Power of Anti-Government Propaganda

Exclusive: By many standards, President Obama has done a remarkable job, steering the U.S. and the world away from a global depression and enacting reforms to benefit millions of Americans. But he has fought against a powerful dynamic of modern U.S. politics, a hatred of the federal government, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

As Campaign 2012 ends, it is clear that perhaps the most profound transformation of American politics in recent decades has been the Right’s successful demonization of the federal government and its role in national life. Tens of millions of voters, especially white men, buy into Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “government is the problem.”

This animosity toward the federal government explains not only the Tea Party’s victories in 2010 but the buoyancy of Mitt Romney’s candidacy in 2012 despite his stunningly dishonest campaign and his off-putting political persona.

President Barack Obama talking to a voter from a Chicago field office on Election Day. (Photo credit: barackobama.com)

The hard truth for liberals and progressives is that the Right’s imposing propaganda machinery can make pretty much make anything into anything, whatever serves the Right’s ideological and political needs, while the Left has nothing to compare to this right-wing capability.

For instance, the Right’s propaganda has convinced many Americans of a bogus historical narrative which has the Framers enacting the Constitution as a states’-rights document designed to have a weak central government when the reality was nearly the opposite.

The key Framers, James Madison and George Washington, organized the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to rid the young country of a governing document, the Articles of Confederation, that declared the states “sovereign” and “independent” and gave the federal government very limited powers. The Constitution stripped out the language about state sovereignty and made federal law supreme.

As Washington had noted earlier in supporting one of Madison’s ideas to give the federal government authority over interstate commerce “the proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure.

“We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.”

Washington had personally witnessed the dysfunction of the Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War when the “sovereign” states balked at sending promised supplies and money to his Continental Army.

The Commerce Clause

After the war, Washington recognized the need to build a national infrastructure of canals and roads to enable the sprawling young nation to grow and to succeed. That practical interest became a key factor for Madison as he devised the new Constitution with an explicit clause giving the federal government power over national commerce, the so-called Commerce Clause.

In Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison described major construction projects made possible by the powers in the Commerce Clause. “[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements,” Madison wrote. “Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.

“The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.”

The Framers expressed through the Constitution what might be called a Founding Pragmatism. The Articles of Confederation weren’t working because the central government was too weak so the likes of Washington and Madison scrapped the Articles and created a strong central government under the Constitution.

Their interest was more in devising a system that would protect the nation’s hard-won independence and to thwart foreign commercial encroachment than in imposing some rigid ideology of liberty. After all, many Founders viewed freedom in a very restricted sense at least by modern standards applying it mostly to white men. In those years, slave-ownership was widespread and married women were legally subordinated to their husbands.

When the Constitution was publicly unveiled in 1787, Madison’s constitutional masterwork drew fierce opposition from defenders of the old order who became known as the Anti-Federalists. They immediately recognized what Madison, Washington and the other Federalists were up to.

Dissidents from Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention wrote: “We dissent because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government.” [See David Wootton, The Essential Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.]

It’s true that some of the Anti-Federalists were a bit hyperbolic in their concerns. But there can be no doubt that the Constitution consolidated under the new central government the power to act on matters of national interest, including to promote the “general welfare.”

Still, the Founding dispute over the balance between federal and state powers didn’t disappear after the Constitution was narrowly ratified. In particular, Southern states bristled at the imposition of federal authority, leading eventually to the Civil War in 1860. Even after the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, white Southerners continued to resist federal demands for equal treatment of former black slaves and their descendants.

Economic Necessities

The spirit of Washington’s and Madison’s pragmatism reemerged in the 1930s in the economic sphere. Laissez-faire capitalism had failed, marred by a series of financial panics and recessions through the latter half of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, finally culminating in Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

At that point, President Franklin Roosevelt invoked the broad powers of the Constitution to impose regulations on Wall Street, to organize a national effort to put Americans back to work, to legalize labor unions, and to expand the nation’s infrastructure. His New Deal also created a limited safety net for Americans who were unable to work or who lost their jobs due to the vicissitudes of capitalism.

Subsequent presidents built on Roosevelt’s reforms, through such measures as the GI Bill, which helped World War II veterans buy houses and return to school, and the Interstate Highway System, which made transportations faster and cheaper. The federally funded Space Program provided a powerful impetus to technological development, and Medicare addressed the problem of families being impoverished to pay for medical treatment of senior citizens.

Overall, the reforms from the 1930s through the 1960s created the Great American Middle Class, which in turn fueled more economic and productivity growth. As Washington and Madison might have appreciated, the pragmatism of their founding document had helped make the United States the envy of the world.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government also began enforcing the legal framework for equality that had been enacted nearly a century earlier after the Civil War. The South’s walls of segregation were battered down by a combination of brave civil rights activists and a supportive national government.

That federal intervention, however, revived the old conflicts over states’ rights, with many white Southerners furious that they could no longer marginalize, humiliate and terrorize blacks. Under Richard Nixon, the Republicans also spotted an opportunity to peel off Southern states from the Democrats by appealing to these racial antagonisms.

