Apocalypse Now: Seriously, It's Time for a Major Rethink About Liberal and Progressive Politics
As the editor of AlterNet for 20 years, I have read and seen the entire range of horrendous and growing problems we face as a society and a planet virtually every day. It is not just climate change, or ISIL, or Ferguson, or poverty and homelessness, or more misogynistic murdering of women, or the Democrats about to lose the Senate as Obama gets more unpopular. It is much, much more. Every day, it passes by before my eyes. At AlterNet, there are no issue silos—there is just the open faucet of depressing political information coming and going every hour of every day (with the occasional story of success and inspiration).
So I am sorry to share my deep-seated opinion, which should jibe with anyone who is paying attention. After decades of engagement in progressive politics and media, it is very clear to me: we progressives, liberals, common-sense people, are losing badly to the conservative business state, the tyranny of massively expanding tech companies, theocratic right-wing forces and pervasive militarism, home and abroad. By virtually every measure, things are getting worse. And things are trending much, much worse in ways we can easily measure, like inequality, climate, militarization of police forces, etc., and in ways that are more psychological and emotional.
Americans are very pessimistic: 76 percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal poll did not feel confident that their children’s generation will have a better life than theirs. That’s up from 60 percent in 2007. Optimism for Americans peaked in 2001. The percentage of American adults who believe the country is on the wrong track jumped eight percentage points just this summer, to 71 percent, the WSJ poll found.
And Americans' dark views of the future are rational, as their lives have become so much more difficult and depressing. People are working longer hours, working far past previous retirement age—if they can retire at all. Many Americans do not take vacations. And many Americans of all ages can't find good jobs, or can only find low-paying and often part-time work, which causes their lifestyles to plummet. College graduates are burdened with heavy debt.
Younger generations know that the perhaps romantic notion of the American Dream, for most people, lies in the trash bin. Over the past 15 years there was more than a 50 percent increase in people thinking there is a lack of opportunity in America (it is now just about half of all Americans). And 59 percent of Americans believe the American Dream is impossible to achieve for most people.
In terms of inequality, the Huffington Post wrote: "more than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of all Americans, lived below the poverty line last year, the Census Bureau reported.…The annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for a person and $23,550 for a family of four."
Poverty is particularly dire for single mothers: A third of all families headed by single women were in poverty last year—that's 15.6 million such households. The black poverty rate was 27.2 percent.… More than 11 million black Americans lived below the poverty level last year. About 42.5 percent of the households headed by single black women were in poverty. The Hispanic poverty rate was 23.5 percent.”
The Long March Toward Conservative Corporate Dominance
The relentless push for the conservative anti-government business agenda, that has created most of the reality described above, has been underway for more than 40 years, since the age of Reagan. The infamous Koch brothers, and dozens of very conservative, superrich allies, joined the right-wing corporate bandwagon post-Reagan, when their Libertarian electoral efforts fell flat. They used their massive money, infrastructure and energy to turn the existing propaganda, political and business lobbying machine into a juggernaut.
So now the corporate, business-state power nexus, which includes the political arms that have a range of conservative political entities—from fundamentalist religious groups to the Tea Party—has it all. There are large numbers of organizers, highly visible gatherings of the faithful, and a powerful media and online presence—complemented too often by an eagerly compliant corporate media which repeats reactionary and business state talking points like stenographers (as often even does progressive media). There are thousands of paid conservative talking heads on all the news shows, lavishly funded think-tanks, and the omnipresent Fox which dominates cable news and influences public attitudes more than any other media. And the leaders of this conservative colossus really hate to lose. Thus they hold people accountable to get results. They are relentless, not unlike many other fundamentalists across the globe, who are intent on imposing their will and crushing their enemies.
Sure, the torch-keepers of the corporate agenda may lose elections along the way, but they now can pretty much stop any major laws from passing in America on the national level. They have tilted our politics far enough in their direction, that the public at large lacks the leverage to regain the balance, to protect most things we believe in. It is not clear when, or even if we can regain the balance.
