An open letter to America’s progressive billionaires
Dear Mr. Buffet, Mr. Gates, Mr. Turner, Mr. Soros, Ms. Winfrey, and any other hyper-rich types with progressive political leanings:
If this essay has, against all odds, somehow made its way to your desk, please, bear with me. It’s longish, but it winds eventually toward an exceedingly important conclusion. If you’ll give me a few minutes, I’ll do my best to reward your patience.
In the 2008 election, Barack Obama won a landmark political victory on a couple of prominent themes: “hope” and “change.” He has since been afforded ample opportunity to talk about these ideas, having inherited the nastiest economic quagmire in living memory and a Republican minority in Congress that has interpreted November’s results as a mandate to obstruct the public interest even more rabidly than it was doing before. Reactions among those of us who supported Obama have been predictably mixed, but even those who have been critical of his efforts to date are generally united in their hope that his win signaled the end of “movement conservatism” in the US.
There are perhaps reasons for optimism. Politics in America can be cyclical, and by that thinking our current reactionary hegemony may have run its natural course. The Millennial Generation, which is between 75-100 million strong and extremely active socially and politically, skews heavily away from the policies that have defined the nation since Reagan. And some believe that Obama is the sort of once-in-a-lifetime charismatic who, like John F. Kennedy, can redirect the course of the culture through sheer force of vision and will. If any or all of these things are true, then there is room for … hope.
But while hope is an occasionally helpful frame of mind, it’s no substitute for intelligence, insight, planning, hard work and cash.
As I consider the state of the Republic some 49 days into the Obama era, I find in that formulation a variety of reasons to worry. For starters, it strikes me that very few people – very few, even, of the most visible lights in the progressive firmament – truly understand the magnitude of the conservative climb to power or the nature of the strategy employed. It’s not well understood how long it took, for instance, or how complex the effort was, or how deeply the foundation was poured, or how much it cost. The shallowness of our popular history is a dangerous condition in an age of instant gratification, when winning a skirmish is all-too-easily mistaken for winning the war, and it’s nothing short of terrifying to think that some saw January 20 as the end of the struggle instead of the beginning.
Yes, it was a triumph, and we were right to pause and celebrate, to mark the achievement of a critical milestone, but afterward the collective sigh was nearly audible. I don’t want to overstate the effect, though. I’m not suggesting that a majority of American progressives think the hard part is over, that we can put our society on cruise control and that the wicked Republican Nosferatu is dead once and for all, because that’s simply not the case. Instead, I’m suggesting that we may not sufficiently understand the nature of our opponent and that the failure to stake it through the heart now, while it’s down, assures that it will rise from its all-too-shallow grave to terrorize us once more. The landscape has changed, for sure, but the fundamental engines that propelled the modern reactionary right to power in the first place are alive, well, and already hard at work plotting their resurrection.
The Long War Against America
Let’s take a second to understand a few of the relevant facts regarding the war that still rages around us.
1: The conservative revolution was a generation in the making. Those who laid the groundwork for the eventual ascent of the Republican kwisatz haderach took a long view – an astoundingly long view by American standards – and accepted the occasional tactical setback so long as the eternal march of the faithful continued. One of the godfathers of the movement, Daniel Bell, published his foundational The End of Ideology in 1960, and his intellectual contributions to the landscape we now inhabit can hardly be overstated. In The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), for instance, he gushed about the coming “information age” and painted a rather rosy picture of the life of the “information worker.” This new post-industrial age would be marked by certain significant shifts in axial principles, and among his more powerful claims was the assertion that growth in the information sector resulted necessarily in prestigious knowledge-based employment. Information sector jobs were depicted as automatically better-paying and more fulfilling.
Krishan Kumar’s 1978 retort (Prophecy and Progress: the Sociology of Industrial and Post-industrial Society) aptly demonstrated the fallacies in Bell’s reasoning. Information-based enterprises, like the industrial sector enterprises which preceded them, have a set of basic operational needs which are neither information nor expertise-based. A software operation, for example, requires the same custodial services as a manufacturing operation. Bell’s rhetoric, however, counts such menial employment by the same standards it uses for programmers and managers. In many practical respects, though, the daily operations of service sector businesses differ little from the industrial sector, and claims that a shift in the type of “product” offered from goods to services equals a change in the fundamental structure of employment ought to be greeted cautiously.
