in the morning to read an A.M. newspaper. The afternoon papers that remain, like the Cincinnati Post and many other Scripps-Howard and Hearst papers, are mostly bland shadows of their former selves, shrinking and struggling. A once robust political voice has been reduced to a grumpily conservative sigh of resentment.

What was lost was the singular angle of vision. Newspapers do still take up for the underdog, of course, and investigate public abuses, but very few surviving papers will consciously assume a working-class voice and political perspective (the Philadelphia Daily News is an outstanding exception). The newspapers that have endured and flourished, often as monopolies, were mostly morning papers and they moved further upscale, both in their readership and in their content, responding to the demographics of the market. Their reporters all went to college.

It wasn't the college kids, of course, who did in the old newspapers but the revolution in communications technology, led by the brilliant glow of television, which decimated the loyalty of their readers. The revolution isn't over yet. Daily newspapers of every size and kind continue to struggle with the erosion of their audiences and many will continue to fail.

The consolidation of newspapers promoted blandness and social distance. As the shrinkage eliminated the peculiar and distinctive voices, the remaining papers naturally tried to incorporate abandoned readers into their own circulations. Cities that once read staunch Republican and Democratic newspapers and perhaps one or two others are now confined to one or two papers that politely try to speak for everyone.

Trying to hold the mass audience's loyalty, newspaper editors have retreated from identifying with any single part of their readership -- especially the lower classes where reader attrition is greatest. This strategy has not been especially successful in halting their decline. But newspapers have adopted an angle of vision that presumes an idyllic class-free community -- a city where everyone has more or less the same point of view on things.

The working people who made up the audience for old newspapers like the Cincinnati Post -- who felt represented by them -- disappeared into the mass audience. Their own presence in the community (and in politics) became less distinct (and less powerful). Some argue conveniently that economic progress and social change simply eliminated the working-class perspective, even among union members. These people, it is supposed, all moved to the suburbs and became middle class and even Republican.

Many of them, it is true, did move to the suburbs, and the social forces that eroded the solidarity of labor unions or urban political machines also undercut the loyalties of newspaper readers. But, in stark economic terms, this class of citizens still exists, though socially fragmented. Their political grievances have not changed; their injuries, as we have seen, have grown larger. Yet they are now less visible to others and underrepresented in the public debate. Roughly speaking, they are the same people whom I have described at various places in this book as the politically orphaned.


If Hearst and E. W. Scripps invented the old newspaper format that is dying out, it is only slight exaggeration to suggest that Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, invented the new format that succeeded them. Other editors and other newspapers, of course, also found innovative ways to connect with the changing newspaper audience, but none more brilliantly and successfully than Bradlee at the Post. As it happened, I was also working in that city room when the most interesting changes occurred.

Television had stolen not only immediacy from newspapers but also the hot emotional content of the news. Newspaper reporters might still write melodramatic "sob sister" prose intended to evoke the pathos of violin music (I wrote many such stories myself), but nothing in print was ever going to match the TV camera's close-up of the grieving widow or the "film at eleven" of burning factories and dead bodies. Heartbreak and violence now belonged to video; the newspapers would have to find something else to sell.

Editors like Bradlee (and publishers like the Post's Katharine Graham) perceived that the future belonged to quality -- depth and national scope and intelligence -- combined with provocative new forms of surprise. While many other papers were trimming back in the 1960s to cope with shrinking readership, The Washington Post went aggressively the other way, expanding and deepening its editorial staff, adding new categories of specialists and talented generalists. Publishers who made the same strategic choice -- the Knight-Ridder newspapers, for example -- generally survived the shrinkage and flourished.

The changing economics of newspaper audiences was a perfect fit with the coincident rise of the credentialed journalists, The first wave of the new generation, of which I was a part, was more escapist than political -- well-educated, middle-class young people who were, somewhat irresponsibly, attracted to the fun of newspapers. At least that was my impression. Many of us were trying to elude the predictability of our own upbringing -- the grayness of law school or business careers -- and we escaped it in the luxurious variety and informality of newspaper life. In the conformity of the 1950s, the city room seemed a small retreat where minor eccentricities were still tolerated. A reporter would be poorly paid but, as I used to joke, you did not have to wear a hat or carry a briefcase.

Not so many years later, we realized with bemusement that we were now very well paid anyway -- upwardly mobile in spite of ourselves -- and some reporters even started carrying briefcases (though no one by then was wearing hats). The subsequent waves of well-educated young people coming into journalism seemed more purposeful and serious than we had been, even vaguely political in their intentions. By then, the unschooled Irish kids were mostly gone from newsrooms and bright, young graduates, even from the Ivy League, gravitated to careers in the news• media. It seemed the place where one could "make a difference," as the more earnest ones explained.

By their nature, most of these new journalists were more liberal than those they had displaced, at least in social outlook. Certainly, they were more cosmopolitan and less religious, more tolerant of the unfamiliar and experimental. But they were not necessarily more skeptical of power than the reporters I had known in Cincinnati.
They were probably more comfortable dealing with people in authority, given their own backgrounds, but not necessarily more critical. Nor were the new reporters necessarily more liberal on the bedrock economic questions of work and incomes than the working-class reporters they had replaced. Like most people, for better or worse, they innocently reflected the sensibilities and biases of their own origins.

This exchange of classes is reflected, inevitably, in the content of the news, and I have always thought it is a central element feeding the collective public resentment that surrounds the news media. People sense the difference, even if they cannot identify it. Conservative critics usually call it a "liberal bias" in the press, but I think it may be more accurately understood as social distance. The new reporters know much more about many things, but many of them do not grasp the social reality those old hands in Cincinnati understood.

Under Bradlee, The Washington Post succeeded simultaneously on two levels. It became celebrated and influential for its elite status as the provocative newspaper of the nation's capital. But the Post prospered in commercial terms because it also connected with its local audience more effectively than any other major newspaper. The Post's daily circulation reaches 51 percent of the metropolitan area's households (70 percent on Sunday). If that does not sound very impressive, it is the highest penetration rate in the country among major metropolitan dailies. In part, this success is a function of the city's demographics: The Washington area has not only the highest average income in the country, but also the highest level of educational attainment (even so, the Post's penetration rate has also declined slightly, despite its virtual monopoly).

The Post's strategy for developing loyal readers is as low-brow as the huge quantity of comics it prints every morning and as urbane as the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic. In effect, everyone gets something somewhere in the sprawling newspaper, something that will keep him or her coming back. This balancing act is complicated by geography: The Post's readership area includes not just the predominantly black District of Columbia, but affluent suburbs in two states, Maryland and Virginia. On any given day, white Virginia suburbanites grumble that the Post is preoccupied with blacks in the inner city, while black people in D.C. neighborhoods complain that their communities are ignored. The Post searches constantly for the center ground, but there is no center that can bridge the deeper racial and economic conflicts.

As a result, the newspaper never gets too close to anyone beyond the elite circles connected to the federal government. This distance is reflected in many dimensions, but most clearly in the sociological tone and perspective of the reporting. When The Washington Post examines a matter of community distress, overcrowded prisons, drug violence or suburban overdevelopment, it deploys impressive resources and its method of pursuit will be thorough and cool. In college, its reporters studied sociology, political science and economics, and they are comfortable with academic techniques of inquiry.

The one thing they cannot do is express the honest outrage of a situation. They cannot speak in a human voice that is identifiably "of the people" whom they are writing about. With so many disparate audiences to serve, they are implicitly prohibited from embracing anyone's complaint as their own. They are very strong on digging out the facts, but weak on the intangible dimensions of the human comedy. The Post's angle of vision, reflected in its language and style, resembles a hip social-science professor's -- a fast-moving kind of pop sociology that, seems to look downward on its subject matter.

The distancing techniques that dull local coverage apply in a quite different way to the Post's celebrated existence as a "national" newspaper. In the 1950s and before, the Post had been a predictably faithful tribune of the liberal Democratic establishment and its causes (and a rather shoddy newspaper in other respects). Starting in the mid-1960s, Bradlee instilled an educated sense of irreverence toward power -- an impish, occasionally reckless disregard for the political establishment and its expectation of what properly belonged in the capital's morning newspaper. Bradlee reinvented surprise, in a playfully sophisticated form.

The surprise became part of each morning's expectation: What rules of news might the Post violate next? What powerful institution would it offend? The paper could not match the authority of The New York Times or the thoroughness of its coverage, but it could win attention by occasionally breaking eggs -- cocking a thumb at some sacrosanct institution like the FBI director or the CIA, tweaking fraudulent celebrities or exposing the shadowy power brokers of Washington politics.

While the Post never abandoned the traditional formats of news and news writing, it regularly ignored them. The dull, repetitious voice of "objectivity" gave way occasionally to the evocative and reflective. The narrow agenda of orthodox news stories was frequently interrupted by stories of imaginative insight that cut across familiar subjects in deeper, more original ways. Power was examined, needled and sometimes accused with the brash authority claimed by the paper's well-educated reporters.

Bradlee's own personal chemistry was the primary inspiration, but it would have been out of character for him to articulate any grand principles. By birth and education, Bradlee held inherited status among the most prestigious elites. He was a Harvard classics major and a close friend of President John F. Kennedy. Yet, for whatever reason, he was also viscerally contemptuous of high-born pretensions and poseurs of official privilege. He talked, not like the son of a New England Brahmin, but in the blunt, profane language that had always been the masculine voice of the newsroom.

In that sense, Bradlee's approach -- at least his crude delight in provoking self-important figures -- kept alive the earthy skepticism of the old working-class city room. It also helped, of course, that during this period the nation itself was in turmoil-alive with political and cultural rebellion against the status quo. New voices of dissent were clamoring to be heard and the Post opened its pages to them.

For reporters, Bradlee's city room was an exhilarating (and occasionally harrowing) place to work, highly competitive and opportunistic, without many clear boundaries on what might be acceptable except the ancient rules of newspapers: Get it first, get it right. A French business sociologist who studied the place concluded that Bradlee's management technique was to encourage an "entrepreneurial mode of action," full of risk and adventure, the possibility of glory and also shame. The Post's city room functioned, Jean G. Padioleau wrote, "closer to a free-jazz orchestra than to a military band." That is how I remember it too. [1]

The results were necessarily uneven, fluctuating between the silly and the profound, but the overall effect was a newspaper as exciting, in its own way, as a five-alarm fire. In time, we assumed, the brilliant qualities would drive out the embarrassing ones and the result would be a free-standing newspaper that was both more meaningful to readers and critically inquiring of the powerful. Some of us -- the educated journalists -- earnestly imagined that Bradlee, in his casual manner, was reinventing the meaning of "news."

The apogee of invention was, of course, Watergate, the scandal in which a newspaper brought down a president. The two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, perfectly reflected Bradlee's own contradictory sensibilities -- the coarse, nervy side and the intellectual sophistication -- and they acted out the combination brilliantly in their own reporting. Indeed, Woodward and Bernstein even embodied the two newspapering traditions; One was a Yale graduate from Republican suburbia, the other came from a labor family and started his career as a "copy boy."

Watergate, in addition to its other meanings, became a statement about political power; a thunder-and-lightning announcement that the news media had claimed a new place among the governing elites. The Post's Watergate triumph (and Bradlee's other innovations) spawned a thousand imitators and changed political relationships everywhere. Watergate also, ironically, became the high-water mark for Bradlee's provocative form of newspapering -- the beginning of the Post's retreat to a safer tradition.

Institutions of every kind inevitably mature and level off, especially after bursts of invention and growth, and that was part of what happened to The Washington Post, a natural settling down after the excitement. But the Watergate episode accelerated the process because it conferred greater authority on the Post -- people took it much more seriously after Watergate -- and the newspaper responded, somewhat uneasily, to this new responsibility by taking itself more seriously.

The extreme highs and lows were gradually modulated. The engaging unpredictability of its front page gave way, in time, to a more earnest and orthodox catalogue of news stories, resembling the authoritative gradations that were made each day by the front page of The New York Times. The newspaper gradually became better managed and inevitably more bureaucratic -- more thorough and deliberate in its coverage of important news, but also less adventurous and independent, less surprising and less profound.

After Watergate, the Post's newly established political influence also came under intense attack from other power centers. Though the Post had never been as liberal as its reputation, especially on its editorial pages, a concerted campaign of propaganda and criticism was mounted from the right and corporate interests, portraying the newspaper and its reporters as the nerve center for left-wing manipulation of politics. The Post, it was said, was on the side of social unrest and disorder. Competing elements among the governing elites found opportunities to pay back the newspaper for past injuries.

In effect, The Washington Post became the most visible symbol of the media's new political power and the logical target for complaints about the arrogance and recklessness of unaccountable reporters. Starting with Spiro Agnew, the theme became a staple in politics, as politicians learned how to tap into public resentment of press and television. Since everyone sensed the media's new power, everyone enjoyed the role reversal.

The propaganda attacks alone might not have made much impact on the Post's self- confidence -- Bradlee, after all, lived for controversy -- but a series of events seemed to confirm the thrust of the criticism. One was a tendentious multi-million-dollar libel suit brought by the president of Mobil Oil, who lost in the end but managed to damage the newspaper's name in the process -- and force it to spend millions in legal bills. The prosperous Washington Post could shrug off that kind of expense, but the message to editors at large was intimidating: If you mess with major corporations and their executives, it may cost you millions of dollars, even when your facts are right.

A second event hit closer to home and was much more embarrassing to the Post -- the discovery that one of its reporters had won the Pulitzer Prize based on a story that was totally fabricated. The episode could plausibly be traced to the "entrepreneurial mode of action" that Bradlee had fostered in the newsroom or, as outsiders said, to the Post's hubris. In any case, the incident led to internal reform and stronger management controls over the news.

One other event pushed the Post further toward caution -- the demise of its local competition. When the Washington Star folded in 1981, the Post became a virtual monopoly as a commercial venture. This is a commonplace occurrence in the newspaper business, but it was especially unsettling in the nation's capital. Like business monopolies in any other sector, a newspaper's monopoly both reduces the need for aggressiveness and increases the premium on agreeability. Any business that sits securely astride its marketplace, unthreatened by competitors, will naturally take fewer risks. A responsible newspaper, aware that there are no other voices to counter and contradict its own version of the truth, will usually lower its own voice. [2]

That is what happened to The Washington Post and, indeed, what has occurred generally through the press as more papers closed across the country. On many days now, the "free- jazz orchestra" sounds more like a "military band" that plays "ruffles and flourishes" to important personages and events. The newspaper's distinctiveness has waned. Its insightful forays and provocative examinations of governing institutions are quite rare. As a powerful institution, the Post became "responsible."

In effect, it made peace with power -- the rival elites in both government and business. Both of those realms are occasionally still stirred to anger by something the newspaper does, but the Post has become a much more reliable partner in the governing constellation. Its reporters routinely defer to authority by accepting the official versions of what is true instead of always making trouble. If the government reports that financial disorders are a manageable problem, reporters do not question the assertion. If the government reports the economy is recovering smartly from recession and bankruptcies, that claim becomes the headline.

In the longer view of things, the pattern of consolidation and retreat at The Washington Post is visible throughout the media and for roughly similar reasons. A monopoly enterprise typically uses its political clout, not to challenge authority, but to protect its monopoly. That is how the newspaper industry behaves as it faces the continuing erosion of readership and new competition for advertising revenue from high-tech alternatives. The press uses its political influence to maintain protective barriers. Its political alignments are compatible with its upscale readers and well-educated staff, but also with its own economic priorities.

The Washington Post's preeminent status is beyond challenge. The Post is a well-made and very profitable newspaper, rich in content for every segment of its audience. It prospers and exerts its political influence in conventional ways, not very different from other elite newspapers in other times. Ben Bradlee's inventive city room, which had seemed to promise something different, looked in hindsight like a brief, splendid aberration.


When a newly elected member of Congress comes to town, the first thing he or she discovers is that being a member of Congress is no big deal in Washington. There are 435 of them, plus 100 senators, and many will come and go without ever seeing their picture or their opinions in the major media that matter to the nation's capital. The ambitious ones quickly grasp that the power of the press is the power to make them visible in the crowd.

In the higher realms of politics, the media act as gatekeepers for the political debate. To some extent, this prerogative has always belonged to the press, but its power has been greatly magnified by the shrinkage of competing outlets, the modern mode of information- driven politics and the decline of other mediating voices. Everyone in politics turns to the press, if only to manipulate it or deflect it.

In this milieu, even second-string reporters and editors cannot escape feeling powerful because they are constantly approached, beseeched, inundated with appeals for their attention. The most conscientious reporters cannot possibly digest all of the story ideas and information dumped on them, much less write about them. So they are stuck with the burden of choosing.