Blips on the Screen, But the Larger Truth
Of course, there are a few blips of good news here and there. We live in a complex society with some contradictions. But often when the occasional success gets appropriately celebrated, like gay marriage, it is often seen as proof of how things are going to change, and not as the anomaly it is with very particular ingredients. Public opinion has shifted on gay marriage, and obviously among leaders like Hillary Clinton, and even some conservatives. That is progress. But we would have no gay marriage if there wasn't huge money in favor of it, if powerful people didn't have skin in the game, and if it threatened corporate power and profit, which it doesn't, since gay marriage has been somewhat of a boon for the business sector, and many corporations support it.
At this point, it is a basic tenet of American politics that corporate power rules the roost. Nothing significant will become law in America if corporate power, profits, global competitive advantage, military might, national security and privatization are in any significant way threatened. And while I personally understand the motivation in a situation of dire straits, I am weary of what is often knee-jerk optimism among some progressive cheerleaders, about how things are going to change, something better is right around the corner, the pendulum is going to swing back, what goes around comes around, etc. People: it is not going to happen. Every indicator signals that things are going to get worse; perhaps much worse.
Another favorite line many smart people utter, almost every day out of some kind of unmoored hope is: "If only the American people knew how bad these things are, like children's hunger, the wage gap or how rich the .001 percent is, they would get angry and do something about it." Well, no. First, most people know how bad things are—they don't need to have the exact statistic to understand it. They live it every day.
The bigger problem is that people don't know what to do. They are overwhelmed on the Internet, asked to sign dozens of petitions a week, give money to a myriad of uncoordinated, stand-alone causes. But the truth is, the political system is blocked in almost every way, as never before. There is voter suppression to the extremely conservative Supreme Court and the Citizen's United decision. There is massive lobbying budgets (analyst James Thurber estimated that the actual number of working lobbyists in Washington was close to 100,000 and the industry brings in $9 billion annually) and corruption on many levels. There is often what seems like police-state repression and the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, drug use, and of immigrants, people of color, and often those who venture to protest and express their constitutional rights.
Things may feel relatively fine for many educated white folks living on the coasts and in cities and university towns, but this will not last. Sooner or later, the rising tides of massive inequality and increased repression will affect most of us.
Who to Vote for?
For most people, federal elections change nothing. Rarely is there someone to vote for who might even try to shake up the system. As research has shown, the entire elected apparatus in America serves the wealthy almost exclusively—and especially those who pay for their campaigns.
In New York, for instance, Senator Chuck Schumer, perhaps the second or third most powerful person in the Senate, is a staunch advocate of protecting the special tax status of hugely wealthy hedge funders. He is strongly resistant to even modest reforms, like a tiny transaction tax on stock trading advocated by the United Nurses and many others that would bring more money for much-needed programs and infrastructure. But come election time, if you don't vote for Chuck, your option is likely a conservative Republican who is even worse. What an option.
Sorry to say, but the "arc of history" is not bending toward justice—and hasn't for the last 50 years, since shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached it, was assassinated. Maybe some time in the future, people will be able to claim that beautiful phrase for truth. But will it be in our lifetime? I don't think I would take that bet. But then, I am older than many of you reading this. So I do hope you all will figure it out.
We Can't Keep Doing the Same Thing
It's my observation that many people, often comfortable, highly educated people, who control the progressive establishment (the foundations, the wealthy individuals, the think-tanks, the large, heavily funded Washington groups) continue to do the same thing over and over as if things will actually change by continuing the same path. People are fond of calling that repetitive compulsion "insanity," and they have a point. There are notable exceptions to every one of my general statements throughout this article, but I'm talking about the big picture.
Sure, every once in a while there is an incremental change. Some positive things have happened internally within the Obama administration, despite the rabid right-wing opposition. But the Obama administration deported a record 438,421 unauthorized immigrants in fiscal year 2013, continuing a streak of stepped-up enforcement that has resulted in more than two million deportations since Obama took office, newly released Department of Homeland Security data show.
