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How the 1 Percent Always Gets Its Way

Here's why plutocrats control our politics: Corporate America knows both parties are up for sale.

Photo Credit: GraphicGeoff


What is most striking about the present is not the virtues of moderation but of the potential power of conviction. One detects, behind all the anxiety about ‘extremists,’ ‘radicals,’ and ‘militant minorities,’ a degree of envy. On the Right there is a group with enough commitment to a shared project that is willing and able to disrupt the ordinary functioning of government. If only the Left had such wherewithal. We might, at the very least, get something more than than the economically stagnant, politically oppressive Mugwumpery of the Democratic Party.” —  Jacobin’s Alex Gourevitch 

This trenchant passage about liberals’ reaction to the Tea Party summarizes a hugely significant yet little discussed truism: American politics has been  inexorably lurching to the right not only because of the extremism of the Tea Party, but also because of a lack of Tea Party-like cohesion, organization and energy on the left. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to that sad reality including a successful war on the labor movement; a campaign finance system that makes conservative oligarchs even more powerful than they already are; and a mediasphere that ignores principles and tells liberals everything must be seen exclusively in partisan red-versus-blue terms. One factor, though, stands out for how it so destructively shapes the assumptions that define our political discourse. That factor can be called “liberal washing.”

Similar to  green washing or so-called  “gay washing”/“rainbow washing,” liberal washing is all about wrapping corporate America’s agenda in the veneer of fight-for-the-little-guy progressivism, thus portraying plutocrats’ radical rip-off schemes as ideologically moderate efforts to rescue the proles.

Liberal washing has always been around, of course. But it has really risen to prominence — and dominance — in modern times. Indeed, one of the most reliable political axioms of the last 30 years is this: If corporate America cooks up a scheme to rip off the middle class, Republicans will provide the bulk of the congressional votes for the scheme — but enough establishment-credentialed liberals inevitably will endorse the scheme to make it at least appear to be mainstream and bipartisan. Yes, it seems no matter how venal, underhanded or outright corrupt a heist may be, there always ends up being a group of icons with liberal billing ready to drive the getaway car.

The most reliable way to liberal-wash something is to get a famous Democrat to support it. This is because even though many Democratic politicians, party officials, operatives and pundits are neither liberal nor progressive, the media nonetheless usually portrays all people affiliated with the Democratic Party as uniformly liberal on all issues.

The famous examples of liberal washing come from the White House. A few decades ago, Democratic President Bill Clinton liberal-washed corporatist schemes like NAFTA and financial deregulation. Today, it is Democratic President Barack Obama liberal-washing the insurance industry’s healthcare initiatives and now  joining with a handful of  Democratic legislators to liberalwash – and legitimize – the right-wing crusade to slash Social Security benefits.

But, then, as evidenced by just the last few months of news, liberal washing also operates just as powerfully in other political arenas.

In the Congress, for example, the NSA surveillance programs that  so enrich private contractors were frantically liberal-washed by (among others) California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.) In that case, the liberal washing served as a handsome payback for the private surveillance contracting industry that bankrolls the California lawmaker’s  election campaigns and her  family.

Likewise, in the think tank sector, the  Center for American Progress (where I once worked many years ago) is next week liberal-washing Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and another Goldman executive. That’s right: According to the Beltway’s most prominent liberal think tank, the bailed out bank isn’t the  Great Vampire Squid that helped destroy the economy. It is, instead, according to CAP, an icon of “shared social goals in areas like housing, clean energy and — most recently — preventive social services.” Such liberal washing is a clear P.R. coup for Goldman Sachs — one it was probably hoping for when, according to  the Nation magazine, Goldman Sachs became one of CAP’s  many corporate donors no doubt looking to be liberal-washed.