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 12:45 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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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 12:52 am



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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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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The end of the Cold War represents a rare opening for democratic possibilities; but it is also the source of new political crisis. This new epoch suddenly revives questions about the nature of American self-government that have been successfully evaded for two generations. Ready or not, American politics must change, for the world has changed around it.

The country has reached a satisfying end to a struggle that for four decades dominated our national priorities and permeated every corner of the political culture. The Cold War was the central engine driving the government's management of the economy. Fear was the political idea that unified national life for two generations. Now it is abruptly over. America has won; the Soviet Union has disintegrated as a global power.

Yet American politics has also been destabilized by the victory. The mobilizing fear has evaporated, but the institutional structure of government and politics remains on a permanent war footing. Massive armaments and American troops are deployed around the globe; $30 billion a year is devoted to spying and other intelligence activities. The industrial base is still propped up by defense spending; the routines of secrecy and political control developed by the national-security state are still the operating norm. It will not be easy to find a new purpose in the world that justifies these abnormalities as efficiently as communism did.

Nor will it be so easy to rationalize the grave damage the Cold War has done to democracy. The permanent mobilization has altered the democratic relationships profoundly, concentrating power in remote and unaccountable places, institutionalizing secrecy, fostering gross public deception and hypocrisy. It violated law in ways that have become habitual. It assigned great questions of national purpose to a militarized policy elite. It centralized political power in the presidency at the expense of every other democratic institution. The question is: Now that the enemy has vanished, is it possible that democratic order can be restored?

In addition to all the daunting obstacles and deformities enumerated in this book, the democratic problem is now compounded by these large questions about America's place in the world. The post-Cold War reality is actually eclipsed by an even larger force threatening national well-being -- the global economy. While governing elites struggled Obsessively against communism, the world changed in other ways that now threaten the nation with continuing economic loss and political impotence. The system of globalized enterprise, as the next chapter explains, directly undermines the widely shared prosperity that has been a prerequisite for America's political stability. But the global economy also steadily erodes the nation's sovereign control over its destiny.

Ready or not, Americans are now confronted with some unprecedented questions about self-government and whether the concept will continue to have meaning in the world.


Hardly anyone took note when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced his grandly titled legislation -- the End of the Cold War Act of 1991 -- because six days earlier the United States had gone to war again. The senator proposed to abolish the Central Intelligence Agency, the institutional agent and symbol of the Cold War, and fold the CIA's secret activities into the State Department and the Pentagon, where they might be more accountable to political oversight. His legislation set out to prohibit various irregular practices tolerated in government for four decades and to restore a sense of lawful legitimacy to foreign policy.

"The law of nations," Moynihan intoned. "Somewhere that got lost in the fog of the Cold War. It just got lost. We have become a national-security state, a country mobilized for war on a permanent basis, and we got into the business of saying everything is secret. Can we recover the memory of what we were before we became what we are now? Can we rediscover a sense of proportion in the national-security state? The task of purging the Cold War from our institutions is enormous. It will require a sustained and determined effort." [1]

The senator's timing was oblivious to the national mood. At that very moment, the nation was gathered before its TV sets, watching night flashes from the American bombing of Baghdad and the gunsight footage of "smart bombs" finding their Iraqi targets. Six weeks later, America was celebrating victory -- a splendid little war in which only a few hundred Americans died. The nation's military prowess was demonstrated for the world; its virtuous intentions were confirmed in the scenes from Kuwait of liberation and homecoming.

In that context, Senator Moynihan's questions seemed eccentric. The Cold War might be over, but now suddenly there was a new struggle to replace it. America is committed, the president announced unilaterally, to establishing and defending a "New World Order." The concept was scarcely defined, but popular support for the American military surged, as did popular support for the president.

Moynihan's questions, however, will return to haunt the country. Saddam Hussein, notwithstanding the barbarity of his regime, proved to be an inadequate substitute for the Cold War. When the Iraqi dictator seized neighboring Kuwait, George Bush invoked the specter of Hitler, a metaphor that resonated with the start of the Cold War forty years earlier. World War II was America's finest moment in world affairs and nostalgic memories of it powered the long struggle against Soviet communism on countless fronts. Now, President Bush explained, a new dictator was threatening the integrity of nations and must be confronted in the same spirit.

Events, however, failed to sustain the metaphor. For one thing, Hussein was defeated much too quickly and easily. He was also allowed to remain in power, an outcome impossible to reconcile with the president's histrionic rhetoric on the march to war. If Saddam was Hitler, why was he not killed or conquered and put on trial for crimes against humanity?

Other complicating facts developed in the aftermath: The Kuwaiti ruling family, whom we had fought to rescue, demonstrated again that it was itself a despotic feudal regime, contemptuous of the individual rights associated with democracy. The defeat of Iraq produced internal rebellions that eventually mired the United States in the awkward role of a neocolonial warden.

Above all, the war produced this contradiction: In the first year of the post-Cold War era, while the Soviet military apparatus was being withdrawn and dismantled, U.S. defense spending actually increased. The bloated defense budget would shrink eventually, as even the Pentagon leaders accepted, but not while the country was waging another war?

Furthermore, neither the end of the Cold War nor U.S. victory in the Persian Gulf could obscure the nation's deteriorating financial strength. The defense buildup of the 1980s had been financed largely on deficit spending -- money the federal government borrowed from the allied nations (Japan and Germany, principally) that the United States was defending, more or less for free. If America was now the world's only superpower, it was stuck in a most anomalous predicament. Wall Street financier George Soros described the contradiction: "There are many examples in history where military power was sustained by exacting tributes, but there is no precedent for maintaining military hegemony on borrowed money." [3]

The excitement of an occasional war is, in fact, one of the few remaining opportunities for alienated citizens to feel connected again with their nation's higher politics. So long as the wars are relatively quick and painless, they provide a rallying point for ordinary citizens, a momentary illusion of shared national purpose. The war making offers a fantasy of power for those who are, in fact, powerless. When the euphoria dissipates, as it always does, people resume their distance and disenchantment.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Americans did not rally around the "New World Order" proposed by the president. Nor did public opinion embrace the notion that U.S. firepower must police the world. On the contrary, people overwhelmingly expressed the opinion (85 percent to 11 percent in one survey) that military initiatives against global disorders should be led by the United Nations rather than the United States. Their own government, Americans said, should turn its attention to the problems at home. The national-security threat that most troubled ordinary citizens was America's deteriorating position in the global economy. [4]


In the 1950s, when the Cold War temperament was enveloping the thought and language of American politics, the sociologist C. Wright Mills derided what he called "the crackpot realism of the higher authorities and opinion-makers." Absurdities were cloaked in technocratic jargon and passed off to the public as brilliant insight or the fruits of sophisticated intelligence.

The ability of national-security experts to describe reality in arcane ways that ordinary citizens could not easily test for themselves, much less challenge, was a central element of power in the Cold War era and one of its most debilitating influences on democracy. "Crackpot realism" consumed trillions of dollars and built enough nuclear bombs to destroy life on the planet.

Huge, secret bureaucracies were created in government to discover the hidden "facts" about the dangerous world around us, especially the machinations of the Soviet empire, and to shape national-security policy accordingly. Much of this knowledge was considered too sensitive to share with the public, but provocative details were regularly communicated in the form of warnings about new' 'threats" that had emerged -- deadly new missiles pointed at America or revolutionary stirrings in Third World countries said to be inspired by Moscow. The history of the Cold War is a series of such alarums, based on espionage and classified documentation, and of the subsequent events that refuted them.

Given the insular nature of American society,. most citizens had little real knowledge of distant nations and no independent way to evaluate the government's description of reality, In the absence of clear contradictory evidence, people generally were prisoners of what the government authorities told them about the world. They accepted what the spies and analysts had discovered about the enemy, at least until the war in Vietnam devastated the government's authority. The alternative -- questioning the president while the nation was at war-seemed unpatriotic.

"Crackpot realism" has flourished right up to the present time and the Central Intelligence Agency was a principal source for it. As late as 1989, as Moynihan observed, the CIA reported that the economy of communist East Germany was slightly larger than the economy of West Germany -- an intelligence estimate ludicrously debunked a few months later when the East German regime collapsed and its citizens streamed westward in search of jobs, consumer goods and food. The following year, the CIA corrected the record by abruptly shrinking the threatening dimensions of East Germany by more than one third.

The same gross exaggeration was repeated, year after year, when the CIA made its estimates of the Soviet Union's awesome capabilities. The 1989 analysis claimed that the growth rate of the Soviet bloc exceeded western Europe's. But then the CIA had solemnly reported for four decades that the Soviet economy was growing faster than the U.S. economy -- almost half again faster. The result, it said, was a formidable industrial power -- second-largest in the world and much larger than Japan, according to the CIA.

If that were true, this nation was an adversary rightly to be feared, since it had the economic capacity, not only to match the U.S. arsenal, weapon for weapon, but to achieve something the experts called "superiority." Hundreds of billions of America's dollars, even trillions, were devoted to forestalling that dread possibility. [5]

Of course, it was not true. It was not true in the 1950s and it was especially not true in the late 1970s and early 1980s when America launched another massive arms buildup. Some journalists and scholars had been making this point about the Soviet economy for many years, pointing out the decay and malfunctioning that was visible despite the Soviet censors. But U.S. official authority and propaganda always succeeded in maintaining the enemy's strength.

When Gorbachev opened the Soviet society to full inspection, what western experts saw more nearly resembled a Third World country than a major industrial power. Its economy was a crude joke compared to the high-tech industrial systems of Japan, West Germany and the United States. The Soviet Union, aside from its size, was not second strongest in the world or third, probably not even fourth or fifth.

Americans, in other words, were propagandized by their own government for forty years. Were citizens deliberately deceived or were the CIA spies so befogged by their own ideological biases that they missed the reality themselves? This is one of the questions that a post-Cold War debate might take up for closer examination.

Senator Moynihan, though he raised the embarrassing facts, preferred to believe that everyone had acted in good faith. The senator had served himself as vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and, like most politicians, had believed fully in the Soviet threat right until the end. He had been a consistent and eloquent champion of the Cold War arms buildup and had disparaged anyone who questioned the need to keep enlarging the U.S. arsenal. Now, Moynihan disparaged the CIA, with the sharpness of one whose trusting nature has been betrayed.

"It would be pretty obvious," the senator said, "to cut their budget in half so they wouldn't pass around these silly reports."

The government's persistent inflation of the enemy made plausible many other versions of "crackpot realism" that emanated from intelligence experts and somberly ruled the political debate on national defense. A "missile gap" discovered by these experts in 1960 was eventually acknowledged to be illusory, but only after the Kennedy administration had launched a program to double America's nuclear missile force. A theoretical "window of vulnerability" that defense authorities identified in the late 1970s became the pretext for the trillion-dollar defense modernization of the Reagan presidency. Yet the Reagan administration's cornucopia of new weaponry never attempted to close the supposedly dangerous "window."

In the early 1980s, American intelligence discovered Cubans constructing a large airport on the Caribbean island of Grenada and concluded that it was to be a future launching pad for Soviet bombers aimed at America. After the U.S. invasion and conquest of that tiny country, the American government finished building the airport so it could be used for jumbo-jet tourist traffic, the purpose Grenada had always claimed for it. The most enthusiastic advocates of the U.S. surrogate war against Nicaragua, including President Reagan, described a "domino theory" of nations in which Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico would one by one fall to the Communists. If America did not defeat the Sandinistas, the Red armies would someday be massed on the border, poised to attack Harlingen, Texas.

For four decades, NATO defense policy was premised on a latter-day version of blitzkrieg -- a vision of the Soviet armies launching a surprise attack that sweeps across the plains of central Europe and swiftly arrives at the English Channel, just like Hitler. The allied generals earnestly prepared to fight World War II in Europe all over again, a burden that consumed nearly half of the U.S. defense budget.

Of course, the scenario was absurd, as the U.S. intelligence community itself belatedly acknowledged in November 1989 when the "threat" analysis was abruptly changed. Half of the Soviet divisions poised to strike from eastern Europe, it turns out, were actually manned at token levels -- 5 percent to 25 percent of their fighting strength. In order to attack the West, the Soviets would have had to transport 150,000 troops from the Soviet Union and activate 800,000 reservists in the Warsaw Pact nations. Nevertheless, President Bush was still insisting on the scenario (and proposing new and highly dangerous battlefield nuclear weapons for western Europe) only a few months before the Berlin Wall fell. [6]

The point of reciting such examples of exaggeration is not to reargue the Cold War, now that it is over, but to demonstrate what an overpowering idea the Cold War was. People believed and accepted the most threatening possibilities and the government acted on them. It was not that the dubious alarums were never questioned. But the concept of vigilance against an awesome enemy swept away critical opposition and, often, rationality.

American politics created a mythology and then was ruled by it. A senator or representative might safely challenge the Cold War on subordinate issues -- does America really need more aircraft carriers? -- but any politician would be vulnerable to defeat if his argument was not safely couched in the context of mortal struggle against a malevolent adversary. Political contests deteriorated into manly arguments over who was "hard" and who was "soft" toward this enemy. Mere citizens were mostly excluded from the dense technical esoterica of the defense debate, except on those crude terms. Most citizens, not surprisingly, preferred political leaders who seemed "hard."

From the beginning, the Cold War put citizens in the same weak defensive posture that characterized their position on large domestic issues. But the people did sometimes block the government's most outrageous plans. When the Reagan regime prepared for another war of intervention against Nicaragua, public opposition stood in the way and the government was compelled to mount a surrogate war, which it quaintly referred to as a "covert operation." Preventing a U.S. invasion constituted a victory of sorts for the citizens.

Still, as in Nicaragua, the Cold War's institutional apparatus produced an inevitable series of extralegal activities in the government, offending both domestic and international law. This was not simply the occasional misadventures of "rogue" intelligence officers who "went too far," as authorities always explained when the CIA was implicated in assassination plots or other covert actions that violated law and morality. In many ways, the institutional arrangements were created in order to allow the president to operate outside the law.