Dan Froomkin, writing at the Intercept, insists that in terms of the building of an excessive national security state, "in a lot of ways, we’re worse off today than we were under George W. Bush....There will be no snapping back to a pre-Bush-era respect for basic human dignity and civil rights. Thanks to Obama, it’s going to be a hard, long fight. In some cases, Obama has set even darker precedents than his predecessor. Massively invasive bulk surveillance of Americans and others has been expanded, not constrained. This president secretly condemns people to death without any checks or balances, and shrugs as his errant drones massacre innocent civilians. Whistleblowers and journalists who expose national security wrongdoing face unprecedented criminal prosecution."
As for Obama and the climate crisis, take a look at Mark Hertsgaard's comprehensive review in Harpers of the Obama environmental record. It is a depressing read. And there's every indication that the presumed next Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a big advocate of fracking and would be worse on climate.
Yes, we do have Obamacare and that will help millions of poor people, as long as they don't live in most red states. But Obamacare, for the most part, made the healthcare and drug companies happy because there are no cost controls. There is no public option, or single-payer model, and our government still can't negotiate with drug companies for more fair prices on our behalf.
So it is quite bad. Yet year in and year out, we in the progressive universe write essentially the same books and articles (though the story does get worse), advocate for the same policies, go after the same grants, and meet with each other at the same think-tanks and conferences, because that is what we have always done.
However, and I think this is crucial, very little brain power, funding and large-scale energy is invested in serious organizing, and in thinking how political power can be leveraged to even remotely move toward the sensible or sometimes grandiose ideas the progressive establishment spends its time thinking up. We don't have to read Thomas Piketty's dense prose to understand how much worse the currently unacceptable inequality is going to be 10 years from now, or even to try and guess how many trillions of dollars of wealth are sitting hidden offshore, or in countries like Ireland, where one of our "favorite" corporations, Apple, keeps billions to avoid paying taxes.
We all can easily imagine many ways our world could be better. That is the really easy part. We also have all the analysis we need. We have access to a tremendous amount of information from the data-producing establishment to understand and prove the existence and cause of virtually every social problem. But we do not have a clue how to address these myriad of problems in a hardcore, political way and defend our values of fairness, inclusion and responsibility.
This is in stark contrast to the conservative corporate state that dominates in order to relentlessly cut social programs, lower taxes, privatize government, erode women's rights, and on and on. Too often, all we have is the progressive religion of eternal hope and sometimes magical thinking, that change will come in some way and at some point. Yes, change will come, but it might not be the change we want. It might make things quite a bit worse than they are right now.
Is There Any Organizing?
There has been both a sharp decline in union membership and influence, as anti-union campaigns from Reagan to the present day have decimated a chunk of the union movement. The state of Michigan, the birthplace of the autoworkers and the labor vision, is now a "right-to-work" state. Some unions spend many millions of dollars fighting each other over decreasing numbers of members.
The same can be said of community organizing. Over the past 40 years, organizing has shrunk dramatically. Part of the blame is that large foundations, which represent individual and corporate wealth, have given billions of dollars to organizations with the end result of moving away from efforts to exercise power, to make trouble and push for change. Instead, they study things and become calm advocates for policy shifts. Often progressives have their own revolving doors between non-profits and foundation jobs. The result is a philanthropic non-profit establishment that appears to fit in too comfortably with the status quo, despite thousands of people within it who are unhappy with their feelings of impotence and lack of change.
There is still some semblance of organizing going on in America—in California, Kentucky and Minnesota—and by groups like PICO, the Domestic Workers Alliance, Partnership for Working Families, National People's Alliance and U.S. Action, to name some of the key players. But indicative of how modest this organizing is, the overall budgets of the largest national groups combined is $130-$150 million, roughly in the range of one year of the budget for mainstream environmental group National Resources Defense Council and for the ACLU. And this is the same ACLU that supports the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision, treating money as speech, corporations as people—one of the truly horrendous developments in American politics in the last decade.
