The Coalition of the Shilling

Tired of killing Muslims, we are now trying to teach their survivors some democracy.

There are a number of practical problems with this, among them being that the curriculum is in the hands of the most authoritarian, deceitful, anti-democratic, and constitution-wrecking administration we’ve ever had. But there’s an even more disturbing matter: wander around your nation’s capital and try to find something better. Leaving aside anomalies such as the ACLU and the Cato Institute, a few members of Congress, and a handful of anachronic journalists, this town shows virtually no interest in liberty, the Constitution, or democracy these days–except when prescribing them to those in far away lands.

This is not hyperbole; it is simple, grim fact. And also essential, because what makes a democracy or constitutional republic function are not words written on paper, not oaths uttered, nor clichés reiterated in public addresses, but natural, visceral, organic love of the principles overtly avowed.

You can not find such a spirit, such love, such loyalty in today’s Washington in any corner that matters. Certainly not in the administration but also not in Democratic salons, not in the media, nor amongst the ostentatious ministrations of the think tanks. The nation’s capital has given up on the very principles it wants to teach the Iraqis. With such leadership, it is small wonder that so much of America no longer wishes to be America anymore.

There are plenty of signs of our democratic dysfunction, beginning with the fact that we’re sending a bunch of generals and corporate executives–professionally groomed to honor anti-democratic procedures–to do the job. Then there is the most elitist media in American history demonstrating its love for democratic debate by blacklisting voices of dissent before and during the Iraq invasion, turning its airwaves over to spooks and military brass, and embedding itself without a hint of skepticism in the administration’s agitprop.

Most of all there is the atmosphere of hubristic homogeneity that has seized the capital, so full of arrogance, jingoism, narcissism and the political equivalent of the hyperbolic deceit that buoyed the economy in the 1990s. The difference is that instead of a stock market bubble we are now in the midst of an imperial one. Some day, it, too, will end and in a manner not of our choosing.

People who truly believe in democracy are not hard to spot. For one thing, they take an active part in democratic affairs at every level. But you never see any of the prominent figures talking about democracy for Iraq at any meeting in this city other than ones called by the most established powers. Where do they get their practice in democracy? On C-SPAN? At the Metropolitan Club? At lunches of the Council on Foreign Relations?

Admittedly, this is not a new problem. Once, during the Carter years, a member of the administration stopped me in the gym to ask how to vote in an upcoming local election. The guy had been insurance commissioner of his state and I told him, “I’ll tell you, but you sure as hell would know who to vote for if you were back in Massachusetts.” He smiled and sheepishly agreed.

The disconnect between global rhetoric and local behavior can be remarkable. Consider a recent conference described by Dorothy Brasil in DC Watch:

“Last Thursday, the Greater Washington Research Program at the Brookings Institution held a roundtable forum on ‘Revitalizing Washington’s Neighborhoods.’ At the forum, Alice Rivlin released a new study she wrote for Brookings. . . In conducting the research for the report, Rivlin and her staff at Brookings relied almost exclusively on information provided by District government officials, particularly by the Office of Planning, and they did not attempt to meet with neighborhood groups or residents or to do any independent analysis. Compounding the problem of planning for neighborhoods without neighborhood input, no civic or community leaders or representatives of neighborhoods were invited to the Brookings forum. Instead the invited audience consisted of representatives of government, business, foundations, community development corporations, developers, universities, hospitals, and other large institutions.”

Then, of course, there is the fact the would-be saviors of Iraq happily operate–without notice let alone shame–in America’s oldest colony: Washington, DC. Those who have tried to change this situation are the ones who could teach the Iraqis what to expect, things like the tendency for large and small concerns to get hopelessly intertwined, for the colony’s interests to be always subjugated to, or negated by, those of its overlords, and for the place to end up a playpen for predators of every conceivable variety. If DC is any example, real liberation for Iraq is at least two hundred years off.

Of course, there is a patina of politeness in dealing with one’s own with which you can dispense in the case of foreigners, as demonstrated by Michael Ledeen, holder of the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. Said Ledeen, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” When you sit in the Freedom Chair you get to say things like that. And in Washington, they call you an intellectual for it as well.

The blood-gorged and brain-drained of the capital find nothing wrong with such thoughts, for they have increasingly reached the conclusion that while democracy was a nice way of getting our country going, it doesn’t meet the needs of a complex world. This is more properly business for the expert, the profound, and the intelligent–virtues they rarely associate with the general citizenry. Thus at the very moment that Washington is blathering over the need for democracy in Iraq, one of its favorite books, “The Future of Freedom,” strongly suggests that democracy easily becomes dangerous and is best left in the hands of those who know how to use it, such as the author and his friends.

