Edward Herman is Professor Emeritus of Finance at the
Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, an economist and media analyst, with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media. He is the author of numerous books, including Corporate Control, Corporate Power (1981), Demonstration Elections (1984, with Frank Brodhead), The Real Terror Network (1982), Manufacturing Consent (1988, with Noam Chomsky), Triumph of the Market (1995), and The Global Media (1997, with Robert McChesney). He is just going to press with The Myth of The Liberal Media: an Edward Herman Reader (1999).
ENGEL: In the mainstream media, there are three parties: the Republicans, the Democrats, and the whacko fringe lunatics. That’s understood. But lately, in many so-called alternative media outlets, mostly websites, I see support for Kucinich or even Dean as the only “realistic” alternative to another four years of Bush.
Having seen the Democrats roll over and die on literally every “defense” issue put before them since “the day that changed the world,” (9/11) I can’t believe that the “only alternative” is yet another Democrat. What are they/we afraid of?
HERMAN: You are overlooking the fact that the electoral system now in place in this country is so plutocratic, so skewed, so anti-populist that even a populist Democrat like Kucinich doesn’t have a chance to win a nomination let alone a final electoral triumph. The left is essentially outside the system, small, fragmented and even beyond marginalization. So if leftists want to participate in the election at all they can run (or support) a populist candidate who will be competing with the two major parties, and get smashed, or they can try to throw their puny weight toward getting a lesser evil Democrat nominated and a lesser evil Democrat elected to national office. They have a third option-steering entirely clear of the elections and going about other business like grass roots organization, trying to build alternative media and other projects focused on long-term objectives. The Nader campaign and crushing defeat was an important testimonial to the contemporary hopelessness of running an alternative candidate. Given his limited exposure to the population I don’t think his campaign’s educational value was very great, and the outcome was a moral defeat for those hopeful of alternative candidacies.
Furthermore, I don’t think we can dismiss the arguments of people who argue for working within the Democratic Party, trying to influence its choice, and supporting its ticket. The difference between a rotten lesser evil and an extremely dangerous great evil can be quite significant and can be the difference between millions of deaths and much pain at home and abroad. At this point it seems clear that Al Gore would almost surely not have been as terrible as George Bush, who even his dad is finding a bit hard to take (giving the annual George Bush Award for Public Service for 2003 to Senator Edward Kennedy). So what leftists are afraid of is total irrelevance or possible default support for a greater evil that can be pretty damned evil.
Another thing to keep in mind is that social democrats and leftists “roll over dead” as commonly as Democrats. Blair, Lula, Menem, Schroeder, Bob Rae-it is pretty systematic, reflecting the power of the plutocratic establishment as fund-raisers, media guard-dogs, and financial operators and corporate investors ready to defund or flee to more hospitable investment climes. The system is working beautifully right now, despite Bush’s current problems, which stem from his ability to violate all international and moral norms up to this moment, which got him into a morass a decent world would have prevented him entering.
ENGEL: A recent poll I saw showed that for all the hype and ballyhoo among “progressive/leftist” publications, Hillary Clinton, who gave no indication she’s even running, was by far the most popular Democratic “candidate” with 26% followed by Clark (!?) and Lieberman (!!?) with about ten percentage points each. All the rest, including Dean, were in the single digits. Kucinich, whose name is pushed into my “inbox” daily, scored around 1%. Probably because, like Nader, he has a “lock” on the lefty white college crowd, but very little name recognition among blacks, Latinos and lower-middle class and “working class” (is their still such a thing?) whites. Basically, Hillary is the only bona fide Celebrity in the crowd.
You said, “”The left is essentially outside the system, small, fragmented and even beyond marginalization.”