The 1970s marked an important political turning point in the United States with many middle-class Americans having forgetten how they and their parents benefited from the New Deal, with many working-class whites resentful of gains by minorities, and with frustration building over a decline in American dominance in the world. The Vietnam War was lost; oil-producing states were banding together to raise oil prices; inflation soared; foreign competition increased; wages began to stagnate; and the environment became a concern.

The Right detecting an opening amid these public resentments began to pour vast sums of money into creating a right-wing propaganda system that combined sophisticated think tanks with extensive media outreach to the American people. The overriding message was that Big Government was the problem, interfering with states’ rights, corporate autonomy and individual liberty.

The Left inadvertently magnified the success of the Right’s new strategy by shutting down many progressive publications, downplaying the importance of information, and refocusing on “local organizing” about local issues. “Think Globally, Act Locally” became the Left’s new slogan, even as the Right began waging a national “war of ideas.”

The Rise of Reaganism

The stage was set for the former actor Ronald Reagan to emerge as a transformational figure in U.S. politics, playing to white racism with comments about “welfare queens” and ridiculing the work of government with the old joke: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

During Reagan’s First Inaugural Address, he declared that “government is the problem” and he soon enacted drastic cuts in the income tax rates for the wealthy. This policy of wealth redistribution to the upper levels was justified by a novel economic theory called “supply-side economics,” which held that the rich would then invest in new factories and other businesses, thus creating new jobs and improving productivity.

However, Reaganomics proved terribly flawed. The rich invested relatively little in U.S. manufacturing which continued to decline, while the well-to-do lavished themselves with luxury goods and showed little patriotism in where they did put their money, favoring fast-growth foreign countries, not the United States.

Yet, the Right’s propaganda system now fueled by the diversion of money to the upper classes continued to expand with right-wing media moguls buying up or starting up all sorts of new outlets, from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and eventually the Internet.

The anti-government message became pervasive, sometimes cleverly tailored to specific interest groups, such as young white men who were told that they had become the victims of “political correctness” when they faced punishment for uttering racial or sexist epithets. Even as millions of Americans were pushed down the ladder of personal success, many kept believing that the federal government was somehow at fault.

The Right also devoted some of its vast supply of money to assigning “scholars” the task of reframing the Founding narrative by cherry-picking a few quote out of context to transform Framers like Madison into federal-government-hating, states’-rights-loving ideologues.

Much was made of Madison’s efforts to downplay how radically he had expanded federal power under the Constitution and his agreement to add the Tenth Amendment as a sop to the Anti-Federalists, though it had little real meaning since it only reserved to the states and individuals powers not granted to the federal government under the Constitution, when those grants of power were already quite extensive.

One-Sided Argument

But the Right made its loud propaganda case often unopposed. By the 1990s, the Left’s media had shriveled to irrelevance and the mainstream media was increasingly intimidated by right-wing attack groups that would go after individual journalists who could be labeled “liberal.”

In this hostile climate, many Democrats also scurried to the center and struggled to protect the core programs of the 1930s and 1960s, the likes of Social Security and Medicare. But they made major concessions on issues like Wall Street regulations, enabling freewheeling casino capitalism to return.

The consequences of decades of Reaganomics and hostility to “guv-mint” landed on the American electorate just weeks before Election 2008 when Wall Street experienced its worst financial crash since the Great Depression.

The collapse helped Democrat Barack Obama to become the first African-American U.S. President, but the underlying ideological realities hadn’t changed. The Republicans recognized that fact and immediately went to work seeking to ensure that Obama would be a one-termer, even if that meant worsening the suffering of Americans.

Drawing from the power of the Right’s propaganda machinery, the Tea Party quickly emerged as a potent force in U.S. politics. And, as Obama futilely tried to gain some bipartisanship in Congress, the Republicans worked to make his political life miserable and the country as ungovernable as possible.

Their success can be measured in the Republican congressional victories in 2010 and the closeness of the election in 2012 as Obama sought to refashion the argument for an effective federal government as a fight to protect the embattled middle class.

However, Obama found himself arguing against a powerful and longstanding dynamic: how tens of millions of Americans had been taught to hate their own government.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

13 comments for “Power of Anti-Government Propaganda

  1. Frances in California
    November 8, 2012 at 16:16

    Sigh . . . borat, instead of posting your frustration, why don’t you poke holes in Paul Street’s long (very long) post? It’s begging for it!

  2. Vivek Jain
    November 7, 2012 at 11:18

    thanks to Obama http://petras.lahaine.org/?p=1887

    also see:

    [E]ven the financial elite itself was somewhat surprised at the extent to which president Obama was determined to shield them from citizen rage. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s supposedly “transformative” presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown. “My administration is the only thing between you and
    the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

    For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

    – Paul Street

    Barack Obama… and the broader Obama phenomenon (which dates in the outward political culture from his instantly famous Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention in the late July of 2004) is distinctive … in the astonishing extent to which he, his marketers and the corporate media have been able to convince left-leaning liberals and progressives and many ordinary people that he is on their side and that his special centrist, supposedly non- or post-ideological brand of so-called progressivism is the most that could ever be attained on the road to a better society and politics.

