Undermining the American Dream: The Politics of Division (Part I)

33

by
Joseph O’Shaughnessy

When did Americans begin to hate one another? We live now, 2018, in a time of antagonism or outright hatred between North and South, between Democrat and Republican, between Coastal citizens and Heartland citizens. We are divided between rich and poor, the NRA and high school children, cops and African-Americans, pro-immigration advocates and those who want to kick everyone out who isn’t a White, American-born male.
When did we become so dogmatic (including me) in our beliefs and so dismissive of the beliefs of others? And when did we begin to vote against ourselves, in favor of giving away what we paid for all our lives—like Social Security and Medicare? When did we designate working-class Americans, like teachers and nurses, people who worked only for a large pension plus “entitlements?” Is that how you see yourself? I don’t think so.
It wasn’t an accident. And it wasn’t the normal course of history. It was a deliberate plan, executed silently by enormously wealthy Right Wing individuals, people whose main hatred is not against other people. No, their hatred is against paying any taxes at all. They use divisive hatreds among others to help them get what they want. They want control of the levers of political power, the power that controls who pays taxes and how much. The power that says whether their toxic corporations or their confiscatory bank practices can operate however they choose, over the objections of the people.
The American people have been the object of a long propaganda campaign to divide us from one another and create a solid majority of voters who respond to lies and misstatements and innuendo. After a generation, they succeeded. They elected a total Republican Congress, a Republican President and a Supreme Court packed with men who have consistently ruled for corporations over the people. This is the story of how we came to this place, and who is responsible. 
Americans have deliberately been set against one another. Working class men and women in private industry have been lied to and told that teachers make too much money and have exorbitant retirements. They don’t. Nationally, they are paid an average of $48,000 a year. In Illinois, for example, teachers pay 9% of their salary into a retirement fund that pays them about $4,500 a month (They do not get Social Security.)
As a further example, groups like the Illinois Policy Institute, a Right Wing lobbing organization spread the lie to the public that teachers earn as much as $100,000. Who is the Illinois Policy Institute? It is simply one of many state “policy institutes” funded by billionaires like the Koch brothers of Koch Industries to spread lies and raise fears among the public encourage tax cuts. The Illinois Policy Institute is a sister organization of ALEC, the Koch brothers corporate lobbying enterprise,located in all 50 states. ALEC offers free vacations to places like Palm Springs, Califormia or Keystone, Colorado to state legislators in return for their votes.
The fact is that teachers in every state, as we have seen from the recent marches in West Virginia and Arizona and elsewhere, earn very little compared to their responsibilities. They are demonstrating against the constant agitation among the wealthy Right Wing and their huge propaganda network to earn a living wage. The propaganda from people like these State Policy Institutes and people like the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, backed by Right Wing Radio and Fox News keeps the lie alive. The Right Wing rich do not actually hate teachers. But they are like gigantic dinosaurs. They want to eat all the leaves from all the trees, and as a result they must step on entire communities in order to do so. They are way up there at the treetops. They don’t even recognize as people those on whom they step.
There are many, many examples of these oligarchs using propaganda in the media, funded by their giant fortunes to persuade people to cut taxes. In Kansas, where the Koch brothers are headquartered, budgets were balanced, schools were funded and government ran smoothly. Then came their propaganda campaign that said taxes were too high, schools were over funded, teachers were paid too much, and businesses would fail without more tax cuts. The result of the propaganda was a big tax cut. The result of the big tax cut was huge deficits, schools closing, and a governor, Sam Brownback, working on the Kochs’ behalf, who literally resigned and ran away and left the people to fight over what was left of government.
But the solutions to the great Koch brothers/Brownback swindle of Kansas voters were not easy. Once the taxes are cut, more revenues do not suddenly appear and departments begin to function. First, people are laid off. School days may be cut. (These days school security may be reduced.) The fact is that it is always easier to cut taxes than restore them and a big political battle ensues, just to get back to normal. The Kochs don’t go to jail. They are not charged for the damage they do. Brownback was not imprisoned…he got a job from Trump, a preposterous appointment as a special Ambassador at large for “international religious freedom.” Meanwhile, back in Kansas, parents of children in schools suffer. Right Wing propaganda for not raising taxes continues. And the Koch brothers live happily ever after, doing their level best to destroy the Middle Class. The dinosaur simply goes on, eating the trees.