Why is this so? Is there something “the average American” (who or wherever he/she is) sees that leftists don’t see? I’m beginning to think that the people I read in print and on line and their collective audience would fit into an average sized catering hall. In the late eighties, the poet, Allen Grossman, told me that the actual audience for serious poetry in the U.S. was about five thousand people. That’s poetry, which is important, but not essential to making decisions as an informed adult. I see this as an extremely dangerous situation. What “America” seems to be saying is that all serious scholarship and journalism be relegated to a few journals, websites and publishing houses with a total audience equal to the readership of that dead art (Weep for Adonais indeed!) poetry. Possibly less.
HERMAN: The left is outside the system in good measure because ordinary citizens-the “average American”–can never hear its message, or if they do hear it, it is fleeting, short, and usually presented in a dismissive context. Effective messages are those that are repeated and attached to friendly symbols. Left messages being unfamiliar they need lots of repetition and lots of space and time to counter cognitive dissonance. They never get that. This of course reflects the fact that the left has no numerous and financially solid power base, so it can’t fund its messages and can’t provide them to that power base to firm up their resolve and clarify their understanding of reality. The labor movement, the natural power base, has not focused on this and its leaders have therefore helped weaken themselves-for the most part these leaders were cold warriors who even collaborated in subverting labor movements in countries like Brazil in service to the corporate interest in a “favorable climate of investment”-which called for weak or non-existent trade unions. In the crucial formative years of broadcasting, 1927-1933, the top labor brass even refused to support union-funded and controlled broadcasting, letting a pioneer labor broadcaster fail, arguing that ad-based commercial media would surely do justice to labor’s interests (as described in Robert McChesney’s Telecommunications. Mass Media, and Democracy)! This left the workers to watch CBS, NBC, and later ABC and Fox, to get their information and world view, with the results we see in ignorance, depoliticization along with a readily manipulable patriotism, and a marginalized left unable to reach their potentially sympathetic audience with messages that might be quite attractive if seen and heard. The decline and rightward trajectory of the Labor Party in Britain is also traceable in part to the death of a labor-supportive trio of major papers in the 1960s, which had given workers not only news but arguments and principles supportive of their interests. These were replaced by rightwing rags that featured tits, welfare mothers’ abuses, and attacks on liberals, the left, and governments (except governments of the right, and the police and military segments of government).
ENGEL: The “third option” you spoke of, “steering entirely clear of the elections and going about other business like grass roots organization, trying to build alternative media and other projects focused on long-term objectives,” seems to me to be the only option. There is little use playing poker when you know the game is fixed and every player at the table except yourself is part of the hustle.
Nevertheless, the Nader campaign was valuable in a number of ways. No one I knew believed Nader would win; but we all believed he could garner enough votes to allow the Greens to qualify for federal funds. That he couldn’t even do that much was less of a moral defeat than a lesson in how impossible it is for a newcomer to ante up, put a chip in the game. He may have had “limited exposure” in 2000, but he was Ralph Nader, a household name. The entire experience could be likened to the college football star, big man on campus, taking his first real beating at the hands of the pros. Many illusions were shattered. Being laughed down on Labor Day by macho union workers who waved posters of Hillary Clinton. Attending all-white “rallies” where the focus was on celebrities and pop-singers rather than rumpled old Ralph. Experiencing the hysterical invective of Democrats who castigated you for “ruining the election.” All this capped by a stolen election made for what many considered a radicalizing experience. The question was, and is, where do we go from here. From my perspective it was a movement of “under-forty-year olds” and college kids who got their asses kicked by the big boys. Having gone through this experience, I think many of the Nader Greens of 2000 are a politically mature lot, relative to the Mainstream Democrats and Republicans who risked nothing, yet lost a great deal, albeit “painlessly.”
HERMAN: Certainly there was a lesson in the futility of third parties in the present U.S. electoral system, but what follows from that is less clear. Shall we abandon electoral politics on the ground that the game is fixed, focusing on the long run and organizing to build a media and constituency in the long run?. There are several problems with that approach. One is that, as Keynes said in deriding the emphasis of economists on long run adjustments, in the long run we are all dead, so that putting all our effort and money into trying to assure change later is speculative and misses possibilities for doing something right now. Further, the long run is a series of short runs, so that what we fail to do today will have future consequences. Finally, it is hard to mobilize people to do something with speculative future benefits when they are hurting and eager for immediate or near-term results.
