An Informed and Educated Electorate

By Thom HartmannTruthout.org, December 6, 2010

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.…Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right. —Thomas Jefferson

Talk Radio News Service, based in Washington, D.C., is owned and run by my dear friend Ellen Ratner. Ellen is an experienced and accomplished journalist, and a large number of interns and young journalism school graduates get their feet wet in reporting by working for and with her.

In March 2010 I was in Washington for a meeting with a group of senators, and I needed a studio from which to do my radio and TV show. Ellen was gracious enough to offer me hers. I arrived as three of her interns were producing a panel-discussion type of TV show for Web distribution at www.talkradionews.com, in which they were discussing for their viewing audience their recent experiences on Capitol Hill.

One intern panelist related that a White House correspondent for one of the Big Three TV networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) had told her that the network registered a huge amount of interest 66 Rebooting the American Dream in the “hot story” that week of a congressman’s sexual indiscretions. Far less popular were stories about the debates on health care, the conflicts in the Middle East, and even the Americans who had died recently in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“So that’s the story they have to run with on the news,” the intern said, relating the substance of the network correspondent’s thoughts, “because that’s what the American people want to see. If the network doesn’t give people what they want to see, viewers will tune away and the network won’t have any viewers, ratings, or revenues.”

The two other interns commiserated with the first about what a shame it was that Americans wanted the titillating stories instead of the substantive ones, but they accepted without question that the network was therefore obliged to “give people what they want.”

When they finished their panel discussion, I asked these college students if they knew that there was a time in America when radio and TV stations and networks broadcast the actual news— instead of infotainment—because the law required them to do so. None of them had any idea what I was talking about. They were mystified: why would a station or network broadcast programs that were not popular or not what people wanted?

The Devolution of Broadcast News

But the reality is that from the 1920s, when radio really started to go big in the United States, until Reagan rolled it back in 1987, federal communications law required a certain amount of “public service” programming from radio and television stations as a condition of retaining their broadcast licenses.

The agreement was basic and simple: in exchange for the media owners’ being granted a license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use the airwaves—owned by the public—they had to serve the public interest first, and only then could they go about the business of making money. If they didn’t do so, when it came time to renew their license, public groups and individuals could show up at public hearings on the license renewal and argue for the license’s being denied.

One small way that stations lived up to their public-service mandate was by airing public-service announcements (PSAs) for local nonprofit groups, community calendars, and other charitable causes. They also had to abide by something called the Fairness Doctrine, which required them to air diverse viewpoints on controversial issues. Separately, during election campaigns, broadcasters had to abide by the Equal Time Rule, which required them to provide equal airtime to rival candidates in an election.

But the biggest way they proved they were providing a public service and meeting the requirements of the Fairness Doctrine was by broadcasting the news. Real news. Actual news. Local, national, and international news produced by professional, oldschool journalists.

Because the news didn’t draw huge ratings like entertainment shows—although tens of millions of Americans did watch it every night on TV and listened to it at the top of every hour on radio from coast to coast—and because real news was expensive to produce, with bureaus and correspondents all over the world, news was a money-loser for all of the Big Three TV networks and for most local radio and TV stations.

But it was such a sacred thing—this was, aft er all, the keystone that held together the station’s license to broadcast and thus to do business—it didn’t matter if it lost money. It made all the other money-making things possible.

Through much of the early 1970s, I worked in the newsroom of a radio station in Lansing, Michigan. It had been started and was then run by three local guys: an engineer, a salesman, and a radio broadcaster. They split up the responsibilities like you’d expect, and all were around the building most days and would hang out from time to time with the on-air crew—all except the sales guy. I was forbidden from talking with him because I worked in news. Th ere could be no hint—ever, anywhere—that our radio station had violated the FCC’s programming-in-the-public-interest mandate by, for example, my going easy on an advertiser in a news story or promoting another advertiser in a different story. News had to be news, separate from profits and revenue—and if it wasn’t, I’d be fired on the spot.

News, in other words, wasn’t part of the “free market.” It was part of our nation’s intellectual commons and thus the price of the station’s license.

After Reagan blew up the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, two very interesting things happened. The first was the rise of rightwing hate-speech talk radio, starting with Rush Limbaugh that very year. The second, which really stepped up fast after President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which further deregulated the broadcast industry, was that the moneylosing news divisions of the Big Three TV networks were taken under the wings of their entertainment divisions—and wrung dry. Foreign bureaus were closed. Reporters were fired. Stories that promoted the wonders of advertisers or other companies (like movie production houses) owned by the same mega-corporations that owned the networks began to appear. And investigative journalism that cast a bright light on corporate malfeasance vanished.

And because newscasts had ads, and those ads were sold based on viewership, the overall arc and content of the news began to be dictated by what the public wanted to know rather than by what they needed to know to function in a democratic society.

The interns were aghast. “Reagan did that?!” one said, incredulous. I said yes and that Bill Clinton then helped the process along to its current sorry state by signing the Telecommunications Act, leading to the creation of the Fox “News” Channel in October 1996 and its now-legal ability to call itself a news operation while baldly promoting what it knows to be falsehoods or distortions.