Some conservative Republicans recognized this danger at the outset and they were principled opponents to the legislation that in 1947 created the CIA (designed and promoted by liberal Democrats). In congressional debate, a handful of conservatives argued that the CIA, with its secret budget and cloaked activities, would give the chief executive enormous new powers to make foreign policy in secret -- and indeed to wage secret wars -- without submitting his decisions to the due processes of open political debate, authorization and appropriate and formal declarations by Congress.

The conservatives were right, of course, but then that was the idea of the CIA -- to empower the president by circumventing democratic processes. Conservatives have since embraced the all-powerful chief executive as the ideal, while many liberals have learned to question it, especially after the liberal debacle in Vietnam.

The illegal consequences of creating a secret government did not remain very secret, despite the popular lore of spies and their stealthful routines. The CIA helped engineer changes of government, sometimes violently, in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile and a long list of other nations. It was implicated in the counterrevolutionary massacres in Indonesia and the successful assassinations of at least three foreign leaders as well as other murder plots that failed. It managed a secret army in Laos and its agents laid the groundwork for the war in Vietnam, where, among other functions, the CIA supervised an infamous program of targeting and killing suspect citizens, without benefit of trial. The CIA ran the not-so-covert war against Nicaragua. It assembled an army and invaded Cuba with disastrous results.

At home, the CIA penetrated universities, private business corporations and other government agencies, especially the State Department, partly to obtain cover for its intelligence officers, partly to gather proprietary information and partly to compromise others. When asked to by various presidents, the agency spied on American citizens who were political dissidents, in the name of protecting the nation against subversion. It created scores of dummy corporate organizations to transact its business, so as to conceal the fact that an agency of government was illegally laundering money or transporting arms to overseas conflicts or doing deals with the Mafia. It infiltrated domestic political associations and tax-exempt foundations in order to advance the propaganda war against communism.

Abuses by the national-security state have continued right up to the present. In 1982, the FBI conducted a secret subversion investigation of Physicians for Social Responsibility because the group opposed Reagan's nuclear. weapons policy. PSR and its worldwide affiliates later won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1986, the FBI fired an agent who refused to conduct a "domestic security/terrorism" investigation of two citizen groups opposing Reagan's policy in Central America. During the 19808, the FBI delivered data from its investigations of domestic political opposition to the White House. [7]

These are a sampling of the scandalous matters that are known and documented; some would insist there is a far darker portrait of the CIA to be drawn from outlaw behavior that is less well authenticated. The point of reciting the history, in any case, is to demonstrate the fundamental irregularity of this institution and its capabilities. When the nation is at war, unlawful measures are often accepted as necessary to national survival. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War; Roosevelt interned Japanese-American citizens in World War II. In the Cold War, however, it was the irregular institutional arrangement itself that committed the offenses, while it functioned to keep the nation at war.

Despite recurring scandals (always followed by appropriate "reforms"), the Central Intelligence Agency and allied components remain intact outside the normal structure of democratic accountability. It is available to any president who feels the need for extralegal activities of almost any kind. The president need only issue a secret executive order authorizing the venture; a handful of congressional leaders will be informed, but only upon their agreement to keep the facts from the public.

As president, Ronald Reagan issued 298 National Security Decision Directives -- secret edicts that are accorded the force of law. By private writ, the president is able to mobilize government resources for subversion or order surveillance of private citizens or launch aggressive wars against other nations, all without public debate or even public knowledge. [8]

The fundamental conflict is not about the need for intelligence gathering, but about respect for law, both domestic and international law. And the problem is not rooted in the CIA's peculiar charter, but in the White House and the nature of modern executive power. In the end, it was the presidents who authorized the lawlessness and who benefited politically from the corruption of regular democratic process. If the "New World Order" means the U.S. government is going to use its power around the globe to uphold law and promote democracy, it might usefully start at home.

If Iraq violated the "law of nations," as it did, then so has the United States. The invasion of Grenada, for example, "was the clearest possible violation of Article 18 of the Charter of the Organization of American States, a document as much of our drafting as was the Charter of the United Nations," Senator Moynihan wrote. "It was a violation of the latter also." [9]

American officials always claimed virtuous motives for their invasions of foreign countries and argued that there were justifying provocations, but the American interventions were always made unilaterally, decided by the chief executive alone, oblivious to the formal procedures by which such actions are sanctioned under international law or by the U. S. Constitution. When presidents authorized a covert aggression against another nation, the government did not even bother with public justifications, but pretended instead, with a broad wink, to official innocence.

American citizens cannot escape the consequences of a government that ignores the law. Twice in the last decade alone, the U.S. president was caught out in engagements that demonstrably violated either international law or U.S. law or both. Each event caused a political stir, but the president remained aloof.

In 1983, during the covert war against Nicaragua, CIA agents mined the harbors of that country, an action that is defined in international law as a direct act of aggression against a sovereign state. Clearly prohibited by international treaties, the mining also raised the constitutional question of who in the American government had authorized an act of war. When distressed senators complained, the CIA blandly promised not to do it again.

When Nicaragua prepared to take a formal complaint to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Reagan administration announced peremptorily that it would no longer accept the World Court's jurisdiction over "disputes with any Central American state or arising out of or related to events in Central America." The United States thus set aside temporarily a treaty obligation it had accepted, by Senate ratification, in 1946.

The World Court heard Nicaragua's case, nonetheless, and ruled in 1986 that the United States had violated "general principles of humanitarian law" in numerous ways -- mining harbors, bombing oil installations, arming the Contras and distributing guerrilla-warfare manuals that encouraged the violent intimidation of Nicaraguan citizens. This was the first time in American history, Senator Moynihan noted, that an international tribunal had ever found the United States in violation of law. Yet the World Court's decision received only brief, passing notice within the United States.

The other episode of presidential lawlessness was more celebrated -- the Iran-Contra affair in which the Reagan White House ignored the legislative prohibition against providing further aid to the Contra army it had created in Nicaragua. Among the many complicated illegalities generated by the White House in that matter, one pointed unambiguously at the president's own failure to faithfully execute the law. Reagan personally authorized Cabinet officers to raise funds from foreign governments for the war, despite the congressional prohibition of U. S. involvement. "The plain fact," Moynihan wrote, "is that the president did invite and almost certainly deserved impeachment."

Actually, a resolution of impeachment was filed against President Reagan by Representative Henry Gonzalez, the Texas Democrat who compares the unbridled power of modern American presidents to that of the Roman Caesars. Americans, Gonzalez said, no longer have a republic in the original meaning; presidential power has trampled it beyond recognition. Gonzalez's complaint was ignored. Ronald Reagan continued in office and retired with honor, an affable Caesar who was much loved by the people.

When President Bush went to war in the Persian Gulf, Gonzalez filed another impeachment resolution against him. Gonzalez charged that Bush had violated law and constitutional process, first by unilaterally committing five hundred thousand troops to a foreign combat zone in violation of the terms of the War Powers Act, then by bribing foreign nations to accede to his strategy. A $7 billion loan to Egypt was forgiven without congressional approval. Zaire was promised military aid and partial debt forgiveness. Turkey was given a larger import quota for its textiles. China was assured of favorable trade terms if it did not veto the U.S. initiative in the UN Security Council. The Soviet Union was promised billions in aid so it would cooperate too. In the glow of victory, everyone assumed the president had the power to do these things -- that he is free to do whatever he wants in wartime. [10]

This overbearing nature of the modern presidency is what has most crippled democracy. But the permanent Cold War mobilization made the accumulation of power seem "normal," and over two generations the public memory of a presidency accountable to the Constitution has been nearly lost. The idea that democracy ought to function in any other way now seems eccentric.

The Cold War president became a mythological figure -- a warrior president surrounded by warriors, preoccupied with questions of global conflict above all others. As the Cold War cliche goes, "all our lives are in his hands," and, in those circumstances, people assigned mystical qualities to the warriors who were running things. Military officers became commonplace in the uppermost reaches of government. A general served as secretary of state, an admiral led the CIA. A CIA director became president.

The office of the president has many valuable qualities -- particularly the ability to educate and unify the nation -- but the institution cannot possibly carry the full burdens of democracy. It is too narrow and singular and, above all, too private in its actions, notwithstanding the TV images of presidential comings and goings that are provided daily. The centralized political power has encouraged the evasion and hollowness that permeate the domestic dimensions of government.

The White House has become a" convenient "safe house" for governing without any of the messy obligations required by a genuine democracy -- a sanctuary where things finally get decided privately and without public debate. This retreat encourages others in the political community to avoid hard decisions by passing on the toughest questions to the White House where the president can settle them in the protected reserve of the Oval Office.

The rich diversity of democratic dialogue has been collapsed into a single, opaque institution. Self-government has been reduced to a single mind and heartbeat. Dismantling the Cold War, restoring a democratic order, means cutting the presidency down to appropriate size.


From the beginning, the Cold War fulfilled an ironic purpose in domestic politics: It allowed all patriots to embrace a twisted, back-door version of socialism. The federal government claimed a rationale for intervening massively in the private economy, but without the usual debate over free enterprise and limited government. Washington stimulated economic demand with contracts and subsidies; it directed private investment through industrial planning and capital allocation. It created millions of jobs for workers. It built and owned scores of factories for private enterprises to operate.

Conservatives could ride along free on this arrangement without blemishing their ideological purity and, in time, conservatives became its most enthusiastic advocates. No one had to justify government-owned industrial plants and vast research laboratories and government-financed industrial development (including the occasional bailout of failing companies). It was all done in the name of defending the nation.

If the Cold War has truly ended and no great unifying cause can be found to replace it, then conservatives have lost their cover and the government has lost its rationale for steering the private economy through the federal budget. This economic reality will likely lead to a continuing political crisis, as many Americans discover how much their own economic well-being was dependent on the permanent mobilization and as political leaders search for saleable substitutes.

The modern defense budget, it is true, now consumes less than 5 percent of the gross national product, so it is often argued that even a major shrinkage in defense spending can be absorbed by the overall economy without great pain. That assumption misunderstands the socialist relationship.

For better or worse, the Pentagon is like a big rock propping up American manufacturing. Roughly one fifth of U.S. manufacturing output is purchased by the federal government via defense contracts. In 1985, for instance, the military spent $165 billion buying goods from a broad spectrum of 215 industries -- 21 percent of the manufacturing gross national product. Defense-related work employs one in ten of America's manufacturing workers.

The military allocates $38 billion a year for research and development and supports at least one in every four U.S. scientists. Defense pays for roughly 50 percent of the university research on computer science and electrical engineering. It provides 96 percent of the income for American shipbuilding. It accounts for about one fifth of the nation's modernizing capital investment. [11]

In other words, a forty-year addiction to socialist-style intervention is now threatened by cold-turkey therapy. If the defense budget shrinks drastically, it is going to leave a big hole in the American economy -- especially in the crucial realm of long-term development and investment. Who will buy the state-of-the-art machine tools? Who will pay for the basic science? The government will have to invent other rationales and methods for force- feeding private research and investment or else retreat to laissez-faire principle and hope that private enterprise somehow makes up the difference.

That is one dimension of the crisis that demobilization is bound to engender. Another dimension is the fierce politics of lost contracts and employment. Depending on how rapidly the defense budget shrinks, the shutdown of weapons production could eliminate more than five hundred thousand jobs for both skilled industrial workers and the technical professions.

These are the "good jobs" in the American economy -- premium-wage manufacturing jobs held by machinists, electricians, engineers and others. These workers will not easily find comparable positions in an economy in which heavy industry has been shrinking its employment base for the past decade. The overall effect could resemble another round of the deindustrialization and downward mobility that workers in steel, autos and other sectors have already experienced.

Given these harsh facts, the political response has largely been like an unreformed alcoholic's -- denial and avoidance. The president traveled now and then to defense plants where he congratulated the defense workers on the high quality of their work and assured them he personally wanted to keep buying their tanks or airplanes. This put him on the smart side of the short-run politics: When the defense contracts were canceled and the factories closed, George Bush would be able to say it was not his idea.

In Congress, roughly the same political strategy played out much more messily -- state by state, district by district -- as liberals and conservatives alike fought to keep open their factories and their military bases at the expense of someone else's. Long Island mobilized to keep alive Grumman's F-14, while the Pentagon kept trying to kill it. St. Louis mourned the loss of McDonnell Douglas's A-12. Newport News, Virginia, sued the Navy to save Tenneco's Seawolf submarine contract. General Dynamics announced, for obvious political effect, that nearly one third of its ninety thousand workers would be laid off, perhaps forever.

These dislocations and others were just the beginning, and the next round promised to be more severe. The Defense Department was planning a modest five-year reduction in the Cold War mobilization -- a 25 percent cut in the uniformed forces and a $15 billion decline in its budget authority. But that would still leave the defense budget around $280 billion -- still gigantic for a nation in debt, unable to finance a long list of competing domestic priorities and unable to identify a credible enemy beyond a few tinpot dictators. If the U.S. defense budget were cut in half, it would still be four or five times larger than that of the next-strongest nation. [12]

The dramatic cancellations of weapons systems occasionally reported in the news were mostly projects the country couldn't afford in the first place, even when the Cold War was flourishing. As defense budgets soared during the 1980s, each of the three services signed up for a dizzying wish list of new toys -- commitments so ambitious that, as one defense expert said, the Pentagon was trying to buy $400 billion worth of firepower on a $300 billion budget. This dilemma was well understood by defense experts (and politicians) for years and they responded to it by ordering procurement stretchouts -- buying fewer of each weapon every year so they would not have to cancel anybody's favorite. This approach naturally raised the per-unit cost of procurement and made defense production even more inefficient.

The Bush administration belatedly struggled to eliminate this "bubble" of false expectations from defense-budget projections. The next round of demobilization would be for real: bringing home troops that had been stationed abroad since the 1950s, closing scores of domestic military bases, shuttering more factories.

Aside from the president's vague talk about the "New World Order," neither political party offered a coherent strategy for how the nation might cope with this economic transformation. A few liberals introduced "conversion" bills that did little more than encourage communities and industries to plan for their post-Cold War future. Conservative thinkers concentrated, meanwhile, on trying to devise substitute "threats" -- Third World terrorism or nuclear proliferation -- that might justify continuing the nation's permanent war footing.

