By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers
Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Your recent email, wondering "what the f--- is going on" these days, questioning whether we Americans have taken "more than your usual amount of stupid pills," is well deserving of a considered response.
How is it possible, you ask, that the very rightwing party whose policies helped create the current mess may very well take control of the House of Representatives and conceivably the Senate as well, in the upcoming November elections? "Is the U.S.A. experiencing some kind of death wish? Are we in Europe witnessing the paroxysms of a failing democracy, and a failing empire? Will the flat-Earth Know Nothings really take over in America?" Good questions all.
It's not easy to explain to foreigners what's happening here and what to do about it. I do know that in too many societies, for a relatively brief period of time, a contagious irrationality seems to spread dangerous nonsense in the polity; moral moorings and common sense fly out the window. It's happened in your countries: the French right now ethnically-cleansing themselves of the Roma/Gypsy peoples, for example, or the Holocaust in Germany in the 1930-40s. But I'll have a go at some explanations, and you and your families and friends in those countries can tell me whether my analyses make any sense.
THE IDEOLOGICAL DIVIDE
To understand our current and dangerous political circus requires a quick romp through the historical context:
The first thing to understand is that what's happening today in American politics is not new. One could go back to the major philosophical splits amongst the Founding Fathers who, because of ideological fervor, were at each others' throats over how to distribute power. Or we could go back to the "robber barons" era of the late 19th century, when capitalist greed and industrial might, both basically unregulated at the time, ran roughshod over the economy and country. That unrestricted "free-market" philosophy helped lead eventually to the Great Depression and the resulting major social correctives of FDR and the Democrats in the 1930s-1940s.
But for our purposes here, let's pick up the thread in 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president.
EXTREMISM AS A CHERISHED VALUE
For the first time in the modern era, extremism and incitements to violence were given political cover as they were introduced by a presidential candidate into American's civic bloodstream. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," said Goldwater, to cheering GOP convention delegates.
The corporate/fundamentalist forces behind the Goldwater candidacy knew their candidate would not win, could not win, in a country still deeply appreciative of popular liberal policies coming out of post-World War II reconstruction in the 1950s.
The aim of these wealthy forces was to purge the GOP of its moderate voices and create an ideologically pure, HardRight party that through education, political activism and constant agitprop would eventually triumph over "decadent liberalism."
Clearly, they were thinking long term, and it paid off: Ronald Reagan's victory came 16 years later, in 1980. How did they do it?
BUYING THEIR WAY TO VICTORY
In the years after the Goldwater debacle, billionaire conservative tycoons bought up mass-media outlets -- book-publishing firms, newspapers, cable news networks, etc. They funded their own think tanks, with their in-house academic types churning out intellectual-sounding arguments. They supported with millions of dollars rightwing student groups on college campuses. They sponsored how-to-win-election workshops for potential candidates. They donated huge amounts to centrist news networks, such as PBS (look at who supports "The News Hour" these days: Chevron, Pacific Life Insurance, Archer Daniels Midlands, et al.), to help dilute the tenor of objective journalism.