Eric Alterman: A Liberal Supermajority (Finally) Finds Its Voice
[Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation, a senior fellow and "Altercation" weblogger for Media Matters for America, (formerly at MSNBC.com) in Washington, DC, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a history consultant to HBO Films.]
Readers of the Washington Post woke up one recent Friday morning to a remarkable juxtaposition of two ostensibly unrelated articles. The first was a news analysis titled The End of American Capitalism?, which heralded the apparent demise of laissez-faire as the intellectual underpinning of the nation's economic system. In the same paper was another story: Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally, which described a John McCain event characterized by hysterical crowd attacks on Barack Obama as an ally of terrorists, a "socialist" and other angry epithets. By coincidence, the thread that connected these two disparate stories could be found that morning in the New York Times, in an implicitly self-critical column by David Brooks. He wrote:
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals.... Driven by a need to engage elite opinion, conservatives tried to build an intellectual counterestablishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind.... But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts.... What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.
Brooks--a nearly perfect product of the right-wingers' long-term investment in the fertilization of the conservative imagination, having done stints at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and The Weekly Standard before being invited to the Times and PBS's NewsHour--was unwittingly explaining the connection between the collapse of Friedmanite capitalism and the mindless fury of the Republican base. The upshot is that conservatives, having fed at the trough of power for the better part of three decades, are out of ideas and have targeted their appeal to a coterie of Americans remarkably similar to the minority coalition enjoyed by Barry Goldwater in 1964, with an angry, retrograde message that harks back to Joe McCarthy. McCain's baffling, fumbling performances at the presidential debates reflect this confusion. He didn't know whether to attack Obama or defend what remains of his reputation. Pathetically, he ended up accomplishing neither.
Liberals and progressives, however, are in the opposite position. Obama has proven an inspirational messenger, speaking to and for a public eager to embrace the kind of politics that has been demonized and trivialized for the past eight years by mainstream media desperate to deflect the right's accusations of "liberal bias." According to the Pew Center's extensive national survey, released well before this endless election got under way, roughly 70 percent of respondents believe that the government has a responsibility "to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." Two-thirds (66 percent)--including most of those who say they would prefer a smaller government (57 percent)--support government-funded health insurance for all citizens. Most also regard the nation's corporations as too powerful, while nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say corporate profits are too high--about the same number who say "labor unions are necessary to protect the working person" (68 percent). When it comes to the environment, a large majority (83 percent) back stricter laws and regulations, while 69 percent agree "we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies" and 60 percent say they would "be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment."
Yet the MSM--with precious few exceptions--remain wedded to right-wing assumptions long since discredited by reality. We don't need to look at extremes like the infamous performance of ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson in the Clinton-Obama debate in January--one that may possibly have cost that network any hope of participating in the general election debates. Just examine the thrust of the questions asked during the Obama-McCain contests. Even absent distractions like lapel pins and preacher politics, virtually all questions regarding the financial crisis assumed that the meltdown calls for a drastic reduction in public investment--as if Keynesianism, rather than Friedmanite economics, were somehow at fault. And why was just about every foreign policy question predicated on the alleged efficacy of neocon-style threats of the use of force? Where were the questions about the need for collective action to combat climate change? Where were the debates about the causes and effects of the global migration and food crises? Why did we hear not a single inquiry about the challenges to labor and environmental standards arising from the billion or so workers in China, India and elsewhere, who stand ready to displace millions of Americans in our increasingly globalized workplace? And where were the questions about torture, wiretapping US citizens and restoring respect for our Constitution?
In a wonderfully apoplectic editorial titled A Liberal Supermajority, frightened Journal editors worried that an Obama landslide could presage "one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in U.S. history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven't since 1965, or 1933." Among the coming horrors: "Medicare for all...[a] green revolution...ational, election-day voter registration...the end of Guantanamo and military commissions...'net neutrality' rules...."
America's liberal supermajority has watched as its country has been degraded and dishonored for the past eight years while many in the MSM have either cheered, acquiesced or looked the other way. If you ask me, the pundit with the greatest gift for political prophecy right now is the late, great Sam Cooke: "It's been a long, long time coming, but I know a change is [finally] going to come."
Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.
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