In theory, this still ought to produce a rich diversity. Even after newspaper consolidation, there is still a multiplicity of potential outlets for ideas and opinions, both in press and in broadcasting. There is little diversity, however, among the most influential media, many of which rely on the same tired experts for analyses. The range of debate on foreign policy, for instance, often seems bounded by Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara, two ostensibly divided "elder statesmen" who largely agree with each other on the big questions of war and peace. The cranky edge of dissent is missing.

A media watchdog group called FAIR analyzed the guest lists of authoritative figures invited to appear on ABC's Nightline and PBS's MacNeill Lehrer NewsHour and found the circle largely confined to white males of the credentialed establishment. Even supposed critics were usually drawn from within the safe bounds of elite opinion. A similar study of most newspaper editorial pages -- or of the sources on whom most reporters rely -- would likely produce similar results. [3]

In general, this is because the major media incline themselves toward power -- the people and institutions that already hold power or at least seem to be connected to it. The media mainly rely on their judgment of what is important and relevant. Redundancy is much safer than throwing things open to a wild diversity of facts and opinions; it enhances the media's own standing within governing circles and protects them from disfavor.

The sponsored research at Washington think tanks has become a principal source for the ideas that reporters judge to be newsworthy and for the packaged opinions from "experts" that reporters dutifully quote on every current subject. David Ignatius, former editor of "Outlook," The Washington Post's Sunday opinion section, wrote: "It often seems that these large and well-endowed organizations exist for the sole purpose of providing articles for opinion sections and op-ed pages." That, of course, is precisely why they exist.

"I will confess here to a dangerous vice," the Post editor declared. "I like think tanks, and mainly for one simple reason: their members know how to play the game, that is, they know how to be provocative, they can write quickly under deadline pressure and they don't mind being heavily edited." Ignatius mentioned as his favorite sources of opinion the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute. Except for Carnegie, all of these organizations are financed by major banks and corporations as their self-interested and tax-deductible contribution to the democratic debate. [4]

The influence of the think tanks is quite profound. Over time, they have shaped the very language and thought patterns of the media. "Special interests," a term that used to refer to concentrated economic power, utilities or railroads, the steel industry or banking, now refers to schoolteachers, women, racial minorities, homosexuals and similar groups. Frequent commentaries are devoted to describing the privileged position of those groups in American politics.

The sponsored scholars also connect comfortably with the reporters' own intellectual framework -- the ostensible rationality and objectivity of disinterested statistics and abstract argumentation. The press reports everything from electoral politics to environmental protection in the garb of objective academic inquiry. The stories of real people, while often told in compelling detail, are treated as interesting "anecdotes" rather than hard evidence of political failure. When they wish to know what the public thinks, the media usually turn to opinion polling, a measuring device that is also distancing because it reduces public opinion to an impersonal commodity. When the results are in, various influentials are invited to debate what the polling statistics mean.

Modern organizational patterns have made the media less accountable to anyone. A reporter's accountability, to the extent it exists, is largely to his or her professional peers and employer, but also to the authorities who are the sources of news. Within that narrow framework, there is an intense and continuous competition to win the regard of one's rivals and one's sources. The goal is to be first in a very refined sense -- to discover the new facts or ideas that will be the leading edge of changing opinion among the elite groups, to see the new "political trend" just before it becomes conventional wisdom. This competition is largely invisible and meaningless to the audience, but is a central motivation among Washington news people, for it gives them a palpable sense of their own power.

Being first confers a rewarding sense of influencing larger events. Being wrong threatens one's standing in the prestige circle. The news contest, thus, inhibits and ultimately limits diversity, because taking risks means accepting the likelihood of sometimes being different and sometimes being wrong. In the Washington milieu, a self-respecting reporter wishes to be first occasionally, but never to be alone for very long.

This reflex guarantees that most reporters (and editors) are always bunched closely together, searching for glory in small, incremental victories. It also explains why certain ideas and subjects suddenly become "hot" and sweep through the media -- cover stories, special features, a blizzard of comment from the columnists -- then disappear, as the conventional wisdom moves on to the next fashionable topic. Former Senator Eugene McCarthy once likened the Washington press to blackbirds on a telephone wire: One flies, they all fly.

As many citizens suspect, the Washington press operates in an incestuous climate that puts it much closer to power than to its audience -- the numb, gray mass of people who are represented mainly through opinion polls. Given the celebrity that now attaches to some journalists, many justifiably regard themselves as social peers of the powerful figures whom they cover. The social intercourse, they will explain, is really work, an opportunity to learn valuable tidbits, but it is also quite flattering. The old hands I knew at the Cincinnati Post a generation ago would have been dumbfounded by the suggestion that they ought to have an after-hours drink with the mayor. The mayor would have been shocked too.

In Washington, symbiotic social relations are the routine, both formally and informally. Burt Solomon of the National Journal observed the coziness emanating from reporters and politicians at the annual banquet of the White House Correspondents Association and wrote afterward: "By evening's end, it wasn't clear whether Bush & Co. and the press considered themselves natural adversaries, who were pretending to be friends, or comrades in governing, who occasionally affected to be foes." [5]

Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times correspondent who covers the State Department, played doubles with the secretary of state in Oman. Brit Hume, who covers the White House for ABC, played tennis with the president. Rita Beamish of the Associated Press jogged with him. The president and his wife stopped by a media dinner party at the home of Albert R. Hunt, bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, and his wife, Judy Woodruff of The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Hunt videotaped the scene of his children greeting the chief executive at their doorway.

Andrea Mitchell, who covers Congress for NBC, is often seen in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center because she is -- in the news gossip's euphemism -- the "constant companion" of Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. That is, she lives with him. At a Washington cocktail party, Mitchell got into a spat with White House budget director Richard Darman because it appeared that Darman was lobbying the NBC reporter in order to influence her mate, the Federal Reserve chairman. Mitchell rebuffed the budget director's attention. "If you want to send a signal," she snapped, "I suggest you pick up the phone and make a call." [6]

The media's sense of shared purpose with the political elites was formally expressed in 1989 when leading Washington reporters collaborated with prominent politicians in creating the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. The founding members included Republican and Democratic party chairmen, prominent senators, representatives and professional campaign consultants -- who were joined by "media heavies" from CBS, ABC, NBC, Time and Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and others. The purpose of the center is to educate young journalists on how to cover politics -- thus replicating the incestuous perspectives that have helped to empty politics of its meaning.

Collaboration is not what the public wants from the news media. Barry Sussman, a public- pinion-polling consultant and the Washington Post editor who supervised Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate affair, lamented the press's proximity to power in his book, What Americans Really Think. He cited a Los Angeles Times survey that found 67 percent of the public thinks the press doesn't do enough to keep the government honest. "Instead of seeing the major media as out to get the political establishment," Sussman reported, "most people, when asked, say that reporting on public figures is too soft and that the media are in bed with the leadership in Washington." [7]


In the early 1980s, the Gannett newspapers invented a bright new format for newspapering called USA Today, a paper composed of vivid pictures and graphics and short, easily digestible stories, all consciously designed to connect with the minds of television viewers. Though USA Today was a money loser as a commercial venture, other newspapers copied from it freely, searching nervously for the look that might reverse their own declining readership.

In many ways, USA Today was simply reviving the tone and folksy technique from that earlier era of newspapering -- news with a human voice, stories about simple personal concerns, a newspaper imbued with civic pride and everyday cheerfulness. The new version also captured some of the mindlessness of the old "penny press." USA Today has a foreign editor but no foreign correspondents.

What was missing, however, was the singular political voice. Stories in USA Today speak of America in the optimistic "we" and are strong on national celebration -- but nearly silent on authentic outrage. The newspaper, not unlike television, evokes a mythical nation that has a single, homogenized viewpoint, and the paper shies away from the difficult stories that would disrupt this sunny vision. As a political representative, USA Today is not just neutral but stripped of any awareness of class or economic conflicts. It is as if the cadaver of the old working-class newspaper had been exhumed from the grave and brought back to life, its cheeks rouged with gorgeous color photos -- then lobotomized.

Newspapers everywhere will continue to experiment with the news -- usually by degrading its quality in this manner -- because they are continuing to lose the loyalty of their readers, especially among the young and less educated. None has yet found the magic talisman to secure their future and the long-term outlook is bleak. Newspapers are not going to disappear as a form of communication but they are likely to become far less important to the general public. Newspaper audiences will be confined more and more to elite readers with special tastes and attitudes and political opinions. As that occurs, the press's impact on democracy will likely become even more distorted.

There is one experiment that newspaper editors are unwilling to undertake -- to take responsibility for their own readers. That is, to speak frankly in their behalf, to educate them as citizens, to create a space for them in the political debate and draw them into it. Many editors and reporters earnestly presume that they are already doing this or at least some of it. The erosion of democracy is the stark proof of their failure. [8]

From time to time, newspapers bemoan the ignorance of the general public-citizens who do not know the name of their own senator or hold grossly mistaken impressions about government -- but newspapers would never blame themselves for the ignorance and inertia of their readers. The decline of voting and elections is the subject for regular sermonizing in the press, but newspapers would never accept that their own performance as mediating voices is perhaps implicated in the decay. Notwithstanding the usual civic bromides, newspapers, like other political institutions, run away from their own failure to communicate what matters to citizens, in a timely context that citizens might understand and act upon. How can the news industry congratulate itself with its annual prizes when, all around it, democracy is failing?

The suggestion that a newspaper ought to accept its own responsibility to democracy would be a radical proposition in any newsroom. Newspapers have learned to stand aloof from such questions, in order to protect their pretensions of objectivity. A newspaper that took responsibility for its own readers would assume some of the burden for what they know and understand (and what they don't know and understand). It would undertake to reconnect them with political power and to invent forms of accountability between citizens and those in power that people could use and believe in.

A newspaper trying to represent its readers would have to make some hard choices about what it believes to be true, about what it thinks is truly important in daily life and in political action. Among other things, it would start by recognizing that politics is anchored in government, not in campaigns. The politics of governing decisions, where citizens are weakest, is what matters most to people, not the partisan sweepstakes of winning or losing elections.

A responsible newspaper would try to bring people back into that governing arena or at least to warn them in a timely manner when they are about to be abused by it. A responsible newspaper would learn how to teach and listen and agitate. It would invent new formats that provide a tangible context in which people can understand power and also speak to it.

The media's failures, illustrated across many issues throughout this book, are rooted in this refusal to take responsibility. To cite an easy example, The Washington Post, if it chose, has the power to eliminate the exploitation of black and Hispanic janitors in the nation's capital (described in Chapter Eight) simply by focusing public outrage on their low wages and economic helplessness. To do so, the newspaper would have to confront prominent business and political interests in the capital (and also set aside its own hostility toward labor unions) on behalf of the exploited citizens. Such a crusade would be utterly out of character for the Post and for most American newspapers.

To cite a more complex example, the Post (or any other well-endowed newspaper) might take responsibility in a long-term and consistent way for focusing on the culture of lawlessness in the federal government -- the permissiveness in regulatory law fostered by the capital's political commerce. If it were coherent, this attention could have enormous impact on the government, but it would also put the newspaper in conflict with the city's powerful sector of lawyers, lobbyists and corporate interests.

Or a responsible newspaper might grasp the great divide of political activity described in this book -- irregular citizen politics versus the formal structure of government -- and seek ways to redress the imbalance between the two. People have fled from electoral politics and, one way or another, are trying to do politics out in the streets. The press at least might report on this other kind of politics with more respect and consistency.

No newspaper by itself can be expected to overcome the fundamental realities of power, not even The Washington Post, but a responsible newspaper would understand that all citizens are not equal in American politics. Some of them need help -- both information and representation -- in order to function as citizens in democracy.

Any editor or publisher will feel threatened by this proposition, but so will most reporters. To take responsibility would mean to rethink nearly everything they do, the presumptions of autonomy that protect them from criticism and the self-esteem that is based on prestigious feedback from elites. Reporters would have to reexamine their own methods for defining the content of news as well as their reliance on those in power. Editors would have to experiment and perhaps throw out some of the inherited rules for producing news - the conventions and formats invented by Hearst and E. W. Scripps and even Ben Bradlee -- in order to overcome the political inertia of their readers.

What I am trying to describe is a newspaper that splits the difference, so to speak, between the old working-class papers like the Cincinnati Post and the college-educated sophistication of papers like The Washington Post. I imagine a newspaper that is both loyal and smart, that approaches daily reality from the perspective of its readers, then uses its new sophistication to examine power in their behalf. A newspaper with those qualities would not solve the democratic problem, but it could begin to rebuild the connective tissue that is missing.

Such a transformation would, of course, require editors with different kinds of skills (perhaps more like a political organizer's or a priest's) and reporters who were equipped to do a different kind of news -- stories that began respectfully with what people needed to understand to function as citizens, not with the governing agenda of the higher authorities. What would such a newspaper sound like? How would it cope with the conflicting interests among its own segmented readers? How could it make itself sufficiently exciting -- and needed -- so that people would want to buy it every day? These are terribly difficult questions, even if newspapers wanted to ask them. The inertia of the news media more or less guarantees they will not be asked.

The news business, as Professor Robert M. Entman has pointed out, has no economic incentive to take responsibility for democracy -- and faces economic risks if it tries. To embrace civic obligations that would alter the basic character of journalism might destabilize segments of the mass audience that media assemble for advertisers, the foundation of their commercial existence. Their readerships are already shrinking and news enterprises are not likely to invite more drastic losses by experimenting with their neutral political posture. Only when they become small and enfeebled do struggling newspapers sometimes reach out, in desperation, and try to identify with their readers. By then, it is usually too late. [9]

In the end, the educated city room betrayed its promise. When the quick but unschooled working-class reporters were displaced and the well-educated took over the work, that social dislocation might have been justifiable if the news media were going to serve democracy more effectively, if the educated reporters were using their professional skills to enhance citizens' ability to cope with power in a more complicated world. The educated reporters instead secured a comfortable place for themselves among the other governing elites. The transformation looks more like a nasty episode of social usurpation, a power shift freighted with class privilege.

If the promise was not fulfilled, then what was the point of turning a craft into a profession? Aside from personal glory, what was really gained from all the journalists with college degrees, if they decline to use their skills to challenge power on behalf of their readers? Those of us who prospered from the transformation of the city room are burdened with those questions and naturally reluctant to face them. Educated journalists, it turns out, are strong on the facts and weak on the truth.
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In the long-ago American past, politics was itself a principal form of entertainment, and people would travel many miles to hear the oratory and share in the spectacle of popular rallies. In the modern culture of mass-media communications, politics has been overwhelmed by entertainment. The many new channels of communication created by broadcasting and other technologies ought to have enriched democracy. In practice, the rise of mass media as the dominant venue for political dialogue completed the alienation of citizens from politics.

People are now lost in a bewildering display of sound and light, from the random anger of talk radio to the manipulative images of television commercials, from the celebrity culture fostered by mass media to the emotional directness of instant TV news. It is not that people are isolated from public affairs and utterly ignorant, as earlier generations of Americans were. Their problem is that they are inundated with messages -- a raging river of information that is fake or true or alluring distraction. As a result, people are reduced to the role of sullen spectators, listening and watching without necessarily believing what they are told.

The paradox of modern media, as almost everyone senses, envelops contemporary politics and is central to the democratic problem. Television and other new technologies connect with people powerfully through vivid immediacy. Yet, because they are centrally controlled, one-way channels of communication, they are also distancing. The media can be liberating for ordinary people, carrying them into distant realms. Yet they also destroy the old social connections that once held people together in community. Broadcasting is inescapably populist in its quick accessibility yet also elitist in its organizational structure. The sound and light are exciting but, strangely enough, foster a benumbed passivity in the general audience.

The mass-media culture has created one other paradox for democracy that is seldom noted: It divided Americans into two distinct nations, two tribes of citizens who see the world quite differently. They are the young and the old. There are the people under forty-five years old who grew up entirely in the age of television and were largely educated according to its definitions of reality. Then there are the rest of us, the older citizens whose perceptions of politics and everything else were shaped in childhood by more abstract sources of information, books and newspapers and magazines.

This dividing lined defines another central dislocation in American democracy. The conventional view, usually expressed by the elders, describes television as a mindlessly destructive force. The contrary view, which I share, is that the new technologies of communication have truth-telling capacities that, in time, can help restore democratic sensibilities to the political culture.

Has the mass-media culture destroyed any possibility for genuine democracy? Or is it perhaps a key to salvaging democracy's future? How one answers that question may determine whether one believes that democracy has a future at all.


The formless anger and disconnectedness of mass media are played out every afternoon in the darkened studio of KFI 640 radio in Los Angeles. Tom Leykis stands under a single overhead spotlight, rocking on his heels, pacing back and forth before the console, while he fumes at the city and stokes the anger of its citizens.