The Pentagon, ironically, was one of the few places where arguments over the economic implications had hesitantly begun, perhaps because the military itself would suffer the consequences first and most severely. As the defense budget shrinks, companies will fail or get out of the weapons business and the defense industrial base will shrink too. Thus, the unit cost of acquiring new weapons -- already grossly inflated -- is expected to spiral still higher. Without much hyperbole, the military planners envision a juncture where they will be buying fewer and fewer tanks and airplanes for higher and higher prices -- unable to maintain their force levels, even if their global mission is defined in less grandiose terms.

The transformation of high-technology production in the global economy, meanwhile, promises to make the United States more dependent on foreign producers for crucial weapons components, especially in the advanced technologies. If nothing else changes, one can predict a not-distant future when the world's only superpower is borrowing money from its allies to buy the high-tech weapons components they manufacture -- so the supposed superpower will be able to protect these allies from worldly harm. In a minor way, this was already the case.

The American public, if it ever caught on, would not be terribly enthusiastic about arming America with made-in-Japan electronics. Indeed, anxious members of Congress were already calling for a "Buy America" doctrine in defense procurement. Pentagon officials had to explain that "Buy America" would mean tanks or airplanes that were missing key parts.

For all these reasons, as well as their obvious self-interest, some of the conservative leaders of the defense community were beginning to flirt with a radically different economic doctrine -- government engagement in the private economy that would merge defense-production requirements with the broader objective of improving America's competitive position in commercial markets. Even Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, a conservative ideologue in most other matters, made an implicit pitch for some sort of industrial policy. "The United States," Cheney declared, "cannot persist in its current laissez-faire approach to the competition in advanced technologies without incurring major economic and security. problems of its own in the future." [13]

Jacques S. Gansler, an authority on the defense industry and chairman of the Defense Science Board's study on the advanced technology crisis, has argued for a radical restructuring in which defense manufacture and commercial production are fully integrated with each other -- both to preserve the defense industrial base and to foster the modernization of U.S. manufacturing.

Essentially what Gansler and others have proposed is that the government set aside some of the notorious fictions of the Cold War era and frankly acknowledge that it manipulates the private economy through defense spending but that it has been doing so in ways that are wasteful and ineffective, partly because the money was spent without regard to the nation's overall economic condition.

Some of the cold warriors of the Pentagon, a few at least, are hesitantly beginning to recognize that, while they were devoting the nation's capital to Cold War weaponry, another, more ominous threat to the national security was emerging from America's loss of economic power. [14] Pentagon reform -- harnessing defense procurement to economic competitiveness -- would at least lead to a more honest version of socialism or, more politely, a deliberate "industrial policy" that is more like those of Japan and the other allies who are America's global competitors.

But this approach contains large perils for democracy and for ordinary citizens -- the possibility of corporate socialism for entrenched economic interests. Given the deformed structure of political power that now exists, an industrial policy of any kind, especially one supervised by the Pentagon, might swiftly deteriorate into an extravagant program for taking care of the same old crowd, in the name of "competitiveness." In the global economy, furthermore, there is the more complicated question of which companies are really "American. " Why should American taxpayers underwrite the development of advanced technologies for multinational corporations if those companies are free to transfer the processes to their foreign plants and low-wage foreign workers?

An American industrial policy, in other words, is not a plausible solution in democratic terms unless politics has also confronted the questions about corporate loyalty. If American companies are not made to accept a stronger sense of national obligation -- the kind of commitment that Japanese or German companies routinely accept in their societies -- a new industrial policy might simply subsidize the continuing erosion of the American wage structure, using taxpayer dollars to finance corporate globalization.

The post-Cold War political question is: How can the nation begin to restore a peaceable economic balance and evolve toward a society that is not so relentlessly organized around the machinery of war? To put it another way, how might America begin to domesticate its military-industrial complex?

One way to accomplish the transition might be to encourage civic action by the military -- the assignment of domestic functions that could provide a practical justification for maintaining so many men and women in uniform, but would also take advantage of the military's natural assets. The armed services, aside from war-making capabilities, have many valuable qualities, including skills and experience and organizational cohesion that could be effectively applied to political problems at home.

The U.S. military, for one thing, is probably the nation's largest educational institution and its training methodologies are well tested and reliable. The military manages vast real estate at home and abroad. It knows how to build things, from roads and dams to hospitals and housing, on a mass-production scale. It knows how to take raw recruits, often ill- ducated young men and women, and prepare them to perform complicated tasks in a disciplined manner. It is the nation's most successful equal-opportunity employer and a crucial ladder of upward mobility for children of poverty.

These are assets that might all be usefully mobilized on the home front. The armed services, for instance, might be assigned a leading role in job training or drug therapy or as a manager of emergency employment. It could operate a civic-action corps that builds useful structures while it upgrades the skills and disciplines of recruits. It might, for instance, oversee a workforce, in or out of uniform, that tackles the massive backlog of damaged sites that need environmental cleanup, including the sites the military itself polluted.

If the nation does decide to change its priorities, there is much work to be done. The armed services have functioning infrastructures that already exist and might even reduce the costs of undertaking these new priorities. The military, likewise, enjoys political standing that might make it easier to sell these domestic undertakings. In turn, the military would benefit from a positive role in solving large, unattended public problems.

This approach, of course, has its obvious perils too. Commanders who are trained to fight wars regard civic action as a diversion from their real mission. Domestic political interests, meanwhile, fear the military as unwanted com- petition or, worse than that, an enveloping influence that might militarize peacetime endeavors. These are real risks, certainly, but so is the national dilemma of this moment in history. The dimensions of that dilemma are so profound that prevailing political prejudices may have to be set aside before the country can think clearly about its future.

The military institution exists, a huge and expensive reality that permeates the national political life. After four decades in place, the national-security state is not going to go away any time soon. The daunting question is how its components might be reintegrated -- in productive ways -- with the concerns and institutions of a regular democratic order.

Otherwise, if nothing much changes, there will be a continuing political imperative to seek out new conflicts that justify the existence of the national-security state. The CIA, if it remains independent and secretive, will keep churning out its inflated assessments of new "threats." The armed services, if not restructured and reduced in size, will inevitably be dispatched to fight again on dubious battlefields. The presidency, if its warrior prerogatives are not rescinded, will be free to continue the Cold War under some other name.


The triumph of World War II created a dynamic and satisfying parable for Americans, a story that described the nation as both strong and good. America was, therefore, obliged to take action on behalf of others, just as it had done against Hitler. The parable became the central vision behind the Cold War and motivated political action across two generations. It was shared by nearly everyone in the society, from top to bottom, and still dominates political imagination.

But the old parable, comforting as it was, is breaking up in visible ways, as other complications press in. It no longer resonates accurately with surrounding realities, as people are beginning to sense. Since early 1988, opinion polls have found that the American public now identifies Japan as the principal threat to the United States. The Soviet Union was far down the list of public anxieties-long before the Berlin Wall fell and long before political leaders were willing to adjust their thinking.

In the Cold War, while the United States was preoccupied with military power and spent its treasure on the defense of allies, the allies were tending to other business -- the development of modernized industrial economies. Indeed, the old adversaries of World War II are now the leading challengers to American hegemony in the world. They are also the leading lenders propping up American indebtedness. The parable has led the United States into a dangerous cul de sac.

Yet political elites were so successful adhering to the old story line, they are reluctant to abandon it. They are as yet unable to imagine a new parable for America that would match the new realities in the world. The transient euphoria generated by occasional war and parades does not change the fact that the United States has drifted into a dependent and vulnerable condition. With bad luck, this new condition is going to teach Americans some harsh lessons about economics and the real nature of global power in the post-Cold War world.

The stakes have thus been raised for American democracy, partly by events beyond anyone's control, partly by the long period of evasion when the economic realities were masked by Cold War propaganda. The nation's margin of error is now much smaller, its general abundance less secure. In addition to all the other burdens enumerated for conscientious citizens in this book, the task of restoring a vital democracy starts now from much greater disadvantages.

The spirit of the American parable -- a country that is at once great and good and active in the world -- can be carried forward in powerful new terms, but only if people recognize the full outlines of the democratic problem. It is not only the decay of domestic political institutions, the permissive legal culture, the privileges of concentrated power and the other pathologies that have subverted democracy.

In inexorable ways, as the next chapter reveals, American democracy is gradually being dismantled by the dynamics of global economics now astride the world at large. To salvage democracy at home, Americans must begin to think of themselves in much larger terms. They must learn how to act like democratic citizens of the world.
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The ultimate democratic dilemma that confronts contemporary citizens is unlike any other in the nation's past, for it lies beyond the nation's borders. If Americans wish to repair their own decayed democracy, they must also make themselves into large-minded citizens of the world. To protect their own economic interests, they will have to develop an interest in the economic conditions of people elsewhere. To defend the sovereignty of American law, citizens will have to confront political power that is global.

With the end of the Cold War burdens, Americans were understandably inclined to turn inward and attend to the many neglected priorities at home. But American democracy is now imprisoned by new circumstances -- the dynamics of the global economy -- and this has produced a daunting paradox: Restoring the domestic political order will require a new version of internationalism.

The rise of transnational enterprises and production systems, the easy mobility of capital investment and jobs from one country to another, has obvious benefits as a modernizing influence on the world. It searches out lower costs and cheaper prices. But its exploitative effects on both rich and poor nations remain unchecked.

As a political system, the global economy is running downhill -- a system that searches the world for the lowest common denominator in terms of national standards for wages, taxes and corporate obligations to health, the environment and stable communities. Left unchallenged, the global system will continue to undermine America's widely shared prosperity, but it also subverts the nation's ability to set its own political standards, the laws that uphold the shared values of society.

The economic consequences of globalized production have already been experienced by the millions of U.S. industrial workers who, during the last two decades, were displaced when their high-wage jobs were transferred to cheaper labor in foreign countries. This transformation, more than anything else, is what has led to the declining real wages in the United States and the weakening manufacturing base. The deleterious impact on American wages is likely to continue for at least another generation.

But the economic effects are inseparable from the political consequences. The global competition for cost advantage effectively weakens the sovereignty of every nation by promoting a fierce contest among countries for lower public standards. If one nation's environmental laws are too strict or its taxes seem too burdensome, the factory will be closed and the jobs moved elsewhere -- to some other nation whose standards are lax, whose government is more compliant.

This reality constitutes the largest challenge confronting American democracy, one that underlies every other aspect of the democratic problem. The global economy has the practical power to check almost every effort Americans may undertake to reform their own political system -- unless people learn how to confront the global system too. Elite political opinion holds that such resistance is undesirable and, in any case, impossible.

For ordinary Americans, traditionally independent and insular, the challenge requires them to think anew their place in the world. The only plausible way that citizens can defend themselves and their nation against the forces of globalization is to link their own interests cooperatively with the interests of other peoples in other nations -- that is, with the foreigners who are competitors for the jobs and production but who are also victimized by the system. Americans will have to create new democratic alliances across national borders with the less prosperous people caught in the same dilemma. Together, they have to impose new political standards on multinational enterprises and on their own governments.

The challenge, in other words, involves taking the meaning of democracy to a higher plane -- a plateau of political consciousness the world has never before reached. This awesome task does not begin by examining Americans' own complaints about the global system. It begins by grasping what happens to the people at the other end -- the foreigners who inherit the American jobs.

* * *

On the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso, Texas, the sere hillsides are a vast spectacle of human congestion. A canopy of crude huts and cabins, made from industrial scraps, is spread across the landscape, jammed together like a junkyard for abandoned shipping crates. The houses are not much more than large boxes, with walls of cardboard and floors made from factory pallets or Styrofoam packing cases. The tarpaper roofs are held in place by loose bricks; an old blanket or sheet of blue plastic is wrapped around the outhouse in the yard. Very few homes have running water and many lack electricity. Streets are unpaved and gullied. There are no sewer systems. For mile after mile, these dwellings are visible across the countryside -- dusty, treeless subdivisions of industrial poverty.

The colonias of Ciudad Juarez are like a demented caricature of suburban life in America, because the people who live in Lucio Blanco or Zarogoza or the other squatter villages actually work for some of America's premier companies -- General Electric, Ford, GM, GTE Sylvania, RCA, Westinghouse, Honeywell and many others. They are paid as little as fifty-five cents an hour. No one can live on such wages, not even in Mexico. With the noblesse oblige of the feudal padrone, some U.S. companies dole out occasional despensa for their struggling employees -- rations of flour, beans, rice, oil, sugar, salt -- in lieu of a living wage.

In addition to the cheap labor, the U.S. companies who have moved production facilities to the Mexican border's maquiladora zone enjoy the privilege of paying no property taxes on their factories. As a result, Ciudad Juarez has been overwhelmed by a burgeoning population and is unable to keep up with the need for new roads, water and sewer lines and housing. The migrants who came from the Mexican interior in search of "American" jobs become resourceful squatters, scavenging materials to build shelters on the fast-developing hillsides. In time, some of these disappointed workers decide to slip across the border in the hope of becoming real Americans.

"A family cannot depend on the maquila wage," explained Professor Gueramina Valdes- Villalva of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Juarez, an experienced critic who aided workers at the Center for Working Women. "If you evaluate what these wages translate into in purchasing power, you see a steady deterioration in what those wages provide. They can't buy housing because there is a housing shortage. When they go into the squatter situation, they can't invest in public services. We have a shortage of water, sewers, electricity, streets. The city is pressed heavily by the two sectors who do not pay taxes -- the maquiladora companies and the minimum-wage workers.

"The saddest thing about it is, not only does the city become unbearably unlivable, but then the city becomes unproductive too. As the city deteriorates, it becomes more expensive for companies to locate here. For the first time last year, we had negative growth in Juarez. Some of the employers are leaving. We can see the companies looking at their other options. Eastern Europe has become very attractive to them.

"The companies are periodically confronted with these complaints and they usually deny that there is any negative effect. At the same time, their answer is that this is a worldwide process and they cannot do anything to change it." [1]

If Americans wish to visualize the abstraction called the global economy, they need only drive across the U.S. border into Mexico and see the human consequences for themselves, from Matamoros and Juarez to Nogales and Tijuana. A vast industrial belt of thirteen hundred plants has grown up along the border during the last twenty years, encouraged by special duty-free provisions but fueled primarily by low wages and the neglect of corporate social obligations.