ENGEL: I think you raise some serious questions when you say:
“I don’t think we can dismiss the arguments of people who argue for working within the Democratic Party, trying to influence its choice, and supporting its ticket. The difference between a rotten lesser evil and an extremely dangerous great evil can be quite significant and can be the difference between millions of deaths and much pain at home and abroad. At this point it seems clear that Al Gore would almost surely not have been as terrible as George Bush, who even his dad is finding a bit hard to take (giving the annual George Bush Award for Public Service for 2003 to Senator Edward Kennedy). So what leftists are afraid of is total irrelevance or possible default support for a greater evil that can be pretty damned evil.”
First of all, if the left is as weak and inconsequential is it appears to be, what would we be bringing to the table? Look at what’s been happening to black people year after year since 1968. The Democrats take it as a given that African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities, but in particular African-Americans, are going to vote Democrat. There may be threats of “we’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it anymore,” and maybe some kind of separatist movement, like Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition early on, but come November, those who vote are going to vote Democrat. Who else are they going to vote for in a two-party system? With the country swinging further and further to the right – recent polls showed Republicans gaining across the board among every ethnic group, Latinos and Jews in particular (Cubans against Castro and the Israel Uber Alles crowd?). Some attribute this to the Democrats’ flawed strategy of putting all their money of the Presidential election while Republicans court their own “rainbow coalition” for city, state and Congressional elections.
Either way, especially in this polyarchy of plutocrats, who’s going to listen to a bunch of kids, college professors and unemployed workers? Additionally, if we put our “chip in the game” (our only chip) and bet on a Kucinich or someone like him, the DLC or other real players will only add it to the stacks and stacks of chips that will be used to support a Lieberman or a Clark (or a Hillary Clinton?) in preparation for the Big Game against Dubya. What will the platform be? Some moderations of the PATRIOT ACT, some military cuts, some medical benefits to the elderly; more money to Israel; more “aid” to Columbia to fight the “drug war,” etc. Republican vs. Republican-lite. The only “leftists” who might catch the ear of the Party machers might be of the cruise-missile variety, whose ranks swell daily with additions of such “public intellectuals” as Michael Moore, Arrianna Huffington, and various aging rock stars, movie actresses and other celebrities whose semi-literate opinions carry far more weight in this culture than Noam Chomsky’s (or Edward Herman’s).
On the other hand, whoever is in office in 2005 will inherit Bush’s mess, even if it’s Bush himself: economic nightmare which Americans will sooner or later awaken from only to realize it was no dream; War against Terrorism (Islam) which, by then, 1,000,000,000 Muslims will realize, if they haven’t already, is a Fundamentalist Christian/Zionist war against them; and most important of all – in my opinion – an Environment that not only votes Independent, but may very well vote to be independent of the Human Race within the next five to ten years, rather than the twenty to fifty years scientists had previously predicted.
Whoever is President two years from now is going to take the blame for all of this. I wonder if Truman were alive and head of the DLC, he might take a dive to allow Bush to face the cacophonous music of the next four years until the “American People” are begging for an FDR Democrat.
Then again, who knows what another four (or forty) years of Bush Inc. might bring? Would he push that book of Revelations fantasy to it’s nuclear conclusion? Would the land of the free and home of the brave roll over and die for PATRIOT II? Would Israel be allowed to enact the “Final Solution” while it’s puppet/patron took on the three ring circus of the “axis of evil?”