"We're talking about the Department of Water and Power's ridiculous attempts to get us to conserve water. While private industry is wasting water all over Southern California! While Mayor Bradley wants to send the secret water police around to see if we're washing the dog! What's going on? It's ridiculous!"

Under the spotlight, Leykis looked like a solitary vaudevillian, performing forlornly before an imaginary audience. Young and plump, with billowy long hair floating on his shoulders, he was wearing dark glasses and a black satin Kings jacket. His dramatic pauses and well- punctuated exclamations are familiar to legions of Los Angeles commuters. Leykis is KFI radio's drive-time voice of populist outrage.

"Am I supposed to let my yard go brown while Dodger Stadium has a green outfield? What about Caltrans watering the freeways? Even when it's raining! It's a perfect example of how the little guy gets crushed while special interests and big business get more and more and more. The little guy gets to conserve and the big guys get whatever the hell they want."

Larry from La Mirada was on the line, objecting. Water conservation is important, Larry said, and people should cooperate. Leykis listened for a moment, then blew him off with a tart put-down.

David from Rialto jumped in: "It's just like the war on drugs, like the malathion they're spraying on us for the medfly. It's putting more and more regulations on the little guy and getting us used to more and more control over our lives."

Craig, a first-time caller from Ventura, came on to argue for civic responsibility. "Why don't you go down to your City Hall and demand that they pass laws that make big business conserve water too?" Craig asked. Leykis pounced.

"Are you registered to vote, Craig? Are you?" Craig said he wasn't. "How did I guess?" Leykis sneered. "You don't give a crap. You don't even vote."

"I'm an artist," Craig said meekly. ''I'm not up on all the issues."

"Mister artiste," Leykis crooned. "Isn't that wonderful. You hypocrite! Thank you, Craig, for making my point."

Then there were Kevin from Corona and Richard from Ontario and Jim from Valencia and Chris on a car phone from Vista. All of them picked up the beat of Tom Leykis's accusation and amplified the outrage with personal anecdotes-industries they had observed wasting water flagrantly, while citizens like Richard got a ticket for washing his car.

"I tell you what I told the municipal guy who gave me the ticket," Richard said. "You can take that ticket and stick it where the sun doesn't shine-unless you're willing to shut down those car-wash businesses too."

"Good for you, good for you," Leykis said. "What I'd like to see is more people flipping these guys the bird."

When the broadcast concluded, Leykis was still bouncing around with nervous energy, his adrenaline pumped up by two hours of needling, exhorting and instructing the faceless voices who are his daily listeners. His mood level dropped precipitously, however, as he talked about these citizens.

"It's real easy for somebody to call in and whine," Leykis explained. "But do they ever get off their ass and do something? They love the idea of punching on the touch tone and calling in and getting back at everybody. They get this vicarious thrill. But that's it. The people who call talk shows actually think they're doing something, but it's not the same as voting or going out and passing petitions. Then when things go bad and the air is brown, people call in and say, 'This is awful. How did this happen?' Then they say: 'Tom, you ought to do a campaign.' Great. Call Tom. It's like calling Domino's Pizza."

Talk radio, it was supposed a few years ago, was becoming a new channel for democratic dialogue -- a place where unorganized citizens could come together and speak directly to power. In the media age it might even be a device for assembling citizens in collective action. When dozens of talk radio hosts across the nation joined Ralph Nader in attacking the congressional pay raises in 1989, the resonating chorus of public anger traumatized Washington, at least briefly. In the end, Congress got its pay raise anyway.

As Leykis pointed out, several of the radio personalities who led that pay-raise crusade were subsequently fired, not for offending politicians, but because their ratings were down. "Some of the talk radio hosts are passionately political," he said, "and a lot of them are naive and believe that, just by going on the radio, they can make people care about an issue. Baloney. And some are just blatant opportunists looking for their next big gig."

The electronic media -- radio and television and, in the emerging future, personal computer networks -- produce such contradictions. By their nature, these media empower ordinary citizens -- providing access and information that did not previously exist for them, connecting them with distant events and authorities. But it is not clear, as yet, whether the new culture created by modern communications will someday lead to a revitalized democracy or simply debase the imperfect politics that already existed.

Tom Leykis engages the paradox every afternoon, from a liberal-libertarian perspective. In the mornings, KFI broadcasts the nation's most popular talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, who is a voice of populist outrage coming from the right. Despite their differences, Leykis and Limbaugh are essentially delivering the same message -- flipping the bird at power -- and they are speaking to the same audience, the vast sea of disaffected and impotent citizens.

"The one thing talk radio does that is positive," Leykis said, "is that it finds the rage bubbling underneath the surface and allows people to see that they're not the only ones who feel that way."

Leykis is more idealistic than his corrosive opinions suggest and, on occasion, he has tried to mobilize his listeners in collective political action. When the California Department of Agriculture conducted aerial pesticide spraying of suburban L.A. neighborhoods to eradicate the medfly, Leykis rallied the protest movement. One evening, he broadcast from a parking lot in Irwindale, a community that was regularly sprayed with malathion. "We told people to bring surgical masks, we handed out umbrellas, we warned the department we were going to be there," he said. "But eight hundred listeners showed up in this parking lot, even though there was a risk they'd get sprayed. And they were. We were sprayed -- live -- on the air."

The pesticide spraying was halted eventually, but Leykis did not claim victory. "It was public relations," he said. "They disarmed the entire protest movement with the announcement they were going to stop -- then they went on spraying until they were finished with the job."

Tom Leykis holds a darkly pessimistic opinion of the electronic media's influence on democracy -- the view that is widely shared in conventional politics. Broadcasting will not reinvigorate politics, he said, because it has fostered the very culture of shallowness and passive privacy that subverts political action.

"That pay raise issue was easy -- a guy listens to the radio and hears that congressmen want a $35,000 raise," he said. ''The savings and loan campaign on talk radio was a dismal failure,. too complicated for the average person. We have a society that now, because of pop culture, the MTV-Sesame Street culture, has a short attention span. If you can't say it in twenty-five words or less, people don't want to be bothered. So everyone stays home, playing Nintendo.

"That's the essence of this country -- convenience. As long as you've got the color TV and the VCR and the video games, why vote? It will take a crisis -- a war, a great depression -- to get people to vote. That's the only time we can get political movement in this country. The air is brown two or three days a week and apparently that's not a crisis. If there was a political movement that went into people's living rooms and dragged off their color TVs, then you'd see them voting."


Virtually all children in America, regardless of their family station, learn the same dispiriting lesson from television, and at a very early age. They discover that the television set sometimes lies to them. Typically, they learn this from the toy commercials. On screen, the robot performs miraculous feats or the little radio-controlled race car zooms around the track like the real thing or the doll baby coos and cries with lifelike charm. Every American child remembers the shock of recognition when the toy comes home from the store. It is just a toy, a piece of sculpted plastic and metal. Even if it works, the object delivers none of the magic qualities promised on television.

Every parent, likewise, remembers the awkward moment of having to deal with a child's disappointment. What does this experience teach small children about life? Does it make them wary of appearances and more astute? Or simply cynical and inured to deceitful manipulation? Parents feel helpless, sensing that they have lost control of their own children's education to this powerful teacher called television.

The medium makes children grow up faster, for discoveries and disillusionments that one used to first encounter in the adolescent years are now visited upon four-year-olds. When I asked my own daughter, who is now an adult, how she analyzed television's impact on her generation's political behavior, her first insight was about the toy commercials.

Everyone has some personal sense of the paradoxes of television but no one, including the experts, has a definite understanding of what the medium has done for the society and done to it. Parents and children, voters and politicians, church and state and business enterprise -- everyone is still learning to live with it.

Some critics argue that the seductive culture spawned by television and related communications technologies has already obliterated, beyond repair, the very premises of democratic promise. Its directness disintegrated the old lines of loyalty and accountability and control in politics, from party organizations to representative newspapers. Its alluring images enabled politicians to manipulate the public with deceptive persuasion, an art form that each election season becomes more effective, more elusive. Its attractive surfaces destroyed the deeper content of political discourse.

This pessimistic view is widely shared, especially among older people, and supported by abundant evidence from everyday reality. Citizens, especially younger citizens, do seem dumber about politics. The people and political institutions trying to build strands of common interests among citizens are undercut by the competing glow of the tube. To critics, television seems like a primitive beast stumbling through the village and aimlessly wrecking political relations, education, values. [1]

On the other side, optimists are able to see the modern communications revolution as a great democratic leveler. They acknowledge that people and societies are still adjusting to its disorienting qualities, but the potential for democratic empowerment is enormous. Jacques Cousteau, the French marine biologist who, thanks to television, is known and loved by school children around the world, described the revolutionary implications of the medium:

"When people were illiterate, they had to elect the lawyer or the doctor or whoever had access to information and knowledge to represent them in government. But today the peasant has more information than the politicians, who lose their time in sterile partisan fighting. This kind of democracy is out of date." [2]

Cousteau, somewhat airily, imagines a politics without politicians. Citizens of the world, including peasants and school children, inform themselves and develop the consensus for public action, in spite of governments, in spite of vested political interests. This sense of media's power does not seem far-fetched when one considers the popular upheavals that destroyed the dictatorial regimes in eastern Europe. Radio and television from the western democracies seeped through the closed borders and delivered their subversive messages; the revolutionary music in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and elsewhere was American rock 'n roll. Coming back the other way leading politicians in western Europe grumbled that on French and British television Gorbachev got more air time than they did. In a free society, they are powerless to prevent it.

As readers might guess, I place myself among the optimists in this argument. My own impression, as a reporter who has traveled widely in the country, is that Americans everywhere -- especially in provincial backwaters -- are now more richly informed about public affairs because of television. The polls and studies, I know, document an opposite conclusion, but I am regularly struck by how much Americans know -- how even people in the most remote places seem to be talking about the same important items that preoccupy the people at more exalted levels.

Television, at the very least, has unified the American population in new ways, even if it also debased the content of the political dialogue. This unity has been reflected in the outcomes of most of the presidential elections during the last twenty years. Despite the elaborate electoral-vote strategies based on America's regional differences, the nation is more or less voting in unison, responding to the same themes and issues.

Still, in the absence of more intimate venues for communications, politics is captured and confined by omnipresent television. Given the nature of TV news, every important question is reduced to the "Dan Rather rule" of tax politics. If it can't be explained in ten seconds, the public won't find out. That trap, however, is created by the failure of other mediating institutions at least as much as it can be blamed on TV.

My own optimism, in any case, rests partly on faith. If the pessimists (like Tom Leykis) are right, then most of what I have explored in this book is beside the point. If the mass-media culture has permanently robbed people of their democratic capacities, then the deeper governing problems -- or their remedies -- will have no meaning to ordinary citizens. If people have been rendered hopelessly inert, then these complicated questions will be left to the governing circles that already control most outcomes. Obviously, I do not accept such a fatalistic prognosis, about either the technology or the human spirit.


For a disconcerting glimpse of the contemporary culture, spend an evening watching MTV and its marvelously facile storytelling. Or even watch for fifteen minutes. The music-video channel is so fast moving -- and essentially repetitious -- that even a brief encounter conveys its content: a promise of high production values and trivial intellectual stimulus. The rock videos often play out dramas with simple story lines, many with surprisingly wholesome messages (don't use drugs, don't cheat on your girlfriend), but the real appeal is their visual-aural display. A few introduce strikingly original imagery, moody high-tech fantasies of light and color. Most of them borrow familiar visual cliches from movies and television.

The essence of MTV is expressed by one of its video logos -- a high-speed flash of obscure images that are propelled at the viewer like a frenzied sight gag, too quick to understand. A butterfly dissolves into a pyramid, a human eye, a rush of disorganized color, a face like John Lennon's, an exploding flower that turns into what? Maybe it wasn't a flower, but an exploding butterfly that turned into John Lennon. It is all too quick -- and pointless -- for the mind to record.

For anyone who is older, anyone who grew up on books and newspapers before there was television, MTV is a disturbing experience. Is this what the minds of American youth are consuming? One envisions a nation of college dormitories nodding off on MTV's brainless trivia. One imagines decline and fall. Worst of all, one senses that there is a hip joke in these lightning images that old folks are not in on. The founder of MTV once said its programming is designed to drive everyone over fifty crazy.

The American electorate is astride an inescapable faultline that divides those who grew up on TV, fully acculturated by it, and those who didn'1. Neither side fully understands the other or speaks the same language or sees quite the same reality in their perceptions of the world. The older half still generally controls things, including politics and government and the most important private institutions. But the younger half is inexorably replacing them, as the children raised by the TV culture grow older and the oldest of them now approach middle age themselves. The future of democracy -- if it has a future -- inevitably belongs to those who can watch MTV without feeling crazy.

The younger half learned to read from Sesame Street, a program widely applauded for its imaginative use of video for educational purposes. But what else did Sesame Street teach? That intellectual exercises are primarily visual and tactile experiences, rather than processes of abstraction. "Sesame Street is insidious because it implies that you can't learn your letters and numbers without colors and sounds," writer Linda Greider has observed. "Seeing the images for a minute and a half makes you feel like you've dealt with it. It makes you think: Now I know my letters. But what you really know are the marching colors. It's not reading anymore -- it's TV."

Between MTV and Sesame Street and video games, the TV generation "knows" many things that older people do not know, but the accumulating evidence (mostly accumulated by the older people) emphasizes what is lost on them -- the hard facts of political life and the daily action that is the important "news" to older citizens. Younger people know less about public affairs and they seem to care less. The children of TV, now the adults from eighteen to roughly forty-five years old, have more years of schooling than previous generations, a demographic fact that used to predict greater political involvement, but no longer does. Most citizens under forty-five have withdrawn from politics and, indeed, never entered that realm of American life.

They are the dropouts who are pulling down the formal meaning of electoral politics. It is their voting participation that has fallen most drastically during the last twenty years, not that of the people who are older than forty-five years. From 1972 to 1988, the voting level declined by more than one fourth among those who are eighteen to twenty-four years old. By 1988, only 36 percent of these young adults were voting. But voting has also declined among those who are twenty-five to forty-four years old. In 1972, 63 percent of them voted; by 1988, only 54 percent did.

Meanwhile, voting participation among older citizens held roughly constant -- fluctuating around 70 percent. This divergence is explained by more than a question of settled maturity. The older voters were taught about democracy and the meaning of elections in the age before television; the younger people learned their civics from TV.

These statistics predict that the deterioration of electoral politics and voting participation is going to continue as the older citizens who still participate in elections die off and are replaced by the tuned-out citizens coming along behind them. [3]

The same divergence is visible in the "news" of public affairs that younger people tune out. The most memorable news event in the decade of the 1980s was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. Second was the San Francisco earthquake, third was the little girl in Texas who was rescued from a well. All were TV stories with terrific footage -- riveting human dramas that appealed to everyone but especially to younger people. In contrast, the historic political upheavals of eastern Europe never absorbed the attention of more than 42 percent of people under thirty, even at the highly videogenic climax in the fall of 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell.

Only 11 percent of people under thirty followed President Bush's summit meeting with Gorbachev very closely. Only 9 percent were interested in the Japanese purchase of Rockefeller Center. Only 5 percent cared about the scandal that brought down Representative Jim Wright, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. They know Corazon Aquino (53 percent) because she plays a compelling role in a continuing TV soap opera about the Philippine government. They do not know House Speaker Thomas Foley (only 8 percent do) because he is merely the nice-looking man who sits in the background, next to Dan Quayle, when George Bush gives important speeches on TV.

These data are drawn from studies made by the Times Mirror Company's Center for The People & The Press, which monitors the attention span of news consumers. In a 1990 study, "The Age of Indifference," the center charted the gaps between the generations in attention and knowledge and concluded gloomily: "The ultimate irony ... is that the Information Age has spawned such an uninformed and uninvolved population.'"

By comparing Gallup Poll opinion surveys over five decades, the study identified a break- way point in the mid-1970s when the attention level of younger adults began to diminish -- diverging from what the rest of the country knew and considered important. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the polls had found that young people knew as much about public affairs as their elders (and sometimes more) and that they followed major news events with approximately the same intensity. Starting in the years following the Watergate scandal and the war in Vietnam, the news attention of young people fell away sharply; so did their factual knowledge of political issues and personalities; so did their voting participation.

That decline could be attributed to the disillusionment fostered by those events, the cynicism bred by an era of political failures, except for this: The trend persisted throughout the 1980s, a time when Ronald Reagan restored political success to the presidency and was especially admired among the younger citizens. They liked Ronald Reagan, but his popularity did not persuade them to pay more attention or to vote.