By moving jobs to Mexico, companies not only escape higher industrial wages, but also U.S. laws and taxes, the legal standards for business conduct on health and safety and social commitments that were established through many years of political reform in America. Mexico has such laws but it dare not enforce them too energetically, for fear of driving the companies elsewhere.

The maquiladora factories, notwithstanding their handsome stucco facades and landscaped. parking lots, are the modern equivalent of the "sweatshops" that once scandalized American cities. The employers are driven by the same economic incentives and the Mexican workers in Ciudad Juarez are just as defenseless. The Juarez slums reminded me of the squalid "coal camps" I saw years before in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Those still-lingering "pockets of poverty" were first created in the late nineteenth century by the coal and steel industries and they employed the very same industrial practices -- low wages, neglect of public investment, dangerous working conditions, degradation of the surrounding environment, the use of child labor.

The well-being of Americans is intertwined with this new exploitation, not simply for moral reasons or because most of the Mexican plants are owned by American companies, but because this is the other end of the transmission belt eroding the structure of work and incomes in the United States. Jobs that paid ten dollars or eleven dollars an hour in Ohio or Illinois will cost companies less than a tenth of that in Ciudad Juarez. The assembly work turns out TV sets, seatbelt harnesses, electrical switches and transformers, computer keyboards, disposable surgical garments, luggage locks, battery packs and a long list of other products.

There are more than 240 maquila plants in Juarez (second most after Tijuana), employing one hundred thousand people. Most of the workers are very young -- teenagers -- and the majority are girls.

Juarez, of course, is but a snapshot of the much larger reality around the world. Corporate apologists often point out that if the American jobs did not migrate to Mexico, they would go somewhere else -- Singapore or Brazil, Thailand or now perhaps eastern Europe -- where the consequences would be less easily observed by Americans. This is true. The easy mobility of capital is the core element in the modern global economy. It is made possible by invention, brilliant planning and the new technologies that connect corporate managers with far-flung factories and markets and allow them to relocate production almost anywhere in the world.

Given the fierce price competition generated by global production, any single manufacturing company is vulnerable if it does not respond to the trend of seeking out lower labor costs and tax-free havens. In the long run, it is not only Japan and Germany that threaten American prosperity, but the cheap labor of China and Indonesia and Thailand, even Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

To confront the effects of the global system, Americans must educate themselves about the world -- to understand not only their own losses but also what is happening to others. Ciudad Juarez (or any other border city) is an excellent place to start, mainly because it starkly refutes so many of the common assumptions surrounding globalization. Aside from profit, the justifying and widely accepted rationale for global dispersion of production is the benefit to the poor, struggling masses. Their economies, it is said, will move up to a higher stage of development and incomes will rise accordingly. The auto workers in Ohio will lose, certainly, but the new auto workers in Juarez will become middle-class consumers who can afford to buy other products made in America. Thus, in time, everyone is supposed to benefit.

On the streets of Juarez, the workers tell a different story: Their incomes are not rising, not in terms of purchasing power. They have been falling drastically for years. These workers cannot buy American cars or computers. They can barely buy the basic necessities of life.

Fernando Rosales had just quit his job at Chrysler, where he assembled safety harnesses, because it paid the peso equivalent of only $4.20 a day. While he builds a squatter house in Lucio Blanco, Rosales searches for work as an auto mechanic, away from the maquila plants.

"I came here six years ago, thinking I would better myself, but I won't be able to do that," Rosales said. "It's been very difficult. The only benefits I had were transportation -- they sent a bus for us -- and one meal a day. Maybe for the government, it's okay. But for the people it really is shameful that American companies pay such low wages."

"The wages are very low, that's just the way it is," said Daniel Fortino Maltos, twenty-one years old and married with a baby. He works for General Electric at a plant making capacitors, as does his wife. "Young people generally leave after a few months or a year because the salary is so low, they can't make it," he explained.

Outside Productos Electricos Internacionales, another GE plant, a group of teenage workers on their lunch break described the same conditions. "The turnover is roughly every three months," said Fernando Rubio. "They just bring new ones in. There is such a big demand for workers, people can leave and go elsewhere." General Electric operated eight plants in Juarez, more than any other company.

Many of the workers blame the Mexican government for their condition, not the American employers. An older woman, Laura Chavez, who just quit her job at Delmex, a General Motors plant, expected to find another easily because of the extraordinarily high turnover in the maquila factories. "Look, it's not enough," she said. "If you're going to be living off that salary, it's not enough. I don't blame the companies. I blame the Mexican government because the wages are whatever the government requires."

In Mexico, the federal government does periodically raise the legal minimum-wage level but, for the last decade, the increases have lagged further and further behind the rising cost of living -- thus providing cheaper and cheaper labor for the American employers.

Indeed, the maquiladora industry boasts of this attraction in the glossy publication it distributes to prospective companies. In 1981, the industry association reported, the labor cost for a maquila worker was $1.12 an hour. By the end of 1989, the real cost had fallen to 56 cents an hour. [2]

What these workers have surmised is correct: Their own government is exploiting them too. Mired in debt to American banks since the early 1980s, Mexico has been desperate to raise more foreign-currency income to keep up with its foreign-debt payments. Aside from oil, the maquiladora industry provides the country with its largest influx of U.S. dollars, and the Mexican government has attracted more U.S. enterprise by steadily depressing the wages of the workers. If it had not, Mexico might have lost the jobs to its principal low-wage competitors (Singapore or Taiwan or South Korea) and lost the precious foreign-currency income it needed to pay its bankers.

Wages for workers are, thus, falling on both ends of this global transmission belt. The people who lost their premium manufacturing jobs in the United States are compelled to settle for lower incomes. But so are the Mexican peasants who inherited the jobs. On both sides of the border, workers are caught in a vicious competition with one another that richly benefits the employers.

Most labor unions in Mexico did not try to stand in the way of the wage exploitation and those that did were easily brushed aside. In Matamoros, militant unions initially attempted to organize the maquiladora workers but, for fifteen years, the companies simply ignored Matamoros and located their plants in other border cities -- until the Matamoros labor organization relented. In the United States, of course, industrial unions were drastically weakened as well, as they struggled against the shrinking employment and falling wages imposed by the global system.

The wage depression in Mexico is an extreme case, but not at all unique in the world. In many of the other countries attracting global production, similar exchanges occur that victimize workers and their communities and often benefit the country's established oligopoly of wealth and political power. The CEO of an American clothing company was asked if his company's imported goods from China might, in fact, have been manufactured with slave labor. "Everybody is a slave laborer," he replied. "The wage is so cheap." [3]

Most impoverished nations are understandably desperate to participate in this development. The denial of basic human rights is accepted as a temporary blemish; the long-term vision is that someday, when their people have become experienced industrial workers, they will become the next South Korea or Taiwan.

Mexico bought that vision twenty-five years ago when the duty-free rules for the maquiladora zone were first established, but the present reality of Ciudad Juarez and the other border cities denies the promise. The factories exist, it is true, but the capital investments are still easily portable, if attractive options appear elsewhere, and that threat hovers over every maquiladora factory. Meanwhile, the border cities deteriorate further and any attempt to improve them through higher taxes elicits rebukes from the companies.

"The government of Mexico in 1988 suggested a 5 percent tax on salaries that would be dedicated to urban infrastructure," Professor Valdes-Villalva recalled. "The suggestion was up in the air for about ten days before it was knocked down by the companies. The companies were saying they will have to leave if the tax is imposed. The association that represents them shot it down. The government dropped the idea."

Instead of an experienced workforce, the maquiladora zone has created a bewildering stream of young people tumbling randomly from one job to another.

"We have begun to see more fourteen-year-olds in the plants -- children fourteen to sixteen years old," Valdes-Villalva said. "The maquila workers are very young on the whole, we're talking sixteen to twenty-one years old. Usually, the companies are careful to see that the youngest girls and boys get permission slips from their parents.

"Workers do not age in this industry -- they leave. Because of the intensive work it entails, there's constant burnout. If they've been there three or four years, workers lose efficiency. They begin to have problems with eyesight. They begin to have allergies and kidney problems. They are less productive."

By maintaining a young and impermanent workforce, the companies are able to cut down on their labor costs because, under Mexican law, a worker who is fired gets severance pay and is compensated for every year of seniority. If a company plans to leave someday, it does not want a large experienced workforce that will be entitled to severance when the plant is moved to some other country.

The workers themselves matter-of-factly describe the reality of children who have left school for these jobs. "Quite a lot say they are sixteen but I know they are probably thirteen or fourteen or fifteen years old," said Sylvia Facoln at the GE plant. "I know of people who are less than fourteen years old and I myself brought one of them to work here. It's very common in all the maquilas."

The scandal of major American corporations employing adolescent children to do the industrial work that once belonged to American adults has been documented in many settings, yet it provokes no political response in either Washington or Mexico City. The Arizona Republic of Phoenix ran a prizewinning series on the maquiladora across from Nogales, Arizona, where, among other things, the reporter found thirteen-year-old Miriam Borquez working the night shift for General Electric (the same company that cares deeply about educating disadvantaged minorities at home).

The girl quit school to take the job, she explained, because her family needed the money. They were living in a nine-by-sixteen tin hut. The Arizona Republic's conservative editorial page lamented: "Has greed so consumed some businessmen that human lives in Mexico are less valuable than the next saxophone shipped to the U.S. from Sonora?" [4]

Maquiladora officials always protest their innocence in this matter. Mexican labor law permits them to hire fourteen-year-olds if their parents grant permission. These laws are faithfully observed, the officials explain, but companies cannot always verify the true age of young job applicants and children sometimes forge permission slips from parents or use someone else's documents. This is sometimes true, according to Ignacio Escandon, an El Paso businessman familiar with the Juarez labor market, but the excuse hardly relieves the corporations of their moral burden. "The companies don't ask many questions," Escandon said. "The demand for labor is constant."

There is a general lack of political scrutiny. Beyond anecdotes, no one knows the real dimensions of the exploitation. The use of child labor is one of the many aspects of the Mexican maquiladora that has never been authoritatively investigated, since neither government has much interest in exposing the truth.

Environmental damage from the maquiladora plants, likewise, has never been squarely examined by federal authorities though gross violations have been cited in numerous reports and accusations from private citizens and some state agencies. The National Toxics Campaign described the U.S.-Mexican border as already so polluted with dangerous chemicals that it may become a two-thousand-mile Love Canal."

From twenty-three tests, the grassroots environmental organization found seventeen maquiladora sites with significant discharges of toxics in groundwater or streams and eight sites with severe pollution. A University of Texas study found heightened levels of gall bladder and liver cancer in thirty-three Texas counties along the Rio Grande. In Nogales, where the streams (and sewage) flow north into Arizona, Arizona state officials detected a chemical plume of tetrachloroethylene that had crossed the border too. This is but a sampling of the evidence. [5]

In Ciudad Juarez, an official of the maquiladora industry association actually admitted to the El Paso Times that 40 percent or more of the hazardous wastes generated by the Juarez plants was probably dumped illegally. "Now I can't say for sure those maquiladoras are dumping their toxic wastes in the city's sewer system or landfill," Lino Morales told the newspaper, "but where else would they be disposing of it?" [6]

For years, Professor Valdes-Villalva and her associates have tried to track down what the companies do with the toxic chemicals that are brought into the Mexican plants. Mexican law requires that imported hazardous materials must be shipped back to the United States but the researchers could only find customs documents covering less than 5 percent of the volume. They suspect -- but can't prove -- that the bulk is trucked to illegal dumps in the interior, future Superfund sites waiting to be discovered by Mexican authorities.

"For ten years," Valdes-Villalva said, "they told us they handled no toxic wastes. I was attacked by the plants as an alarmist. Now, they are beginning to admit that they do handle toxic wastes but, unless we can find out what they do with the wastes, there's no way to stop them."

The health consequences that frightened American citizens when they first encountered the casual disposal of toxic wastes in their own communities now worry Mexican citizens too. Like the Americans before them, the concerned Mexicans are confronted by official denial and a lack of reliable information to confirm or refute their fears.

"What most concerns me is the health within the plants," Valdes-Villalva said. "This is where we are lacking. We have no money for research, but we hear these complaints from workers. We find high levels of lead in blood samples. We have situations in which we find a tremendous amount of manic depressives, which does not follow the usual amount in the population. So what I'm beginning to think is that this is a central nervous system disorder, physical not psychological. It could be solvents. It's heavily concentrated in the electronics industry. There's also a tremendous number of Down's syndrome children. Other disorders you find in high incidence are cleft palates and other deformities."

Her description of working conditions is echoed in sidewalk conversations with young workers. The group outside the GE electrical assembly plant talked about the skin problems that some coworkers develop from working with fibers -- sometimes severe enough to send them to the hospital. Daniel Fortino described similar problems. "I use zinc and the only protection I've been given are glasses," he said. "Among some of the workers, I know they get all kinds of rashes on their arms and they've been told it's the materials they are using."

Like the American citizens who have formed thousands of grassroots political organizations to combat industrial pollution, Mexican citizens who summon the courage to protest are utterly on their own -- aligned against both industry and government, without the resources to challenge the official explanations or the political influence to force the government to act. But, of course, the Mexican citizens are in a much weaker position to undertake such political struggles. Their communities are impoverished. Their national economy depends crucially on these factories. Their own democratic institutions are weak and underdeveloped or corrupted.

The situation seems overwhelming, but not entirely hopeless. Along the border and elsewhere, some people of both nationalities are beginning to grasp the fact that citizens of neither nation can hope to change their own conditions without the support of the other. Mexicans cannot hope to stand up to General Motors or GE from the colonias of Ciudad Juarez. Nor can Americans expect to defend their own jobs or their own social standards without addressing the hopes and prospects and afflictions of their impoverished neighbors.

Genuine reform will require a new and unprecedented form of cross-border politics in which citizens develop continuing dialogues across national boundaries and learn to speak for their common values. Only by acting together can they hope to end the exploitation, not just in Mexico but elsewhere across the global production system.