HERMAN: The left is very weak, but insofar as it can act at all it has to make choices. If it chooses to play the electoral politics game, a good case can be made that it should try to influence the Democratic Party to defeat the Clinton-Lieberman-DNC-New Democrat grip on the electoral levers and permit at least a tolerable Democrat that the left can support without retching (i.e., not Lieberman or Clark), and who will at least hold the line and maybe even slightly reverse the rightward shift. We need breathing and organizational space, and so does the rest of the world, threatened with perpetual war, an arms race, and further regression of environmental policy. The view that we should purposely allow Bush to win so that the coming disaster will fall on his head is not defensible. The disaster is not inevitable if he is ousted, but a nasty one is pretty well assured with four more years of the cabal. Some of them really want what we would consider a disaster (including a de facto termination of constitutional government in this country).
ENGEL: Your statement,
“The system is working beautifully right now, despite Bush’s current problems, which stem from his ability to violate all international and moral norms up to this moment, which got him into a morass a decent world would have prevented him entering.”
leads me to some questions about the Democrats and “international and moral norms” that nobody has yet, to my knowledge, clearly answered:
a) Why on Earth did Al Gore let Bush get away with stealing the election? Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, if it had been Nader whose Presidency (and responsibility to those who voted to create it) had been stolen like that, he would still be fighting it to this day.
b) Gulf “War” I was a “typical” war over land, oil, a client dictator disobeying – or perhaps misunderstanding – orders etc. The sanctions themselves, while costing ten times the damage in lives and social and economic devastation as the “war” itself, was not atypical, considering the ruthless use of embargoes used by great powers against small in the past. But the “humanitarian” action in Kosovo was unprecedented. Intelligent adults became like children in fifth grade history class as it was explained that the United States along with its puny “partner” nation states in NATO bombed Serbia to bits in order to prevent the alleged genocidal attacks that just such a reckless, ruthless use of force encouraged. What was the term they used, “humanitarian war?”
Could this have been a precedent for Afghanistan and Iraq II? In Afghanistan, as in Bosnia, “we” bombed them to bits to save them from themselves and the wicked Taliban, who dressed their women like lampshades, then left it to crumble. Yet, as in Bosnia, American troops remain. Scattered, almost forgotten.
Iraq is a bit more complex. We have to stay there because of the oil, the WMD hype, or maybe just “because.” Anyway, Iraq II was a continuation of the “old” standard war begun in 1991.
Afghanistan, like Bosnia, was something different. Beyond the “humanitarian” fairy-tales, what was it? The oil that no one seems to be getting? I can’t help but think that Bosnia was a precedent, a test case that, successful in its “humanitarian goal” was left to rot under the eyes of a few American army units (a nurse who worked for my Doctor was a reservist called to serve there for a year, well after the “successful” campaign). Likewise Afghanistan. The Clinton administration, as it did with the Effective anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act which morphed into the USA PATRIOT Act, set a precedent for the Bushites to follow. But what was this precedent? Why the destruction of an already war-torn country for no discernable purpose? Or perhaps I’m missing something? Of course, the logical next step would be to bomb Israel as part of our “humanitarian quest.”
This is why I wonder whether the Bush phenomenon is exactly that, a phenomenon, a virus in the system that must be allowed to play itself out so the system can go back to “normal” again, or a great leap rather than a “next step” from Clintonism to absolute military corporatism. Again, no one is fooled by the Bosnia/Afghanistan charades (Hitler Milosovic replaced by Hitler Bin Laden). But what was the political purpose of these elaborate “drive-by shootings?” If, as you say, the system is running beautifully, wanton destruction must be useful to the system. But in what way?
HERMAN: The system can’t be counted on to return to normal if we were to let the Bush “virus” play itself out. The analogy is not a good one, as the Bush phenomenon is rooted in structural facts whose strength is likely to be reinforced by Bush policies. For example, the further concentration of the media will serve rightwing interests in the future, just as the further growth of the military establishment and police, and further Bush appointments to the courts, will do the same.