None of this is new or even recent. It started as long ago as the Nixon era. In the mid-1960s, when Nixon was planning his run for the Presidency, his somewhat cold, suspicious manner had made him unpopular. He lost the race for governor of California in 1962. Throughout the 1960s a student revolution against the war in Viet Nam and a movement toward more Civil Rights for African-Americans, was causing unrest across the country. Nixon’s advisors persuaded him to side with the older, more established and blue-collar elements of society against the newer, younger, anti-war movement and the civil rights advocates. Working class American men did not understand the complexities of the Viet Nam war. And Black Power tended to scare a great many White middle class voters.
In 1968, Nixon entered the campaign for President and claimed that he would win the war in Viet Nam. His stand was popular with normally Democratic blue-collar workers, who had themselves been subject to the draft prior to Viet Nam and felt that young men should do what they had done, and enter the draft willingly. Not to do so was unpatriotic. With the help of people like Robert Haldeman, a former Madison Avenue senior adman and Roger Ailes, the young wunderkind of the emerging and powerful new medium, television, Nixon exploited, in particular, the feelings of the “hard hats.” He reached out to the construction workers and other union members who felt that college students should not be burning draft cards, desecrating the flag or running to Canada to avoid service.
By the early 1970s well over half of all Americans had begun to receive the news from nightly television. In fact, about 30% said that they got it exclusively from the nightly news, which was ABC, CBS or NBC. At the time, Roger Ailes, Nixon’s television consultant, coached him on ways of changing his image. He advised Nixon to shorten up his speeches, keep ideas simple and short and stick to patriotic values. He taught Nixon to smile and speak in sound bites. Nixon did, and he won in 1968 and again in 1972.
Later on, after his time in the White House, Roger Ailes hooked up with a Right Wing billionaire and anti-union Conservative Joe Coors, the grandson of Coors Brewery founder Adolph Coors. They created a news service called TVN. Joe Coors was an anti-union Conservative who had supported Barry Goldwater for President in 1964. After Goldwater won only five states…Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina…Coors dedicated himself to moving the Right Wing message further into the mainstream. TVN would offer legitimate news items to television stations but only selected news and presented from a Right Wing point of view—anti-union, anti-worker, and always anti-government.
Another of Nixon’s key supporters and advisors was Lewis Powell. Powell was a Virginia lawyer, educated at Harvard Law School. Powell, like so many people in this long narrative, including his onetime boss Richard Nixon, was a man with a great intellect but no morals or ethics. As the key lawyer and strategist for the tobacco industry, Powell was as responsible as any one man for the proliferation of cigarette smoking that caused tens of millions of deaths from cancer in the United States and around the world throughout most of the 20th century.
With status as a major figure in the Republican Party, Powell, in 1971, sent a memorandum to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on what he determined was a tendency away from hard-core entrepreneurship, conservative business values towards Liberal values, which he saw leading to eventual Socialism and even potentially to Communism. Powell cautioned businessmen that Liberals, Leftists, mainstream college faculties, intellectuals, some in the media and radicals like Ralph Nader were turning the country dangerously Left. Without balance, he said, it was inevitable that the next generation would become Socialist and abandon free enterprise, endangering individual liberty. The best and brightest of those in college were no longer interested in becoming Conservative businessmen. The solution, Powell said, was for wealthy business interests to invest time and money into universities and other academic sounding institutions to propagate more Conservative economic ideas.
The famous Powell memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Right Wing movement. In 1973, a group of businessmen created the Heritage Foundation. Subsequently, they organized the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. All these institutions and dozens more, like the Hudson Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Heartland Foundation, Americans for Prosperity would provide support and research for the Right Wing propaganda machine. Even many university economics departments inserted Conservative or Neo-Liberal economists to their business schools, or graduate programs ostensibly to balance the “Liberals.” In reality they onl sought to introduce the perspective of a profit-oriented corporate point of view, especially that of the corporate boards and major stockholders. Many of the papers developed by those “think tanks” eventually provided popular justification for Right Wing Republican propaganda.
And what is that agenda? It could not be clearer that the Republican Party was to become the party of the ultra wealthy. One need only look at the amounts of money given to Republican candidates today, as much as $500,000 by one individual to one candidate—and not one candidate but hundreds across the country, using financial leverage to force Democrats to raise huge sums to be competitive.
By the mid-1970s, corporate America had funded dozens of “Think Tanks” like the Heritage Foundation and Cato. The sheer number of these Right Wing institutions was beginning to overwhelm the message of moderates and progressives. For every one professor who would declare that tax cuts would eventually bankrupt the country, a counter argument would be presented by five think tank “experts” plus a couple of Neoliberal theorists from some place like “Liberty” University, the unaccredited Jerry Falwell religious college or Hillsdale college, the Right Wing college in Michigan funded by the DeVos family.