This kind of sophisticated internationalism has not been characteristic among Americans, to put it mildly. It raises the stakes enormously for anyone who envisions a revitalized democracy for it means that, in addition to everything else, the restoration of American democracy will depend upon Americans thinking and acting with a larger perspective on the world. Most Americans, aside from what they are told about the Cold War rivalry and occasional military conflicts, have been educated into ignorance about the world at large.

That is the daunting nature of the global political dilemma. People like Valdes-Villalva have already seen it clearly and so do some Americans. A Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras was formed in 1991 by more than sixty American environmental, religious, community and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, in order to speak out against the injustices and confront the multinational corporations with demands for civilized conduct. Leaders from the Mexican maquiladora communities are being brought to the United States to spread the word to Americans on the true nature of the global economic system. [7]

"Moral behavior knows no borders," Sister Susan Mika, president of the coalition, declared. "What would be wrong in the United States is wrong in Mexico too."

Valdes-Villalva described the new democratic imperative:

"In order for workers to protect themselves, they have to see that they are tied to workers worldwide," she said. "It is the transnational economy that is undermining labor. A new union has to emerge that crosses national borders and makes a closer relationship among workers -- a new kind of union that cooperates worldwide. Companies can make agreements among themselves about markets and production. The only competition in the global economy is between the workers."


Wolfgang Sachs, the German social critic, offered a mordant metaphor to describe the antidemocratic qualities of the global economy. The global marketplace, he said, has become the world's new "closet dictator."

"The fear of falling behind in international competition has become the predominant organizing principle of politics, North and South, East and West," Sachs wrote. "Both enterprises and entire states see themselves trapped in a situation of relentless competition, where each participant is dependent on the decisions of all other players. What falls by the wayside in this hurly-burly is the possibility for self-determination." [8]

Others have expressed similar perceptions, albeit less dramatically. Jacques Attali, the French economist, noted: "We already know they [the global economic changes] demand that politicians and statesmen accept the unpopular abandonment of sovereignty." W. Michael Blumenthal, chairman of Unisys: "I wouldn't say the nation-state is dead, but the sovereignty has been greatly circumscribed ... even for a country as large as the U.S." [9]

For Americans, this is a new experience, profoundly at odds with national history and democratic legacy. We are now, suddenly, a nation whose citizens can no longer decide their own destiny. The implications offend the optimism and self-reliance of the American character, eclipsing our typical disregard for the rest of the world. Citizens of most foreign nations-smaller, less powerful and more dependent on others -- have had considerable practical experience with the limitations and frustrations of global interdependency. Americans have not. They are just beginning to discover what global economics means for their own politics.

ACORN, the grassroots citizens' organization, discovered, for instance, that the prospect for financing low-income housing -- a major priority for its members -- had been seriously damaged by a new banking regulation that assigns an extremely high risk rating to bank lending for multifamily housing projects. "This will be a disaster for poor people unless Congress intervenes immediately," Jane Uebelhoer of ACORN testified. "This is outright government red-lining and it will be the end of low-income home ownership in Detroit, in Chicago, in New York and elsewhere." [10]

But the new credit regulation did not flow out of any legislation enacted by Congress and the president. It was a small detail in an international agreement forged among the central bankers from a dozen industrial countries, including the United States. The central bankers met periodically in Basel, Switzerland, for several years as the Committee on Banking Regulations and Supervisory Practices, trying to reconcile the different banking laws of competing nations and create a "level playing field" that would standardize the capital requirements for banks.

America's representative (and the leading promoter of the agreement) was the Federal Reserve, the nonelected central bank that enjoys formal insulation from political accountability. While America's most important multinational banks were consulted beforehand, no consumer representatives were included in the Federal Reserve's deliberations nor were any of the groups that speak for low-income home buyers. [11]

By the time ACORN and other community organizations saw the implications, the Federal Reserve had already issued the implementing regulations. Unfavorable terms were thus set for low-income housing and decided in an obscure venue far distant from the affected citizens or even from their elected representatives. Community housing advocates pleaded with Congress (to no avail) to undo the deal fashioned in Switzerland. They asked the Federal Reserve and other bank regulatory agencies to reconsider (also to no avail).

"When we talk to the federal regulators," Chris Lewis, an ACORN lobbyist, complained, "they say to us: 'Oh, that's an international treaty, we can't possibly do anything about that.' So now we have housing policy determined by central bankers with no accountability whatsoever."

American politics, in other words, is moving offshore. The nature of the global economy pushes every important political debate in that direction -- further and further away from the citizens. As companies become multinational, able to coordinate production from many places and unify markets across national boundaries, they are taking the governing issues with them. From arcane regulatory provisions to large questions of national priorities, the corporations, not governments, become the connecting strand in offshore politics, since they are the only organizations active in every place and coping with all the world's many differences.

Arguments that were once decided, up or down, in the public forums of democratic debate are now floating off into the murk of international diplomacy and deal making, They are to be decided in settings where neither American citizens nor their elected representatives can be heard, where no institutional rules exist to guarantee democratic access and accountability.

Environmental activists discovered, for instance, that U.S. proposals for the current round of international trade negotiations would effectively vitiate domestic laws on food safety by assigning the question of standards to an obscure UN-sponsored commission in Rome. If the nation (or a state government) enacts laws on pesticides or food additives that exceed the health standards set by the Codex Alimentarius Commission in Rome, then other nations can declare that the environmental standards are artificial "trade barriers" designed to block foreign products and, therefore, subject to penalties or retaliation.

The goal proclaimed by Bush's trade negotiators is to "harmonize" environmental laws across the boundaries of individual nations to encourage freer trade. But that objective, inevitably, means lowering U.S. standards. Indeed, that is the objective for major components of American agribusiness, including the multinational chemical manufacturers who are enthusiastic supporters of what is blandly called "harmonization."

Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter (later named national Republican chairman) declared: "If the rest of the world can agree what the standard ought to be on a given product, maybe the U.S. or the European Community will have to admit they are wrong when their standards differ." [12]

Thus, laws and regulation that go beyond the status-quo consensus of the global economy are depicted as obstacles to prosperity. When California voters ratified their strict new food-labeling law by referendum in 1986, Yeutter accused California of "going off on a tangent" by writing its own rules. "How can we get international harmonization when we can't get it here at home?" he complained. When the European Community proposed a ban on imported beef treated with artificial growth hormones (that is, U.S. beef), Yeutter objected that the European regulation would "contravene our mutual objective of achieving international harmonization in this sensitive area of food safety."

Yeutter's real target, as his remarks made clear, was the domestic political opposition from American environmentalists who are themselves pushing for more stringent food regulations. The European ban, he complained, will simply "add fuel to the fires for those who wish to have public policy decisions made on the basis of emotion and political pressure." [13]

The scientific experts whom Yeutter claims will make rational decisions, free of "emotion and political pressure," are not free of corporate influence, however. The Codex is an obscure agency utterly unknown to ordinary citizens, but the multinational companies that help devise its standards are well aware of its significance. At a recent session of the commission, the American delegation included executives from three major chemical companies -- Du Pont, Monsanto and Hercules -- serving alongside U.S. government officials. Among other things, the Codex standard permits DDT residues on fruit and vegetables that are thirty-three to fifty times higher than U.S. law allows. [14]

As environmentalists and some allied farm groups have argued, the current round of high- level treaty negotiations known as GATT (for General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) is actually aimed at fostering a new generation of deregulation for business -- without the inconvenience of domestic political debate.

"The U.S. proposals (for GATT) represent a radical attempt to preempt the authority of its own citizens and the citizenry of other countries to regulate commerce in the pursuit of environmental and social ends," David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota, declared. "It is an attempt to impose a laissez-faire philosophy on a worldwide basis, to allow the global corporations unfettered ability to transfer capital, goods, services and raw materials across national boundaries."

Other citizen groups and interests, from sugar growers to insurance companies to state governments, have also discovered that global politics is encroaching on their domains. Japan protests that state-set limits on U.S. timber harvesting constitute a GATT violation. European trade officials complain that the state of Maine's new law on throwaway bottles is an artificial trade barrier that the federal government should preempt in accordance with the international trade agreement.

The centrifugal diversity of the American federalist system, in which states can legislate and experiment independent of the national government, is thus headed for collision with the leveling, homogenizing force of the global marketplace. One or the other will have to yield power and prerogatives. [15]
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 1:05 am

PART 2 OF 2 (CH. 17 CONT'D.)

American democracy is ill equipped to cope with offshore politics, both in its institutional arrangements and in its customary responses to foreign affairs. Treaty making and diplomacy belong traditionally to the presidency, even though the U.S. Senate must ratify the results, and there is a time-honored tendency to defer to the chief executive in negotiating foreign relations so that the nation may speak with one voice.

Congress, for instance, has ceded its lawmaking authority to the president across vast areas by authorizing the so-called "fast track" status for trade negotiations like GATT or the proposed trade agreement with Mexico. "Fast track" means that, when the agreement is completed, Congress will take only a single up-or-down vote on approving the entire package, with no chance to amend or reject particular sections. Naturally, this strengthens the president's bargaining position in the international arena, but it also cuts out the democratic process.

Since the trade agreements will repeal or alter numerous sections of existing domestic law, the members of Congress have put themselves in a very weak position to legislate. The only way to resist these changes in law will be to vote "no" on the finished trade agreement and thus undercut the president in global affairs. This would also incur the wrath of corporate interests and the other sectors who are beneficiaries.

The "fast track" approach is another form of political cover for cowardly legislators -- a way for them to accomplish unpopular results while pleading that their hands are tied by the president. In 1991, both organized labor and a broad front of environmental groups joined forces to mount an energetic campaign against the "fast track" status for the Mexican trade negotiations. They cited the maquiladora experience as evidence of what will follow in terms of lost jobs, environmental damage and exploitation of Mexican workers. They lost -- a measure of how strongly the corporate political organizations (and conventional wisdom) are pulling in the opposite direction. [16]

The overall political effect of globalization is to further enhance the power of the presidency -- just as the Cold War did -- at the expense of representative forums, public debate and accountability. Once an issue has become part of high-level diplomatic exchanges, all of the details naturally become murkier, since negotiators do not wish to talk too freely about their negotiating strategies. The discussions often literally move offshore and behind closed doors -- more irregular deal making that will have the force of law.

When international deals are being struck, it mailers enormously who is doing the bargaining and who is in the room offering expert advice. The so-called G-7, for instance, meets regularly to "coordinate" economic policies among the major industrial nations (including fiscal policy, a realm the Constitution assigns to Congress). Yet there is no visible procedure -- much less legislated agenda -- by which the Treasury secretary or the Federal Reserve chairman is empowered to make international economic policy for the nation. Those two officers, by their nature, represent a very narrow spectrum of American interests-mainly banks and the financial system -- and they cannot be expected to reflect the full, rich diversity of American perspectives on economic issues. Bankers are well represented, but who speaks for the home builders or the auto industry or machine tools or the farmers?

Substantial institutional reforms are needed, obviously, to prevent global politics from gradually eclipsing the substance of democratic debate and action. At the very least, that would mean democratizing reforms to ventilate the U.S. negotiating routines in a systematic way so that everyone can follow the action. It might also require refusal to participate in any international forum or agency that lacks democratic access to the information and decision making. If the chemical companies can lobby the Codex in Rome for weaker health standards, then surely any other American citizen should be able to sit at the table too. When central bankers meet in Basel to decide U.S. housing policy, then housing advocates should also be in the room.

The first, overriding imperative, however, is to defend the nation's power to govern its own affairs. If democracy is to retain any meaning, Americans will need to draw a hard line in defense of their own national sovereignty. This is not just about protecting American jobs, but also about protecting the very core of self-government -- laws that are fashioned in open debate by representatives who are directly accountable to the people. Among other things, this challenge requires Congress to confront the presidency and restrain it -- to refuse to grant the chief executive the power to bargain away American laws in the name of free trade or competitiveness or any other slogan.

Offshore politics threatens the ability of free people to decide the terms of their own social relations; it allows the closet dictator to decide things according to the narrow interest of "efficiency." The "harmonizing" process begins with the regulatory laws that business interests consider meddlesome and too expensive, but the attack will lead eventually to the nation's largest social guarantees, welfare or Social Security or health, since those programs also add to the cost of production and thus interfere with the free-flowing commerce among boundaryless companies.

Who will decide what is equitable and just for American society? A closed meeting of finance ministers in Geneva? An obscure group of experts in Rome coached by corporate lobbyists? Such questions have already penetrated the fabric of self-government. Americans, in addition to their other democratic burdens, need to get educated on the answers.

Other nations, with more experience at global interdependence, are caught in the same pressures, but many of them understand, much better than Americans do, how to protect their own social values and institutions against the closet dictator's hand. Japan is the leading example of a nation that espouses free trade but ignores the principle whenever it needs to defend its domestic institutions against foreign intrusion. Japan does not do this only for economic advantage, as Americans suppose, but often to satisfy domestic political values. Japan shelters its rice growers from cheap imports (that is, American rice) because the island nation feels strongly about self-sufficient food production. It protects small retail outlets against the intrusion of giant retailing corporations because the tradition of small shops and shop owners is valued.

Japan breaks the "rules" in countless ways when its own prerogatives are threatened by global economics, but so do many others. The nations of western Europe have resisted more successfully than the American government has, even as they move toward an integrated European economic community. For that matter, many developing nations impose protective rules as the entry price for foreign investment, rules the multinational companies cheerfully accept. Some countries, such as South Korea, virtually seal their borders to foreign products that might undermine domestic development. Only in America are these governmental actions regarded as forbidden. [17]

The political problem this issue poses in America, aside from the ignorance and powerlessness of citizens, is that the elite groups that govern are mobilized on the other side. The elites of media, business, academia and politics have already made up their minds on these questions. They are committed to promoting the global economic system -- and to defending it against the occasional attacks from angry, injured citizens.

To speak for national sovereignty, to speak on behalf of American jobs or political values, is to be labeled reactionary by the dominant political culture. The corporate political organizations, with their overwhelming resources, are able to depict any dissenting voice as a backward protectionist, standing in the way of modernizing enterprise. The gross injustices of global commerce are concealed behind the high-minded platitudes about free trade.