A more likely explanation for the divergence is that in the 1970s, for the first time, the age group from eighteen to thirty consisted entirely of children who had been raised on TV. Those same people are now in their late thirties or early forties and, though they became somewhat more attentive and knowledgeable as they grew older, the age group from thirty to forty-five also now displays a deteriorating interest in the standard facts and events of politics.

Older people read Time or Newsweek to catch up on the week's news. Younger people, even well-educated ones, read People magazine as their idea of "hard news." Older citizens watch 60 Minutes for its familiar format of methodical exposes of wrongdoing. Younger people watch A Current Affair or Geraldo or Oprah for their edgy sense of personal melodrama -- an unabashed emotionalism that is not unlike the old working-class tabloids. Traditionalists shudder at the implications. Is television gradually producing a brain-dead citizenry, making it impossible to imagine a functioning democracy?

Or is it perhaps the opposite -- that these younger viewers are able to see things through television that are not really visible to their elders? Possibly, they know something about politics that the rest of us were not taught when we were growing up, a reality that contradicts the comfortable civic faith instilled in us. Clearly, the system of political communication is malfunctioning when so many millions of citizens turn away from the continuing story of politics. But it may be the story itself or the storytelling system -- not the audience -- that is maladjusted.

What is it that the young and disaffected see in politics that leads them to switch channels? For one thing, they see a dispiriting sameness. It is not just the "talking heads" that, as every TV producer knows, make for boring television, but generally it is the same "talking heads" over and over again. Given the quickness that television values, a viewer will be bombarded with a succession of quick flashes-unfamiliar faces with tightly cropped opinions- that provide no context for understanding who is on which side or why they are being presented as glib authorities or what led them to their quickie opinions.

If one watches the evening news without much background understanding of public affairs, without regularly reading a daily newspaper (as most young people do not), much of the content is unfathomable, random sound bites and a boring blur that seems aimed at some other audience. For these sensibilities, the evening news may look as quick and mindless as MTV. Television politics -- like Sesame Street -- is experienced, not learned in an abstract mode. If the facts seem inconsistent with the images, the images will overwhelm the facts and refute them.

At least the rock videos tell a recognizable human story, however simpleminded. Many provide a vague sense of narrative -- responding to the ancient human yearning for a story with a beginning, a middle and an ending -- and deliver a passionate message that invites an emotional response (if not an intellectual one) from the audience. MTV invites its viewers to identify with its content. For that matter, so does Sesame Street.

Politics and political news, on the other hand, is a story about someone else, told in a not very coherent fashion. Politics on TV is a recurring blip of details about a fairly small group of people (mostly older people and some who seem ancient) who are off somewhere else doing important things. Without context, their words and actions will seem remote and meaningless to ordinary young viewers. The political events seem to be following a logic that is not revealed in the broadcast. People whom TV taught to be hip and wary and impatient naturally lose interest in what seems opaque and distant. The remoteness makes them feel passive, impotent.

The hottest public-affairs shows -- frequently denounced as sleaze television -- at least deliver a human drama (including even the possibility of a fistfight) and opinionmongers who seem recognizable since they are usually not politicians talking in the distant language of officialisms. Jim Bellows, former editor of the defunct Washington Star and now a television consultant, thinks shows like A Current Affair prosper because they deliver "a sense of outrage and passion.... The newspapers are much more dispassionate.... You don't have the alternative voices there that you used to have. Now, television, all of a sudden, is doing that. In some respects, the stuff is terrible, all that sleaze, but people want some kind of different voices and higher and lower emotional levels.

TV portrays politics largely in the orthodox formats of "news," emulating the factuality and story lines originally fashioned for print, yet the sound and pictures frequently convey something else. Politicians frequently look like the salesmen who peddle kitchen gadgets on late-night TV. Their rhetorical exaggerations may remind one of deceptive toy commercials. If the words are not confirmed by the aural-visual imagery, the words lose their veracity. If the political story goes on and on repetitively, without any subsequent resolution or connection to real life, then it is just another TV concoction and not a very compelling one.

Beyond these questions of technique, there is a deeper explanation for why television deadens politics among the young: In its own way, television tells them the truth about politics, almost in spite of itself. For the generation that is fully attuned to the evocative contours of TV images, the medium delivers a most subversive message: The civic mythologies about politics and democracy that your parents believe are nonsense, since any viewer can see that the pictures tell a different story. The civic faith is not borne out by the political story told on television and, in fact, is regularly contradicted by it.

This truth-telling quality is partly the curse of intimacy that television inescapably promotes. When one can see the senator up close and personally witness his performance rather than read about it the next day in the newspaper, the senator inevitably becomes a less exalted figure, less magisterial and less mystifying, especially if he is yapping incoherently in a fifteen-second sound bite. Congress seemed a more noble deliberative body when people only read about it. Actually "experiencing" politics with the physical immediacy of TV makes it much harder to believe in the received truths about democracy that older people routinely accepted.

Now we can see democracy -- live and in color -- and it does not look much like what the civics textbooks taught. For older people, schooled to accept the civics abstractions, it is thrilling to watch the televised proceedings of the U.S. Senate on C-Span. For most younger people, the same broadcast simply seems boring and bizarre. After all, the U.S. Senate looks like an empty chamber lined with antique desks and a pretend "debate" to which no one seems to be listening.

"Television makes the events transparent, regardless of what it says about them," said Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, a mass-circulation magazine whose readers span the TV generation. "There is no real debate in politics. That's what younger people see on television and they're right. TV communicates that politics is controlled by a very few people and for everyone else it's meaningless. That's the message from TV and people got it. How many presidential elections do you have to watch before you conclude that the results don't make much difference? Things will go on the same. Why bother? That's an accurate message and TV conveys that message.

"Television is so unvarnished in the way it communicated -- even aside from the manipulation in campaigns -- that it has told the truth about government and politics so much better than ever before. That's why everyone is so dispirited about politics. They understand."

The question then is: Who sees the truth about American politics more clearly, the old or the young? Like Wenner and Jacques Cousteau, I would vote for the young. Like every generation, they are bound by their own illusions and vulnerable to deception and evasion in their own peculiar ways. But their basic perceptions, however shallow and out-of-focus, are not wrong. The democratic challenge, among its other aspects, lies in convincing the children of TV not only that politics matters, but that they matter in politics.
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:52 am

PART 2 OF 2 (CH. 14 CONT'D.)

If television were to reinvent its storytelling techniques, it might be able to convey a more positive and supple sense of political action, bringing diverse human energies and aspirations into the story, breaking out of the claustrophobic definitions of "news" that TV inherited from print. But the underlying mood of disaffection is not likely to change much so long as the nature of politics does not change itself.

The lost generation of active citizens, in other words, may reasonably be blamed on the maladjusted communications engendered by the media revolution. But it should also be understood as the most threatening indictment of the American political system: American democracy is so deformed that it cannot convince its own young people that it's real.

What would bring them back? What would persuade these TV kids with their hip, laconic sense of things that political action is alive and meaningful, that it ought to engage their energies? Possibly, nothing. That is, nothing short of continuing revolution and upheaval in the way the American society communicates with itself. The late Lee Atwater expressed the view that the deep resentment and alienation that permeate modern American politics are connected to the communications revolution and he expected them to continue until the disorientations of communications work themselves out of the society.

If politics does not find a credible voice soon, then the next generation will be lost too. In the style of the video age, most younger people are more inward-looking in their lives, concentrating on the well-being of family and friends and themselves, convinced that nothing they do can have much effect on the larger problems, especially in politics. This is often denounced as self-centered and cynical, but the behavior also demonstrates a practical response to the political reality of impotent citizens.

In the meantime, until things change profoundly, there are still some old-fashioned political commodities that sell with young people: hope and idealism. Their responses to political life, however blurred and uninformed, consistently gravitate toward those people and events that convey those up lifting qualities. They followed Corazon Aquino attentively because she was an idealistic heroine and Nelson Mandela's struggle in South Africa for the same reason.

After twenty years of witnessing scandals and other sodden political events, young people recognized hope and idealism in Ronald Reagan -- his uncomplicated sense of optimism about America, his rocklike faith in the country's virtue. One may argue (as I would) that they were deeply deceived by Reagan's sunny images (and by his mastery of video techniques), but that is hardly a new risk for self-government, since citizens were misled by skillful politicians long before television. Despite his advanced age, Reagan's hopeful politics resonated directly with the aspirations of the TV children (though it did not alter their declining participation in politics).

In 1988, when Rolling Stone magazine commissioned a broad opinion survey of people in the TV generation and their diverse opinions and attitudes, the most striking result was the choice of their most admired leaders. Contemporary politicians scored poorly. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the list, followed by Robert F. Kennedy. Both men had been killed twenty years before, when many of these young people were infants or even before some of them were born.

King and Kennedy, however, both stand out in common memory for courageous statements of idealism and hope -- a willingness to put themselves at risk on behalf of change, to make things better for people. It was a dreadful commentary on American politics: For younger citizens, the political heroes are dead and they do not see much on TV to remind them of what was lost. [6]


If politicians and corporate interests can steer public opinion through the art of mass-media images, why can't citizens? Since mass communication has become the dominant mode of civic discourse in America, some citizens have discovered how to use it too, even to address complex issues of government that are normally dominated by entrenched power. Even when the citizens win, however, the results may be less than fulfilling for democracy.

On February 26, 1989, CBS's 60 Minutes broke the alarming story of Alar, a pesticide established as carcinogenic yet still authorized by EPA for agricultural use and sprayed on the apples that children eat every day. An EPA official admitted during the broadcast that, if Alar were a newly developed chemical submitted for regulatory approval, EPA would reject it. But since Alar was an old chemical already in use, EPA did not act to ban it.

The next day, actress Meryl Streep held a press conference in Washington, joined by the national president of the PTA and other distinguished citizens, and announced the formation of a new organization called "Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits." They released a devastating research report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, describing the dangers to children in the food system caused by agricultural chemicals and EPA's weak efforts to regulate them. Streep also previewed a television commercial in which she appears, standing in a sunny kitchen while lunch is being prepared for the children, and warns other mothers of these risks.

Cover stories on Alar followed in Time and Newsweek, as well as feature stories in Family Circle, Redbook, Woman's Day and People magazine. The Phil Donahue Show took up the issue and so did all three of the TV networks' morning shows. Cast members from L.A. Law and thirtysomething came forward to reiterate Meryl Streep's concerns.

The entire thunderstorm of media attention, including 60 Minutes, was cleverly orchestrated by a public-relations firm on behalf of the environmentalists -- and Alar lost. The media techniques employed by the environmentalists were actually identical to those that major corporations and political parties routinely use to influence public opinion -- the calculated repetition of an emotionally powerful message and the use of a trusted celebrity to deliver it.

The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal countered the first Alar stories by reporting industry. claims that Alar posed no significant risk to children, but the issue was already decided. Major school systems around the country began withdrawing apples from their lunchrooms and supermarkets cut back their normal orders. Apple sales plummeted, as the controversy stayed in the news day after day. A few weeks later, the manufacturer, Uniroyal, capitulated and Alar was withdrawn from the market.

Hill & Knowlton, the Washington public-relations firm hired by the apple growers, countered the onslaught of alarming stories by dispatching voluminous statistical data to the news media on the risk assessments of pesticide residues on apples. But to no avail. "On the first day," Frank Mankiewicz, the Hill & Knowlton account executive, recalled, "I said to myself: 'We're going to make a lot of money and we're going to lose. God, are we going to lose.' We got rolled in three days. The reason was that Meryl Streep sneaked on TV and said, 'This stuff will make your kids sick.'"

The apple growers and the chemical industry, seconded by EPA, insisted this wasn't quite so, but their complicated rebuttals entirely missed the point to consume, only that the chances of one child consuming enough Alar on apples to contract cancer were remote. The public ignored these assurances, and for good reason: This was not an experiment parents were likely to undertake with their own children. [7]

Nor did the public believe EPA. The agency had itself prepared to take Alar off the market back in 1985, but backed off when its panel of scientific advisors objected. Seven of the eight EPA advisors, it was later revealed, had worked as consultants to the chemical industry, including one scientist who served on the EPA advisory panel on pesticides, then went to work for Uniroyal a few months later-representing it on the Alar issue. Such conflicts of interest are commonplace on government advisory boards, another reason for the public to distrust the government's science. [8]

"You could say the public banned Alar directly through the media," said David Fenton, whose public-relations firm designed the Alar campaign for the NRDC. "It was a case of direct self-government -- no legislation involved, no government at all."

Fenton's adroit manipulation of the news media enraged the apple growers and the chemical industry as well as their conservative defenders in the press, but his strategy simply followed the basic principles of mass communications developed by business itself. "The corporate world is much more sophisticated about communications than public- interest groups and Republicans are much more sophisticated than Democrats," Fenton said. "Most of the big environmental groups have no budget for this sort of thing. Their idea of successful media is that an article appears in The New York Times and their peers see it. They have no sense of mass communications."

Fenton Communications, a firm that mostly represents left-liberal political causes, is used to operating on meager budgets (its Alar fee was $30,000 while Hill & Knowlton's was $200,000), so the Alar campaign relied almost entirely on orchestrating "free" space in the media -- most of it arranged well before Alar became "news." Even the Meryl Streep TV commercials were slightly bogus since NRDC lacked the funds for television advertising. "This was a guerrilla action," Fenton said. "We made three TV spots but all we had for media time buying was $3,000, which wouldn't buy anything. We made the commercial and released it at a press conference and hoped the TV news shows would use it for free and they did. Then we bought ten spots on WJLA in Washington at very cheap hours, just so we could say that we did put it on the air."

Modern politics, Fenton argues, "is really a battle between lawyers and marketeers. Most of the environmentalists at the NRDC are lawyers and lawyers think issues will be settled by facts and arguments. Marketeers know this country doesn't work that way anymore, if it ever did.

"The media is setting the agenda for policymakers, but the media din is such noise that, if a story only appears for one day, it disappears. The government knows that a one-day story is on the air and then it's gone. People don't remember it, don't act on it. If a story appears a second day, they take notice. If it's in a third day, the government gets nervous. If the story goes any further, they appoint a task force.

"I recognized that, in order to get through the din, I would have to create repetition, so that this thing would hit with a bang and then keep appearing day after day for weeks. But that requires manipulation, doesn't it? Everybody who does PR in Washington understands that."

Thus, on one level, the Alar episode opened new vistas for irregular citizen politics. It became a case study of how sophisticated public relations (and a rather small investment) could dramatically alter the political context for even a complex subject like federal pesticide regulation. The American public, almost overnight, was shocked and scared; the mass response overwhelmed the industry's influence on the government regulators.

George Bush used the image of Willie Horton, the black convict and rapist, to become president. The environmentalists used poisoned apples to banish Alar. Both are manipulating the mass media, but ultimately, they are also manipulating the mass audience. [9]

In a sense, it wasn't the people who banned Alar. It was Meryl Streep -- because she was more believable than EPA and industry scientists. Frank Mankiewicz, whose PR firm represented the apple growers, remarked drolly on the use of celebrities to decide public- health policy:

"I was trying to make the point to reporters that Meryl Streep hasn't even played a nutritionist. At least when Robert Young talks about coffee on TV, we know we can believe him because Robert Young used to play a doctor."


The dimensions of the modern media culture were aptly defined when Publishers Weekly issued its list of the twenty-five biggest best-selling books of the 1980s. People tend to buy books, like everything else, by brand names, only the brand names are those of celebrities who became famous for doing something other than writing books. The decade's nonfiction list was a hit parade of the household names made familiar by television or movies. Bill Cosby, Lee Iacocca and "Frugal Gourmet" Jeff Smith each had two books on it. Others hits were by or about Jane Fonda, Chuck Yeager, Donald Trump, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley. Even some of the most serious books on the list had the aura of celebrity: Carl Sagan and Stephen W. Hawking are about as famous as living scientists get. The rest of the bestsellers were mostly by famous diet and self-help experts. [10]

Celebrity itself is not a new phenomenon, of course, but the media age has pumped up the role of celebrity enormously (and further democratized access to that privileged realm). In the nineteenth century, Americans chose famous generals to be president and, since early in the twentieth century, movie stars have always seemed more interesting to people than most politicians. Movie stars who go into politics are especially interesting.

What is also different about contemporary celebrities is their power to assemble floating "communities" of like-minded followers -- an identity that people can attach to and call their own. Celebrities are trusted, celebrities stand for certain things, the ideas and values to which followers can express political allegiance. In a fragmented society where people drift in isolation, this seems a weak (and sometimes pathetic) substitute for a genuine community, but people do the best they can with what they've got.

