The Fear of Liberalism (part 3)

Fear as a Campaign Weapon

In the previous two parts I tried to persuade the patient reader that the use of fear as a campaign weapon is widespread and bipartisan.

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that those who currently own the Republican party are prime examples of Richard Hofstadter's Paranoid Style in American Politics, or to see them as shamelessly using fear to intimidate voters into choosing them. Scheduling the Republican convention in staunchly Democratic New York City, as a blatant 9/11 reminder, is only the first example that comes to mind, followed by the Vice President hinting that a vote for the challenger would generate more terrorism.

Surely, though, by the same standard the Democrats are also guilty of this sort of trick. Isn't the undertone of the Democratic campaign “Stop him before he wars again”? Then there's the bumper sticker that says “Bush/Cheney '04: The Last Vote You'll Ever Have to Cast”. That's a little over the top, isn't it—does it really seem like we're about to give up on representative government and go the route of the Romans? I figured we weren't quite that far along in the cycle, but if Iraq is Vietnam on crack, maybe my time sense is simply obsolete.

Both sides, of course, will claim with some justification that they can't let charges go unanswered. Negative campaigning generates a feedback loop, where neither side has an incentive to stop. Perhaps this situation's unavoidable with our current mass-media methods and structures. But I sigh for the time when people in government would say things like:

The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.

This was no starry-eyed radical either, this was Republican Henry Stimson, governor of the Phillipines, Secretary of State under Hoover, and (still a Republican) Secretary of War under FDR. The NSA remembers him with perhaps less fondness than some, based on his decision to shut down code-breaking operations because, he is supposed to have said, “Gentlemen do not read each other's mail.”

We're watching an old movie. These days the concept of a gentleman in politics seems more the stuff of comedy sketch than reality. We talk about personal foibles so we can avoid discussing issues of wealth and power.

Smashing the Atomization

It's often said that, in Chomskyean terms, The System is set up to encourage atomization. The physicist Manuel García puts it this way in a wonderful article:

Mass media is in the business of supplying illusions and feeding fears for the profit of the owners and sponsors of that media.

This statement is almost a “Duh!” moment because he says it so clearly; but consider the implications. For example, pretty much the ideal situation for The System is to have everyone sitting alone in front of a TV, being bombarded with some of the trillion ads an American sees in a lifetime, and thinking “I'm the only one who thinks about the world this way”. We're closing in on Matrix territory here (the first one, not the final car chase, gimme a break).

It isn't true, of course: as the anti-war marches around the world proved, lots of people share the feeling of alienation from a system that omits their interests. And that, I claim, is exactly the point: if everyone who thinks that this is a screwed-up system, that their country is headed the wrong direction, that corporations should not have more rights than humans, that the fortunate should help rather than exploit the poor, if we all realized how many of us there are, we'd be a formidable force. If we had the chance to act on this view, for example to vote for someone who believes as we do, we'd be unstoppable. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And we're a large group. Plus, we're snappy dressers.

The folks Adam Smith called “the masters of mankind” realize that a true democracy distributes power, which from their point of view is a loss; so they have no incentive to press for democracy from the power standpoint (some do, anyway, for other reasons). Power is not known for making concessions, but for finding new tools. In democracies, that means propaganda.

Chomsky says that propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism. And propaganda is everywhere in this society. The funny thing is that, unlike Iraqis, many Americans fall for it.

Of course this is not because Americans are dumber. No, really, it's not. I mean, consider: our educational system has been gradually eroded through funding ruses, at the same time the reach and power of the propaganda machine continue to grow in synch with the prison population, and the distractions and entertainments both multiply and intensify. It's harder and harder to retain any sort of focus in a world full of stuff designed to distract you, most of which you wish to ignore. But probably not all, which makes it even harder to filter the noise correctly.

Another feedback loop: as I get better at ignoring distractions from advertisers, they get better at getting around my safeguards, so I have to develop new ones, which they get around, and so on. Looks to me like this feedback loop would tend to tighten into a small knot that would be hell to untie.

Socially speaking, an atom.

One thing about this diagnosis: if it's accurate, then the prescription is obvious. To fight propaganda's control, be aware that it exists, and consider whether each report might be an instance of it. To fight atomization, think of how much we have in common with millions of others around the world, and find ways to make use of that at whatever scale is convenient. The fact that we could counter the atomization machine so easily is a big motivator for the entertainment industry. If a new consciousness comes along, it could end up bypassing some of the industry much like the interstate highways bypassed the small towns. A lot of money would be lost.

Up n' At'em!

The impotent feeling that comes with atomization is vaguely uncomfortable for many, intensely so for some. Coincidentally, a vague discomfort is often useful to advertisers, catching potential customers at a psychologically vulnerable moment. Advertisers want us to feel needy and slightly off balance.

I know shopping styles are idiosyncratic. Personally, I make my best purchases by deciding in a balanced manner which product best fits what I'm looking for, and will best meet my presumed needs. Of course, when I purchase something, I get it, unlike an election where I have to put up with whoever gets the most votes regardless of who I vote for.