The governing elites face one large impediment, however, in their campaign for unfettered globalization: The American public, on the whole, doesn't buy it. As virtually every opinion poll demonstrates, the public wants the national government to defend American jobs and economic independence more aggressively, especially against trading partners like Japan or West Germany. The public envisions the U.S. government leading the world toward stronger public standards on the environment and other issues, not promoting the leveling process that pul1s American laws down to the lowest common denominator. Americans, it is true, may be unfamiliar with the complexities of global politics, but their gut suspicion -- that valuable assets are being lost -- is not misguided.

The tension on this subject between the people at large and the powerful interests that dominate politics and government is emerging as the most serious, fundamental conflict in the decayed American democracy. The politics of the global economy, more profoundly than any other issue, puts the self-interest of the governing elites in conflict with the common ambitions of the governed. The governing elites have the power to advance their own narrow interests. For the public at large, however, their actions carry disturbing implications of disloyalty and betrayal.


The concept of the "boundaryless company" has now become commonplace among executives of major multinational corporations. They are American companies -- sort of but not really, only now and then when it suits them. IBM, the flagship of American industrial enterprise, is composed of 40 percent foreign employees. Whirlpool is mostly not Americans. GE puts its logo on microwaves made by Samsung in South Korea. [18] Chrysler buys cars from Mitsubishi and sells them as its own. America's most important banks operate legally authorized "foreign facilities" right in Manhattan for the benefit of depositors who wish to keep their money "offshore."

The question of what is foreign and what is American has become wildly scrambled by global commerce. The multinational enterprises, unlike Americans generally, are already securing alliances in this fierce world of global competition-networks of joint ventures, coproduction and shared ownership with their ostensible rivals in the world, including state-owned enterprises in foreign nations. Every U.S. auto company has become partners one way or another with its competitors, the Japanese car companies. Producers of electronic equipment, computers, even aircraft have melded their American citizenship in similar arrangements.

Multinational executives work to enhance the company, not the country. The president of NCR Corporation told The New York Times: "I was asked the other day about United States competitiveness and I replied that I don't think about it at all." A vice-president of Colgate-Palmolive observed: "The United States does not have an automatic call on our resources. There is no mindset that puts this country first." And the head of GE Taiwan, where so many U.S. industrial jobs have migrated, explained: "The U.S. trade deficit is not the most important thing in my life ... running an effective business is." [19]

John Reed, CEO of Citibank, America's largest troubled bank, has said he is actively scouting options for moving the corporation headquarters to a foreign country in order to escape U.S. banking laws. "The United States is the wrong country for an international bank to be based," Reed declared. Meanwhile, his bank's deposits are protected by the U.S. taxpayers and his lobbyists in Washington actively promote a multi-billion-dollar government bailout to save large commercial banks like Citibank from insolvency. [20]

These men are merely expressing the prevailing values of the "stateless corporation," as Business Week called it. This creature operates most successfully when it discards sentimental attachments like patriotism and analyzes global opportunities with a cold, clear eye. Some of these same corporations, it is true, wave the flag vigorously when bidding for defense contracts or beseeching the U.S. government for tax subsidies, but their exuberant Americanism dissipates rapidly when the subject is wages or the burden of supporting public institutions.

Their weak national loyalty has profound implications for the nation's politics because these men, on the whole, are also influential voices in shaping the outlines (and often the close details) of national economic policy -- not just for trade policy, but for taxation and government spending priorities. Politicians in both parties (especially the Republican party) defer to their worldly .experience. Most economists and political commentators have embraced their argument that America's future prosperity will be best served by a laissez- faire regime in which governments get out of the way and let the marketplace develop its global structure.

But here is the blunt question: Can these people really be trusted to speak for the rest of us? How can they faithfully define America's best interest when their own business strategies are designed to escape the bounds of national loyalty? What is good for IBM or General Electric mayor may not be reliable advice for the country as a whole and for most of its citizens.


The impressive fact about ordinary Americans is that, despite years of education and propaganda, they still cling stubbornly to their skepticism about the global economy. With the usual condescension, elite commentators dismiss the popular expressions of concern as uninformed and nativist, the misplaced fears of people ill equipped to grasp the larger dimensions of economics.

Ordinary citizens generally form their economic opinions and perceptions, not from distant abstractions or even from the endless tides of propaganda, but from their own commonsense values and their own firsthand experiences. What they have seen of the global economy in the last two decades tells them to be wary and even hostile. In a functioning democracy, these popular insights, though not derived from sophisticated techniques of analysis, would be respected as the baseline for political debate and decision making.

Common sense tells people that it cannot be good for America's long-term prosperity to lose millions of high-wage manufacturing jobs. Even if this hasn't affected their own employment, it means that middle-class families are losing the wherewithal to be viable consumers, and sooner or later, that has to hurt the overall economy. Workers know this; so do merchants.

While most citizens do not sit down and try to calculate exactly what "declining real wages" have meant to their own incomes, they do know something bad is happening to them. They are working longer hours, but their paychecks don't seem to buy the same things they used to buy. When they go to look for a new car or a home, they discover that their idea of where they stood financially was mistaken -- their expectations are now beyond the reach of their incomes. This widely shared anxiety is expressed in opinion polls as a preoccupation with the "cost of living" and, when analyzed by political elites, is interpreted as a complaint about rising prices and inflation.

Actually, as pollster Stanley Greenberg discovered in his focus groups with voters, the personal fears about the "cost of living" are really grounded in shrinking wages. The common perceptions are quite accurate. In 1979, for instance, an American worker earning average wages had to work twenty-three weeks to earn enough to buy an average-priced car. A decade later, he or she had to work thirty-two weeks to buy the same car. As the president of Chrysler put it: "We're looking at the pooring of America."

At this stage, people are not much beyond a general quandary about why this is happening to them. If pressed for explanations, they will blame various things, from welfare and affirmative action to crooked politicians. But the principal explanation expressed in public opinion is foreign competition. Industrial workers, who have now had two decades of close experience with the global marketplace, are more knowledgeable than others. They can explain the effects of internationalized labor and pricing in rich, detailed analysis based on the circumstances in their own workplaces. Americans are gradually being educated about the world through their own painful encounters with it.

People generally do not have coherent ideas about how the wage deterioration might be reversed -- except that the government ought to be fighting aggressively on that front. Virtually no one in the top ranks of American politics -- with the exception of the Reverend Jesse Jackson -- speaks for this unorthodox point of view. To take it seriously would require politicians to debate the nature of the "stateless corporations" and entertain legislation aimed at their unfettered conduct.

The erosion of U.S. wages has proceeded unevenly since the early 1970s and will not soon be reversed. An average weekly paycheck worth $270 in 1981, if measured in constant purchasing power, declined to $254 by 1991 and is heading still lower. This average loss was, of course, not spread uniformly through the society, since some gained enormously while many others lost much more than the average. [21]

In fact, many orthodox economists routinely assume that the American wage decline must continue for at least another generation. The subject came up occasionally during interviews I conducted with various economists at Wall Street brokerages in the mid-1980s and the Wall Street economists, without exception, predicted further erosion for the next twenty to twenty-five years. Unfortunate but inevitable, they said. The trend is driven, they explained, by the deep and ineluctable process in which worldwide wage patterns are moving toward equilibrium -- a "harmonization" of labor costs among nations, just as some officials wish to "harmonize" the environmental laws.

American workers will not descend to the poverty levels of Indonesia or Bangladesh, the economists assured me, but their standard of living must decline further until the relative costs and advantages of production locations in the world system have found a balancing point. American workers, once the best paid in the world, have naturally suffered the consequences first but, over time, others will feel it too. U.S. industrial wages have already fallen behind those of Germany and some other European nations, even though American productivity remains the highest in the world.

Apostles of the global economy constantly preach to American workers that, if they want to maintain their incomes, they must increase their productivity. But the evidence of the 1980s contradicts those sermons. The productivity of U. S. workers overall increased cumulatively by more than 12 percent during the decade, while their hourly wage rates increased by only 2 percent. For manufacturing workers, the disparity was much greater: Their output per hour increased most dramatically during the industrial realignments of the 1980s, but they were not compensated for it. [22]

The dismal forecast for American wages is a predicate for explosive politics in America, but the Wall Street economists did not anticipate any great rebellion. Wages have been falling for nearly two decades, they noted, and so far the American people have accepted it with patience and maturity. Indeed, American voters keep electing conservative governments that are committed to unfettered globalization.

The trend, however, has a flavor of betrayal that could ignite political upheaval, as it becomes clearer to people. The globalization process is generating great prosperity for the upper stratum of the society, the best-educated and least vulnerable citizens. Roughly speaking, if one is securely connected to one of the emerging global enterprises, whether American or foreign-owned, the future looks bright. Indeed, the last decade has been an extraordinary time of expanding incomes and wealth for those who are managers or professionals or investors attached to the international commerce.

The fissuring of common interests -- and the power relationship behind it -- is expressed most vividly in what has happened to executive compensation. The people at the top are literally leaving everyone else behind. Between 1977 and 1990, the period when average wages were stagnating, compensation for top corporate executives rose by 220 percent (this was, of course, also when the people in the top income brackets were winning their dramatic tax cuts). In 1960, the average pay for chief executives at the largest American corporations, after taxes, was twelve times greater than the average wage for factory workers. By 1990, it was seventy times greater. [23]

In fact, the upper stratum of citizens and their global enterprises benefit enormously from the very things that injure the other classes of workers -- the depression of wages and the dismantling of national sovereignty. National interest is fracturing into two distinct and opposing poles. The new global elites are gradually "seceding" from their responsibilities to the general well-being of the nation, as Robert B. Reich has put it. The process could accurately be described in harsher terms -- as betrayal -- except that probably no one sets out deliberately to accomplish that. It is simply a matter of the people with power taking care of themselves, while leaving the nation mired in an awesome backlog of economic and social problems.

The diverging political interest explains much of what has happened in government in recent years and it shows up regularly in different forms on the governing agenda. The Bush administration's bank reform proposal, for instance, was based on the German and Japanese model of concentrated banking power and designed to create a handful of U.S. global banks, freed of regulatory restriction and able to dominate American industry as well as finance (though still sheltered from loss by the "full faith and credit" of the American taxpayers).

In education, the so-called "school choice" issue is also an effort of elites to separate themselves from the mass. Stripped of reformer rhetoric, "school choice" is really a scheme to divert taxpayer financing to private schools and thus foster a two-tiered educational system -- an elite, selective school system that trains the professional talent needed by global enterprise and an underfinanced public school system for everyone else. The Business Roundtable and leading multinational companies are promoting the cause as their own -- in the name of competitiveness.

The elites' abandonment of national loyalty is also reflected in the political commerce of Washington. It is now commonplace for top operatives in both parties to use the skills and influence they acquired from government service on behalf of foreign interests. The Center for Public Integrity checked the career paths of fifty-three senior officials who had left the office of U.S. trade representative over fifteen years and found that 47 percent of them went to work for the other side -- registered as foreign agents.

"Japan is running an ongoing political campaign in America as if it were a third major political party, " economist Pat Choate wrote in his book Agents of Influence, which described the awesome dimensions of how the Japanese interests manipulate U.S. policy through their hired American agents. [24]

Focusing on the influential Americans who work as Japanese agents misses the fundamental point, however, and wrongly demonizes that country. The Japanese are simply emulating -- albeit with lots of money -- the methodology of American corporate politics, They have adapted efficiently to Washington's techniques for mock democracy: Hire squads of well-connected lobbyists and lawyers from both political parties, contribute generously to think tanks and other ostensibly civic organizations, finance research and propaganda on behalf of your position. "A big part of the problem," said Karel van Wolferen, the Dutch journalist who is an authority on Japanese politics, "is that Americans can be bought so easily."

The more fundamental point, however, is that the Japanese line in American politics is not essentially different from the line of America's own multinational corporations and banks. The two interests even merge in such places as the Institute for International Economics, where they speak as one voice. Japanese and American multinationals compete with one another for market shares in global commerce, but both want roughly the same things from the U.S. government -- the same policies on trade, on taxes, on managing the American economy.

The unpleasant truth is that, on the largest political issues, the views of America's global corporations are much closer to those of their Japanese economic rivals than they are to those of the majority of American citizens. For that matter, the managers and technicians active everywhere in global commerce are closer to their counterparts in other nations than to their fellow citizens. They have a common political perspective, regardless of their citizenship, which they promote in the politics of Europe, Asia and the United States. In America, a bewildered and intimidated political system can no longer even figure out what the "American position" is.


The majority of Americans are not wrong in their unsophisticated skepticism. The new reality of global competition generates a vicious economic trap for worldwide prosperity: a permanent condition of overcapacity in production that insures destructive economic consequences. Simply put, the world's existing structure of manufacturing facilities, constantly being expanded on cheap labor and new technologies, can now turn out far more goods than the world's consumers can afford to buy. That is, more cars, computers, aircraft, appliances, steel and so forth are made than the marketplace can possibly absorb.

The auto industry is an uncomplicated example: Auto factories worldwide have the capacity to produce 45 million cars annually for a market that, in the best years, will buy no more than 35 million cars. "We have too many cars chasing too few drivers," a Chrysler executive remarked. The economic consequences are obvious: Somebody has to close his auto factory and stop producing. This marketplace imbalance in supply and demand is the larger reality that underlies the fierce competition for advantage among companies and among nations -- the awesome force driving everyone toward the lowest common denominator.

Whose factory must be closed to bring the worldwide supply into balance with the worldwide demand? Whose workers will be laid off? The older, less modern factories are closed first, of course, but also the plants that pay the highest wages and the ones where government provides less generous tax subsidies to the employer. American workers in steel and autos and other industries have had a lot of experience watching this process at work -- seeing factories they knew were viable and productive suddenly declared obsolete. But so will workers in the less abundant nations. This process closed Ohio factories and someday it will close Mexico's. So long as global productive capacity exceeds global demand by such extravagant margins, somebody somewhere in the world has to keep closing factories, old and new.