The TV preachers have been most successful and most methodical in assembling constituencies with multimedia technologies, then leading their adherents into the public arena. Their conservative political message eventually produced its own backlash (and scandal defrocked several of the pastors), but their imaginative enterprises are a model for how celebrity and television can organize a political presence for people who had none before.

James Dobson's daily radio program, Focus on the Family, airs on 1,250 stations (second only to Paul Harvey) and his California-based organization of the same name distributes books, films and pamphlets to millions. It is a ministry aimed at restoring conservative family values and influencing the political decisions on social questions. In early 1988, Focus on the Family flooded the congressional switchboards with a half million phone calls in a single day, all protesting the pending civil rights bill as "an incredible intrusion into religious liberties." [11]

On a somewhat different plane, rock 'n roll also recruits and educates citizens for political action. Sting, U2, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and others have made "human rights" a household phrase among their young followers and around the world. They led the Amnesty International world concert tour in 1988 that played eighteen countries, including the Soviet bloc nations of eastern Europe, and a U.S. tour in 1986. Drawn by the music, fans went home with copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a document that was still suppressed in some of the countries). Some of the fans went home to organize their own Amnesty chapters and began writing letters on behalf of political prisoners.

"We played in front of a million real people and maybe a billion saw the movie, which is the concert with some politics," said John Healy, Amnesty's executive director. "Stars attract the people in, then we try to get them to do something actively. We have over two thousand high schools with organizations and teachers tell us that the most exciting thing in their schools is Amnesty. It turns out that the dictators don't know whether the letters are written by young people. All they know is they're getting lots of mail about political prisoners."

Furthermore, if one searched for an opposition critique to the conservative Republican regime of the 1980s, it was not to be found in the news media or the Democratic party, but in entertainment -- the music and film celebrities who were willing to express themselves on large public issues, from the war against Nicaragua to environmental degradation to the maldistribution of wealth and incomes.

People evidently listened to them too. The opinion polling on how attentively young people follow the news found that eighteen-to thirty-year-olds were more interested than their elders in the news of Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa. The rock stars had educated them on the subject.

But do the celebrities evoke a real political response or are the kids just coming out for a good concert that will include some righteous political rhetoric? Perhaps a bit of both. "Stars do it and they don't do it," Healy said. "The whole question is whether there's an edge in what they're saying. You take Bruce Springsteen, who says there is 'economic apartheid' in this country, which he said on the tour and in the movie. That's got an edge. That's different from some celebrity telling people to save the environment -- build a house with old tires."

The debilitating political effects of the celebrity culture were brilliantly evoked in Michael Moore's film Roger and Me, a satirical journey through the devastation of Moore's hometown, Flint, Michigan, when General Motors collapsed its U.S. production in the early 1980s. Moore filmed a surreal parade of fading "stars" (Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Bob Eubanks) who come to Flint to boost local spirits while the town itself sinks deeper into a kind of crazed denial of reality. [12]

But the most devastating element in the film is its mocking portrayal of Flint's passive victims. It invites the audience to laugh at the bizarre behavior of the unemployed auto workers -- because the victims are laughing at themselves. No one gets angry because they are spectators too. They are watching their own demise and reacting as though it was a television game 'show, featuring Pat Boone, Anita Bryant and Bob Eubanks. When the last truck rolls off the line at the assembly plant, the workers cheer for the camera. "What are we cheering about?" one of them asks. "We just lost our jobs."

What Moore has captured is the fact that television creates an independent reality that people defer to and that separates them from the real political life where decisions are made. On camera, they become performers themselves, mimicking the idiomatic words and gestures they have seen and absorbed from the "stars." Off camera, they are sullen and passive, unable to imagine the connection that Moore illustrates between the indifference of General Motors executives and the destruction of their town.

The basic weakness in media-centered politics is that, whatever energy and presence it creates, it does not overcome these distancing qualities embedded in the medium itself. A rock star may exhort and educate, but it is still a one-way communication, floating in time and space, detached from any permanent place or institutional responsibility. The TV preachers develop an audience of citizens (and collect lots of money from them) but the fate of their political agenda hangs on the preacher, not the congregation. People feel empowered, but the effect is shallow and sometimes false. People become adherents, but they are still mainly spectators.

Ernie Cortes of the Texas IAF network, whose community organizations rely on the old- fashioned face-to-face dialogues, described what is missing from television politics:

"Television allows politicians to go directly to people and go into their living rooms. They go beyond the mediating institutions and make a mass appeal that doesn't differentiate about its audience. The TV preachers do the same. They are preachers who don't need churches. They communicate directly, but there is no permanent relationship being built."

This is the media problem that no one has yet solved; How might the power of this technology be adapted to developing genuine political relationships without also overwhelming them? The solution perhaps lies somewhere between the intimate interpersonal approach that the IAF groups rigorously pursue at the grassroots level and the glamorous mass appeals made by rock stars and TV preachers. One creates genuine connections among people, but cannot speak to the larger audience of citizens who are mainly listening to mass media. The other approach communicates high-volume messages to a vast audience but does not leave much behind in terms of human relationships.

Sooner or later, the optimists would say, someone somewhere will discover the media methods for doing both-developing and sustaining conversation with the listeners, activating the capacities of citizens without making them bit players in someone else's drama. The continuing emergence of wondrous new technologies -- from desktop publishing to telecomputers -- argues that human imagination will eventually find the links that can restore a sense of democratic vitality.

It requires invention, but it will also require a new sense of the institutional relationships. The media are not likely to bring people back into democracy so long as people have no control whatsoever over the media.


America's Funniest Home Videos may be dismissed as the kind of daffy (and irresistible) fluff that network television serves up, except for its revolutionary implications. The show is mostly devoted to ridiculous moments in everyday life -- spontaneous, backyard sight gags captured by ordinary people with their own video cameras. But now and then the homemade videotapes reveal something more. Folks not only have their own TV cameras now, but many have learned the higher production values of television -- the dramatic arts of staging and editing and narration that make the medium so effective. Given their store- bought equipment, these amateurs are now making quite skillful parodies of the professionals.

It is possible, in other words, to watch Funniest Home Videos and imagine America, someday soon, as a nation of TV producers. Citizens making their messages for broadcast -- that's power. Citizens everywhere covering the news for themselves -- that's power too, as the Los Angeles policemen discovered when a home video recorded their brutal beating of a black motorist.

Possibly, some enterprising TV syndicate will eventually move beyond the sight gags and invite citizens to tell other kinds of stories about themselves -- to send in videotapes that record deeper dramas from their lives or, who knows, even stories that express their own political ideas and aspirations. I can envision an entertaining and meaningful low-budget program that simply airs the most provocative works of America's TV guerrillas -- citizen filmmakers who harness the outrage of talk radio to more purposeful content and with less manipulation by the on-air personality.

This sort of possibility is just the beginning of the next liberating revolution -- and the new grounds for optimism about democratic possibilities. New technologies are coming into the marketplace that will give individuals more control over the nature of electronic communications. Once the means of creating the message are widely distributed in many hands, invention is sure to follow. The truly original ideas for using video-the techniques for adapting its power to democratic relationships -- will not come from the corporate conglomerates that now control broadcasting and publishing. But they might come from someone's backyard.

George Gilder has sketched a most ambitious vision of democratic optimism, based on the emerging developments in microelectronics. Communications grids that decentralize the originating controls, telecomputers. and personal data resources that will shift power away from institutions and to individuals -- these technologies and others promise to empower citizens, Gilder explained. As this happens, people will be able to liberate themselves from mindless anonymity in the mass audience.

"The force of microelectronics will blow apart all of the monopolies, hierarchies, pyramids and power grids of established industrial society," Gilder declared. "It will undermine all totalitarian regimes. Police states cannot endure under the advance of the computer because it increases the powers of the people far faster than the powers of surveillance. All hierarchies will tend to become 'heterarchies' -- systems in which each individual rules his own domain." [13]

Meanwhile, however, in the here-and-now, the pace of change is largely controlled by those corporations that own the equipment and existing franchises -- and most of them, for obvious reasons, have a compelling interest in resisting change and preserving the status quo. Like George Gilder, one may assume that profound technological change sooner or later sweeps away the old order, regardless of its political power to resist. But the actual shape of the future still depends crucially on which economic and political forces get to design it.

The unmentionable political issue is who owns the media -- unmentionable because neither media nor politicians will bring it up. Ben H. Bagdikian, former dean of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, bravely explored the question and reached a frightening conclusion:

"The United States, along with other major democracies, is moving swiftly toward media control by a handful of gigantic multi-national corporations. The trend is unmistakable. Leaders in the trend are quite candid: they predict that in a few years a half-dozen corporations will control most of the public information available to Americans." [14]

If that sounds like an extreme forecast, consider the results of Bagdikian's research. When his book, The Media Monopoly, was first published in 1983, he counted fifty organizations that controlled most of the business in all major media -- radio, television and its derivatives, newspapers, magazines and books. Five years later, when the second edition was published, he found the fifty organizations had shrunk to twenty-nine.

As Bagdikian demonstrated, the great promise of new communications technologies has been thwarted in the past by the commercial self-interest of those who owned them. Cable television, for instance, was heralded twenty years ago as the great liberating innovation that would foster diversity in broadcasting and reinvigorate the public dialogue -- simply because cable grossly multiplied the number of available channels. On the whole, the promise has not been fulfilled. With rare exceptions, cable TV does not stray from the narrow commercial objectives of its owners -- owners who are mostly the same companies that own newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations.

David Fenton, who orchestrated the Alar campaign, sees the problems of democracy rooted in the power of the media to set the agenda for public debate, however randomly they do so. "I agree with the right wing," Fenton said. "Here we have this powerful instrument for political opinion and solving social problems that is completely unaccountable and unwilling to examine itself and against letting itself be used to attack social problems. Citing the First Amendment is not an answer. Nobody wants to appoint politically corrupt bureaucrats to run the media, but maybe it's not so good to leave the media entirely in the hands of people who are only interested in private profit. If we want an environmentally sound economy, that little box can make it happen. Or do we have to leave it to little guerrilla operations like ours?"

The democratic imperative, therefore, is to develop new political and legal doctrine that will challenge the concentrated ownership of communications on behalf of democracy. As individual citizens develop their own communications skills and organize their own computer networks, they will be able to go around the mass media and talk to one another. But they will still be shut out of the mass-audience debate if the owners refuse them access. The proposals to allot free air time for political candidates in campaigns, for instance, are a useful but inadequate reform. The problem is also providing air time for citizens, not just for elections, but in every season.

To produce genuine change, media companies might, for instance, be prohibited from cross-ownership in different sectors of media or limited to some modest share of the overall national marketplace, as Bagdikian has suggested. Media owners usually hide behind the First Amendment when such questions are raised, but the practical effect of media concentration is actually to restrict the "free speech" of everyone else, the voiceless citizenry. Who gets to enter the debate? The choice belongs to reporters and editors and producers and, really, to the' companies they work for. Sooner or later, this arbitrary restriction on democracy must be confronted.

Michael Kinsley of The New Republic has suggested, for instance, that companies that use their media ownership to promote their own products or political interests might find themselves restricted to the more limited First Amendment privileges accorded to "commercial speech." When NBC broadcasts an account of the success of the nuclear- power industry in France, is it informing the public or selling a product made by NBC's owner, General Electric? In 1990, the NBC Nightly News ran three segments, totaling fourteen minutes, on a new device to detect breast cancer without finding time to mention that the machine is manufactured by NBC's parent corporation. As the control of the major news media becomes still more concentrated, their supposed neutrality, in both commerce and politics, will become more and more suspect. [15]

To take another example of reform, cable franchises, originally envisioned as public utilities, could be broken up into multiple ownerships -- commercial and noncommercial, political and nonpolitical. Public-access channels are available for free and inventive expression, but they have no institutional base from which to develop coherent programming and quality. Given the redundancies that now exist in the content of TV broadcasting, nothing would be lost if some channels or blocs of air time were assigned to responsible community institutions (churches or labor unions or even political parties) that are motivated, not by profit maximization, but by the desire to foster social connections.

Public accountability would require a diversity of voices and a rough sense of balance among the competing interests that are given control of the access. Ralph Nader has proposed, for example, an "audience network" in which citizens' groups, depending on their size, could be awarded an hour or so of air time to broadcast programming that originates with the public, not the media corporations. "Given the immense concentration of power and uniformity that characterizes the broadcasting industry," Nader wrote, "leaving the dissemination and content of new information technology to myopic profit formulas runs counter to community sense and historical precedent." [16]

At the very least, while we await the liberating possibilities of the next communications revolution, some new rules of equity need to be developed -- rules that spread the costs of political speech among many in order to democratize its availability for everyone. Most individuals cannot undertake this for themselves. Without new institutional arrangements in communications, control of access inevitably will be held by the few.

The media corporations are busy concentrating their market shares and acquiring rivals. The politicians dare not challenge the structure of media ownership, for that would provoke severe retribution from press and television and their corporate owners. The power of corporate politics, as the next chapter makes clear, is the centerpiece in the institutional arrangements that dominate politics.

The debate about media power, therefore, has to come from the people -- from the TV guerrillas who want to reach a larger audience with their original messages, from ordinary citizens who are able to envision a more robust democracy. If the people do not raise these questions, they will not be raised at all.
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:57 am



Corporations, by their nature, do not function as democratic organizations, yet it is they who have seized the political ground left vacant by citizens, the political parties and other mediating institutions. Business and finance stepped into the vacuum created by failed political institutions and took up the daily work of politics. Their tremendous financial resources, the diversity of their interests, the squads of talented professionals -- all these assets and some others are now relentlessly focused on the politics of governing.

This new institutional reality is the centerpiece in the breakdown of contemporary democracy. Corporations exist to pursue their own profit maximization, not the collective aspirations of the society. They are commanded by a hierarchy of managers, not by democratic deliberation. Yet the modern corporation presumes to act like a mediating institution -- speaking on behalf of others and for the larger public good. It is corporations that have taken the place of political parties, to the extent anyone has.

With varying degrees of sophistication and intensity, hundreds of these large corporate political organizations are now astride the democratic landscape, organizing the ideas and agendas, financing electoral politics and overwhelming the competing voices of other, less well-endowed organizations and citizens. They portray themselves as "good citizens," doing their part for public affairs.

For obvious reasons, this institutional arrangement is bound to disappoint democratic expectations. The contest of politics becomes mainly an indistinct competition among rival behemoths. The political space that once belonged to parties and other mediating institutions is usurped by narrow-minded economic interests. Citizens at large vaguely perceive that government is being steered by these forces and they naturally resent it.

The transformation occurred partly by default and partly by design. Corporate political organizations set out to seize the high ground, but they also simply learned how to do politics in the modern setting more inventively than anyone else. By necessity, they have adapted effectively to the new conditions of mass-media politics and the diffusion of government authority, while citizens and rival organizations have not.

Corporations, however, enjoy an anomalous status not available to anyone else: In the lawless government, corporate "citizens" are the leading outlaws. They may regularly violate the law without surrendering their political rights -- committing felonious acts that would send people to prison and strip them of their citizenship. This contradiction is crucial to what has deformed democracy; the power relationships of politics cannot be brought into a more equitable balance until citizens confront the privileged legal status accorded to these political organizations.

In order to understand the power of corporations, it is not necessary to track the myriad political activities of hundreds of companies. The reality can be adequately demonstrated by describing the politics of one outstanding example among the many -- an especially skillful and energetic political organization known as the General Electric Company. Like others, "Citizen GE" energetically promotes its own civic reputation while it tenaciously pursues its interests across an extraordinary range of matters. Like many other major companies, "Citizen GE" does its everyday politics despite its anomalous status as an ex-convict.


At forty-three, Benjamin Heineman, Jr., had the sort of political resume that marked him as a future Cabinet officer, if the Democrats ever again won the White House. The son of a politically prominent Chicago industrialist, Heineman studied at Harvard, Yale and Oxford and became known in Washington for his quick and serious intelligence. He served as assistant secretary for planning at HEW in the Carter administration, then became managing partner in the Washington office of Sidley & Austin, one of Chicago's leading law firms. To some, it seemed a diversion from destiny when Heineman left the capital in 1987 to become general counsel of the General Electric Company in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Not at all, he explained to an interviewer. General Electric offered him the opportunity to influence public policy, across an extraordinary front of governing issues, from the tax code to defense spending, from broadcasting to environmental regulation, from banking law to international trade, from Head Start to Star Wars. "GE is a mirror of the world economy," Heineman told the American Lawyer. "You have an opportunity to see everything."

Philip A. Lacovara, a former Watergate prosecutor and the top litigator in another Washington law firm, joined GE for the same attraction -- the chance, he said, to be "involved in major policy and issues." As GE's chief of litigation, Lacovara expected to write friend-of-the-court briefs on such diverse matters as the First Amendment and securities law, government contracts and corporate responsibility.