    Selling that conviction is no small part of why Obama was hired by the American ruling class and given the job of president. It’s not for nothing that Goldman Sachs gave Obama $900,000 a small part of the astonishing $37.5 million Obama got from the finance, insurance and real estate industries during the last election cycle. It’s not for nothing that Obama got t
    hree fourths of his campaign cash from people giving more than $200 – the same big donor percentage as George W. Bush in 2004. It’s not for nothing that Obama set new records in corporate election funding and achieved a level of fawning corporate media love that is almost beyond belief.

    What much of the American state-capitalist elite wanted is somebody who can give the American corporate system and empire a much-needed public relations makeover, a re-branding as they put it. Obama is the Empire’s New Clothes. The masters wanted their rotten old profits system repackaged as something truly new and different in the wake of the long national and global Bush-Cheney nightmare. As they say in elite advertising journals and editorial pages, “Brand Obama” is the new and improved, outwardly progressive, democratic, and human face for that damaged product line called “Brand USA. The Bush and Cheney “reign of error” did profound damage to popular perceptions of American capitalism, power and empire at home and abroad. The political class needed someone who could give the system a vivid new slate-cleaning aura of novelty and freshness while leaving core dominant institutions and ideologies intact.

    – Paul Street

  3. Hillary
    November 7, 2012 at 10:19

    Rehmat ,

    May we thank you on behalf of all who are interested in information.

    Is how we will hopefully find solutions and your links are so informative.

    Your Patience with these Zionist posters is super human.

    Our MSM is so really hopeless .


    • Frances in California
      November 8, 2012 at 16:14

      Borat, you just lost credibility entirely by degrading your post to ad hominem attacks. If you have a real argument, state it and avoid becoming that which you say you abhor.

  4. Marc McKenzie
    November 6, 2012 at 22:50

    That’s a damned good question. Every g-damned comment he makes ALWAYS includes some line of nonsense about Israel and Jews. And sadly, as far as I know, you’re the first person I’ve seen call him out on it.

    I could be wrong, of course. Maybe others have tried. But Rehmat’s swill just comes across (as Harlan Ellison put it) adolescent behavior on the level of a baby showing his pee-pee.

    An antisemitic baby, it seems….

  5. Lynne Gillooly
    November 6, 2012 at 18:47

    The corporate right simply followed the 3 step recipe outlined by Joseph Goebbels
    1. Always have an enemy (Obama, Muslims, Gays, Immigrants etc)
    2. Always be the Uber Patriot (see Tea Party and Fox news)
    3. Always have the means to saturate and repeat and repeat and repeat your message until it becomes the TRUTH. (see talk radio after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1986)

    There is NO accountability or punishment for outrgiht lies. If you control .the message you control what stories will be heard and how they will be framed.
    Goebbels said if you follow those 3 steps you can control a people any where at any time. It happened in Germany and it is happening here.

    • F. G. Sanford
      November 6, 2012 at 23:42

      The tragedy is that so few people see it for what it is. They have different scapegoats and they don’t wear jackboots, but the software that runs the program is exactly the same. What we see in America is what I call, “Kinder gentler fascism”. They wear smiley faces and flag pins instead of arm bands and party buttons, and carry crosses instead of swastika banners.

  6. hammersmith
    November 6, 2012 at 13:47

    How did the left, democrats, liberals, progressives get into this mode of knee jerk defense of the federal government? It is pitiful. The government you are defending exists only in your minds.

    • Frances in California
      November 8, 2012 at 16:11

      No, hammersmith, it does not. I’ve started subscribing to a lot of informative .gov sites. Take FEMA for expample: there are massive efforts all over the nation for citizens to be informed and educated about national infrastructure, programs for seniors, help for small businesses. Privatization is a Trojan Horse, meant only to further enrich the have-mores (as W. was delighted to point out). To learn why we all should pay taxes, look at what Bechtel tried to do to Bolivia’s water.

  7. bobzz
    November 6, 2012 at 13:24

    For Obama to win, he will have to overcome the truly despicable machinations of the Republican party operatives. To illustrate what I mean see this video from Democracy Now: http://www.democracynow.org/2012/11/6/in_ohio_african_american_turnout_threatened

  8. F. G. Sanford
    November 6, 2012 at 12:53

    What they hate isn’t government. What they hate is DEMOCRACY. Despite the protestations of patriotic motivation, the object of their scorn is their fellow citizens. Until their hypocrisy is routinely attacked for the false patriotism it represents, they will continue to get traction with this nonsense. How can anyone claim to love their country, yet so transparently hate the most vulnerable among their fellow countrymen?

    • marie
      November 6, 2012 at 16:11

      What they hate is PAYING ANYTHING to anyone else…. Good lord what can you say about a candidate who took 10 Million dollars from the FDIC and deducts over $70,000 per year per horse….

    • EdF
      November 8, 2012 at 15:29


      While there are problems with both parties, to say they are equally as guilty of the problems in American is “dumb, distracted and delusional.”

      When did the Republicans fight for social security, Medicare, health care for all, safe drugs, safe foods, etc.?

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