The companies have no choice. They must keep moving their production, keep seeking the lowest possible costs and most favorable political conditions, in order to defend their market shares. Eventually, as economist Jeff Faux has written, South Korea will be losing jobs to cheap labor in Thailand and even China may someday lose factories to Bangladesh. The popular notion among struggling nations that they can someday become the next South Korea -- as the reward for a generation or so of the degradation of their workers -- is fatally at odds with the logic of permanent overcapacity. The Mexican maquiladora cities thought they were going to become the next South Korea, but instead they may be the next Detroit. [25]

In fundamental economic terms, the globalization process produces three interlocking economic consequences that together are deleterious to everyone's well-being. First, it destroys capital on a large scale by rendering productive investments useless to the marketplace. That is the meaning of closing viable factories that can no longer meet the price competition: The invested capital is lost, the idle factories are written off as tax losses. Modernizing production with new technologies always produces this destruction, of course, but the global dispersion of production lives on it -- like a game of checkers in which advantage goes to the player who made the last jump.

Second, the overcapacity permanently depresses wage levels worldwide, since no workers anywhere can organize and bargain very successfully against the threat of a closed factory, whether they are well-paid Americans or impoverished peasants working somewhere in the Third World.

Finally, these two effects -- the instability of capital investment and the depression of wages -- combine to guarantee that global demand can never catch up with global supply. New consumers for the world's output, to be sure, emerge with new development, but other existing consumers are lost, as their jobs are lost or their wages decline in real terms. So long as the process is allowed to run its course, the flight will continue downhill -- too many factories making too many goods for a marketplace where too many families lack the wherewithal to buy them.

The way out of this economic trap is a grand political strategy for growth that focuses on workers and wages worldwide. The global economy can proceed to develop, without the destructive qualities, if an economic order of accelerated global growth is designed to generate rising incomes for ordinary citizens and, thus, greater consumer capacity for what the world is able to produce. A strategy that fosters higher wage levels would gradually unwind the condition of enormous overcapacity, while it also discourages the desperate edge of capital flight.

This approach would require, of course, a great reversal in the conservative economic doctrines that now dominate most governments in the industrial world. It would also require convincing guarantees to the citizens of impoverished nations who long for jobs -- guarantees that they will not be shut out of the rising prosperity. The economic policies for accomplishing such a strategy are plausible enough. What is not plausible at this moment in history is the politics. [26]

* * *

It does not require great political imagination to see that the world system is heading toward a further dispersion of governing power so the closet dictator of the marketplace can command things more efficiently, from everywhere and nowhere. The historic paradox is breathtaking: At the very moment when western democracies and capitalism have triumphed over the communist alternative, their own systems of self-government are being gradually unraveled by the market system.

To cope with this complicated new world, every government naturally seeks to centralize its command of policy and thus become more hierarchical, less democratic. Societies like Japan have a natural advantage because they already practice a feudal form of state- administered capitalism, dominated by a one-party monopoly in politics, managed through government-assisted cartels and insulated from popular resistance. Some elites in the United States, though they do not say so directly, would like to emulate the efficiency of the Japanese political structure -- equipping the chief executive with even more authority and putting citizens at even greater distance from government.

For many years, a wishful presumption has existed that, in time, the hegemony of global corporations would lead the way to the construction of a new international political order - world institutions that have the representative capacity to govern equitably across national borders. That prospect is not at hand in our time.

On the contrary, what is emerging for now is a power system that more nearly resembles a kind of global feudalism -- a system in which the private economic enterprises function like rival dukes and barons, warring for territories across the world and oblivious to local interests, since none of the local centers are strong enough to govern them. Like feudal lords, the stateless corporations will make alliances with one another or launch raids against one another's stake. They will play weakening national governments off against each other and select obscure offshore meeting places to decide the terms of law governing their competition. National armies, including especially America's, will exist mainly to keep the contest free of interference.

In that event, the vast throngs of citizens are reduced to a political position resembling that of the serfs or small landholders who followed church or nobility in the feudal system. They will be utterly dependent on the fortunes of the corporate regimes, the dukes and barons flying their national flag. But citizens will have nothing much to say about the governing of these global institutions, for those questions will have moved beyond their own government. If national laws are rendered impotent, then so are a nation's citizens.

A different vision of the future requires great political imagination -- a new democratic sensibility in which people in many places manage simultaneously to overcome their sense of helplessness. Americans, given their heritage, are as well positioned as anyone in the world to take up the challenge and begin to develop a different script, one that is grounded in democratic principle and action. As its starting point, ironically, this requires a wise, purposeful kind of nationalism -- in which Americans confront the global system and defend their own political values against it.

A single nation is not helpless before these forces, despite what conventional wisdom teaches, and the United States especially is not helpless. Citizens have enormous potential leverage over the global economy if they decide to use it through their own national governing system. A corporation's behavior abroad is not separable from its home country because it enjoys so many special benefits at home.

In the United States, a multinational corporation that wishes to be treated as an American citizen for the purposes of the law and government benefits can be made to play by America's rules, just as Japan's are, or else surrender all the tax subsidies, government contracts and other considerations, including national defense, that American taxpayers provide.

Why should Americans, for instance, provide research and development tax subsidies for corporations that intend to export their new production and to violate common standards of decency by exploiting the weak? Why should American military forces be deployed to protect companies that do not reciprocate the national loyalty?

These are among the many contradictions created by the global system that only nationalism can reconcile. American law cannot police the world and need not try, but it can police what is American. To take the starkest example, no U.S. company should be treated as a lawful entity, entitled to all the usual privileges, if its production is found to exploit child labor in other countries. The same approach applies across the range of corporate behavior, from environmental degradation to ignoring tax laws.

The American political system also has enormous leverage over the behavior of foreign-owned multinational enterprises -- access to the largest, richest marketplace in the world. Because of that asset, the United States could lead the way to new international standards of conduct by first asserting its own values unilaterally. If trade depends upon price advantages derived mainly from poverty wages for children or defenseless workers prohibited from organizing their own unions or factories that cause great environmental destruction, this trade cannot truly be called free.

The purpose of asserting America's political power through its own marketplace would be to create the incentive for a new international system of global standards, one which all the trading nations would negotiate and accept. For a start, the United States ought to reject any new trade agreements that do not include a meaningful social contract -- rules that establish baseline standards for health, labor law, working conditions, the environment, wages. The U.S. government might also prohibit the familiar tax-dodging practices of companies that exploit communities as the price for new jobs. Indeed, companies ought to post community bonds when they relocate -- guaranteeing that they will not run away from their obligations to develop roads and schools and the other public investments. [27]

Fundamentally, it is not just the exploited workers in the United States who need a higher minimum-wage law. The world economy needs a global minimum-wage law -- one that establishes a rising floor under the most impoverished workers in industrial employment. A global minimum-wage law would recognize, of course, the wide gaps that exist between rich and poor, but it could establish flexible ratios aimed at gradually reducing the differences and prohibiting raw exploitation like that in the maquiladora zone in Mexico. No one imagines that world incomes will be equalized, not in our time certainly. But, as nations move toward equilibrium, they ought to be governed by a global economic system that pushes the bottom up rather than pulling the top down.

The democratic imperative is nothing less than that: to refashion the global economy so that it runs uphill for everyone, so that it enhances democracy rather than crippling it, so that the economic returns are distributed widely among all classes instead of narrowly at the top. This is the daunting outline of the next frontier for citizens who still believe in the idea of democracy. It will be as difficult as any barrier to democracy that Americans have faced previously in their history.

Despite our insularity, Americans are equipped in special ways to lead the next march toward democracy. After all, we have come from almost everywhere else in the world. Many of us still speak the languages of home countries and still know the cultures and political contexts of other places. Furthermore, the American popular culture travels before us everywhere in the world, expressing the nation's joyful sense of invention and optimism and individualism -- the American qualities others wish to share.

The American people, however, also have a peculiar handicap to overcome. It is their own source of shame. While the American system is the world's beacon, speaking to the universal thirst for democratic possibilities, the reality of democracy is quite different at home, as Americans know. However brave and resourceful they may be, Americans cannot teach democracy to the world until they restore their own.
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Postby admin » Thu Oct 31, 2013 1:07 am

Conclusion: The American Moment

My earliest political memory was the death of Lincoln when I cried inconsolably. I was four or five years old at the time and my mother read to me from one of those picture books with exemplary messages. The story of Lincoln's life unfolded in simple black-and-white etchings, from the humble origins in a frontier cabin to the White House. Young Abe learning to read by the light of the hearth, honest Abe the store clerk who walked many miles to return a customer's change, President Lincoln who freed the slaves and preserved the Union. Then, at the moment of triumph, the cruel assassination. The pictures ended in black bunting, a tragedy I found inexplicable.

My mother, who has romantic sensibilities, did not attempt to explain away the contradiction. Life is strange, life is wonderful, she often mused. The best and the worst, she meant, are frequently side by side in human experience. I came away, I suppose, with her melodramatic sense of things.

Lincoln, I believed as a child, was the actual fulfillment of America's democratic faith. He embodied the possibility that sovereign citizens, regardless of birth or status, could collectively decide their own destiny and somehow become greater than themselves. Yet the potential for tragic disappointment was also always present.

As an adult, I read deeper histories and learned the mature facts about Lincoln, the devious politician, the elusive and uncertain commander, but none of this contradicted what I had learned as a child. In fact, the full portrait made Lincoln seem even larger because, fully human and fallible, he could encompass every paradox about the nation's character -- the crass and cunning side alongside its virtuous principles, the blind willfulness and also America's capacity to defy history.

He was still Lincoln. He still stood for an idea of democracy that I think is now widely dismissed as mystical -- the belief that only from the many can this nation fulfill its larger qualities. My impression is that many Americans, perhaps most of them, no longer really believe this. Or they are sullenly resigned to the assumption that, given modern complexities, a genuine, full-throated democracy is no longer practical in America. Given the realities of power, it no longer seems plausible to them. Possibly, they are correct. If so, America will come to be identified, like other nations before it, by its grosser parts -- mere geography defined by muscle and appetites and national eccentricities.

I choose to believe otherwise: The American saga always was and still remains a difficult search for democratic meaning. This nation, more than most, is driven by a transcendental imperative, an idea never fully realized, often blunted and even suppressed, but central to the society's energies. Genuine democracy, as Vaclav Havel has said, is like a distant horizon that no human society has yet reached or perhaps ever will reach. But that does not end the story and, in some ways, the search in America may be only just beginning.

At this moment of history, Americans are in the awkward position of receiving congratulations from around the world for upholding the democratic example when they know, if they are honest, that this adulation is directed at a political system that is not functioning in good faith with its own ideals and principles. No one can contemplate American democracy in the late twentieth century without experiencing the dissonance between the idea and the reality. Some citizens, the energetic minority who still believe, struggle to resolve these contradictions.

In a cynical era, a childhood reverie on Lincoln may seem ludicrously romantic. Reflections on democratic faith are dismissed as "unrealistic," like the tired boilerplate of campaign speeches. My conviction, however, is that an active faith in democratic possibilities dwells at the very center of the American experience. The first step toward renewal is to free ourselves of the cynical expectations of these times and to reassert that faith without hesitation or apology -- to declare stubbornly that what we were all taught in childhood is still true, or can be true, if we decide to make it so.

The burden of this book has been critical, an attempt to explain the antidemocratic conditions that deform American politics. A clear-eyed understanding of these circumstances may be necessary in order to change things, but it is not a guarantee that things will change. Certainly, history provides abundant evidence of human societies that were well aware of their own contradictions and simply chose to evade them. Americans have the capacity for evasion too, as the nation's history amply demonstrates.

But the United States is still quite young as nations go and still a country capable of new departures, with the potential to surprise the world and even surprise itself. In the nature of things, this capacity is mainly a matter of faith.


After thirty years of working as a reporter, I am steeped in disappointing facts about self-government. Having observed politics from the small-town courthouse to the loftiest reaches of the federal establishment, I know quite a lot about duplicitous politicians and feckless bureaucracies, about gullible voters and citizens who are mean-spirited cranks. These experiences, strangely enough, have not undermined my childhood faith in democratic possibilities, but rather tended to confirm it.

Reporting for newspapers (or magazines or broadcasting) is not a reflective occupation, but the work has one wonderful, redeeming quality to it. Reporters have a license to go almost everywhere in the society and talk to almost anyone, from U.S. senators and corporate managers to bus drivers and schoolteachers and poor people on welfare. In a random, roving manner, a reporter may experience this country firsthand -- from top to bottom -- with a variety of encounters not accessible to most other citizens. What I learned about America deepened my faith in the democratic possibilities.

Among other things, I have seen up close the frailties of power. At the pinnacles of political command, whenever I have been able to peer behind the veil of platitudes, I have usually glimpsed a scene of confusion and often chaos -- the trial and error, folly and misapprehensions of people in charge trying to decide what to do. The randomness of human endeavor exists at the top too; history confirms that this is nearly always the reality of power.

For several generations, however, Americans have been systematically taught to defer to authority and expertise in a complicated world. The modern political culture, transmitted by schools and universities and the news media, teaches implicitly that those chosen to hold power have access to special knowledge and intelligence not available to others and, therefore, their deliberations and actions are supposedly grounded in a firmer reality. My own experience, on the contrary, has corroborated again and again the native American skepticism of elites. I believe that, if the real inside story were known, every statesman and politician would prove to be as recklessly human as the rest of us.

This fallibility should not be held against them; the same qualities exist in authority figures of every kind, from corporate executives to church prelates. There is a "reassuring anarchy," as I once called it, in the most exalted realms of power and this encourages my conviction that rigid arrangements of power are much more vulnerable to intrusion and change than the experts and authorities wish people to believe. If citizens could grasp, sympathetically, the human dimension of the political failures that are periodically revealed in high places, they might recognize a greater capacity in themselves for influencing and even commanding the larger outcomes of the society.

The people who are running things are especially prone to error when they are isolated from the shared ideas and instincts of the larger community. Indeed, that is the pragmatic argument for democracy: A governing system that is well grounded in the common reality of the society at large is likely to produce sounder decisions, connected to real facts and conditions. The hard work of democracy involves constructing and sustaining those connections.