"American industry has been reticent," he explained. "GE recognizes that as a major economic entity it has the stature and responsibility to form opinions."

One of Lacovara's first projects at GE was to try to head off the new corporate-sentencing guidelines being prepared for the federal courts, guidelines intended to stiffen the consequences for corporations that break the law. General Electric has more than a theoretical interest in this policy question since the company itself has been convicted of a series of crimes in recent years, including defrauding the federal government. The legal standards for corporate criminality, Lacovara argued, "should be narrowed substantially."

Companies cannot be held responsible for the transgressions of far-flung employees, Lacovara explained in comments he filed with the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Instead of stiffer penalties for corporate Violators, Lacovara suggested that federal prosecutors ought to offer special rewards to companies that cooperate with them -- lenient fines and forgiveness -- in order to encourage what he called the "good corporate citizen."

When the Justice Department endorsed a draft of the more severe sentencing guidelines in the spring of 1989, the GE lawyers took their complaints to the White House. An associate of Lacovara's warned the president's counsel that the proposed guidelines were "a corporate death sentence." George Bush's lawyer made some phone calls. The Justice Department backed off and withdrew its endorsement. [2]

As the episode suggested, there are no longer any distinct boundary lines between law, politics and corporate management. In the modern milieu of governing, these are all the same subject. General Electric recognizes this reality more astutely than most and, as Ben Heineman explained to the American Lawyer, was beefing up its legal department to take "an aggressive, offensive look at the problems of the company." GE's lawyers, he said, would track not just litigation, but also new legislation and regulation, alongside the company's lobbyists. "Preventing litigation is one thing," Heineman said. "But how do you calculate [the benefit] if you change a regulation or work something out with Congress?"

One of Heineman's new hires was a former colleague from Sidley & Austin, Stephen D. Ramsey, who had previously served as assistant attorney general for environmental enforcement in the Reagan administration. At the Justice Department, Ramsey had developed the liability rules for enforcing the Superfund law, the law that requires corporations to pay their share for cleaning up the thousands of dangerous toxic-waste dumps they created around the nation. At Sidley & Austin, Ramsey worked on how to stymie the Superfund law.

A legal memorandum prepared by Ramsey in 1986 provided a playbook for how corporate lawyers could confound the government's efforts to collect the billions owed by polluters. His Superfund memo was widely circulated among the law firms that defend corporations against Superfund claims be cause it spelled out the step-by-step tactics for hanging up the liability process in the tangle of court challenges. Ramsey, for example, advised fellow lawyers:

"Bear in mind that district courts, unlike courts of appeals, are generally unfamiliar with record review. This suggests opportunities to expand the record.... Use Freedom of Information Act, broadly and often, and challenge withholding of relevant documents.... There is an added appearance of arbitrariness and procedural sloppiness if the government refuses.... Artful use of the Book-of-the-Month-Club response ('If we do not hear from you, we assume you agree with us').... Take full advantage of every opportunity to comment. . . . Force the government to respond to your comments.... And, document when they do not, to lay foundation for later challenge." [3]

EPA's chief of enforcement was sufficiently alarmed by Ramsey's memorandum that he issued an in-house warning to EPA legal and technical staff, urging them to "be prepared to handle challenges suggested by it."

General Electric is much in need of Stephen Ramsey's legal specialty. GE has been listed as a "potentially responsible party" at forty-seven Superfund sites -- more than any other U.S. corporation. The forty-seven toxic-waste dumps are on EPA's priority cleanup list, sites where GE either was the operator or contributed significantly to the chemical wastes. Ramsey became the company's vice-president for corporate environmental programs. ''I'll be ensuring that GE at a corporate and business level is doing everything they can to comply with existing laws and government regulations and to go beyond that," he declared. [4]

Heineman's imaginative recruiting spun the "revolving door" in other fields as well. A former Treasury Department legislative counsel from the Carter administration was hired to be GE's chief lawyer for tax planning and policy. A former energy counsel from the Ford administration was hired to be the top lawyer for GE's appliance division.

But Ben Heineman was simply applying to the legal department the same sophisticated political sensibilities that GE management has demonstrated for many years. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Air Force General David C. Jones, is on GE's board of directors. So was Ronald Reagan's former attorney general, the late William French Smith.

But critics who focus on the career-ladder aspects of this phenomenon generally miss the larger meaning. The "revolving door" is not about personal opportunism, but about the organizational reality in American politics. A company naturally wishes to hire the best people to do its political work, since its bottom line depends directly on the political outcomes -- not just now and then, but continuously every day, every year.

General Electric, like every other major corporation, is thoroughly engaged in the politics of governing -- more intimately and extensively than any individual citizen would ever feel the need to participate, more aggressively than even hyperactive political activists could imagine. The company's practical politics is a function of economic necessity, not the ideology or civic sensibilities of its managers.

General Electric's wingspan is almost as broad as the government's. While it is too large and diverse to be considered typical, GE is an outstanding prototype of the modern corporation doing politics, since its product lines and corporate interests intersect with practically every dimension of the federal government's decision making. GE makes the things that government buys but also the things that government regulates and licenses: light bulbs and locomotives, jet engines and nuclear bombs, TV broadcasting and nuclear-power plants and financial services.

GE is the second-largest plastics manufacturer and, therefore, keenly interested in environmental law enforcement. But then it also manufactures pollution-control systems. Its medical-diagnostic equipment leads the world market -- as do GE circuit breakers, industrial turbines, electric motors, aircraft engines. The company is intensely engaged in trade policy and the emerging global economy.

GE is a stockbroker, since it owns the Kidder Peabody brokerage. GE is also a major bank, since its financial subsidiary, GE Capital, has $91 billion in assets-equivalent in size to America's fourth-largest commercial bank. General Electric is also a media giant, since it owns the NBC network and NBC's seven local TV stations as well as footholds in television broadcasting in three other countries. It purchased Financial News Network and closed it down in order to eliminate competition for its own cable venture, the Consumer News/Business Channel. [5]

For all these reasons, General Electric is a conglomerate that, in addition to its productive, profit-making activities, also functions as a ubiquitous political organization. With great sophistication and tenacity, GE represents its own interests in the political arena, as one would expect. But that is not what makes it so influential.

General Electric also tries to act like a mediating institution -- speaking on behalf of others. GE, like many other companies, assumes the burden of representing various groups of other citizens in politics -- workers, consumers, shareholders, even other businesses and the well-being of Americans at large. GE has the resources to develop and promote new political ideas and to organize public opinion around its political agenda. It has the capacity to advise and intervene and sometimes veto. It has the power to punish political opponents. It also has the sophistication to lend its good name to worthy causes, such as the Urban League, only remotely related to the company's profits.

The permissive culture of the grand bazaar is especially well suited to the corporate style of politics. Corporations have both the money and the economic incentive to play politics on both levels -- bargaining outcomes in obscure places that manipulate laws and mobilizing ideas and opinions to influence the visible public contest. To negotiate successfully in the grand bazaar, a political interest must have lots of lawyers, preferably with Washington connections. To influence the broad public debate, a political organization needs the status of "good corporate citizen," and GE has acquired that reputation too.

Other governing elites, including most elected politicians and the media, have found the corporate mode of politics congenial to their own interests. At least they have come to accept the corporate presence as the prevailing constant in how democracy now functions. Given the failure of other institutions to adapt and revitalize themselves, corporate politics has become the organizational core of the political process -- the main connective tissue linking people to their government.


General Electric is a deeply Republican institution for obvious historical reasons. As the inheritor of inventor Thomas A. Edison, the company was one of the brilliant pioneers in the rise of America's industrial corporations early in the twentieth century and has always naturally aligned itself with the party of business. In the 1950s, it sponsored Ronald Reagan's TV career and launched him on the lecture circuit as a crusader against big government.

But the company's upper management is also now sprinkled with "country club Democrats" like Ben Heineman and, since New Deal days, the corporation has been active in designing social programs usually associated with liberal Democrats. For years, GE has been a faithful contributor to mainline civil rights organizations and to education projects for racial minorities.

General Electric's political director, so to speak, is Frank P. Doyle, an executive who bears the stylishly contemporary title of senior vice-president for "relations." A Democrat, Doyle ranks just below GE's CEO, John F. Welch, Jr., and alongside the senior vice-presidents for finance, research and development, executive management and legal counsel. Though he seldom appears as a public witness for company policy, Doyle is in and out of Washington regularly on myriad matters and he also spends a lot of time in Brussels, the capital of the European economic community.

His attention, it is said, is roughly divided between developing broader social issues such as education and' job training, the consolidation of GE's position in Europe's emerging common market and the hardball politics of pursuing GE's specific lobbying agenda, from fighter planes to taxes. [6]

"Jack Welch has a sophisticated, modern vision of the corporate social role," said a congressional aide who has dealt frequently with GE on a spectrum of issues. "In politics, they are heavy-handed, big-stick players on their own issues, but they're not Dow Chemical. GE spends much more time on education, for instance, than other corporations. No one else is close, And they reap enormous benefits when they come around to collect their own nickels."

General Electric's political capacities depend upon an impressive infrastructure of different components-an elaborate team of lawyers and lobbyists, continuing financial investments in both charity and politics and programs of education and propaganda. These elements work together in both obvious and subtle ways as the institutional predicate for GE's political power.

In Washington, GE has a permanent team of two dozen lobbyists with a large support staff but, as the need arises, it regularly hires outside lawyers and lobbyists for targeted assignments.

Like other companies, GE finances the politicians in both parties. During the 1988 election cycle, GE PACs contributed $595,000 to congressional campaigns. One year, the company also paid $47,000 directly to senators and representatives to listen to them give speeches (the speakers, it turns out, were mostly members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees). The second-ranking lobbyist in GE's Washington office, Robert W. Barrie, is a leading "money guy" for congressional Democrats and always willing to get on the phone and canvass the lobbying community for money. [7]

GE is also a social philanthropist. Its tax-exempt foundations gave away $18.8 million in 1989, mostly to colleges and school systems, including major commitments to scholarships for the poor and racial minorities. Like any other good citizen, GE donates to United Way and other local community projects. Alongside the company's 1989 earnings of $3.9 billion, GE's sense of charity does not seem immoderate.

But the corporation's philanthropy also serves its own political objectives in direct ways. GE's tax-exempt contributions went, for instance, to lobbyist Charls Walker's American Council for Capital Formation (an "educational" front group that campaigns against the corporate income tax and for a national sales tax), the Institute for International Economics (a think tank that promotes the multinational corporate line on trade and economic policy), and Americans for Generational Equity (an issues front that campaigns for cuts in such entitlement programs as Social Security). GE gives substantially to the major policy think tanks that promote the conservative business perspective -- Brookings and AEI-though not to zealously right-wing outfits, such as the Heritage Foundation.

GE is also directly active in political education and propaganda. It sponsors the McLaughlin Group, a right-wing TV talk show that is popular among political devotees for its quick, abusive style of discourse. GE is a leading member in the Business Roundtable, which disseminates the political agenda of Fortune 500 corporations. GE also enters dozens of trade associations and a continuous galaxy of temporary joint ventures like the Superfund Coalition formed to prepare public opinion for business objectives.

The Committee on the Present Danger, founded with defense-industry financing in 1976, created the propaganda base for the huge defense buildup of the 1980s. The Center for Economic Progress and Employment, despite its public-spirited title, is a front group formed by GE, Union Carbide, Ford and other manufacturers to weaken the product- liability laws. The center financed a lengthy study attacking liability lawsuits and, for added authority, arranged to have the Brookings Institution publish it. [8]

General Electric also fosters a positive political image directly through its own advertising -- soft-focused TV spots that portray GE as an admirable citizen. According to INFACT, the Boston group leading a boycott of GE products, the company tripled its image advertising to $26.8 million a year after it came under attack in the mid-1980s as a producer of nuclear weapons. The increased self-promotion also coincided, however, with GE's embarrassing criminal indictment for cheating the government on defense contracts.

General Electric's commercials are more tasteful and entertaining than the hard-sell "issue" ads sponsored by some other companies. The TV spots usually tell compelling stories from GE's inventive past -- the pioneering of jet engines, the development of lighting that ushered in night baseball. However, the contemporary GE is better known not for inventing new products, but for its hard-nosed corporate restructurings, buying and selling and taking apart whole companies.

One of GE's loveliest commercials depicts its role in helping to bring freedom to the people of Hungary. It is a gorgeous montage of Hungarian citizens joyously celebrating their liberation from communism, mixed with images of GE managers completing the purchase of Hungary's state-owned Tungsram Company, eastern Europe's major manufacturer of light bulbs. Like all effective propaganda, the commercial amplifies something that is true but strips away complicating facts that would conflict with the heartwarming message.

While GE was buying Tungsram for $150 million in late 1989, a flying squad of GE lawyers and lobbyists was blitzing the governments in Washington, Brussels and Budapest -- wiring the deal against political risks. The U.S. Justice Department was quickly persuaded to waive antitrust questions, though GE was already the world's second-largest maker of light bulbs. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the federal insurance program for corporate overseas investments, was lobbied to insure the venture against political upheaval -- the largest policy in the agency's history and its first in eastern Europe. GE used a former general counsel of OPIC to sell the deal. Simultaneously, GE lobbyists managed to defeat a crippling legislative amendment on the Senate floor.

Accomplished under tight deadlines, the multifront lobbying was a splendid example of GE's ambidextrous political capabilities. But GE's assistance to Hungarian freedom, as depicted in the TV commercial, might seem less noble and daring if the audience knew that the GE lobbyists had beforehand secured political protection for the venture. [9]

Anyone who watches television regularly knows that, in recent years, major corporations have significantly increased the millions they spend on both soft and hard propaganda -- commercials designed to promote corporate images and political attitudes, not to sell specific products. According to annual surveys by Public Relations Journal, the volume of corporate-image advertising reached $941 million a year by 1987 in broadcasting and print media -- enough money to finance four or five presidential campaigns. [10]

Americans are saturated in "feel good" messages about the largest business corporations. Dow Chemical, notwithstanding its notorious reputation as a polluter, portrays itself as an old friend of nature. AT&T saves eagles. IBM teaches children in the ghetto. Northrop, facing trial in Los Angeles for criminally defrauding the Air Force, began broadcasting commercials on Los Angeles TV that featured legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager extolling the high quality of Northrop's aircraft. The presiding federal judge was so upset he banned the ads on the grounds that Northrop was trying to influence potential jurors for its trial. [11]

What difference does all this propaganda make in terms of political action? Market research suggests that, while corporate propaganda may not do much to reduce the public's collective distrust of business, individual companies can significantly dilute the hostility toward themselves.

In California, for instance, Chevron targeted messages in its "People Do" ad campaign at the most hostile segment of citizens -- the so-called "inner-directed" people with strong environmental values, who expressed heightened opposition to offshore oil drilling and low regard for Chevron. Two years later, the research director proudly reported, these people felt much better about Chevron and ranked it first among oil companies they trusted to protect the environment. They even bought more Chevron gasoline. They were still not, however, in favor of offshore drilling. [12]

General Electric's politics depends on all these various elements in its political infrastructure, but they are only preconditions for influencing political outcomes. In the public arena, what best advances GE's position is that, implicitly or explicitly, it is speaking on behalf of others.

GE accumulates power by pretending to serve as a mediating institution. The company lobbies expertly to enhance its own sales and profit, but General Electric routinely invokes millions of other citizens as the ultimate beneficiaries of its politics. When GE is threatened in Washington, it claims to be defending broader constituencies from injury. But when GE defines its policy objectives, it does not bother to consult the people it ostensibly represents. GE is a mediating institution that accepts no obligation to those for whom it claims to be speaking.

General Electric has 177 plants in the United States (plus 103 others in twenty-three foreign countries), which automatically provides a broad and varied platform of economic interests, including workers, whom it can plausibly represent. Some 243,000 Americans make their living working for GE. Approximately 506,000 Americans are stockholders. About 300 retailers, from Montgomery Ward to Levitz furniture, use credit-card systems run by GE Capital. The NBC network has 200 affiliate stations. GE's jet-engine assembly plants in Evendale, Ohio, and Lynn, Massachusetts, make the engines for two dozen different kinds of military aircraft.

In other words, the potential span of political interests that a corporation presumes to represent can be made to look much larger than the company itself. GE's political voice multiplies itself and intersects with millions of others -- people who mayor may not actually agree with its political objectives. GE mobilizes allies and its local cadres -- workers, managers, customers, suppliers -- when they do agree. If they don't, it simply invokes their names.