So, there you have a pointed exchange from Daniel Bell and Krishan Kumar, two men that you’ve probably never heard of. But ask yourself, which of the perspectives strikes you as rhetorically familiar? Which argument have you heard, and in service to what kinds of policies?
Right. And here’s how complete the rout was. The most enthusiastic parroting of Bell’s construction I’ve ever run across came from Al Gore when he was Vice President. The Democratic Vice President. Take this snippet from a 1994 speech to the International Telecommunications Union:
Approximately 60% of all US workers are “knowledge workers” — people whose jobs depend on the information they generate and receive over our information infrastructure. As we create new jobs, 8 out of 10 are in information-intensive sectors of our economy. And these new jobs are well-paying jobs for financial analysts, computer programmers, and other educated workers (Gore 1994).
One assumes “knowledge” companies don’t need janitors. Regardless, when we reach the point where our “liberal” leaders are reading directly from the script authored by conservative intellectuals, it’s safe to say that the progressive possibility is in deep, deep trouble.
2: The conservative revolution was built on a strong intellectual and academic foundation. (I do not, by the way, use the term “intellectual” to signify correctness or moral righteousness – one can be intellectual while being wrong and evil.) Given how effectively conservatives have kneecapped education in America, it’s remarkably ironic how important academics were to empowering the movement. Daniel Bell is noted above; he and other intellectuals like Irving Kristol, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk and those associated with a host of conservative “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution worked diligently to re-engineer the very DNA of America’s popular ideology. They sought to understand the collective psyche in ways that could be shifted, altered and exploited, and their efforts to deconstruct and re-encode our shared vocabulary is among the grandest achievements in the history of human propaganda. Turning “liberal” into a dirty word was barely the beginning.
These efforts mattered more than it is possible to quantify. As the neo-Marxist scholar Stuart Hall explains, the “battle of signification” is everything. Whoever wins the struggle to dictate to vocabulary used will win the debate.* Think about the abortion “debate” and the clever, almost-always unchallenged construction of “unborn human life.” If that phrase is allowed to stand, the pro-choicer has nearly zero chance of winning the argument.
3: The conservative movement was incredibly well-funded. And still is. One source estimates that between the late 1970s and late 1990s alone 12 major conservative foundations funneled hundreds of millions of dollars – at least – to think tanks, policy organizations, individual scholars, media apparatuses, legal organizations, advocacy groups and more. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch Family foundations, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Scaife Family foundations and the Adolph Coors Foundation are five of the biggest donors.
In 1988, the Olin Foundation alone distributed $55 million in grants. The Scaife family has donated more than $200 million over the years. Million dollar annual grants to individual think tanks are routine.
These Foundations have also been instrumental in creating the most famous think tanks. The Heritage Foundation, considered the leading think tank in America, was created in 1973 with $250,000 in seed money from brewery mogul Joseph Coors. The Cato Institute, the nation’s leading libertarian think tank, was founded in 1977 by the Koch family foundations. )
According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, the major conservative think tanks in Washington had a combined budget of $45.9 million, while the major progressive think tanks had a combined budget of $10.2 million. What this means is that far-right think tanks are better able to publicize their findings, stage more conferences, lobby harder for their policies, and present more and better-packaged information before Congress.
Not too put too fine a point on it, but conservative interests have a lot of cash and they’ve proven conclusively that they’re willing to invest it in programs that assure their continued political, social, cultural and economic domination.
And while I hate to oversimplify complex dynamics, it must be said that the points I have just made go a long way toward explaining the last 30+ years of American political history. Yes, there are other factors, but subtract the cash and the intellectual groundwork it bought and our current landscape would look dramatically different. Whether that’s a good thing I’ll let you decide for yourself. My opinion is probably obvious, but I’m not a billionaire.
What Must Be Done
In The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman does a meticulous job of explaining how we got here from there – “there” being the New Deal society that stands today as the Golden Age of American prosperity. Toward the end he sounds an optimistic note, suggesting that some of the factors that played key roles in the rise of movement conservatism are waning – racism, for instance – and that without their broad mobilizing power the conservatives are in deep kim-chee. There is ample evidence supporting his claims, so perhaps he’s right. I certainly hope so. But if I might return to my vampire metaphor from earlier, when you have the soul-sucking undead bastard down, you don’t stand around hoping. You drive a stake through its evil, demonic heart.