Many progressives, myself included, have the luxury of letting our imaginations play because our lives, our lifestyles, our families, our futures, are not dependent on having most of the major and intractable problems solved, at least in the short term. In this sense, climate change could finally be the great game-changer, since it directly affects families and generations to come. But there is little evidence, at this point, that the wealthy elites and corporate leaders in America are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect the future.
This Weekend's Conference on Technological Utopia
One reason for this rant at this moment is that a gaggle of major progressive thinkers and advocates have come together in NYC at Cooper Union, organized by my old friend Jerry Mander, formerly a guru at the Public Media Center in San Francisco. Mander is perhaps best known for his somewhat culty, much-loved 1978 anti-technology critique, 4 Arguments For the Elimination of Television. He made the case that problems with television are fundamental to the medium and the technology, and consequently cannot be reformed. For this current conference Mander's organizing principle is to critique the technological utopia and get people to change their consciousness.
Hmm. I'm not sure that beyond a crowd of very wealthy libertarian venture capitalists and technology stars and their minions in Silicon Valley and the accompanying "bro culture," many people still think there is anything utopian about technology at this point. And I hope that all that brain power downtown in the Village spends some time thinking about how to politically leverage all those big ideas, and think hard about how to ameliorate some of the worst excesses of the technology revolution.
One place Jerry could start would be by making the same point he did in his earlier book, by writing 4 Arguments—or perhaps 10 or 20— For the Elimination of the Internet. Arguably, the Internet is much worse than television was as a distracting influence back in the old days. These days, television seems a blessing compared to the Internet, which is the home of rampant misogyny, racism, polarization and invasion of privacy. Plus, it’s a huge multiplier of our massive wealth gap, with billions of dollars going to a small group of almost all white men mostly with a libertarian bent who don't really believe in government providing services or a social safety net or much of anything we call progressive values. (Although they do think people should be able to smoke pot.)
Two massive companies dominating our everyday lives, Facebook and Google, are fundamentally shaping our news and pushing journalists and media to write about and cover superficial things they would not have in the past to get the eyeballs they need to make money. This is not a good thing. As Aaron Sankin writes at the Daily Dot's Kernal: "It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Facebook is to online news sites, which live and die at the whims of the social network’s algorithm....Once you stop to think about that, however, the entire system seems insane. If you’re a journalist, or even someone who cares about the role journalism plays in society, it’s utterly terrifying."
Why We Are Losing and What We Can Do
Very little happens in this country in the name of the public interest. The country is more polarized. The fundamentalists are attacking good sense and crushing progressive ideas. And sadly, too often we keep doing what we have always done. Among progressives and liberals we have great thinkers, comprehensive information, hundreds of compelling books about all of the horrors of the bank meltdown, of racism and trauma, of fears of climate change, and so much more.
But we have almost no investment from these big brains (and their organizations, which get a lot of the funding) about, not what should be changed, but how it can be changed. The stars of progressive America media, and the leaders of the liberal establishment are not organizers; they are not strategists. They really don't know how to leverage change in the way conservatives do. Everyone thinks it's someone else's job. But who is doing it? Community organizing is a ghost of what it was 30 years ago.
Some months ago, I wrote an article, "The 4 Plagues: Getting a Handle on the Coming Apocalypse," about the four especially powerful and pernicious overarching economic and political mechanisms operating in our country that are fundamentally responsible for the situation we are in. They are privatization, financialization, militarization and criminalization, which together are producing a steadily creeping authoritarianism—a new authoritarianism—to fit our times. Let’s call them the Four Plagues, or if we wish, “The Four Horsemen of Our Apocalypse,” from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.
