The GOP response to Occupy Wall Street recalls the way the 1960’s protests against the Vietnam War energized American conservatives. Until the demonstrations by assorted students and labor and political activists (socialists, communists, etc.), the right wing had been defined by racism (southern and Democratic) and the stigma of the John Birch Society.
The counter-response came from the US Chamber of Commerce and wealthy American industrialists. They invented a political machine that now, nearly half a century later, is the most successful in US history. It is a GOP dynamo incorporating the imperatives of the Christian right and the “free market”. The juggernaut owes its success to a message machine book-ended by Fox News and the Murdoch empire.
Despite similarities of fashion, evidenced by dancers, drummers, and impossibly young looking and attractive young people hauling babies around, this generation of youthful protesters have little in common with the 1960’s. On the other hand, the defenders of the status quo are very much cut from the same cloth as the 1960’s conservatives.
Over the weekend, GOP House leader Eric Cantor appeared on the nightly news reading from a script that might have been cribbed from Richard Nixon: he darkly inveighed against the “mobs” that, he worried, could disrupt the economy. Cantor is too young to have experienced the reactionary aftermath of a failed cultural revolution. But he is a political offspring of its result, and in his remarks he appeared to be laying the case for “law and order” to sweep the streets clean.
The media hasn’t picked up on the Cantor/GOP Morse Code. That would not be a surprise. There is a certain Kabuki-theater like quality to the response on TV news. On 60 Minutes, a brave effort by Lesley Stahl with GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt to spring open the views of one of America’s most powerful corporate leaders was deftly parried. The interview ended abruptly with Immelt wondering why Stahl was “rooting against GE”. In fact, all Stahl was trying to do was to channel some of the questions, concern and anger about the behavior of corporate America in recent decades. Immelt gives a polished interview, but his last comment — delivered reflexively– spoke volumes about the sense of power and privilege that not only dismisses the Occupy Wall Street’ers out of hand but is ready to move aggressively in its own defense. Ergo, Cantor.
Over the weekend, I stumbled upon a long essay I wrote in 1995 and unsuccessfully tried to publish. Bill Clinton was president. In Florida Jeb Bush was mounting an effort to be governor that would eventually succeed. The essay was shaped around a weekend planning charrette in Broward County to determine the fate of wetlands that were eagerly sought for development. Its title was: “Suburban Sprawl: In The World Series of Unfunded Mandates in Florida, Some Think The Bases Are Loaded In the Bottom Of The Ninth”.
That was more than fifteen years ago.
“Escalating taxes, congested roads and highways, overburdened schools, and deterioration of the natural world are driving Americans in metropolitan regions to distraction, pitting neighborhoods and communities against each other. Then, there are the ghostly features of the suburban landscape; broken families, alienation of individuals from public institutions, and evasion of personal responsibility, all tangled in the costs of sprawl. These are the facets of the debate on unfunded mandates, although you are unlikely to hear them discussed in Congress soon; how sprawl, encoded in planning and building codes, creates external costs that are recaptured as taxes or debits to quality of life whether the public wants to pay them or not. The pressure is on to find solutions, any solutions, to a dilemma that knows no boundaries.”
The essay was written when a Democrat, Lawton Chiles, was governor. Chiles was under intense pressure– and caved– to developers who wielded big campaign contributions. And that was before the dot.com boom and bust and the political juggernaut that pushed Jeb Bush in Florida and George Bush from Texas to the White House. Before a housing boom and bust delivered by the Chamber of Commerce and corporate power as “what the market wants”; a cliche that the media papered over while millions of Americans followed speculators driving the US economy into the deepest ditch since the Great Depression.
In 1995, I hoped that the Democrats could be persuaded to do the right thing in Florida: protect our environment, our Everglades, and give more than lip service to the need to provide the right incentives and penalties for destroying wetlands; the excuse to pave over what was left of an environmental ethic that was, then, scarcely a decade old. As to it being the “bottom of the ninth inning”; here is what I meant. There is still time for a rally, but how it turns out depends on the pressure brought to bear on politics that have proven immoveable in the United States for many long years.