Liberal? Conservative? Really?

Most of us, it seems, define our political orientation as liberal or conservative, often with a “moderate” caveat. But what do we mean by that, really? I am afraid that these labels have taken a real beating in recent decades, with the result that they have lost most of their meaning, if not all.

Wither Liberalism?

Let’s start with “liberal.” For a good while now, the word “liberal” has taken on the aura of an almost dirty word.  Do you listen to talk radio or Fox News (which I prefer to call “Fixed News,” or “Fake News,” since it so heavily indulges not just in a particular political bias but also in falsehoods, innuendo, and ignoring facts, just like the president who follows it so closely)? There you will hear “liberal” used only scornfully. But, who are liberals, really?

proudliberalChris Hedges, in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, argues forcefully that the liberal class has abandoned its traditional political values, retaining only the name and rhetoric. The Democratic Party was once the bastion of liberal policies. However, through the latter half of the 20th Century, business interests controlled more and more of electoral politics as well as legislation itself.

Corporate interests and money-have long since taken control of the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians continued to spout liberal slogans. But they actually represented the corporate and investor classes as measured by most of their voting in both the House and Senate. Actual liberal citizens repeatedly came away frustrated by the party’s failure to implement liberal values touted in electoral campaigns. Thus, it is not surprising that while the views of a majority of Americans are generally liberal, the voting turnout in the U.S. is among the lowest of the industrialized nations.

Wither Conservatism?

So, similarly, what do we mean by the term, “conservative”? Well, here we have a different conundrum. “Conservative” has not taken on the negative connotations of “liberal.” However, the force of corporatized politics in the U.S. has similarly damaged it.

conservative.republican

Proud Conservative

Most of us have some conservative values and some liberal values as well. We value stability and responsibility in our fellow citizens and try to represent them in our own behavior. We don’t always succeed, but we try. The political buzzword, “law and order” has exploited our conservative character by instilling the fear that criminals and others of questionable repute threaten the stability and security of our lives.

You might think that the conservative and liberal labels reflect directions of political, economic, and social policy favored by citizens who identify with those labels. You might also think that politicians who identify themselves by those labels attempt to implement policies that reflect those values. But, you would be wrong. Labels are often cover stories used by politicians to justify their actions, which may have entirely other sources.

The politicians gain their campaign contributions and other largess from mostly corporate lobbyists. Of course, the lobbyists advocate for political interests that benefit from the policy choices they persuade (bribe) senators and representatives to make. And, where do liberal or conservative values fit into this picture? Well, they don’t, really.

Rise of the Corporate State

In an extremely important, though not widely known study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that over many years, legislation favored the interests of corporate and business groups that lobbied politicians. The expressed interests of ordinary citizens and citizen groups representing the public interest rarely found expression in legislation. Their report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12:3 (September 2014):564-581, provides strong empirical evidence that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

In this context, it is difficult to surmise that the conservative and liberal ideas have any role in politics other than as cover stories to curry the favor of voters who identify with those labels. They certainly do not predict more than superficially the voting behavior of most politicians who use them.

Delusions of Democrats Continue: Denying Bernie

Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness
~ George Orwell

Vermont is a rather independent state. Its outspoken independent senator, Bernie Sanders, is the only politician I know of who has been able to attain office without prostituting himself to the powerful. His independence extends beyond party affiliation. It is not just that he is a registered independent; he is viscerally independent of party politics and corporate influence. The political class will try to silence Bernie’s challenges to the politics-as-usual of the corporate state, but how effective will they be?

Most Democrats can be described as “Corporate Democrats” since their financing comes mostly from corporate campaign contributions and is reflected in their voting. Whatever their “liberal” rhetoric, they vote primarily in the corporate economic interest. That includes their support for military adventurism around the world, cutting public investment in health, education, and viable employment and maintaining the corporate strangle-hold on the American political system. Their “liberal values” usually do not extend beyond rhetorical abstractions. Their automatic affiliation with Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency reflects the same corporate affiliations she and her husband have built and maintained over decades. It is the source of their wealth and political power. In that sense, Bernie Sanders is a consummate outsider, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy of the pseudo-liberal Democratic Party.

Killing Democracy…or Not

From the perspective of the political class, Bernie’s battle for the Democratic nomination will be a naïve uphill battle, as difficult as the agents of corporate power can make it. All the powers that be will continue to oppose him, mostly by trying to keep him out of any public debate. The corporate media will continue to ignore him as much as they can or dismiss him as a quaint crazy. He will get no support from corporate donors – indeed, he does not want any. He wants the support of the public.

When Bernie gains significant public attention, we will begin to see a new wave of “red-baiting” not unlike that of the era of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. After all, he is an independent “democratic socialist.” But the word “socialist” has lost a lot of its fear mongering power as American political structure has moved closer to total corporate control – what used to be called fascism. The “Deep State” of integrated political and economic elites [1] has reached such an extreme level of oligarchy, that Sheldon Wolin’s description of its “inverted totalitarianism” [2] is right on the mark.

But despite being an unknown to much of the population, the initial response to the announcement of his candidacy was a robust set of small donations. Regular citizens who hear what he has to say agree with most of his positions. But what Bernie stands for, the “liberal” political class gives only vague lip service to and acts in quite opposite ways. Classic liberalism is dead, but progressive ideas are not.