Frank Doyle, for instance, once protested to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, despite appearances, the Export-Import Bank's trade subsidies for such major corporations as GE and Boeing really help the little guys too, despite, as Doyle acknowledged, "a lingering perception that the bank is a big-company benefit." The smaller companies benefit, he insisted, because "they participate through us as sub-contractors." [13]

Defense issues, argued out in public on the esoteric plane of grand military strategy or weapons technology, are lobbied in private on an earthier stratum: How many jobs. in my district or state are attached to this bomber or tank? Though the Massachusetts delegation is as dovish as any in Congress, one congressional aide from the state said with only mild exaggeration: "Basically, the GE guy comes around and tells us which aircraft we are voting for because Lynn will make the engines for them."

Liberal members of Congress may be hostile to the bloated defense budget, but they love defense workers. "Yeah," Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts acknowledged, "I guess I voted for the F-18 a couple of times because it has GE from Lynn. I'm sure I wouldn't have voted for it if the GE plant had been in Cleveland."

When General Electric speaks for its shareholders' interest in maximized profits, its approach necessarily becomes more oblique, since politicians are not likely to be terribly excited by the narrow goal of boosting stock values. The company's profit objective is, therefore, reformulated as a question of broad national economic policy -- how to stimulate the economic growth from which the multitudes will presumably benefit.

According to GE, this goal can be achieved by cutting its taxes. Reginald H. Jones, Welch's predecessor as CEO, was a much more visible political player in Washington, relentlessly selling his arguments for corporate tax relief. Jones "seemed to spend his life at the Senate Finance Committee, lobbying for tall breaks and with some success," said Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. "Jones was literally at every single Finance Committee hearing I ever went to. His line was the same old bullshit about how we have to increase American competitiveness and all you need to do to increase American competitiveness is reduce GE's taxes."

Phillips S. Peter, head of GE's Washington office, was simultaneously acting as a principal in the Carlton Group, the permanent caucus of corporate tax lobbyists who basically wrote the business provisions for the watershed tax-cutting legislation of 1981. As is now well known, the companies were well rewarded for their political energies. Hundreds of them -- including General Electric -- wound up paying no taxes at all for several years.

On such matters, economic blackmail is a standard tactic of corporate politics. On the eve of the 1981 tax vote, members of Congress were inundated with telegrams and personal visits from corporate CEOs, warning them in the most explicit terms that their districts would lose jobs if the business tax reductions failed to pass. Even a politician who dismissed these threats as specious was forewarned that his next opponent could accuse him of voting against jobs -- a charge that would be corroborated by the Fortune 500.

As it turned out, General Electric was possibly the biggest single winner in Ronald Reagan's celebrated tax cuts. It had corporate profits of $6.5 billion during 1981-1983 and, astonishingly, received a tax rebate of $283 million from the federal government. Its tax burden went from $330 million a year to minus $90 million a year -- money the government now owed GE. By rough estimate, the 1981 tax legislation yielded as much as $1.3 billion for General Electric over several years and probably much more in the long run.

GE's windfall did not, however, create any new jobs for Americans. On the contrary, the company was in the process of drastically shrinking its U. S. workforce -- eliminating nearly fifty thousand people from its payroll through layoffs, attrition and the sell-off of subsidiaries. The tax windfall, however, did help GE finance its aggressive campaign of corporate acquisitions, as it bought such important companies as Utah Construction, RCA and NBC. [14]

The same pattern was general in American business. After the generous tax cuts of 1981, capital investment by American corporations accelerated, but not in the United States. The new investments were primarily made in foreign countries. American taxpayers, in other words, were unwittingly subsidizing the globalization of their own industrial structure. [15]

As Congress struggled in subsequent years to recover some of the lost tax revenue from 1981, GE sometimes went its own way -- splitting from the corporate coalition on some crucial tax questions and skillfully protecting its own balance sheet. One of the most egregious loopholes created in 1981 effectively allowed companies to swap tax shelters with each other by leasing equipment instead of purchasing it. Since GE Capital was already a major leasing enterprise, this provision helped the parent corporation erase tens of millions in taxes. But, given all the new competition that the loophole was attracting into the leasing business, GE decided it would be better off with repeal.

On this issue, GE sang with the reformers and against its former political allies in business. Winning on its own terms, however, required the adroit use of GE's political connections. At the final hour in the 1982 debate, Bob Barrie, the GE lobbyist who is a valued fundraiser for Democrats, called in his chits with the House Democratic leaders. As Thomas B. Edsall of The Washington Post described the episode, Barrie made a nifty end run around the phalanx of corporate lobbyists who were on the other side of the tax- leasing issue.

"Barrie was able to get with Rostenkowski, with the Speaker, with the entire Democratic leadership to explain what was a horribly complex issue," an allied lobbyist told Edsall. "And he got them on board. From GE's point of view, it was quite a coup." [16]

General Electric does not always win, however, and eventually it was compelled to start paying taxes again. CEO John Welch bitterly opposed the 1986 tax reform measure, which set a minimum corporate tax and repealed the investment tax credit, but corporations lost in the end. Wealthy taxpayers, on the other hand, won with drastic reductions in individual tax rates.

By 1989, GE was paying $1.1 billion in federal taxes -- an effective tax rate of about 23 percent, still well below the statutory rate of 34 percent. GE, meanwhile, carries on its books $3.5 billion in legally deferred tax liabilities -- money it owes the government but, thanks to various loopholes provided for defense contractors, doesn't have to pay until sometime in the future. Overall, corporate tax revenue has consistently fallen $20 billion to $30 billion a year below what the 1986 reforms had predicted. [17]


Beyond their individual objectives, GE and the other corporate organizations also act in concert as important gatekeepers for the political debate -- guarding the public agenda with more purpose and consistency than the news media. When consensus develops among the major players of business and banking; ideas that were thought to be dormant or impossible suddenly turn into active issues in the political arena.

Universal health-care reform is the latest example. For decades, the American public expressed its support for national health insurance and such groups as organized labor actively campaigned for it. Nothing happened. Now major corporate leaders -- the CEOs of Chrysler, American Airlines, Ford and many others -- have declared support for basic reform for their own purposes, because the soaring cost of the private health-insurance system is devouring corporate balance sheets too.

The political community, therefore, is at last stirring on the subject. A goal that was routinely dismissed as "socialist" or too expensive has abruptly found a place on the agenda. High-level negotiations are underway between labor and the major corporations (including General Electric) on how to define the health-care solution. When the political solutions are proposed, they may be shaped as much by the cost-saving imperatives of major corporations as by the popular distress expressed by citizens. [18]

The distinctive quality in General Electric's politics is not, however, its behind-the-scenes deal making or the skillful ways in which it amplifies its own interests by invoking the interests of workers, small business or consumers. These are the standard approaches employed by corporate political organizations of every kind.

What sets GE apart from most other companies is the seriousness with which it represents people in the society whose lives are not connected to the fate of General Electric -- especially society's losers. These include children and poor people, disadvantaged racial minorities and even ex-workers, the tens of thousands who lost their jobs at General Electric during the 1980s. In various ways, as GE's leaders have figured out, this is good for the company.

Frank Doyle has testified eloquently, for instance, on behalf of greater federal funding for Head Start and early childhood education programs, invoking an economic rationale for the company's social concern. "A competitive America -- let alone a compassionate America -- will need every trained mind and every pair of skilled hands," Doyle declared. "But the appalling fact is that one in five of our teenage children and younger live in poverty." [19]

GE cares about these children, Doyle explained, because if they are not trained for high- skill work in the global economy, they will become future costs to the society in terms of welfare and crime. The company has also been an ardent advocate of government job- training and retraining programs for the workers displaced by economic change. With grants from the Labor Department, GE operates such programs for its own former employees.

"When the GEs and GMs and AT&Ts and USXs of America no longer have low-skill, low- value-added jobs -- because they have adjusted to a high-skill, high-value-added global competitive world -- those left out will be locked out of the great American middle class," Doyle warned. "And every time that happens, it is a tragedy for America."

While the rhetoric sounds public-spirited and compassionate -- even dangerously bleeding- heart for tough-minded businessmen -- General Electric's social concern serves its own long- term political interests. It provides a shield against hostile political action and deflects political attention from the company's own controversial behavior in the American economy. Above all, it defines the economic debate in the terms that are most congenial to GE's own future.

Like other major multinational corporations, GE wants maximum freedom to do as it chooses in the global economy -- shifting production and jobs wherever seems most efficient. And it wants minimal responsibility for the economic consequences that follow for the U.S. workforce -- the steady loss of high-wage industrial jobs. The company's "social concern" is, thus, quite shallow: It cares about educating little children, but accepts no responsibility for what economic dislocation does to adult workers and their communities.

GE and other important corporate voices, including the Business Roundtable, instead promote the argument that the remedy for job losses and the downward mobility of industrial workers is simply more education and better training. This analysis conveniently shifts the blame from corporations to the educational system and the workers themselves. But it requires the corporations to make a highly dubious claim: that America is facing a shortage of skilled workers.

"Our industrial economy," Doyle asserted, "is generating more jobs than we have people with skills to fill them." Many recent college graduates learned otherwise when they went out to begin their careers and were compelled to take work below their educational levels. The shortage they encountered was not one of well-trained workers, but of good jobs.

Labor economists from the Economic Policy Institute examined the corporate claim of an impending "skills shortage" and declared it a hoax. The corporate political objective, they concluded, is to divert attention from the real wage problems -- the proliferation of low-wage jobs and the declining value of industrial wages generally. [20]

Doyle's assertion of skilled-labor shortages, in fact, comes from a company that abandoned fifty American plants and shrank its overall workforce, foreign and domestic, by roughly one fourth during the last decade. The forty-six thousand American workers let go by GE since 1981 were not mainly janitors or unskilled general laborers or low-level clerks. They were people with premium wages -- machinists and electricians, engineers and white-collar managers.

Union leaders bitterly dubbed GE's CEO "Neutron Jack" because, like the so-called neutron bomb, Jack Welch eliminates the people and leaves the buildings standing. During the 1980s, GE bought more than three hundred businesses and sold off more than two hundred others, searching for the right mix of domestic and foreign products to lead in world markets. GE transformed itself from a company that was two thirds manufacturing and one third services to one that is the reverse.

Welch's strategy, widely admired in business and financial circles, is to create what he calls "a boundaryless company" -- a corporation that "will recognize no distinctions between 'domestic' and 'foreign' operations." In practice, his restructurings compelled GE unions to negotiate wage contracts that were really job-shrinking agreements with provisions for severance pay and early retirement.

For white-collar management, Welch also virtually eliminated the old, unwritten assurances of mutual loyalty and trust that used to prevail in companies like GE. "Loyalty to a company, it's nonsense," Jack Welch told The Wall Street Journal. Frank Doyle told Business Week: "We now want to create an environment where employees are 'ready to go and eager to stay.'" Business Week concluded that at General Electric the old social contract between employer and employees has been nullified. [21]

Throughout this transformation, however, Doyle and other GE spokesmen have reiterated their sympathy for the losers -- and encouraged them to improve their skills while they look for other jobs. "I'm not advocating a crude, vote-with-our-feet ethic or asking displaced workers and their families to crisscross the country reading the want ads," Doyle told the Congressional Competitiveness Caucus. "What I am advocating is the basic premise that people will change jobs, upgrade skills and switch industries, not once but several times in their careers." [22]

What Doyle and General Electric never adequately explained is where all these new, high- skilled jobs are going to come from -- when major companies like GE are busy eliminating them. It requires a mighty leap of faith to imagine that everyone will somehow climb up the "skill ladder," as Doyle called it, and become computer technicians. For the last twenty years, the American experience with industrial globalization has produced the opposite result for American workers.

The deterioration of wages and incomes and the structure of the job market is the central economic question facing American families, but corporate political organizations have succeeded in deflecting the issue from serious scrutiny. GE favors federal aid for the unemployed, but it is opposed to any political measure aimed at the behavior of employers in the global economy (the subject explored directly in Chapter Seventeen). Politicians debate trade policy and bash Japan, but they do not scrutinize the loyalty of America's own global companies. Frank Doyle's most impressive political achievement is the debate that never occurs on the nature of the multinational corporations.

The politicians who attempt to stand and defend workers against these forces are ridiculed by elite opinion -- labeled irresponsible and reactionary or perhaps punished in other ways as well. "Let's be certain," Doyle warned the congressional caucus, "that those who should provide positive leadership don't seek retrogressive, fear-driven solutions."

Thus, the underlying political tension lies in the question of who really speaks for the best interests of Americans and their future. GE's rhetoric stresses "we" -- the warm-spirited Americanism of its TV commercials -- but its vision of itself as a "boundaryless" company does not really depend upon the general well-being of Americans, any more than it depends on loyalty to its own employees. In fundamental ways, GE's own long-term political interests are in conflict with the interests of many of the people it presumes to speak for-workers and communities and poor people, but also the general prosperity. Corporate politics, though it may intimidate politicians, cannot be expected to function as a trustworthy mediator for others. This connective strand only runs one way.

Given its girth and skill and other attributes, a politically active corporation like General Electric acts like a modern version of the "political machine," with some of the same qualities of the old political machines that used to dominate American cities. In form and behavior, the modern corporation has the same cohesion and sustaining purpose that made the old urban organizations so influential in politics. Its stubborn permanence is a force that others must contend with. Its supple sense of strategy permits temporary alliances with old enemies and occasional betrayal of friends. Except, of course, there is not just one corporate "machine" operating in American politics, but hundreds of them.

Like the old big-city organizations, the corporate "machines" can be maddeningly parochial but also occasionally farsighted. Fiercely loyal to its own interests and civic values, a corporation may be arrogantly dismissive of larger public concerns. And, like the old urban machines, the corporate political organizations often display a tolerance for corrupt behavior, so long as the corruption enhances the organizations' own well-being.

Unlike a party organization, however, a company like GE does not develop its political agenda by consulting its cadres or the constituencies for whom it speaks, not even the shareholders. Most of the old local party organizations, notwithstanding their negative qualities, did give ordinary people a connecting point to government and sometimes a genuine venue for speaking to power. Political decisions are closely held in the corporate machine, not unlike the worst of the big-city bosses. The dependent constituencies are reduced to a passive role resembling that of ward heelers, with not much choice except to follow the dictates of the organization.

The corporation has acquired many of the same political skills that party organizations are supposed to have -- it teaches and organizes, it agitates and leads. But it has no need to listen to its adherents or assume responsibility for them. For these political machines, there are no elections.

This organizational reality is a central element in what deforms and confuses modern democracy. The new political machines, like the old ones, dot the political landscape like free-floating baronies, independent and self-sustaining and unaccountable. They have similar interests and frequently merge their power in coordinated strategies, just as the big- city machines used to do. But they are also often in conflict with one another and it is those contests among competing client groups that usually define the largest issues and frequently stalemate them. If the government in Washington is unable to govern, it is stymied, not by reckless public opinion, but by the conflicting demands of the corporate machines.

The implications of this structure of power are obviously antidemocratic. Yet, as a political system, it "works." That is, it works in the narrow sense that it takes care of the everyday chores of politics. The corporations, together and separately, finance the parties and politicians. They sponsor the public-policy development needed to shape the governing debate. They mobilize public opinion around political agendas. In their own self-interested manner, they even hold elected officials accountable for failure to perform.

Above all, the formidable, ubiquitous presence of corporate political organizations persuades many citizens to retreat from the contest. That may be the gravest damage of all. Faced with this assembled power, many people accept their own impotence arid defer. They assume that the hard work of democracy -- debating public issues, contesting elections, helping to organize their own lives -- is work that belongs to others.

The price for this default is enormous in terms of what the government decides. When the corporate perspective defines the outlines of debate, it shrinks the nation's political values to the amoral arithmetic of the bottom line. The rich and complicated fabric of American life -- and the infinite political imagination of its citizens -- is reduced to sterile calculations of cost-benefit analysis. Competing political aspirations, whether for equitable taxation or environmental protection or affordable housing, are judged according to a narrow question: Is it good for the machine?
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:58 am

PART 2 OF 2 (CH. 15 CONT'D.)


All these facts add up to a daunting challenge for democracy -- how to come to terms with the institutional reality of corporate power without disrupting anyone's elementary rights. The guarantees of free speech and open debate, after all, extend to agents of concentrated economic power as much as to anyone else. The solution does not lie in curtailing democratic rights for certain parties. It involves applying the obligations of citizenship to corporations as forcefully as they are applied to individuals.