Here is how Salon described the writer: “This season’s intellectual pinup, Fareed Zakaria, author of ‘The Future of Freedom,’ explains why the romantic myth of freedom could harm Iraq — and why power elites aren’t so bad.” For his part, Zakaria writes, “Western democracy remains the model for the rest of the world, but is it possible that like a supernova, at the moment of its blinding glory in distant universes, Western democracy is hollowing out at the core?” And he adds, “The deregulation of democracy has … gone too far.”


The retreat from America’s democratic spirit has been underway for a long time and one of the great enablers has been television. With television, you no longer needed a politics that wells up from the bottom, forming a pyramid built on memory, association, reciprocation, and gratitude. While lying and mythmaking have always been a part of politics, television allowed them to become ubiquitous and impenetrable.

It started early, with Nixon’s Checkers speech in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Jack Kennedy used TV to create the myth of Camelot. Then Kennedy was killed and instantly television helped create the myth of the lone assassin.

In the 1970s Jimmy Carter rewrote the meaning of town meetings, turning them forevermore from a fundamental expression of democratic action into the political equivalent of a televised papal audience.

By the 1980s we were ready to ditch politicians altogether and so chose a TV star as president. Then in 1992 and 2000 we elected deeply corrupt governors to the White House based on tube-honed false images. We had, by this time, become couch potatoes of politics.

With television an overwhelming distraction, those of the kind that live to manipulate power now had a far easier time of it. All they had to do was come up with some screen myths to cover their tracks.

One of the most successful of these myths was that of the infinite wisdom of the “free market,” launched during the Reagan years. Even a NASDAQ crash paralleling the 1929 disaster, even criminal charges against a long list of free market icons, even the collapse of phony corporate balance sheets were not enough to alter the myth of inexorably beneficent predation paraded in the media.

Another example was the “war on drugs,” which has killed as many Americans as Vietnam and which has been a demonstrable failure from the start. Nonetheless, the contrary media myth was so powerful that even liberals supported an assault on the Constitution in the name of ending a scourge far less powerful than the vodka or whiskey many of them drank each night. The so-called Patriot Act and other Bush regime obscenities had their roots in the war on drugs and in the cowardly refusal of liberals to stand up against it.

There was other mythmaking business, such as redefining the citizens as merely ‘customers’ of the American system rather than as owners. This was spurred in part by a book called ‘Reinventing Government’ by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler which would become a Clinton administration bible. The book was well described by Bill Clinton himself in the cover blurb: “Should be read by every elected official in America. This book gives us the blueprint.” True, for at its core the book was a guide showing politicians how to run things their way and get citizens to like it.

What the book did not do was tell citizens how to regain control of their government, revive democracy, or mediate amongst the various cultures and ideologies they found in their communities. Government was instead reduced to a matter of management and the citizen to a mere purchaser of services.

‘Customer’ and ‘consumer’ were not the only words being used to change the nature of citizenship. David Kemmis, the mayor of Missoula, MT, pointed out that the word ‘taxpayer’ now “regularly holds the place which in a true democracy would be occupied by ‘citizen.’ Taxpayers bear a dual relationship to government, neither half of which has anything at all to do with democracy. Taxpayers pay tribute to the government and they receive services from it. So does every subject of a totalitarian regime. What taxpayers do not do, and what people who call themselves taxpayers have long since stopped even imagining themselves doing, is governing.”

Then there was growing use of the term “stakeholder” that covertly diminished the citizens’ role to that of a minor participant. Ironically, ‘stakeholder’ literally means a person who holds the money while two other people bet. Whoever wins, the stakeholder gets nothing.

Another phrase that started cropping up was ‘civil society,’ a patronizing description of people who, in a democracy, are meant to be running the place. The term has come to used in elite circles with roughly the same condescension of a bishop talking about a church altar guild.

Such dispensing with traditional citizenship even attracted the admiration of former rebel Vaclav Havel, who wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1999:

“In the next century I believe that most states will begin to change from cult-like entities charged with emotion into far simpler and more civilized entities, into less powerful and more rational administrative units that will represent only one of the many complex and multileveled ways in which our planetary society is organized. . . The practical responsibilities of the state–its legal powers–can only devolve in two directions, downward or upward; downward, to the non-governmental organizations and structures of civil society; or upward, to regional, transnational and global organizations.”