My encounters as a reporter with ordinary citizens have also led to optimism about the potential for democratic renewal. America has its full quota of fools and scoundrels, but this is a nation of people who are mostly smart and capable and, on the whole, generously disposed. If one is open to it, the wild variety of American life is endlessly strange and entrancing. As one gets to know these different people in their own peculiar circumstances, it seems extraordinary that we are all Americans, living in the same vast nation and with more or less the same civic values, and yet we are.

As a younger reporter, I spent many years getting on airplanes, flying around the country and dropping down into the lives of strangers, often at their worst moments, when a local crisis or conflict had become newsworthy. Nearly always, I came away refreshed by these encounters and even awed by the people and their stories, their openness and level-headed sense of things, the raw eloquence and inventive humor and sometimes their courage. Some of those citizens have appeared in this book.

Even in the most benighted comers of this country, in burned-out slums or on desolate Indian reservations, I have always met some whose forceful intelligence shone through the barriers of language and education and class. I frequently came away thinking to myself: Those people would be running things if they had been born with a bit more luck. If they spoke in formal English and dressed in blue pinstripes, they could pass for U.S. senators or bank presidents. I recognized, of course, that my insubstantial sympathies did not answer their complaints. Their anger would be satisfied only when it could speak for itself.

This is difficult, I know, for the well born and well educated to believe about the ordinary run of Americans (and perhaps threatening to some) for it suggests there is a vast pool of unrealized ability dwelling in the American population -- people with important things to say who are not heard. America, it is true, would be a very different place if all of those unheard ideas and aspirations were given a full voice in politics. Democracy disrupts power.

Ordinary people, as this book has illustrated, do assert themselves despite the obstacles. Indeed, if there is one constant in all my years of observing politics, it is the single, shocking fact that the most far-reaching developments in my memory did not emanate from Washington or anywhere else in the elected structure of politics but came instead from obscure, unpredictable places where unanointed citizens found a way to express themselves. The civil rights movement is, of course, the most compelling example. It changed the fabric of American life more profoundly than anything else in my lifetime, save World War II.

I remember, in particular, interviewing the aging black leaders of Summerton, South Carolina, nearly two decades after they had filed one of the initial lawsuits that led to the Supreme Court's historic school-desegregation decision. These were yeoman farmers and laborers, a school principal, a minister, a cafe owner. Many of them had paid a terrible personal price for challenging the status quo. Men and women were fired from jobs, small businesses were ruined. Some had been driven out of the county permanently.

Looking back, they spoke with the pride of people who knew they had helped to move the national history but also with self-conscious precision, like witnesses wanting to set down the true facts, not inflated afterthoughts. Their struggle had begun over a pitifully small matter, they explained, when they asked the white school board to supply coal to heat the black children's one-room country schoolhouse. When the school board refused, their anger deepened. Some of these men had just come home from World War II and the contradictions of the racial caste system mocked their patriotic sacrifice.

So they raised their demands further. They also wanted school buses for the black kids and no more hand-me-down textbooks, and decent buildings with indoor plumbing. Politics failed and the dispute became a lawsuit. When the civil rights lawyer came down from New York (he was Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice), he told them that, since they were in this fight, they might as well go all the way and challenge the caste system itself. The idea was frightening and some hesitated. These people were already enduring reprisals and the intimate hostilities that are part of life in a small town. They agreed to go forward, however. Their legal cause was expanded to challenge the law of racial segregation itself and eventually their suit became a companion in the decision known as Brown v. Board of Education.

Long years later, I am still awed by their elemental courage. "Courage" is another word not often used now in politics, along with "loyalty" and "trust," but these humble citizens were pulling themselves at risk in terms much more stark than losing an election and for a far larger public purpose.

They did not presume to reach for power for themselves and certainly not to change the social order. They embarked on a quite modest plea for justice and, improbably, found themselves perfecting its meaning. Years later, in fact, the underlying social order of Summerton itself had not changed that much, even though their struggle had helped to change the nation. Life is strange, as my mother said. These people balanced their political disappointments with the intangible rewards of self-realization. In addition to changing America, they discovered that they had also changed themselves and this achievement was permanent.

If there is a mystical chord in democracy, it probably revolves around that notion -- that unexpected music can resonate from politics when people are pursuing questions larger than self. As a reporter, I have seen that ennobling effect in people many, many times -- expressed by those who found themselves engaged in genuine acts of democratic expression, who claimed their right to help define the larger destiny of their community, their nation. Power can accumulate in mysterious ways, if citizens believe they possess this right. Their power atrophies when they no longer believe in it. This book is for the believers.


Rehabilitating democracy will require citizens to devote themselves first to challenging the status quo, disrupting the existing contours of power and opening the way for renewal. The ultimate task, however, is even more difficult than that: building something new that creates the institutional basis for politics as a shared enterprise. The search for democratic meaning is necessarily a path of hard conflict, but the distant horizon is reconciliation. Americans coming to terms with themselves -- that is the high purpose politics was meant to serve.

This renewal, if it occurs, will not come from books. A democratic insurgency does not begin with ideas, as intellectuals presume, or even with great political leaders who seize the moment. It originates among the ordinary people who find the will to engage themselves with their surrounding reality and to question the conflict between what they are told and what they see and experience. My modest ambition for this book is that it will assist some citizens to enter into "democratic conversations" with one another, asking the questions that may lead them to action. [1]

The random anger visibly accumulating in so many sectors of the society can be therapeutic, but only in a limited sense. The democratic problem requires hard work from citizens who have been taught to be passive consumers in politics. It means people must learn once again to come together and develop their own understanding of events, free of the slogans and propaganda. It requires them to take the daring step of assuming some personal responsibility for self-government.

The task of learning is naturally intimidating. This book has set out many of the complicated conditions that history has dealt to the present -- the political circumstances that confine citizens to cramped roles and warp the lines of accountability and control. I have also suggested various new ways that people might think about how to reform the political order. But there are no easy and simple ways around these barriers. In my estimate, the status quo is much more vulnerable to purposeful challenges organized by citizens than conventional wisdom supposes. But I do not presume to know exactly how or where the insurgency begins.

Democratic solutions will emerge only from the trial-and-error of active citizens who learn for themselves how to do politics, who discover the methods and principles that work because people have tried and occasionally failed. It requires of people the patience to accumulate social understandings that they have tested against reality and then to pass on their knowledge freely to others.

Strange as it may seem to an era governed by mass-market politics, democracy begins in human conversation. The simplest, least threatening investment any citizen may make in democratic renewal is to begin talking with other people about these questions, as though the answers matter to them. Harmless talk around a kitchen table or in a church basement will not affect anyone but themselves, unless they decide that it ought to. When the circle is enlarged to include others, they will be embarking on the fertile terrain of politics that now seems so barren.

A democratic conversation does not require elaborate rules of procedure or utopian notions of perfect consensus. What it does require is a spirit of mutual respect -- people conversing critically with one another in an atmosphere of honesty and shared regard. Those with specialized expertise serve as teachers, not commanders, and will learn themselves from listening to the experience of others. The respect must extend even to hostile adversaries, since the democratic objective is not to destroy them but to reach eventual understanding. At its core, the idea of democracy is as simple as that -- a society based on mutual respect.

This obvious human quality, seemingly available to all, is what's missing from American politics, drenched as it is in mass manipulation and deception and sour resentments. Indeed, mutual respect, above and beyond the usual social and economic distinctions, is missing from the general fabric of American life. A society that regularly proclaims democratic pieties also devotes extraordinary energy and wealth to establishing the symbols and trappings of hierarchy, the material markings that delineate who is better than whom.

The search for honest conversation, like other aspects of the democratic experience, can be its own reward, whether or not it leads to the fulfillment of power. It opens a path to self-realization grounded in social relationships -- knowing others on terms that are reliable and enduring. Americans are already searching for "relationships," almost frantically it seems, on a close personal level. What many of them fail to grasp is that politics, in its original sense, also offers a practical means for mending the damaged social relations that afflict American life.

Building a politics grounded in intimate human terms seems so remote from the present that many will regard it as an impossible task. The organizational barriers are obvious and formidable, reflecting the inequalities of private status and the fractured nature of the society itself. Certainly, it is work for years or decades, not seasons.

But ordinary citizens, as this book has demonstrated, have their own inherent advantages in this enterprise, including their ability to see the reality more clearly sometimes than those who hold power. In some scattered places, the democratic ideal is already in motion, often among humble citizens who lack any personal advantages. These are people who still believe, as the Ohio auto worker said, that "the ultimate power is in their hands." They regularly find their faith confirmed in actual experiences.

When incumbent officeholders begin to perceive a real threat developing to their power, that is the moment when electoral politics can begin to become serious and interesting again. A genuine democratic dialogue can follow, one that promises accountability and also trust between the governed and their government. When the organized presence of citizens can deprive others of power, all the deeper power relationships surrounding government will be put at risk too.

The cynical cannot grasp this possibility, but the believers know that it is the actual history of American democracy. At the most creative moments in the American past, the nation found its true source of political energy and ideas among those citizens in unexpected quarters who took it upon themselves to renew the search.


As a nation, Americans are coming to the hard part of the saga, I believe, the time when things become less easy and the true character of the nation is revealed. In my romantic optimism, I have come to imagine that this may be the moment of testing that history was preparing for us all along. After two hundred years of fabulous invention, adventure and abundance, we are on new ground: awesomely powerful yet insecure and dependent, a democratic beacon for others yet profoundly troubled in our own social reality.

Americans are about to learn whether the American experiment was truly unique -- capable of defying history -- or simply another chapter in the rise and fall of muscular nation-states. Until now, the national experience seemed to unfold without boundaries, either geographical or material or psychological. The transcendental expectations were regularly fulfilled and the promise of future fulfillment was kept alive for almost everyone. But the space of that promise has shrunk visibly and the nation is bumping up against some harsh new obstacles to its power. National reputation and the military might of empire do not necessarily prevail over the new economic forces at work in the world. Citizens are told to temper their ambitions and appetites; the new realities are said to be beyond our control.

If the idea of America as specially positioned in history was nothing more than legend, then the future seems fairly clear and is commonly described as decline. Nothing in history guarantees, after all, that the richest, most energetic and inventive place on earth will remain so forever. The usual story of great powers is that sooner or later, when the glory faded, they sank into social decay and bitterness. That is the usual ending for a political system that persistently ignores reality, and for a people who become alienated from their own values.

My own optimism insists that this new crucible can yield a different outcome. But this is the hard part: The only way I can imagine this may happen is through the restoration of the civic faith. The American moment cannot be about accumulating more wealth or weaponry or territory; the facts will not allow it. It must involve a more difficult and introspective search for social invention -- politics that takes the democratic idea to its next plateau in human history.

The present generation and the next, in other words, must find tangible ways to reinvigorate the social faith in the promise of democracy. The nation's sense of its own continuing search for something better is endangered and, without that civic faith, this nation is in deep trouble. If democratic character is lost, America has the potential to deteriorate into a rather brutish place, ruled by naked power and random social aggression. Innocent faith is what makes America work.

That faith does not imply impossible notions of perfection, but it does require convincing forward motion toward a social contract that most everyone will understand and accept -- mutual understandings that promise equitable and shared objectives. To achieve this in the contemporary circumstances, the present generation of Americans may have to face some of the Republic's oldest contradictions, contradictions that were always successfully evaded in the past.

Boundless prosperity and adventure, throwing off new wealth and dispersing it widely, allowed the political system to avoid confronting questions of hierarchy and class and race, the inequalities of poverty and plenty, the privileges embedded in the political order. Endless expansion ignored the accumulating damage to the natural environment. General abundance made it easier to accept a political system that had become steadily more distant from popular control. Now we are up against those questions again.

These matters have been evaded for good reason; they are the most difficult to resolve and no society anywhere that calls itself a democracy has succeeded in facing them. Americans, however, have much more at stake because this nation depends crucially upon sustaining the idea of a democratic society. It is the essential strand that binds diverse peoples together and enables the society to see itself as a functioning whole.

Americans need a new parable for themselves -- a story of national purpose that faces the present realities maturely but does not sacrifice the country's youthful idealism and inventiveness and self-confidence. If Americans set out to rehabilitate their own democracy, they may discover new democratic vistas for others. It is a chance to organize the future -- to lead the world to ground where no one has ever been before.

Despite the centuries of struggle and advance, democracy is still a radical proposition. "This is an unsanctioned idea," historian Lawrence Goodwyn observed, "but this is the democratic idea: that the people will participate in the process by which their lives are organized."

New possibilities are opened for any society that takes that idea seriously. The oldest questions of human existence remain unanswered by modern societies, despite the gloss of technology and wealth. The complexities of modern life have ensnared people in new forms of subservience. Why do millions still starve when the world is awash in surplus food? How can the modern economic system be transformed so that growth and prosperity do not depend so centrally on waste and despoliation? What are the outlines of a democratic system in which workers and owners and communities would truly share a voice in organizing their own lives? None of these matters remains unresolved because of physical constraints. They are political questions, waiting on democratic answers.

Americans should not suppose that they are the only people who need to ask such questions or are equipped to find the answers. While American democracy has decayed, people in the most unlikely nations have become the new inventors of democratic possibilities -- toppling the most rigid forms of power with the force of organized people.

Their experiments, even their failures, have provided a tonic for small-d democrats everywhere in the world. They have restored, above all, honest language-the capacity to speak about democracy with clarity and sincerity, as if the idea of self-governing people is fresh and alive and still practical. They have further restored an understanding that, as Vaclav Havel said, democracy is the unfinished story of human aspirations.

"Man must in some way come to his senses," Havel wrote from his prison cell. "He must extricate himself from this terrible involvement in both the obvious and hidden mechanisms of totality, from consumption to repression, from advertising to manipulation through television. He must rebel against his role as a helpless cog in the gigantic and enormous machinery hurtling God knows where. He must discover again, within himself, a deeper sense of responsibility toward the world, which means responsibility toward something higher than himself." [2]

The American beacon helped to teach people everywhere to aspire to self-realization and to rebel against powerlessness. Now, it seems, the former students must re-educate Americans in the meaning of their own faith. Perhaps that is when the American moment will begin: when Americans find the courage to speak honestly again in the language of democracy.
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