Right now, almost 50 days into the Obama administration, we have Dracula on the canvas. And this is where you, my friends, come in. The way we assure an enlightened future for our nation is to act, and act resolutely, to make sure that movement conservatism stays down. In order to accomplish this, we need to proceed along the following fronts:
We must empower progressive intellectuals the way the Right has empowered theirs. As researchers like George Lakoff have demonstrated, much of the conservative success emerged from how they framed issues and re-encoded the very language we all speak. Political lingustics is an important field – as noted earlier – and if we can successfully keep the English language from being transformed into Newspeak we will hamstring the conservative noise machine in a meaningful way.
However, Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute recently closed its doors and various of its brightest lights are currently seeking to find funds to build on its work. Put simply, the bright lights on the Right are living well while our brightest and best are, as is so often the case, struggling to survive.
We must restore credibility and integrity to the media. As I’ve noted elsewhere, things began to unravel in earnest when Reagan’s newly appointed FCC apparatchiks were allowed to decree, with a straight face, that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” Newspeak, indeed. Now reporting has been replaced by “fair and balanced” and there is a frighteningly real risk that journalism – real journalism – is dying.
Its future, if it has one, perhaps lies in endowment. I’ve heard a variety of ideas tossed around, including Mother Jones’ new tilt at non-profit journalism. I can’t say what the successful model will look like at this point, but if it emerges, it will center on the insulation of reporting and analysis from the influence of cash and spin.
We must revitalize our educational infrastructure around the imperatives of intellectual inquiry and critical thought. We have seemingly convinced ourselves that the only proper function of education is job training, and that’s an ideology that serves an identifiable master. Specifically, let’s ask ourselves who benefits when an ed system cranks out people with “marketable” skills but no capability for asking uneasy questions about their condition.
There is no surer innoculation against tyranny than a critically minded citizenry. To this end we must invest in education – and I say “invest” instead of “spend” because every dollar you spend is returned to you several times over – and invest mightily. Invest in educational innovation, in new ways of teaching everything from basic math and science to advanced reasoning skills. Invest heavily in early childhood reading programs, because nothing better energizes subsequent, lifelong learning. And most of all, invest in public education. The next time you hear somebody ranting about the marvels of vouchers and “competition” in education, remember a few things.
First, America has historically out-learned, out-taught, out-researched and out-innovated every nation on the face of the Earth. The people who did that were, in most cases, the products of public education.
Second, we’ve always had alternatives to public ed – “competition,” if you will. Private schools, parochial schools, and so on. If competition cured all ills, then how do we explain the state of contemporary public ed?
Third, we have more alternatives than ever today. We have the options noted in the previous item, plus Montessoris and Charters and again, all this competition seems not to have solved our problems.
Finally, the next time you hear rosy conservative rhetoric that seems at little at odds with the empirical world you live in, remember – we live in an age where the language has been re-tooled to serve the ends of a narrow minority. It’s possible, just possible, that you’re hearing propaganda instead of fact. And always feel free to backtrack the data. It may just come from one of those marvelously well-funded conservative “think tanks.”
In summary: Dear Progressive Billionaires, America needs your money. And I don’t mean a million here and million there. I mean hundreds of millions, even billions. If we are to realize any meaningful dreams of hope and change, we must have a world where our brightest and best can apply their minds to our shared problems as professionals. When their intellects are doing it for a living and ours are trying to carve out a couple hours after work, we lose. When their brightest minds are primarily concerned with crafting winning policy and ours are constantly distracted by desperate concerns about their ability to feed their families, they win.
Money isn’t everything, but since you’re a billionaire I’ll assume that you understand a thing or two about what it can accomplish.
Thanks for your time. If you find some value in what I’ve said but aren’t sure where to start, click the Contact button and drop me a line. I know people who are worthy of your generosity and people who will reward your support a thousand times over.
* See “The work of representation.” in Stuart Hall (ed.) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage/The Open University, 1997), 13-74.