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Beyond Ahs: Media Spectacles, Political Illusions and Movement Strategies

We are now less than a year away from 2016 election and four months away from definitive March primaries. Nonetheless, the corporate media continue to showcase and handicap the horse race for the Republican and Democrat nomination for president. Performing its function of ideological framing, the media not only de-legitimizes those candidates it sees as antagonistic to its corporate interests, it attempts to legitimize a hollow democratic system that no longer is representative of the needs of the people but is actually a faithful servant of those corporate interests.

Given all the wizardry and humbug embedded in the constant coverage of the presidential primary campaigns, we must remind ourselves of what these media spectacles and political illusions actually conceal. In the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s dog, Toto, exposes the real identity of the terrifying wizard by pulling back a curtain, revealing an elaborate machine operated by a rather ordinary man. The ordinary forces at work in the corporate media and political system, trying to convince us that they are all-powerful masters, also require unveiling how and why their deceptions keep us in the dark.

The insidious and constant labeling applied to the two major contenders for the Democratic nomination – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – reveal specific ideological tropes. In Sanders case, the corporate media deploys the term “grumpy” to dismiss his valid criticisms of the economic and political order and “unelectable” to marginalize and undermine his substantial support. Even the humorous satire of Sanders in Saturday Night Live skits, enacted with verve and a certain veracity by Larry David, helps to trivialize the Sanders message. For Clinton the positive spin of being “polished” and “pragmatic,” applied by a variety of corporate political pundits, helps to conceal her prevarications and triangulations.

As this ideological winnowing process proceeds, the truths underlying the political system will be as hidden as the Wizard of Oz was behind noxious nostrums and soothing shibboleths. Believing that “we” will all have an equal vote in determining the outcome of the primary and election neglects the corrupting role of money, the disfranchisement of mostly minority ex-felons, and the invalidation of the poor, students, and people of color living in states where new restrictions on voting rights have been put in place by Republicans to drive down voter turnout. Of course, the November 2016 election will compound these structural inequalities by suspect voting machines and procedures and the arcane and anti-democratic operation of Electoral College.

In order to challenge the truncated and spectacle politics promoted by the media and their corporate masters, we need to take seriously the call by Bernie Sanders for a “political revolution.” Effectuating profound social change, the kind raised in the streets by the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, will require going beyond any one person or even a particular campaign. Recognizing what critical political scientists have analyzed as the oligarchic decision-making process in the federal government and the “inverted totalitarianism” (Sheldon Wolin) of our political culture, we need to engage in a long-term project for democratic renewal.

At the core of our project for democratic renewal is the acknowledgement of our shared humanity and a desire to construct a society that values responsible caring for each other. Hence, efforts to combat racist attacks on immigrants and young people of color must be part of this effort. However, it is not enough to protest the ongoing discrimination and inequalities that are rooted in the economic, political and social-cultural institutions that we all inhabit. We need to find ways to put into practice self-reflective collective action that benefits not only our fellow citizens but also those struggling around the globe for social justice and environmental security.

Challenging the dominant institutions that prolong an unsustainable consumerism and a pathological corporate order will require an elaborate dance through institutions and not just an illusory jaunt down another yellow brick road. We may, in the process, have to re-learn how to construct cooperatives and counter institutions. There are obvious present and historical models of functioning cooperatives and counter institutions from which we can take inspiration. Indeed, one of the most moving moments in Barbara Kopple’s 1990 documentary, American Dream, about the P9 union strike against the Austin Minnesota Hormel plant, came when strikers, worried about how to provide holiday gifts for their families, organized a DIY gift-making cooperative.

On the other hand, our self-determining choreography will often be limited by our ability to see beyond the spectacles, illusions, and rigged rules. Developing a global dance of solidarity will not come easily. In fact, the social and economic forces that have oppressed and bamboozled people here and world-wide, while definitely susceptible to social change, are nothing if not implacable. However, there are so many examples of recent social movements that have been transformative that we would be judged cowardly wallflowers if we refused to get up on the dance floor and kick out the jams.

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Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.  

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