The great project of corporate lawyers, extending over generations, has been to establish full citizenship for their business organizations. They argue that their companies are entitled to the same political rights, save voting, that the Constitution guarantees to people. In 1886 the Supreme Court declared, without hearing arguments, that corporations would henceforth be considered "persons" for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment -- the "due process" amendment that was established to protect the newly emancipated black slaves after the Civil War. Fifty years later, Justice Hugo Black reviewed the Supreme Court's many decisions applying the Fourteenth Amendment and observed that less than one half of one percent invoked it in protection of the Negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations.

In the New Deal era, the Supreme Court finally curtailed the corporations' use of "due process" to thwart state and federal governments in the regulation of business. But, during the last twenty years, the corporate lawyers have staged a comeback. In the modern era of regulation, they are invoking the Bill of Rights to protect their organizations from federal laws. Professor Carl J. Mayer of Hofstra University described their victories:

"Consider, for example, the following recent Supreme Court decisions: a textile corporation successfully invoked the Fifth Amendment double-jeopardy clause to avoid retrial in a criminal anti-trust action. A consortium of major corporations, including the First National Bank of Boston, joined in a First Amendment lawsuit that overturned state restrictions on corporate spending for political referendums. An electrical and plumbing concern invoked the Fourth Amendment to thwart federal inspections conducted under OSHA. A California public utility relied on the First Amendment to overturn state regulations designed to lower utility rates. Twenty years ago, the corporation had not deployed any of these Bill of Rights provisions successfully." [23]

Corporations, in other words, claim to be "citizens" of the Republic, not simply for propaganda or good public relations, but in the actual legal sense of claiming constitutional rights and protections. Whatever the Supreme Court may say on the matter, everyone knows a corporation is a legal-financial artifice, not a living person. Whatever legal theories may eventually develop around this question, the political implications are profound. If corporations are citizens, then other citizens -- the living, breathing kind -- necessarily become less important to the processes of self-government.

A corporation, because it is an "artificial legal person," has inherent capacities that mortal citizens do not possess. For one thing, it can live forever. For another, a corporation, unlike people, can exist in many places at once. Or it can alter its identity -- chop off its arms or legs and transform itself into an utterly different "person." Or it can sell itself to new owners, including owners who are not themselves Americans. Are these foreigners now empowered as U.S. "citizens" by virtue of owning an "American corporation"?

Above all, a corporation by its nature possesses political resources that very few individual citizens can ever hope to accumulate -- the wealth and motivation to influence political outcomes directly and continuously. Thus, if corporations are to be regarded as citizens, they are equipped to hold the front rank in American politics and nearly everyone else will inevitably become citizens of the second class.

But the corporate claim to citizenship raises a crucial contradiction: When corporations commit crimes, they do not wish to be treated as people, but as "artificial legal entities" that cannot be held personally accountable for their misdeeds. If an individual citizen is convicted of a felony, he automatically loses his political rights -- the right to vote, the right to hold office -- and sometimes his personal freedom as well. More broadly, ex- convicts are not normally invited to testify before congressional hearings or to advise the White House on important policies.

When corporations are convicted of crimes, they lose none of their diverse abilities to act in politics. Corporations are "citizens" who regularly offend the law -- both in the criminal sense and in the civil terms of flouting regulatory statutes. Yet their formidable influence on political decisions goes forward undiminished, as well as the substantial financial rewards they harvest from government.

This contradiction is not a narrow complaint against a handful of corporate rogues. It applies generally to many (though not all) of the nation's leading corporations -- Fortune 500 names that are regularly listed as "defendants" for criminal activity or civil complaints. Reforming the permissiveness and non-enforcement of modern laws cannot possibly be accomplished without addressing the ambiguous terms by which corporations presume to be citizens.

General Electric, for instance, is certainly not the worst "corporate citizen" in the land, but the company has accumulated an impressive rap sheet in recent years. GE, understandably, does not depict this side of its character in the engaging corporate-image commercials.

After a fourteen-week trial in 1990, a jury in Philadelphia convicted GE of criminal fraud for cheating the Army on a $254 million contract for battlefield computers. Rather than appeal, GE paid $16.1 million in criminal and civil fines, including $11.7 million to settle government complaints that it had padded its bids on two hundred other military and space contracts. In Cincinnati, GE agreed to pay the government $3.5 million to settle five civil lawsuits alleging contractor fraud at the Evendale, Ohio, jet-engine plant. A machinist at Evendale had come forward to accuse the company managers of altering nine thousand daily labor vouchers to inflate its Pentagon billings for military jet engines.

GE paid $900,000 to settle allegations that it overcharged the Army for electronic adapters used in the M-l tank and Bradley fighting vehicles. It settled a similar complaint for cheating the Navy on components for guided missile frigates. It pleaded guilty to 108 charges of making false claims to the Air Force on a contract for the Minuteman intercontinental missile. In that case, the chief engineer of GE's space systems division was convicted of perjury; the company paid a fine of $1 million. [24]

Given this record, one begins to grasp why GE wants the best lawyers it can find, especially lawyers familiar with Washington. It has cheated the Army, Navy and Air Force. A defense contractor like GE is sometimes "suspended" from doing business with the Pentagon but, in GE's case, the disbarment is always lifted in time for the next round of contracts.

GE has offended the law in other areas as well. It was convicted in 1981 on charges of creating a $1.25 million slush fund with which to bribe a Puerto Rican official on a $92 million power-plant contract. Three GE executives went to prison in that case. Kidder Peabody, GE's stock brokerage, paid $25.3 million to settle the Securities and Exchange Commission's complaint of insider trading. GE Capital paid $275,000 in civil penalties in 1989 for discriminating against low-income consumers, the largest fine collected under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The corporation itself settled an employment discrimination complaint in 1978 for $32 million in compensation to women and minorities. About the same time, GE's Canadian subsidiary was being convicted (with Westinghouse and other companies) of conspiracy to fix prices on light bulbs. And so on. [25]

GE's corporate headquarters typically expresses surprise when the wrongdoing is revealed and protests its own innocence. These incidents, it explains, are the transgressions of individual employees, not of company policy. Sometimes it fires the employees, other times it pays for their defense attorneys. Philip Lacovara compared a corporation's employees to the population of a midsized city and no city, he observed, is free of crime. "It is entirely unrealistic to attribute every act of a miscreant employee to the corporation's directors and officers on the theory that they 'should have known' what was happening," Lacovara told the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

This line of defense seems especially disingenuous for a corporation that, during the last decade, introduced the high-pressure management culture of "Neutron Jack" Welch. GE first turns up the heat on its line managers by creating a climate of purposeful insecurity -- everyone's job is at risk if his or her division's profit performance lags. Then, when division managers in the field are caught in false billings and other forms of profiteering, GE piously disavows them as "miscreant employees."

To reassure the public after its Pentagon fraud cases, General Electric announced a companywide "initiative" to teach ethics to its workforce. The training was evidently insufficient because, in August 1991, GE was again accused of defrauding the federal government -- this time for $30 million. The Justice Department filed civil fraud charges that accused the company of collaborating with Israeli military officials on false billings between 1985 and 1988 for jet engines built at Evendale for Israel but paid for by the Pentagon. GE's top management once again expressed its innocence and fired the international sales manager. [26]

If one sets aside the contentious issues of corporate criminality, the character of Citizen GE is still delineated clearly enough in more routine matters of noncriminal offenses, especially its offenses against the environment. The economists' narrow conception of "efficiency" encourages such behavior. By saving money for itself, a corporation throws off huge costs on somebody else, usually the general public.

General Electric is implicated in a harrowing list of places ruined by pollution. Four of GE's factories were on EPA's list of the most dangerous industrial sources of toxic air pollution. The company has been identified as responsible for contributing to the damage at forty-seven Superfund sites.

For nearly twenty years, ending in 1964, GE was the principal operator at the government's Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington -- the bomb-making plant that is now notorious for the epic contamination of surrounding land and ground water with both radioactive and toxic substances. Restoration, if it is possible at all, will cost billions; GE is being sued and has made no comment on its responsibility for the devastation.

For thirty-four years, GE has also operated the Pinellas plant near St. Petersburg, Florida, where it makes the nuclear "trigger" for the hydrogen bomb. Toxic and radioactive wastes have been discovered in the Pinellas County sewage system and nearby Boca Ciega Bay. The plant was described by the St. Petersburg Times as an "environmental mess." GE announced in 1991 that it was getting out of Pinellas because new contracting rules from the Department of Energy "would have exposed the company to increased legal and financial risks." [27]

In Alabama, General Electric (and Monsanto) settled out of court when the state sued it for dumping PCBs in the Coosa River. In New York, a forty-mile stretch of the Hudson River above Albany was polluted in the same way; GE has been arguing with state officials for fifteen years over the multimillion-dollar cleanup for the river. Meanwhile, GE agreed with New York authorities to spend $20 million restoring the ground water at its Waterford, New York, plant contaminated with benzene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride and other toxics. In New Hampshire and Massachusetts, GE and forty-eight other companies settled for $33. I million for illegally dumping toxics at four sites. In Ohio, GE was part of a $13.5 million cleanup agreement for a chemical dump site in the Cincinnati suburbs. And so on. [28]

In fairness to General Electric, its antisocial profile is distinctive in part because of the company's size and diversity. But its behavior is not unusual. Anyone who reads The Wall Street Journal faithfully can collect a similar assortment of florid headlines about other famous American corporations. Indeed, the story of corporate crime or coverups is so routine, it is losing its shock value.

Mobil Oil: A federal jury awards $1.4 million to a former Mobil employee who said he was fired for refusing to conceal environmental problems. Northrop: Caught bribing foreign governments in the 1970s, the company is caught again in 1990, accused of funneling $6.2 million in illegal payments to South Korea. Waste Management: The nation's largest waste- disposal company has paid more than $50 million in fines and settlements for environmental violations, including disconnecting the monitoring devices at its waste- disposal sites. Eastern Airlines: The company was indicted with nine of its managers for falsifying airplane maintenance records. Hughes Aircraft: The fifth-largest defense contractor and a General Motors subsidiary, Hughes pleads guilty to obtaining bootleg copies of classified Pentagon documents, a plot that involved four other major defense contractors. [29]

Professor Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University found that 62 percent of the Fortune 500 corporations were involved in one or more "significant illegalities" in the decade from 1975 to 1984. Nearly half of them -- 42 percent -- were identified in two or more episodes of corrupt behavior. Fifteen percent of them -- seventy-five major corporations-were involved in five or more cases. [30]

The basic question is: What exactly produces this repetition of injurious or illegal behavior by corporations? It is not properly blamed on the ethical failings of company managers, who, as a group, are presumably as moral as anyone else in the society. The core cause is the corporation's own values -- an ethic of efficiency that creates the cost-cutting imperative driving every manager's behavior. A plant manager can never escape from this imperative, regardless of his personal values or the ethics courses that business schools offer to MBA students.

The power of this cost-cutting imperative was dramatically illustrated in a case in which General Electric was accused of concealing design flaws in a giant nuclear-containment vessel it sold to the Washington Public Power Supply Systems. WPPSS was forced to spend hundreds of millions on repairs to make the plant safe and it sued GE for contract fraud. The presiding judge described the testimony by GE personnel as "forced, sometimes forlorn and sometimes incredible."

In particular, the judge cited internal company documents that made it clear GE had identified the potential dangers early on, but chose to do nothing. "General Electric knew these problems should be examined but decided to adopt only an analytical approach," Judge Alan A. McDonald declared, "because the full-scale tests required . . . would be -- I am quoting from the documents -- 'very expensive.'" [31]

General Electric's own lawyer, Philip Lacovara, obliquely acknowledged the connection between a company's bottom line and its attitude toward the law in his comments to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "In the absence of substantial credit for voluntary disclosure, it is not in the organization's economic self-interest to search for and disclose offenses that management has been unable to prevent," Lacovara wrote. " ... The economic disadvantages of voluntarily disclosing suspected misconduct may well discourage corporations from reporting their suspicions or assessments to agency regulators and law- enforcement personnel." [32]

Concealing the truth in order to save money is not, of course, peculiar to General Electric. When the Conference Board, a business-sponsored research center, surveyed three hundred corporate managers on business ethics, it asked what they would do if they were told about public-health risks caused by their companies' toxic emissions. One in five said they would do nothing -- even though a responsible company official brought the danger to their attention. If the employee alerted the public anyway, half of the three hundred managers would fire him. Another fourth of them would reassign him to a different job. Only 6 percent of the managers said the company should immediately change its manufacturing process to reduce the dangerous emissions. [33]

How might American corporations be compelled to accept their obligations to law and society in a more reliable manner? And why is it that corporations, while regularly abusing public law and trust, are allowed to continue functioning as the preeminent citizens in American politics? For ordinary citizens, the law has elaborated thorough answers to those questions -- people who are criminals are barred from formal politics. For corporate criminals, the law is more forgiving.

The two questions could be answered together if meaningful sanctions and penalties are developed that will punish lawless corporations in the only language that an "artificial legal person" understands: profit and loss. The corporation must know that repeatedly offending the law puts it at risk of losing real value -- the financial privileges of government contracts or tax preferences, but also the political privileges of appearing in the public arena as an advocate for itself and others.

The new sentencing guidelines being prepared for the federal courts are a modest step toward this kind of discipline, though not a fundamental departure from the status quo. Fines and other penalties will be stiffened. In extreme circumstances, courts may be able to impose terms of probation on corporate managements, a kind of conservatorship that monitors corrective action. California, likewise, has enacted tough new standards for corporate criminal liability, partly in frustration with the federal government's weak enforcement against industrial violators of environmental and occupational safety laws. [34]

Criminal prosecution of companies, though somewhat increased in recent years, is still quite rare -- especially for major corporations that have the legal capacity to negotiate away their troubles with the law. In 1988, for instance, there were only 475 federal criminal cases brought against companies -- and 85 percent of those involved very small businesses, with fewer than fifty employees and sales of less than $1 million. Criminal prosecution of individuals can be therapeutic, especially in pollution cases, but sending the managers to jail will not necessarily change the behavior of a recidivist corporation. [35]

In the interest of equity, law and legal doctrine must fashion methods for altering corporate behavior: sanctions that reverse the incentives inside corporations by raising the bottom line cost of lawlessness. Any company, to be sure, may on rare occasions be unwittingly implicated in an offense. For the repeat offender, however, a system of graduated penalties ought to extract real losses. Because it is not a real person, a corporation cannot be sent to prison, but its freedom as an enterprise could be restricted in other ways.

A recidivist, as Ralph Nader has proposed, should be barred for a specified time from selling things to the government -- banishment prescribed in law, not at the Pentagon's discretion. To avoid economic disruption, a company could be required to divest a subsidiary that has a record of defrauding the government or committing other offenses. The forced sale of a division would cost the offending company dearly, but the factories and jobs would continue to operate under new ownership. Like ordinary criminals, a corporation with a well-documented rap sheet ought to be ineligible to hold government licenses for television stations or other lucrative franchises. GE's growing media empire, for instance, would be put at risk by its continued cheating at the Pentagon.

Corporations might also forfeit their political rights, just as citizens do. Lawful standards could establish a felonious status for "corporate citizens" that bars a lawless company from political activity for a fixed period of time. A convicted company, for instance, would be prohibited from financing political candidates or lobbying Congress directly or appearing before regulatory hearings or pressuring the regulators in private. The suspension of corporate political rights would be equivalent to what happens to people when they are convicted felons. The corporate ex-convicts would have to learn how to live for a time without their Washington lobbyists.

This basic principle of accountability could be incorporated in many different kinds of statutes -- especially the tax code -- with evidentiary thresholds that are less demanding than criminal law. A company that accumulates repeated civil offenses against the environment or public health could be treated in law as an antisocial organization that has lost its usual privileges. The tax code, for instance, provides a long list of allowances, exceptions and preferences that feed tens of billions into corporate balance sheets. When Congress enacts such tax benefits, it could stipulate that no corporation will be eligible for the money if it has violated laws and regulations during the preceding years.

This would be harsh medicine indeed, guaranteed to make corporate executives concentrate on the "miscreant" behavior within their own organizations. But why should law-abiding taxpayers subsidize the lawless ones? The ethical choices facing business managers would be set in a new framework that makes it easier for them to do the right thing -- protecting the company's profits by obeying the law.

Addressing the legal obligations of corporations leads to broader questions about their social obligations. Why, for example, should companies receive tax credits for their research and development when they are simultaneously shrinking their U.S. employment? Why should government pick up the tab for cleaning up social problems that were generated by private employers who failed to observe minimal social obligations to their workers and communities? The questions lead in the direction of establishing in law a social context for corporations -- legal obligations like parental leave and other worker benefits that involve using the government's authority rather than spending the taxpayers' money. As it stands now, in the name of fostering prosperity, Americans are helping to finance enterprises that do not reciprocate the loyalty.
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