As a result of this difference, the strategy of choosing the second-worst of the bunch makes some sense. After all, suppose the worst candidate received one vote more than the second-worst, and you'd voted for a third party. Oh the humanity!

My main issue with the “if your vote were decisive” strategy is, it isn't. Your vote counts, but you'll never be the last one voting in a tied situation in any election run by a government. So acting as if that were happening now doesn't seem to make much sense, or at least I don't see the sense.

I've never argued that the Bush presidency has been benign, and when I argued that Bush has done some good, it was notable that in each instance the positive accomplishment was inadvertent. But I don't agree with those who think that four more years of Bush would provide more horrors than the last four. They would if Bush won hands down, but I don't see any chance of that other than vote-rigging on a nationwide scale (which would be hard to pull off this year because lots of people are watching).

Have you encountered the scenario where Kerry gets, say, five million more popular votes but Bush's electoral votes keep him close enough that it comes down to Colorado? Coloradans are voting in November on whether to change the allocation of their Electoral College votes from winner take all to proportional. The kicker is, the proposed amendment to the state constitution is retroactive. The question of whether that's legal could end up throwing the 2004 election into the Supreme Court by an entirely different route than that used by the 2000 election.

So maybe we'll have Bush again in another disputed election with the same people rigging the same outcome. Perhaps we'll have another Supreme Court Justice writing:

Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today's decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law. I respectfully dissent.

Or maybe we get Kerry, and the people who are voting for him on the theory that he's lying just to get into office turn out to be wrong. Suppose he actually believes what he's been saying, and he wants to increase the size of the US military, keep funding Star Wars, make sure insurance companies get their cut of the health-care dollar, and so on. If that happens, I want in on the pool for the date of the first military operation, and I'm guessing early. NAFTA will remain official policy, as will aggressive attempts to unseat the government of Venezuela, and we'll return to the enlightened despotism of the DLC. The wheels won't come off, and the machine will crush more people, mostly non-American citizens.

Or maybe my friends are right, and after winning Kerry will disavow the platform he ran on. Then, except for the dishonesty part, things will be great. I mean, stranger things have happened.

Vote Your Hopes

I believe that, acting on our common interests, and pooling our wisdom and our varieties of heritage, the US can still be a shining city on a hill. We have the potential, still unrealized, to be the completely inclusive society that two of the greatest documents in history promised us. To achieve that potential doesn't require superhuman efforts, just regular ones.

After all, the potential in the US is the potential in humanity. No one would call the US population a “race” in the old divisive sense, so there's no question of “racial superiority”. We've inherited a geography rich in resources, and a country full of people who believe they can improve their lives by applying themselves. It's hard to appreciate these gifts appropriately, but we can at least make good use of them.

The total effect of a choir doesn't come from everyone picking one note and singing it. The effect comes from coordinated singing of different notes. As much as possible, we should express our own viewpoints when voting; at least, that seems the best strategy to me.

I recently heard Peter Camejo speak. As you might imagine, he's quite aware that he's not about to be the next Vice President; but he points out that if Nader gets ten million votes in November it will change American politics. And of course that's equally true for Badnarik.

If you're mad as hell and you're not gonna take it any more, then vote for whoever comes closest to your positions. Vote your hopes. If your fondest hope is that Kerry wins, then dumps his platform, vote for that. If you agree with Bush on the war and want his protection, go for it. If you agree with a third party most of all, vote for it. The choir can't include the notes you don't sing, so we kind of need you to sing them. But if a really big choir shows up on Election Day and votes, regardless of who wins the politicians will be somewhat scared. Increasing turnout makes them nervous.

It seems to me that fearmongering and negative advertising will continue as long as we let it. If we vote, and we vote our hopes rather than our fears, we can slowly mold the world into a more comfortable shape. I've by no means dumped the anarchist theory that if voting changed anything it would be illegal. I continue to think there's a lot to that, but there also seems to be a window of opportunity to make some significant changes in the two- or three-election time frame. A lot of big changes were made in the US system at several points in the past, often right after a war, and the system grew to accommodate a wider community. It needs to continue to grow, and that only happens when we make it happen.

We're not the only ones thinking about these issues. For instance, I close with two quotes from a recent roundtable at the New School (transcribed in the August 2004 issue of Harper's):

[Ron Daniels:] We need a transformative vision, one advancing the notion that America can be more than it is today for average, ordinary people. The Democratic Party should advocate a program of basic rights, like the one enjoyed by many social democratic countries in Europe. Americans really feel that they have the best standard of living in the world. They don't, but they don't know they don't. Virtually every nation in Western Europe has universal health care. In Sweden, Norway, and Holland, the social benefits are so generous that poverty has practically been eliminated. Wages in most European countries now outpace wages in the United States.

[Ralph Nader:] The impassioned political argument in American society today should be the one over the sovereignty of corporations and their entrenchment into every institutional system. The giant multinational corporations set the parameters and the paradigms. They get into kids' minds at age two, or three, or four. Every day another frontier falls to commercial intrusion. And when that happens, we begin to lose our sovereignty. We slowly lose the structure we have developed to defend the people, which is our national government.

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