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The Courtiers and the Tyrants

By       Message Chris Hedges     Permalink
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Reprinted from Truthdig

Thomas Frank's marvelous scorched-earth assault on the Democratic Party and professional elites in his book "Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?" has one fatal flaw. Frank blames the liberal class, rather than the corporations that have seized control of the centers of power, for our descent into political dysfunction and neofeudalism.

Yes, self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama speak in the language of liberalism while selling out the poor, the working class and the middle class to global corporate interests. But they are not, at least according to the classical definition, liberals. They are neoliberals. They serve the dictates of neoliberalism -- austerity, deindustrialization, anti-unionism, endless war and globalization -- to empower and enrich themselves and the party.

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The actual liberal class -- the segment of the Democratic Party that once acted as a safety valve to ameliorate through reform the grievances and injustices within our capitalist democracy and that had within its ranks politicians such as George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Magnuson and Frank Church and New Deal Democrats such as Franklin D. Roosevelt -- no longer exists. I spent 248 pages in my book "Death of the Liberal Class" explaining the orchestrated corporate campaign to erase the liberal class from the political landscape and, more ominously, destroy the radical labor and social movements that were the real engines of social and political reform in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Democratic and the professional elites whom Frank excoriates are, as he points out, morally bankrupt, but they are only one piece of the vast, fake democracy that characterizes our system of "inverted totalitarianism." The problem is not only liberals who are not liberal; it is also conservatives, once identified with small government, the rule of law and fiscal responsibility, who are not conservative. It is a court system that has abandoned justice and rather than defend constitutional rights has steadily stripped them from us through judicial fiat. It is a Congress that does not legislate but instead permits lobbyists and corporations to write legislation. It is a press, desperate for advertising dollars and often owned by large corporations, that does not practice journalism. It is academics, commentators and public intellectuals, often paid by corporate think tanks, who function as shameless cheerleaders for the neoliberal and imperial establishment and mock the concept of independent and critical thought.

The Democratic and the professional elites are an easy and often amusing target. One could see them, in another era, prancing at a masked ball at Versailles on the eve of the revolution. They are oblivious to how hated they have become. They do not understand that when they lambast Donald Trump as a disgrace or a bigot they swell his support because they, not Trump, are seen by many Americans as the enemy. But these courtiers did not create the system. They sold themselves to it. And if Americans do not understand how we got here we are never going to find our way out.

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During Barack Obama's administration there has been near-total continuity with the administration of George W. Bush, especially regarding mass surveillance, endless war and the failure to regulate Wall Street. This is because the mechanisms of corporate power embodied in the deep state do not change with election cycles. The election of Donald Trump, however distasteful, would not radically alter corporate control over our lives. The corporate state is impervious to political personalities. If Trump continues to rise in the public opinion polls, the corporate backers of Hillary Clinton will start funding him instead. They know Trump will prostitute himself to money as assiduously as Clinton will.

Our political elites, Republican and Democrat, were shaped, funded and largely selected by corporate power in what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a coup d'e'tat in slow motion. Nothing will change until corporate power itself is dismantled.

The corporate elites failed to grasp that a functioning liberal class is the mechanism that permits a capitalist democracy to adjust itself to stave off unrest and revolt. They decided, not unlike other doomed elites of history, to eradicate the liberal establishment after they had eradicated the radical movements that created the political pressure for advancements such as the eight-hour workday and Social Security.

Lewis Powell, then the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971 wrote a memo called "Attack on American Free Enterprise System." It became the blueprint for the corporate coup. Powell would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corporations, as Powell urged, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, backing candidates, creating the Business Roundtable, funding The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations must marginalize or silence those who in "the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals" were hostile to corporate interests. Powell attacked Ralph Nader and called for a concerted campaign to discredit him. Lobbyists eager to dole out huge sums of cash flooded Washington and state capitals. It soon became difficult and often impossible, whether in the press, the political arena or academia, to challenge the dogma of neoliberalism.

"It laid out a strategy to attack democracy in America," Ralph Nader said of the Powell memo. "He basically said to the business community, you've got to hire a lot more lobbyists swarming over Congress, you've got to pour a lot more money into their campaigns, both parties, Republican and Democrat. You've got to get out on the campuses and get right-wing speakers to combat progressive speakers."

The eight-page memo, Nader went on, said, "Look, galvanize, come into Washington like a swarm, media, lobbying, put your high executives into government offices, regulate offices, Department of Defense, and so on. But that wasn't the most successful strategy, although it was successful. The most successful was that the Powell Memorandum led to the massive corruption of the Democratic Party. And that came at the same time that Tony Coelho, who was a congressman from California, took over the fundraising for the House of Representatives Democrats."

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The infusion of corporate money into the Democratic Party left the liberals in the party with a stark choice -- serve corporate power or get pushed out. Those, like the Clintons, who were willing to walk away from the core values of liberalism profited. At that point they became liberals only in name. They were assigned their part in the empty political exercise, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nader calls these faux liberals "rhetorical snake charmers."

Once corporate money started to pour into the Democratic Party in the early 1970s, legislation that sought to check or regulate corporate power -- the auto and highway safety laws, oil pipeline safety laws, product safety laws, the revised Clean Air Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the measure that established the Environmental Protection Agency -- was no longer possible. The Democrats began to compete with the Republicans to propose legislation that would provide tax loopholes for corporations. Such legislation now legally permits oligarchs such as Trump and corporations to engage in a de facto tax boycott. The system, designed to exclusively serve corporate power, fell into political paralysis. The consent of the governed became a joke.

"There hasn't been a single major piece of legislation advancing the health, safety and economic rights of the American people since 1974, arguably since 1976," Nader told me. "That's the effect of money in politics. That's the effect of a totally subservient strategy by the liberals."

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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