Thus in a few paragraphs, Havel scrapped democracy at every level of society leaving us to be run, presumably, by business improvement districts and NATO. It was a profoundly anti-democratic view, because at none of Havel’s levels was the consent of the governed considered.


It is comfortable to blame the disintegration of our constitutional republic on George Bush, but the president–though arrogant, proto-fascist bully he may be–is walking on well tilled ground. In a July 1983 series in the San Francisco Examiner, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Knut Royce reported that a presidential directive had been drafted by a few Carter administration personnel to allow the military to take control of the government for 90 days in the event of an emergency. According to Royce there was a heated debate within the Carter administration as to just what constituted an “emergency.”

A NSC directive written by Frank Carlucci in 1981 stated blandly: “Normally a state of martial law will be proclaimed by the President. However, in the absence of such action by the President, a senior military commander may impose martial law in an area of his command where there had been a complete breakdown in the exercise of government functions by local civilian authorities.”

The issue arose again during the Iran-Contra affair, but even in the wake of all the copy on that scandal, the public got little sense of how far some America’s soldiers of fortune had been willing to go to achieve their ends. When the Iran-Contra hearings came close to the matter, the chair, Senator Daniel Inouye, backed swiftly away:

REP JACK BROOKS: Colonel North, in your work at the NSC, were you not assigned, at one time, to work on plans for the continuity of government in the event of a major disaster?


SEN INOUYE: I believe that question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area so may I request that you not touch on that.

REP BROOKS: I was particularly concerned, Mr. Chairman, because I read in Miami papers, and several others, that there had been a plan developed by that same agency, a contingency plan in the event of emergency, that would suspend the American constitution. And I was deeply concerned about it and wondered if that was the area in which he had worked. I believe that it was and I wanted to get his confirmation.

SEN INOUYE: May I most respectfully request that that matter not be touched upon at this stage. If we wish to get into this, I’m certain arrangements can be made for an executive session.

With a few exceptions, the media ignored what well could have been the most startling revelation to have come out of the Iran/Contra affair, namely that high officials of the US government were planning a possible coup. First among the exceptions was the Miami Herald, which on July 5, 1987, ran the story to which Jack Brooks referred. The article by Alfonzo Chardy revealed Oliver North’s involvement in plans for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take over federal, state and local functions during an ill-defined national emergency. According to Chardy, the plan called for ‘suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the government over to the Federal Management Agency, emergency appointment of military commanders to run state and local governments and declaration of martial law.’ The proposal ignored that Congress, legislatures and the judiciary even existed.

In a November 18, 1991 story, the New York Times elaborated:

“Acting outside the Constitution in the early 1980s, a secret federal agency established a line of succession to the presidency to assure continued government in the event of a devastating nuclear attack, current and former United States officials said today.” The program was called “Continuity of Government.” In the words of a report by the Fund for Constitutional Government, “succession or succession- by-designation would be implemented by unknown and perhaps unelected persons who would pick three potential successor presidents in advance of an emergency. These potential successors to the Oval Office may not be elected, and they are not confirmed by Congress. According to CNN, the list eventually grew to 17 names and included Howard Baker, Richard Helms, Jeanne Kirkpatrick James Schlesinger, Richard Thornberg, Edwin Meese, Tip O’Neil, and Richard Cheney.”

The plan was not even limited to a nuclear attack but included any “national security emergency” which was defined as, “any occurrence, including natural disaster, military attack, technological or other emergency, that seriously degrades or seriously threatens the national security of the United States.”

That was ten years before September 11. And how did the liberal and centrist media respond to those who tried to raise warning flags: with an explosion in the use of the term “conspiracy theorist” to describe anyone who questioned the stability of American democracy and the righteousness of those leading it.

Sometimes it became bizarre. Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy wrote a piece based on an article of mine in the mid-1990s about the militarization of America. One week later, as though in anguished response, the Post ran a front-page Style section article on the virtues of generals in civilian life complete with a 13″ photo of General Patton in jack boots pointing his baton. The following week the Post ran a page one article with the headline: “Generals in Command on the Home Front.” The subhead ran: “In need of discipline, order, honor, polish? Civil institutions find old soldiers pass muster.”

The author, Marc Fisher, wrote: “A retired general is spit-and-polish. Order and discipline. Expectations and results. Retired general. Two words with such Taoist balance. At once at ease and in charge. Calm yet powerful. Benign yet can-do.” Sounds just like present day reporters writing about Jay Garner.

From General Don Scott, deputy librarian of the Library of Congress: “We’re proven. We know how to take orders, we know how to do more with less. Society wants more order and more structure.”