Now here we are in 2010, and the news media is an abject failure when it comes to reporting the real news—news that citizens in a democracy need to know. Even Ted Koppel, no flaming liberal by any means, said in an April 2010 interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that he thought the state of the news industry was “a disaster.”[1] He went on:

I think we are living through the final stages of what I would call the Age of Entitlement. We fight two wars without raising a single nickel to support them. We feel entitled to mortgages whether we have jobs or not. We feel entitled to make $10 million, $50 million, or $100 million even though the enterprise we headed up is a total failure. And we now feel entitled not to have the news that we need but the news that we want. We want to listen to news that comes from those who already sympathize with our particular point of view. We don’t want the facts anymore.

Koppel was also well aware of the influence of profit-making on the news organizations, which he believed was driving the degradation of news so that it appealed to our baser instincts:

I think it’s the producer [of the particular news show] who is at fault, who desperately needs the consumer…In the good old days, when you only had three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—there was competition, but the competition still permitted us to do what was in the public interest. These days all the networks have to fi ght with the dozens of cable outlets that are out there, the Internet that is out there, and they are all competing for the almighty dollar, and the way to get there is to head down to the lowest common denominator.

When we talk about news that people “need,” we are really talking about the intellectual and informational nutrition that is essential for the health and the well-being of our democracy. We need an educated and informed citizenry to participate in our democratic institutions and elections, and we’re not going to get that if we keep dumbing down the news and giving people what they want and not what they and society need.

Breaking Up the Media Monopolies

The Studio System

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the eight biggest movie studios owned the majority of movie theaters in America. A Paramount theater, for example, would show only movies produced by Paramount’s movie studios, which featured only people under contract to Paramount. The result was that the studios could make (or break) any movie star and control what people could see in their local community. It was very profitable to the studios, but it was stifling to competition and creativity and therefore a disservice to the moviegoing audience.

So through that era, in a series of actions that lasted almost a decade and which were capped by the big studios’ signing a major consent decree with the feds, the federal government tried to force the big theaters to open up the business to competition. The big theaters said that they would, even agreeing to the 1940 Paramount Decree, but they continued with business as usual.

The issue came to a head when it was argued in an antitrust case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. Th e Court, in a 7-to-1 decision, ruled against the movie giants, saying that they could no longer have total control of the vertically integrated system—from contracting with actors to making movies to showing them in their own theaters across the country. They had to choose: operate in either the movie making business or the movie showing business. They couldn’t do both.

The result was the beginning of the end of the “kingmaker” movie studio monopoly and a boon for independent filmmakers. It also led to a proliferation of new theaters, from ones in urban areas (many retrofitting old opera or burlesque houses) to the new fad of drive-in movie theaters. Th e industry today is infinitely more diverse and creative as a result of that breakup.

Television and the Prime Time Access Rule

In the late 1960s, television was going through a similar vertical integration, with the Big Three TV networks dominating the content of local television stations they either owned or had as affiliates. In response the FCC promulgated the Prime Time Access Rule in 1970, which dictated that at least one hour out of the four “prime time” hours on every local TV station in the nation would have to come from some source other than the network.

This opened the door to independent TV production companies, like MTM Enterprises, which produced several sitcoms derived from the work of Mary Tyler Moore, and competition from the new television divisions of old-line movie houses, such as Twentieth Century Fox’s producing a TV version of M*A*S*H and Paramount’s producing Happy Days.[2]

Although the rules against vertical theater integration are no longer enforced, and the Prime Time Access Rule was blown up in 1996, both the movie and TV industries are broadly more diverse in their programming than they would have been without these “market interventions” that increased competition and decreased monopoly. Which brings us to radio.

The Vicious Circle of Conservative Talk Radio

Many people wonder why the big 50,000-watt AM stations (and even many of the big 25,000- and 10,000-watt stations) across the country carry exclusively conservative programming, particularly programs featuring Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of the economics of monopoly.

One of the largest owners of the biggest (full-power) radio stations in the country is a mega-corporation that also owns the largest talk-radio syndication service in the nation. When the corporation’s stations carry shows that its syndication service owns, it makes money both from the local station ownership and from the ownership of the syndication service. When the stations carry shows from other syndicators or independent shows, the corporation loses the syndication revenue and the local station (which it also owns) loses typically five minutes of advertising inventory per hour that it must barter with the syndicated show for in exchange for the right to air the show.

Thus, so long as the radio industry is allowed to run like the movie studio system in the 1940s, the “studio”—in this case the giant corporation that owns radio stations as well as the nation’s largest talk-radio syndication service—will have an outsized influence on what shows up on the very biggest stations in the largest markets across the country. Because of the huge, booming voice of those stations, those shows will have a significant edge in “finding” listeners (and vice versa), making those shows “successful” and thus creating demand for them from the independent stations. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some progressives have suggested that radio needs a “fairness doctrine” where a government panel will determine how much “liberal” or “conservative” programming each station carries and then force the stations to “balance” out any disequilibrium. But who decides what is “liberal” or “conservative”? Is there a checklist of political positions that a government watchdog would have to go through—immigration, taxes, protecting the commons, gay rights, abortion, gun control, foreign policy? It would be a mess, particularly since many of those issues don’t lend themselves to easy pigeonholing.