The decline and fall of actual political liberalism since the surge of the liberal economic reforms of the New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s is well documented. [3] The “Reagan Revolution” and the blatantly racist denial of the legitimacy of Barrack Obama’s presidency by the “Congress of No” have pretty much finished the job. Obama’s prodigious rhetorical skills allowed him to fully exploit national progressive sentiments. With a moderately progressive congress, Obama might have been a liberal-centrist president. But with the extremely reactionary congress seated, he vainly attempted to appease those Radical Regressive Republicans he should have recognized as his enemies. Even Obama’s embarrassingly naïve attempts to compromise with the extreme Republicans were summarily denigrated. Bill Clinton’s destruction of welfare programs for the poor had been facilitated by corporate Democrats as well as Republicans. The corporate takeover of the Congress of the United States of America is nearly complete as Barrack Obama carries forth the Bush neo-conservative imperial agenda of endless wars and Hillary attempts to step in and continue the neo-conservative project in pseudo-liberal clothing. But then there is Bernie.

Save the Planet, Save Democracy

Bernie Sanders is one of a small number of senators who openly acknowledge the urgency of taking action to curtail climate disruption. He also takes several other blatantly “progressive” positions. While some talk obliquely about inequality having gone too far, Bernie simply states that the billionaire class has bought the political process and must be stopped.

It is not surprising that the powerful corporate media try their best to ignore Bernie Sanders in hopes that he might thereby go away. But social media may be a route for frustrated Americans to express their support for policies in the public interest instead of the special interests of the corporate state. We must wonder how much latent progressivism can be found within the Democratic political machine and might creep into the convention. Mainline Democrats don’t know what to do about Bernie. He resonates with rank and file Democrats. That is because he is an viable spokesman for the interests of the American people.

Bernie Sanders is an articulate outspoken critic of the powerful corporate, financial, and military interests that try to frame the politics of fear and the policies of the power elite as if they were in the public interest – but are not. Even if he is elected there may not be enough members of congress voting in the public interest to move the nation away from the brink of climate catastrophe and social-economic collapse. Whatever the odds, Bernie Sanders seems the last great hope for a presidency that serves the public interest. If you are worried about Bernie’s chances, consider the dangerous business-as-usual alternatives.
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1 See Bill Moyers interview with Mike Lofgren, a 28-year veteran staffer with the powerful House and Senate Budget Committees on the “invisible labyrinth of power” where “elected and unelected figures collude to protect and serve powerful vested interests. http://billmoyers.com/episode/the-deep-state-hiding-in-plain-sight/. See also, Lofgren’s book, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle class Got Shafted. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
2 Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy, Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
3 See Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class, (New York: Nation Books, 2010) for a fiery denunciation of the hypocrisy of those politicians who still call themselves “liberal” and use liberal rhetoric while representing the interests of the power elites against the interests of ordinary citizens. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009) provides detailed documentation of the decades-long campaign by the titans of industry to destroy the liberal agenda of the New Deal. They won.

The Liberal Conservative and the Conservative Liberal

Political labels along the supposed continuum from left to right have always been problematic for me. As a professor long ago explained to us naïve freshmen in an introductory political science class in college, if you move far enough to the left, you end up on the right and if you move far enough to the right, you end up on the left. Where does that leave the average American? Where, exactly is the middle?

Most people I know hold a mix of views on different issues, yet define themselves as firmly Liberal or Conservative. Yet, in the politicized corporate-controlled mass media, most “commentators” (pundits and propagandists) play the issues to stimulate fear of the Other, thus causing cultural conflict by appealing to whatever fear-driven image or stereotyped value or belief can be used to serve the interests of the corporate state. That usually involves exploiting social stressors such as race, immigration, gay marriage, unemployment, some caricature of “the undeserving poor,” or presumed threats of “terrorism,” crime, or some other source of fear, to gain political favor by portraying one candidate as more ‘righteous’ or likely to ‘protect’ us in some way.

But what are the real issues that concern Americans most? Independent scientific survey results often diverge from poll results funded by candidates. Conservative and liberal Americans agree on more than power elites want us to know.

What are the issues? Mostly human-scale concerns about fairness and getting by in a moderate reasonably way, and being left alone by the powers that be. Ralph Nader argues in his new book, Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, that liberals and conservatives must unite against the corporate state to bring it down and establish a viable ecological economy and democratic society where people’s everyday concerns are addressed and the world is kept intact so we can live normal lives.

Social conservatives often decry undue corporate interference in government even as they argue for smaller government. Well, government certainly would be smaller without all that corporate pork, massive tax dodging, and subsidies. Liberals want social justice, mostly around issues of human rights, employment, healthcare, and environment. If various minorities and demonized Others were not scapegoated by the corporate media, then justice would be far more easily served. If we actually had a ‘free market’ among local small entrepreneurs and businesses oriented to local production of needed products instead of generating mass consumption of outsourced products in response to manufactured needs, and vast waste of resources on futile wars of empire, we could have lots of jobs and the economy could support health care for all, just like the Europeans and many others routinely afford.

As things stand, the American commonwealth is being rapidly drained of real wealth by the manipulation of the debt-based economy to generate phantom wealth among those who control the financial system. Both conservative and liberal citizens – I’m not talking about politicians here, just real people – do not like the centralization of everything, the unfettered ascendance of power elites, and the failure of government to respond to the people’s needs rather than the corporate oligarchy’s demands.

So, maybe Nader is right. It seems that the only way the American people can overcome the power of the corporate state to impose its own agenda while claiming it is enacting ours, is to unite behind our own values and needs and take down the forces that will, if allowed, destroy what is left of the republic and the biosphere upon which we all depend. Then we can go on and have our debates of left and right politics if we must.

But maybe conservatives would have to stop watching Fox News’ racist Obama-demonizing sniping sessions and liberals would have to stop watching MSNBC pundits defend every corporate-driven Obama policy as if it reflects the needs of the people instead of the demands of the oligarchs who fund the politics of both conservative and liberal politicians.

The politics of social division serves only the interests of corporate oligarchy. The interests of the American people will only be served by the people ourselves, if we can overcome the propagandists who seek to divide and conquer us.