I think the Balkans wars were very important in setting the stage for the Bush wars: they represented a decline in and perversion of the UN, a brazen violation of the UN Charter and rules of war, and a lot of destruction and killing that were quite unnecessary and rooted more in Western policy than in bad men in the Balkans (as described in Diana Johnstone’s outstanding book Fools’ Crusade, summarized in my long review). The political collapse of the liberals and left in this case was also very important in clearing the ground for the Bush wars, with their half-witted concept of humanitarian intervention, that is still being peddled in The Nation magazine and even in In These Times (see my “The Cruise Missile Left , Part 4: The Nation Magazine’s Forum on ‘Humanitarian Intervention,” Swans, September 2003. As you say, Clinton really led the way to the Patriot Act with his Effective Antiterrorism and Death Penalty Act, and he also led the way to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the global “war on terror”-really “war OF terror”-with his fine effort in the Balkans. Ousting the Clinton gang from domination of the Democratic Party, while no guarantee of sanity given the institutional scene, would still be a necessary step in at least delaying Armageddon.
ENGEL: For the past few weeks I’ve been “arguing” publicly in articles such as “The System Really Works” and “Republican” with Democrats who, failing to recognize that the presidency was stolen from Gore by the Supreme Court, and that Gore did nothing to fight for himself or his constituents, blame Greens for Bush’s destruction of “their country.” In addition to pointing out that the Democrats in Congress and the Senate gave Bush Inc. everything they asked for, from War Powers to the USA PATRIOT ACT etc., I protested that such “lesser-of-two-evilism” must end. However, in my reaction against being told who to vote for and what to say, in addition to the ludicrous fiction that all was “well and good” under Clinton or any other Democrat, I failed to think practically. That is, what to do about Bush. I must admit, I am one of those people you argued against by holding the “view that we should purposely allow Bush to win so that the coming disaster will fall on his head.” I did not think “the disaster is not inevitable if he is ousted, but a nasty one is pretty well assured with four more years of the cabal,” and perhaps I was a bit cavalier in believing myself one of those who “want what we would consider a disaster (including a de facto termination of constitutional government in this country).” I have not been looking at November 2004 with clear eyes. Then again, that’s one of the reasons for this interview. I’m not standing on steady ground.
Is the only choice we have then, at least to give ourselves some “breathing room” as you called it, to vote Democrat, hopefully for a Kucinich or some other progressive minded Democrat? If so, what if it’s not Kucinich, but Clark or Lieberman? It would be less painful if we really did have some say to put up a Kucinich who would at least try to repeal some of the damage done, but it seems more likely the “anti-Bush” will be of the DNC variety. Are we stuck with the “choice” of “anyone but Bush (which to me means DNC)?
HERMAN: Recent developments suggest that the DNC is very unhappy about Dean, and Gore’s endorsement has put them in a rage over the betrayal of a true DNC man, Lieberman. The New York Times has been equally enraged, after their front page accolade to that “centrist” Lieberman, and this regrettable shift to “the left”! These creeps can’t stand the slightest trace of populism or any lightening up of the imperial thrust. They pretend that the people want a centrist, which Lieberman is not, and that such a move to the left will be fatal electorally. The DNC crowd and mainstream media have been playing this game for years, even as their preferred centrist and center-right candidates get eviscerated (Clinton excepted, though his terms coincided with crushing losses for Democrats in the states and federal legislatures). I believe the DNCers prefer a Republican to even a mildly liberal and centrist Democrat like Dean, and they might sell him out as they did McGovern in 1972. They would surely never support a Kucinich, and of course the Free Press would savage Kucinich, and they have been pretty nasty to Dean as well, just as they have been kissing Bush ass as he moves from one looting and murder operation to the next.
So our effective political choices are narrow, and the DNC crowd would make them even narrower if they could, and they are trying hard. We always face a lesser and great evil choice, and in my lifetime, while I’ve occasionally voted for third party sure losers as a conscious protest vote, I’ve also consciously voted for several lesser evil scoundrels who I considered to be war criminals. The greater evil scoundrels clearly threatened even more massive war crimes, as George Bush does today. This reflects a gruesome political system, that has reached new lows in the last few years.
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org