Obama and the Left's Old Schism
My article mildly defending Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize drew a number of critical comments from readers who felt I was letting the President off too easily, essentially excusing his reluctance to fully reverse George W. Bush’s wars and crimes.
Some readers thought I was giving Obama a pass, too, when I faulted the American Left for its lack of an effective media infrastructure to challenge the Right in making a case with the American people – and thus making it easier for politicians (like Obama) to act more courageously.
The article, it seemed, had touched on a longstanding dispute among progressives regarding what they should demand from Democratic leaders.
Many progressives feel that an elected Democrat, especially a relatively progressive one like Obama, simply should do the right thing. If Obama falls short by making compromises with the Washington power structure or by judging that the broad American public might judge his actions as too liberal, these progressives see it as their duty to condemn him.
Others from this “purist” wing talk about putting pressure on Obama from the left to make him change his behavior – and they threaten to sit out elections or vote for third-party candidates if Obama or some other Democrat doesn’t live up to expectations.
However, another branch of progressives – let’s call them the “pragmatists” – recognize the daunting challenges that a liberal politician faces in the United States because the Right has built such a powerful propaganda apparatus, dominating the message reaching the American people through newspapers, magazines, books, cable TV, talk radio and the Internet.
When a liberal politician also has to deal with careerist mainstream journalists who bend to the right for self-protection – think CNN – “pragmatic” progressives agree that it is unrealistic to expect perfection from someone trying to advance a reformist agenda and maybe win the next election.
These conflicting viewpoints represent a schism on the Left that can be traced back at least four decades to Election 1968.
Then, the Vietnam War was raging; President Lyndon Johnson was struggling to end it through the Paris peace talks; and anti-war progressives were angry at him for both the war and the strong-arm tactics at the Chicago convention that secured the presidential nomination for Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
As the election neared, many “pragmatic” progressives returned to the Democratic fold, but many “purists” refused to do so. They sat out the election even knowing that their boycott could put Republican Richard Nixon in the White House, which is what narrowly happened.
Though it wasn’t clear to the American public at the time, we now know that Nixon’s team had sabotaged Johnson’s peace process by secretly promising a better deal to the South Vietnamese government. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Significance of Nixon’s ‘Treason’.”]
What also wasn’t well known was how close Johnson was to a peace deal that might have ended the Vietnam War -- and thus spared the United States and Indochina many more years of slaughter. After taking office, Nixon expanded the conflict by bombing and invading Cambodia, opening the door to worse havoc across Indochina and bitter generational divisions in the United States.
Nixon, a Machiavellian politician, also launched a culture war with racial overtones. His Southern Strategy and “law-and-order” rhetoric put the Republican Party – and the country – on a course that has continued now for four decades.
Yet, to this day, some “purist” progressives defend their rejection of Humphrey’s candidacy even knowing that his election might have spared the lives of more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers, who died in Vietnam under Nixon, as well as the millions of Indochinese who perished in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The purist view is that Johnson and Humphrey were the ones who deserve the blame for this death and destruction.
Many progressives held a similar opinion of President Jimmy Carter when he ran for re-election in 1980 and beat back a primary challenge from liberal stalwart, Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Though Carter had pushed the cause of human rights, he got little credit from the American Left, which focused on his deviations from those principles, like his praise for the Shah of Iran and his approval of an early covert operation against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan.
Few progressives shed many tears when Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, another election that was tainted by Republican chicanery as some of the old Nixon operatives worked behind the scenes with Reagan's men to undermine Carter’s negotiations to free 52 American hostages then held in Iran. [See Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Once in office, Reagan cast aside Carter’s human rights policies and threw the United States behind brutal military operations in Central America, Africa and elsewhere. Reagan also sharply expanded U.S. support for the Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and he credentialed a new group of hard-line intellectuals known as the neoconservatives.
Domestically, Reagan persuaded many working-class Americans (who became known as “Reagan Democrats”) that the federal government was the problem and that less regulation of corporations – and massive tax cuts primarily for the rich – represented the solution.
Reagan’s communication skills proved crucial in diverting the United States down a dramatically different course, essentially abandoning the environmental goals of the 1970s, adopting tough-guy stances in international affairs, and scapegoating “lib-rhuls” as the nation’s enemy within.
Through those years – especially after the Vietnam War ended in the 1970s – the American Left shut down or sold off many promising media entities, making it harder and harder to make counter-arguments against Reagan’s international and domestic strategies.
In the 1970s, the Left had held the upper hand over the Right on media, with a vibrant underground press appealing to the Vietnam War generation. Outlets, like Ramparts magazine and Dispatch News, broke important national security stories. Radio stations, like WBCN in Boston, broadcast news on anti-war demonstrations. The so-called “alternative press” was alive and well.
However, with the Vietnam War over and the mainstream press undergoing a brief awakening in exposing serious wrongdoing like Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, principal funders on the Left decided that media was no longer a priority.
