First published on ZNet, December 11, 2013
“Business’ Election Role to Grow”
Never underestimate the ability of establishment journalists and other elite opinion-shapers to distort and even invert reality in accord with the interests of the business elite. Look, for example, at a recent “news” item penned by Gerald Seib, the longstanding Washington Bureau for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). In the wake of the government shut-down and debt-ceiling fiascos and the disastrous rollout of the Obama administration’s corporatist health insurance scheme (the so-called Affordable Care Act), the popularity of the president, Congress, the federal government, and both of the two dominant political parties are all at or near all-time lows.
What is the problem with the nation’s government and politics? According to veteran Beltway pollster and consultant Douglas Schoen, following a survey he recently completed on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. voters now see the two reigning political organizations as “too ideological and too negative.” The electorate, Seib cheerfully reports, is aligned with “Business leaders,” who “see many Democrats as being too interested in redistributing income and some [Tea Party] Republicans as too interested in gunning for [seeking the elimination of] even those government functions that business leaders see as legitimate and useful.”
“At a time when the favorability rating of Congress lurks in the low teens,” Seib continues, citing Schoen’s survey, “the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s favorability rating is 71%.”
Seib takes all this to mean that, to quote the title of his article, big “Business [‘s] Role [is going] to Grow” (WSJ, December 3, 2013). That outcome is something that Seib would welcome since he thinks that “business-backed candidates…offer a more pragmatic approach” – less tainted by “some Democrats’” and “some Republicans’” purported “ideological…disdain” for “the business community.”
Now, never mind that the Democratic Party has been moving ever further from its onetime partial commitment to redistributing wealth and income and towards serving wealthy elites and their corporations over the last four decades, consistent with the strong rightward ideological drift of the entire narrow-spectrum U.S political party system during the long neoliberal era (more on this below).
Forget that capitalist business interests who become involved in U.S. politics are highly ideological, trumpeting the great purported virtues of the so-called free market and regularly denouncing as pathological “socialism” and evil “big government” any attempts to tax, regulate, and enforce checks and controls on the investor class and to defend the interests of workers and citizens against business in the name of the common good.
Forget that Tea Party Republicans are beholden to representative of a faction of “the business community” – southern and western regional medium sized capitalists with their own rational, bottom-line reasons for seeking to limit and rollback federal power (see Michael Lind, “Tea Party Radicalism is Misunderstood: Meet the ‘Newest Right’.” Salon, October 6, 2013).
Never mind that few Americans have the slightest idea of what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is or does. And that the preponderant majority of Americans have long consistently rejected the highly ideological pro-business policy agenda advanced by the Chamber and numerous other leading capitalist lobbying and public relations organizations. Forget that most Americans think and have long thought that the rich and their giant corporations and financial institutions exercise far too much power over American politics and policy. And never mind that most U.S. citizens reject corporate and financial dominance, harsh socioeconomic disparity, and the ruination of social and ecological health in service to the rich and powerful and their powerful businesses.
“Firmly in the Hands of a Moneyed Oligarchy”
Put all that aside – if you can – and reflect on the fantastic nature of the notion that the problem with Washington is its excessively partisan and anti-business ideological nature – a problem that cries out for an increased political role for “the business community.” As John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney noted four years ago, explaining why there would be no New Deal under Barack Obama, “The United States, despite its formally democratic character, is firmly in the hands of a moneyed oligarchy, probably the most powerful ruling class in history” (Foster and McChesney, “A New Deal Under Obama?” Monthly Review, February 2009, 7). By Noam Chomsky’s account two years later, writing in the wake of the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis that nauseated the nation and mystified the world, “Corporate power, by now largely financial capital has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate” (Noam Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” Alakhbar English, August 24, 2011).
On issue after issue, public opinion is irrelevant (or very close to it) in the realm of serious politics and policy, controlled by the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s phrase). Take health care coverage. Most Americans have long favored a single-payer national health insurance plan on the Canadian model. So what? Their preference for such substantive, seriously social-democratic health reform has found no representation among the corporate- and Wall Street-captive lobbyists and politicians who pushed for big business-friendly versions of “health insurance reform. The version that finally passed in 2009, the so-called Affordable Health Care Act, is a monument to corporate and financial plutocracy. Last October, Robert Lenzner, a veteran New York investment banker and a staff writer at no less capitalist a journal than Forbes, expressed his hope that that the ACA will someday be reformed “for the benefit of the 300 million, not just the millions of lucky shareholders who may have understood the ramification of ObamaCare, which was to multiply the profits of five giant insurance companies, just as the major bank oligopoly was rewarded by the federal bailouts and Fed monetary policy.”
The U.S. could eliminate its much-bemoaned fiscal deficit by replacing the nation’s highly dysfunctional privatized, corporate-run and largely employment-based health insurance system with a universal public model similar to what exists in other industrial nations – with a system that would cut health costs in half and yet deliver superior outcomes. Big deal! That’s irrelevant under the rules imposed by the reigning “plutonomy,” wherein “the financial institutions and Big Pharma are far too powerful for such options even to be considered.”(N. Chomsky, “America in Decline,” New York Times Syndicate, August 5, 2011).
“The deficit” itself is another case in point. The populace tells pollsters that government’s main priority ought to be job creation, not deficit reduction. Who cares? As Demos magazine explained one year ago, “The ‘donor class’ – the segment of the population that donates to political campaigns – is disproportionately comprised of affluent Americans.” Heavily tied to the nation’s dominant corporate and financial institutions, this “donor class…does not prioritize policies to create jobs and economic growth.” It is “twice as likely to name the budget deficit as the most important issue in deciding how they would vote than middle- or lower-income respondents.” It strikingly and overwhelmingly rejects federal government action to help create jobs, something that a majority of Americans irrelevantly support. As a result, “Austerity dominates the current political debate” in ways that reflect “the influence of money in our political system…as evidenced in how well the interests and priorities of the affluent class are represented in Congressional action – even when they run counter to the wishes of most Americans” (J. Miljin Cha, “Why is Washington Reducing the Deficit Instead of Creating Jobs?” Demos, December 7, 2012).
