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The Big Picture: A 40-Year Scan of the Right-Wing Corporate Takeover of America

Author and public intellectual Colin Greer tells us how we got where we are today. It's not a pretty picture, but hope is on the way.

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DH: Is it possible to have a popular movement against a disappointing Democratic president?

CG: I think it was in 1992, but only theoretically; it didn't happen. By the 1990s, because progressives in a sense had been disciplined by the reduced power of labor, by the new power of the right, the visceral fear that Republicans would be worse, and the fact that a certain amount of administration figures came from progressive organizations and might still influence policy, all contributed to a lack of action against Clinton policies  And there is another crucial point: by the time we get to late 1980s and 1990s, social movements on the left were essentially demobilized into NGOs and legislative agendas, so progressive politics became more about winning elections, seeking legislative reform,  and building not-for-profit institutions that represented progressive vision and options. There no longer was a base beyond labor, which was itself shrinking. 

DH: How sudden was this shift from more popular movements to foundation-funded projects? 

CG: It happened over time. The trends were growing in the early '70s because progressives had control over a lot of federal spending, and a lot of activists had access to all the major agencies. There was a kind of flourish of success and even progress under Nixon. Legislative efforts were working. We especially got environmental legislation, and it looked like the courts were on our side. Meanwhile the right, in earnest, started building both its base and its options, with think tanks, organizations and communications capacity. But by 1990, the left so to speak, except for labor, had become almost entirely dependent on foundation support, which was based in the IRS 501 (c) (3) tax structure which required grant recipients to be non-partisan. But it was influential at the level of government and so it felt like it could deliver through the lobbying capacity of NGOs and by winning in the electoral, legislative and judicial spheres. 

In the '80s, when they saw the right-wing agenda through Reagan taking serious root, many groups worked on voter registration to expand the electorate, but were constrained again by the IRS rules. It took a Jesse Jackson presidential campaign as a reminder that you need a popular base to move an agenda and to build a popular base to undercut the climate of low taxes, high profits, and the growing transfer of public assets into private control. Jackson created a social movement—he went to organized farmworkers, he worked with gay activists, he really did see that campaign as a progressive, social movement campaign.

But after Jackson (‘84 and ‘88) that kind of campaign mobilization didn't happen again until Obama. And Jackson did exactly what Obama did. He demobilized his campaign agency. He turned into a kind of not-for-profit organization, and Obama turned it into the Democratic Party. But they are two moments -- and it's interesting that both black figures produced the sense of a national movement. But the end of the Jackson campaign coincided with end of '80s, and that was where the Democratic Leadership Council, that Clinton led, emerged strongly and represented the shift to a "new progressive politics" where they made progressive mean something else. Imagine if the Jackson campaign had remained mobilized in relation to the Clinton administration and/or if the Obama campaign had remained live going into the 2010 elections when victories on the right were won by small margins.   

DH: I assume when you say progressive came to mean something else, it meant moderate? 

CG: In a sense once you had Murdoch and Fox and a growing conservative infrastructure, it labeled the DLC—transfused Democratic party—as the left. Any real left was marginalized into virtual invisibility and anonymity, the center was moved significantly to the right, and progressives increasingly pushed into protecting eroding rights and benefits, without a political infrastructure or national leadership of its own. In the electoral arena, in the media, and in the mainstream foundation world, moderate was called left or liberal, and leaders in pursuit of public office more and more have eschewed the liberal label by moving ever so profoundly to the right.

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