Nonetheless, in the 1970s, the economy was rolling along at above 3%.or more growth per year. In the media, both sides of the argument were being debated. Even in the late 1970s, however, the ideas coming out of think tanks and even the ideas of economists like Milton Friedman seemed to turn the clock back to the 19th (if not the 18th) century. They were considered somewhat eccentric. They seemed strange because they were illogical economic ideas that were being shoe-horned into propaganda paid for by billionaires or strong national and global corporations. But in the latter part of the 1970s inflation began to take hold, the economy faltered and Conservative propaganda was vastly expanded.
By 1980, the entire Republican propaganda program was in place. Then came the election of Ronald Reagan and his charismatic introduction of “supply side” economics, or as his eventual Vice President, George H.W. Bush called it, “voodoo economics.” The Republican Party had long sought to deliver to the voters the kinds of “Christmas presents” that they considered Social Security and Medicare, both of which had been created and instituted by Democratic Presidents. With Reagan, they felt that they had found their own “Christmas present.”
The Republicans, behind Reagan’s bright smile and confident demeanor, would offer the ultimate gift…lower taxes with no pain…at least no immediately observable pain. At this point, there were still only three major networks and opinions coming from both Right and Left on the Sunday morning talk shows. The key to change was Ronald Reagan. Reagan had learned in many years of speaking with employees of General Electric how to re-format and re-word the arguments. Taxes could be made a “burden” and the IRS could be “confiscatory.” The government, which the Republicans had begun to blame for higher costs of living and inflation, was suddenly “the problem.” Reagan simply changed the dialogue by changing the terms and leaving out a little fact here or there. In other words, he lied.
Reagan used another technique, one he recalled from the McCarthy days—fear. He said, basically, that “the Russians are coming.” The fact is that if the Russians were coming in 1980, they would have had to borrow the money for the trip. What Reagan knew but didn’t tell Americans was that Russia was broke. Intelligence sources knew as early as 1976 that Russian equipment was not being repaired and falling obsolete while Russian soldiers were not being paid, resulting in many desertions.
In 1981, Reagan promised that no government losses would result from tax cuts like the cut in the top income rate from 74% down to 28%. Tax cuts on capital gains, primarily paid by the very rich and on corporate taxes would not result in deficits, he said, but increases. It was, in fact, all voodoo economics after all. Spending continued and the national debt tripled. It was a major watershed in the nation’s economic history.
After Ronald Reagan, after George H.W. Bush and after Clinton, the Bush-Cheney administration came in and once again promised to expand the economy by cutting taxes. Because Reagan had conditioned Americans to believe that he could not lie, very few people understood the significance of these tax cuts. They were a disaster for the American economy. After Reagan and the first President Bush, the national debt had risen to $4.4 trillion, a 240% increase over the debt after Jimmy Carter’s Presidency. Measure that against Jimmy Carter’s 43% increase or Bill Clinton’s 32%. Clinton gradually brought the deficits down to about $100 billion in 2001, virtually putting the government finances in balance.
The Bush-Cheney administration created a $420 billion deficit in 2002 alone and more than $5.8 trillion dollars in deficits over their term. They essentially doubled the national debt. Then Bush left President Obama a broken country with 10% unemployment and locked-in deficits of over a trillion dollars every year for almost 5 of Obama’s 8 year term of office. The point is that all the deficit spending came as a result of the Reagan “big lie” about deficits, about which the constant deluge of Right Wing commentary lied to the American people, as did the myriad of “think tanks” which daily published white papers dismissing the debt as part of a growing economy. How could Reagan not be challenged or later how could Bush-Cheney not be challenged for these huge negative numbers?
One way was to end opposing debate on television. In 1987, Ronald Reagan ended the Fairness Doctrine. This was a regulation codified in 1949 that said all discussions of public interest in the media required an opposing view. If that didn’t happen, citizens could appeal to the FCC. The FCC was obligated to see that radio and television programming was carried out “in the public interest.” In other words, all discussions or debates or arguments would require the explanation of both sides. If not, the FCC did have sanction authority over broadcast media and the consequences could be severe. So no one wanted to challenge the Fairness Doctrine. Because it was about fairness and objectivity, no previous President had challenged it. But Ronald Reagan and his Republican supporters decided that this would be a good way to tilt public opinion their way. It was a fateful decision.
Up to that point, Right Wing radio had been sporadic. In New York City, Bob Grant would raise controversial issues, make racist comments, be fired and move on to another station. Morton Downey would make a racist comment or two. But he would soon be smacked down and would move on to a new local station. But in 1988, after Right Wing propagandists got the green light to say whatever they damned well pleased, Rush Limbaugh was hired by ABC Radio, which later became Cumulus Radio to do a national program. With no Fairness Doctrine to impede him, he began to support gun owners and war hawks and oil drilling, and chemical companies refusing to clean up their toxic sites and pharmaceutical companies charging multiple times what drugs should cost. He quickly found corporate sponsors and was even given an underwriting of an estimated $1.3 million per year from the Heritage Foundation.