Many people wrote that they found this article very helpful to understanding the bigger picture of how some fundamental elements of American-style capitalism and hegemony affects almost everything and are intricately connected; how the exploitation/lobbying/revolving door model of corporations is so finely honed that we often don't realize when our pocket is being picked; how hundreds of billions of dollars is being poured down rat holes in wars, but mainly passed through the pockets of our giant military contractors.
In response to the article, many people said to me: "You are going to write about the other side, the other half, the good news, aren't you?" It was as if people thought in tandems and balances. Many seemed to think that there is an ongoing equality between the bad and the good. At that point I said sure. I thought, of course I would write about the good stuff, and of course there are plenty of successes. There are great people working on crucial issues, and some cities like Seattle, New York and Portland have politics with a strongly progressive hue. But every time I sat down to try to write the good news piece I realized how comparatively little success there was and how inconsequential. When contemplating the fundamental issues of our times—corporate power, the climate crisis, inequality and poverty, racism, collective trauma, etc.—I realized I could not in good conscience make a strong good-news case.
So, now I am finally following up on that article—and I'm saying things are even worse. We need to get more radical, and more self-supporting, both financially and emotionally. I am not advocating for despair or for dropping out. But we absolutely need to work more locally. The old adage that "all politics is local" is still very true. It is clear that very little can be accomplished on the national level of law-making.
With the billions of dollars available in the liberal and progressive funding world, how do we get more of those resources to the local level, in the hands of local organizers and not outside experts? We need money and commitment to people who are invested in where they live, in their neighbors and community, who show, as they have in Detroit, amazing ingenuity, persistence and responsibility.
Let's not forget, 2010 was a huge political debacle for Democrats and progressives because the Obama people were too focused on themselves, and too busy trying to run a government. They abandoned the nitty-gritty politics in the states to the deep-pocketed right-wing. Our side lost huge ground when the right completely out-organized Democrats and gained control of the formerly blue states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and purple North Carolina. As a consequence, all sorts of bad policy is now law—much of it pushed and coordinated by ALEC.
And then those legislatures redrew the lines from the census, and made more safe districts for hardcore right-wingers, and protected their incumbents. Unpleasant, huh? The same situation will present itself in 2020. Will there be more powerful liberal and progressive groups in place in all those states and others? If not, the road to progressive oblivion will be further greased. For those who are electorally oriented, the next six years are very important if we are able to make headway electorally, which sadly is not going to happen in 2014, with a few notable exceptions.
In a recent AlterNet article by Amanda Marcotte, I was struck by this statistic about the extent of steady polarization going on in the country: "Previous Pew research shows the percentage of Americans who are ‘mostly’ or ‘consistently’ conservative has grown 50 percent from 18 percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2014, while the number of people considered liberal has remained the same."
The conservative propaganda apparatus is changing minds, convincing people that climate change is not a problem, that government is the problem, and motivating them to vote for increasingly extreme candidates in very red districts that are committed to paralyzing our government. For them it is a war; and they are not interested in compromise.
Most progressives are not prepared for a future where politics is even more dicey and dangerous than it is now. So we have to stop going through the motions of not producing change and get down to the basics where and when we can make a difference.
Let's do more political action with friends and colleagues. Let's agree that a higher level of popular political education and self-reflection is necessary. Let's build up ways in our neighborhoods, cities and towns, where progress can be made to protect ourselves from hostilities and repression from the hugely militarized police and the massive network of spying on us. More repression is bound to come.
It is time to take a hard look at why and how we have failed. And we need to rethink pretty much everything, along the way. As Robert Jensen writes in his mini book and on AlterNet, "We are all apocalyptic now."
In that light, I have started describing myself as a pragmatic apocalyptic. What that means is, there are huge problems on the horizon, likely severe crises ahead, and there is at present no light at the end of the tunnel. Let's stop fantasizing about all the ways our world should be when there isn't the remotest chance of those ideas coming to fruition anytime soon, if ever. Let's focus on what can be done, on building local and regional strength, on developing thousands of new organizers and fewer think-tankers, and bringing people together in ways they feel supported, as opposed to on their own, with no one at their backs.