Charles Moskos, a sociologist who studies the military: “Making the trains run on time is not to be pooh-poohed. In a world of crumbling institutions, the military stands out for its cohesion.”

Fisher ended his piece with a quote from a retired general: “Let those in uniform fight the cold and hot wars. Let those who have retired fight the domestic war.” Fisher forgot to ask the general just when and why the American people became the enemy.

My story had been based in part on an article in the winter 1992 issue of Parameters, the quarterly of the US Army College. The piece was written by Lt. Col. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., USAF. Dunlap was a graduate of St. Joseph’s University, Villanova School of Law, the Armed Forces Staff College, and a distinguished graduate of the National War College. In 1992 he was named by the Judge Advocates Association as the USAF’s outstanding career armed services attorney. In short, not your average paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Dunlap’s article was called ‘The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.’ In it, he pretends to be writing to a fellow military colleague in 2012, explaining how the coup had occurred. With eerie precision he described America’s state:

“America became exasperated with democracy. We were disillusioned with the apparent inability of elected government to solve the nation’s dilemmas. We were looking for someone or something that could produce workable answers. The one institution of government in which the people retained faith was the military. Buoyed by the military’s obvious competence in the First Gulf War, the public increasingly turned to it for solutions to the country’s problems. Americans called for an acceleration of trends begun in the 1980s: tasking the military with a variety of new, non-traditional missions, and vastly escalating its commitment to formerly ancillary duties.

“Though not obvious at the time, the cumulative effect of these new responsibilities was to incorporate the military into the political process to an unprecedented degree.”

Dunlap quoted one of Washington’s liberal journalistic cherubs, James Fallows, in a 1991 article:

“I am beginning to think that the only way the national government can do anything worthwhile is to invent a security threat and turn the job over to the military . . . The military, strangely, is the one government institution that has been assigned legitimacy to act on its notion of the collective good.”

Also in the mid 90s, Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post wrote a strange and scary column praising one of the Army’s advocates of Dunlap’s bad dream. Rosenfeld described US Army Major Ralph Peters this way:

“At home, use of the military appears inevitable to him — though not yet to an American consensus — ‘at least on our borders and in some urban environments’ . . . He deplores our military’s reluctance to join the war on drugs, which he attributes to a fear of failure. He would dutifully prepare for the traditionally ‘military’ missions, plus the new one of missile defense. But he would be ready to engage with drugs and crime, terrorism, peacekeeping, illegal immigration, disease control, resource protection, evacuation of endangered citizens . . .”

Peters would later become a favorite military ‘expert’ embedded in network news shows–including NPR’s–during the second Gulf war.

The retreat from democracy continued with little attention during the Clinton years. Incidents such as Waco were only the tip of the iceberg. Lesser known phenomena included using mercenaries from Dyncorp to help in domestic drug raids. As Daniel Forbes wrote in Alternet, “This band of retired military honchos has 1,000 operatives with some sort of “secret” mojo, spying on the American public at the feds’ behest and helping to hoover up vast sums of money in over 60,000 seizures.”

In 1997, the Washington Post finally caught up with the fact that mock military urban attacks had taken place in 21 cities. And the academic journal Social Problems found that 89% of the over 500 police departments it surveyed had fully functioning special operations units trained and modeled on military principles. For all practical purposes, these units represented a military force whose target was American communities and citizens. Between 1980 and 1995, the number of incidents involving paramilitary units quadrupled.


Thus, in many ways, America over the past two decades was an accident waiting for September 11 to happen. All the pieces were in place–an increasingly powerful military; a corrupt and leaderless Congress; the disappearance of civics from school curricula; the slow acculturation to unconstitutional behavior by police, military and prosecutors; a media more interested in the power to which it aspired than in the readers and viewers it was meant to serve; the concentration of formerly devolved power inside of Washington, and the concentration of Washington power inside of the White House.

True, contempt for the citizenry has long been part of the character of the capital. For example, in 1963 J. William Fulbright, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a capital favorite, said, “The case for government by elites is irrefutable…government by the people is possible but highly improbable.”

What has changed is the impunity with which those in power can act as though they believe something different. Washington has become the capital of great pretenders, where the powerful talk as democrats but walk as tyrants and where television and advanced agitprop have made it perfectly possible to create a dictatorship that the people still regard as a democracy. This is the same coalition of the shilling that now purports to export its sordid distortion of democracy to Baghdad. Don’t be too hard on the Iraqis if they fall for it. After all, we did.

SAM SMITH is the editor of the indispensable Progressive Review and author of The Great Political Repair Manual.


Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.