Limbaugh’s great talent was lying. He would take a small kernel of truth on some issue and transform it into a giant lie. Entire books and web sites have been set up to counter Limbaugh’s lies. Lie or truth, he was arrogant, insulting, dismissive, ridiculing, and, of course, totally partisan, clearly on the side of corporations against the people. But his method was to join in on the side of corporations while declaring that any kind of regulation was a “job killer.”
Some of the people who enjoyed his rude and insulting manner were undoubtedly racists and losers. But he was also popular with many of the skeptics on the Right, who felt that he made sense when he attacked the establishment, which in one way or another had treated them badly, usually for their own mistakes. He was extremely popular with middle aged White men with no education or experience and truck drivers. Truck drivers listened to him partly because, driving across country, the networks of radio stations that carried his show were so numerous. After Clinton changed the rules of broadcast ownership in the mid-1990s, one could scarcely go an hour when traveling across country without hitting another syndicated AM station carrying Rush Limbaugh.
But the late 1990s, Clear Channel alone put Rush Limbaugh on over 800 of their own stations and eventually on something like 400 stations of other networks. Limbaugh became rich, earning more than $40 million a year with an 8 year contract. Because his great talent was persuading people confidently that he was simply a reasonable man coping with idiocies, no one knew that, thanks to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, he was simply spreading the lies of the Right Wing rich for a huge amount of money.
By the mid-1990s Right Wing Republicans who wanted the latest talking points would simply listen to Rush Limbaugh and then repeat his propaganda without even bothering to edit it. Limbaugh, with no callers allowed who were not “ditto heads,” that is, agreed with him, and with no contrary statements allowed, became the oracle for many people who did not want to think for themselves, or wanted validation of their own resentments. He was soon the most popular talk show host by far, and set the example for many others, some of whom would become even more vile and obnoxious, but who would push the unsuspecting American public further and further to the Right.
Things became geometrically more difficult for Democrats and a windfall for Republicans in 1996 when President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Reform Act. This bill eventually enabled 6 companies, GE, Disney NewsCorp, VIACOM, Time Warner and CBS to own a total of 9,000 radio stations, 1,500 TV stations, and 2,400 publishers, basically turning over the control of major media outlets to this handful of companies. One of those companies, Clear Channel, began an network of stations across the country that would feature the worst (or perhaps the best if you are a White Supremacist) group of hate-spewing Right Wing radio hosts…Limbaugh, Sean Hannity Laura Schlesinger, Mark Levin that the country had ever seen. But that was just the beginning.
In 1996, Roger Ailes, President Nixon’s young television consultant and later Right Wing media consultant to Joe Coors began a new venture. He persuaded Rupert Murdoch, owner of the global media giant, Newscorp, to begin what was basically a televised Republican propaganda outlet called “The Fox News Channel.” With the cynical slogan “Fair and Balanced” Fox News was, from the very beginning, not even close to fair or balanced. It was, and still is, Right Wing propaganda.
Fox News became one of key influences on those who either do not read a newspaper or are not interested at all in the truth. It reports news with a Right Wing bias and maintains a lineup of television commentators who constantly praise and promote Republicans and attack Democrats. Audience surveys show the audience to be overwhelmingly White, male, largely rural and over 60 years of age. In fairness to Murdoch and Ailes, their formula of sex and sensationalism and the pretense of being “Fair and Balanced” did create a large audience which converted to sizeable advertising revenues.
The problem with Fox News, however, was that it did not…and does not…tell the truth. Soon after its founding, organizations like Media Matters, a monitoring service begun by a former Right Wing propagandist, which tries to be objective but is forced by Fox and others merely to spend full time checking on their lies, which never seem to end. Politifact, the independent, Internet-based, fact-checking service recently published a response to a query asking them how reliable Fox News Channel has been. Politifact, without commentary, simply published their findings. Of all the statements made as definitive on political or governmental matters, 18% were considered to be “Half-true.” 21% were considered to be “Mostly False.” 30% were considered by Politifact to be “False.” And 9% were considered to be so false that they fell into the category of “Pants on Fire.” In other words, 78% of the news received by Fox News Channel viewers was either partially untrue or totally false.

(Next time–How the Right Wing eventually gained complete control, how they were able to obstruct government and where we are today.)