We can be quite sure that most Americans would resoundingly reject the key terms of the 12-natin Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the Obama admini$tration is working hard to pass behind the scenes. The deal grants radical new political powers to multinational corporations, deepen those corporations’ ability to skirt national environmental protections, hamstrings government bank regulations and increases the cost of prescription drugs. None of these measures would find anything close to majority support in the U.S. but the White House pushes ahead on their behalf in officially secret (“classified”) negotiations anyway because they are “adamantly supported by American corporations and [by Doug Schoen’s client] the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” (Zach Carter, “Obama Faces Backlash Over New Corporate Powers in secret Trade Deals,”Huffington Post, December 8, 2013).
And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say, on issue after issue.
“The Ultimate Green Party”
Seib and Schoen might want to take a second look at Mark Leibovich’s recent book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral Plus Plenty of Valet Parking in America’s Gilded Capital (New York: Penguin, 2013). Leibovich is theNew York Times Magazine’s ’chief national correspondent and, as such, a self-confessed member of “the [Washington DC] club.” By his candid and bestselling account from the belly of beast, Washington has become a richly bipartisan and monumentally narcissistic “gold rush,” a “crucible of easy wealth” (Leibovich, This Town, p. 8) wherein political officeholders, lobbyists, consultants, public relations specialists, media personalities, socialites, and top staff of the two dominant parties are part of the same incestuous and “permanent” ruling “class of insiders.” The nation’s capital “becomes a determinedly bipartisan team when there is money to be made” (Leibovich, p. 142) —an “inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club” (p. 104), As Leibovich notes, “Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal: ‘No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore,’ goes the maxim, ‘only millionaires.’ The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that self-service is now the real insider play” (p. 9).
Much what is perceived as “Washington’s dysfunction” — gridlock, hyper-partisanship, the failure of Republicans and Democrats “to work together”—is highly purposeful in a business-friendly way. Washington DC in the New Gilded Age has become more concerned with economics than politics, Leibovich notes, and “much of the Washington’s economy – lobbying, political consulting, and cable news – is predicated on the perpetuation of conflict, not the resolution of problems” (p. 99). It is conflict that attracts viewers and readers, after all. It is conflict that keeps cash flowing into Super PACs, conflict that sells political advertisements, and conflict that creates political careers that an ever-growing army of former office-holders turn into lucrative careers in the private sector – “monetizing their government service” (p. 40) by taking lucrative positions as lobbyists, consultants and media talking heads. Leibovich reports (citing The Atlantic) that an astonishing 50 percent of retiring U.S. senators and 42 percent of retiring congresspersons become lobbyists (p. 330)
Politics as partisan and ideological theater, it turns out, is more materially rewarding than “doing the people’s work” and serving the common good. All the partisan, outwardly “ideological” shouting over the airwaves and across the cable news spectrum is “winking performance art” meant to hide the “’reality,” that “off-air, everyone in Washington is joined in a multilateral conga line of potential business partners” (p. 99). Behind the scenes, smart Washington operatives of both parties are figuring out how to profit from “the continued and sweaty orgy raging between corporate and political enterprise” (p. 308) and the ongoing “romance between Washington and Wall Street” (p. 331). The “partisan” and “ideological” bickering that dominant media point to as the source of “Washington’s [constantly bemoaned] dysfunction” (and as proof of “big government’s” inherent failures) is all part of the big capitalist hustle. “The city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected” (p.10) by the “sweaty,” cross-party contest for gain, fame, and pleasure…for more. Constantly said to be “not working,” Washington actually works quite well for its permanent class of insiders, including an army of lobbyists and consultants granted hefty payments for coordinating the orgy and the romance behind the scenes – and the journalists who profit from the ongoing spectacle of partisan and “ideological” dysfunction.
As Leibovich shows, leading Washington pollsters and journalists are major players in the great (if I might use language Leibovich would never employ) state-capitalist game. The elite corporate and political super-pollster/consultant Douglass Schoen  and the old Washington media hand Gerald Seib are cases in point, serving the corporate master and the donor class by inverting reality in ways meant to deepen yet further the already extreme plutocratic hold that big business has on the nation’s political system.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) and They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy(Paradigm, 2014).
1. Schoen’s official bio: “Douglas E. Schoen has been one of the most influential Democratic campaign consultants for over thirty years. A founding partner and principle strategist for Penn, Schoen & Berland, he is widely recognized as one of the co-inventors of overnight polling….Schoen was named Pollster of the Year in 1996 by the American Association of Political Consultants for his contributions to the President Bill Clinton reelection campaign….His political clients include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, and his corporate clients include AOL Time Warner, Procter & Gamble and AT&T. Internationally, he has worked for the heads of states of over 15 countries, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and three Israeli Prime Ministers….He is the author of multiple books, most recently publishing, The Power of the Vote: Electing Presidents, Overthrowing Dictators, and Promoting Democracy Around the World in 2007, Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System in 2008, The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War Against America and What Makes You Tick? How Successful People Do It – and What You can Learn from Them in 2009, and The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House in 2010. He is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and various other newspaper and online publications. He is also a Fox News Contributor, making appearances on various news programs several times a week…..Schoen graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, and holds a degree from Harvard Law School as well as a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University. He has lectured at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. “ http://douglasschoen.com/bio/ For Schoen’s consulting firm, see http://schoenconsulting.com/about/