Many key outlets, like Ramparts and Dispatch News, were shuttered. Others, like WBCN, were sold off to mainstream corporations. Some key left-of-center opinion magazines fell into the hands of neocons or conservatives.
For instance, The New Republic was purchased by neocon Martin Peretz, who staffed it with neocon and right-wing writers such as Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes.
In the 1980s, when I was covering Reagan’s wars in Central America for The Associated Press, The New Republic defended the slaughters that took the lives of tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans.
Because of its history as a venerable leftist publication, The New Republic was valuable to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams because he could argue that “even the liberal New Republic” agreed with Reagan’s policies.
The Right also began investing millions -- and then billions -- of dollars to create its own media institutions. The strategy was pushed by Nixon’s former Treasury Secretary William Simon, who used his perch as head of the Olin Foundation to pull together likeminded foundation executives to direct money into media outlets and anti-journalism attack groups.
In 1982, South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon, who was eager to buy influence in the U.S. capital, began pouring his mysterious fortune into a new Washington-based newspaper, The Washington Times, which was praised by President Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush as an important voice supporting their policies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “WTimes’ Hypocritical Obama-Nazi Slur.”]
Also in the 1980s, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch expanded his news empire into the United States.
Right-wing money went into attack groups, too, targeting mainstream journalists who refused to toe the Reagan propaganda lines.
One National Security Council memo dated May 20, 1983, described U.S. Information Agency director Charles Wick bringing private donors to the White House Situation Room for a fund-raiser which collected $400,000 for Accuracy in Media and other pro-Reagan propaganda fronts.
Yet as the Right waged what it called “information warfare” or “the war of ideas,” well-to-do progressives shunned media and redirected their money toward charities that scrambled to fill the widening gaps in the social safety net. The Left’s favorite slogan of the time was, “think globally, act locally.”
Besides avoiding the controversies that sometimes sprang from backing media, wealthy liberals found they could reap positive public relations from contributing to worthy causes. They might even collect a “humanitarian-of-the-year” award at a black-tie banquet.
By the end of the 12-year Reagan-Bush-41 reign, the Right had assembled an impressive media arsenal – and the Left continued its unilateral disarmament.
When I approached a number of liberal foundations in the early 1990s about this worsening media imbalance, I was told by one smug foundation bureaucrat, “Oh, we don’t do media.”
That attitude didn’t change even when the Republicans rode their powerful media advantage to their “revolution” in 1994. The incoming GOP majority in the House of Representatives made talk-show host Rush Limbaugh an honorary member for his work as “national precinct chairman,” but many progressives simply blamed Bill Clinton.
In Campaign 2000, Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore was pitted against Texas Gov. George W. Bush – and many “purist” progressives said they couldn’t detect “a dime’s worth of difference” between the two men. This vocal wing of the progressives rallied behind Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
During this period, I had discussions with prominent Nader supporters over my concern that a Bush victory would restore the neocons to power. I had witnessed first-hand the neocons’ contempt for facts and their skill at rationalizing unnecessary wars and unspeakable brutality.
But the “purist” progressives dismissed these concerns, saying I was underestimating Bush’s moderate tendencies and overstating Gore’s attributes. Sometimes, they seemed to view Gore as more of a threat than Bush because, in their view, Gore represented Democratic “centrism.”
So, there was little outrage on the Left when Bush stole the presidency by preventing a full recount of votes in Florida. Some Nader supporters told me it wasn’t worth protesting because there was no meaningful difference between the two candidates.
Very few Nader supporters accepted any blame for contributing to Bush’s stolen election or for the disasters that followed. Later, when Election 2000 was noted, it was common among many on the American Left to blame Gore for not pursuing the Florida recount more effectively.
My main point now when it comes to Obama, however, is this: not that he shouldn’t be criticized when he does the wrong thing (at Consortiumnews.com, we’ve written plenty of stories taking him to task), but that the only practical way for progressives to get a politician to act more to their liking is to persuade more of the country to agree with their positions.
That work is not solely the responsibility of politicians, even an orator as gifted as Obama. The fact is that politicians (and mainstream journalists) are going to be braver if they feel there is a chance to both succeed – and survive.
For those odds to be raised, the American Left – especially progressives with serious money – need to reevaluate what the past three decades of neglecting media has wrought. Today's potent right-wing news media has tilted the nation in favor of neocon wars and ultra-free-market economic policies.
As this summer’s angry health-care town halls showed, the Right’s media -- led by Fox News and talk radio -- can be used to popularize right-wing arguments and bring out people to rallies, much as WBCN and other left-wing media outlets did over the Vietnam War nearly 40 years ago.
If Obama and other Democrats sense that there are strong voices challenging the right-wing echo chamber today, they are more likely to stand up for principles. And that new-found courage may go a long way toward closing the four-decade schism between the purists and the pragmatists.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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