A much easier way to balance the playing field is simply to bring into the marketplace real competition by separating syndication companies from local radio stations so that the stations will no longer have an incentive to carry programming because “it’s in the family” and instead will look for shows that can attract and hold an audience.

Programming in the Public Interest

We need to return to the notion of “programming in the public interest,” making news back into news. We also need to start enforcing the Sherman Antitrust Act and use it to break up the large media monopolies that have re-formed since the Reagan and Clinton eras, thus effectively rolling back media deregulation.

And this isn’t limited to radio and TV. Consumer-friendly regulation almost always has a similar effect in breaking up monopolies when it’s designed to help people get around the monopoly.

For example, the company that owns the copper wires, cable, G3 or G4 wireless, or fiber-optic cabling going into your house also owns the exclusive right to carry the content that goes over that infrastructure. If you have a cable company supplying your home, it’s probably competing only with the local phone company for your business. Because those two companies (and maybe a mobile provider) are the only ones “competing” for your business, they can easily keep prices—and profits—very high.

In most other developed countries, however, regardless of who owns and maintains the wires, cable, or fiber, anybody can off er content over it. Th e rationale for this is that infrastructure of physical wires and the wireless frequencies constitutes a “natural monopoly” that heavily uses public spaces (cables and phone lines go through and along public streets and rights-of-way); and so while a company can make a small profit on that part of its business, the wires and the wireless frequencies are really a part of the commons that can be regulated.

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On the other hand, these developed countries believe that the content delivery should be competitive. After all, this is where most of the innovation comes from: it’s not a matter of the newest, coolest copper wires; it’s the content that draws customers.

The result of this is that the average citizen in France, for example, pays about $33 per month for what the New York Times described as “Internet service twice as fast as what you get from Verizon or Comcast, bundled with digital high-definition television, unlimited long distance and international calling to 70 countries and wireless Internet connectivity for your laptop or smartphone throughout most of the country.”[3]

And that’s all from private companies, with no government subsidies. Why? Because small and new companies are allowed to compete by the government’s requiring whichever company carries the signal (wire, cable, fiber, wireless) to make that signal path available to any company that wants to off er content to consumers.

Competition—mandated by the French government—has driven the price down and innovation up. Th e average French citizen is not only paying one-fifth of what the average American pays for such services but is also getting better quality, more variety, and much faster Internet access.

Breaking up the media monopolies and fostering more competition, innovation, and creativity in the media world clearly has public benefits, especially in ensuring that people have access to information they need to participate in our democracy. An informed and educated electorate would be one major result of such government regulation.

The same result can also be helped by making higher education more accessible to the average American.

Access to Higher Education

Jefferson’s Tombstone

Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone contains an epitaph that he wrote before his death with a directive that not a single word be changed. He had been the president of the United States for two terms and the vice president for one, was a member of the Virginia legislature, and was a famous inventor and architect as well as the author of nearly a million words in various letters, diaries, notebooks, books, pamphlets, and rants. But he chose not to mention any of that on his gravestone.

Besides the dates of his birth and death, he chose to be remembered for three things that he did in his 83 years of life on earth:

Here Was Buried Thomas Jefferson

Author of the Declaration of American Independence

of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom

and Father of the University of Virginia

Writing the Declaration of Independence was an obvious choice, and declaring forever his opposition to integrating church and state also made sense (although it got him demoted in 2010 in schoolbooks in the state of Texas). But “Father of the University of Virginia” being more important than “President of the United States of America”?

Jefferson, it turns out, had this wacky idea. He actually believed that young people should be able to go to college regardless of their ability to pay, their station in life, and how rich or poor their parents were. He thought that an educated populace was the best defense of liberty and democracy in the new nation he’d helped birth.

So the University of Virginia that he started was free.

Reagan’s Legacy

Ronald Reagan certainly thought that that was a wacky idea, and he was diametrically opposed to the Jeffersonian ideal. When he took office as governor of California in 1967, he quickly called for an end to free tuition at the University of California and an across-the- board 20 percent cut in state funding for higher education.[4] He then argued for a cut in spending on construction for higher education in the state and set up the fi ring of the popular president of the university, Clark Kerr, whom he deemed “too liberal.”

When asked why he was doing away with free college in California, Reagan said that the role of the state “should not be to subsidize intellectual curiosity.”

Reagan further referred to college students who nationwide were protesting the Vietnam War as “brats,” “cowardly fascists,” and “freaks.” Adding that if the only way to “restore order” on the nation’s campuses was violence, that was fine with him. Just a few days before the Kent State shootings, he famously said, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement!”[5]

The trend that Reagan began with the UC system continues to this day. During Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure, state funding for education saw drastic cuts and tuition for undergraduate students rose by more than 90 percent.[6]

Reagan set a tone as governor of California that metastasized across the nation through the 1970s and became federal policy when he was elected president in 1980. By the time he left offi ce in 1988, federal funding for education in the United States had declined from 12 percent of total national educational spending in 1980 to just 6 percent.[7]

Interestingly, to find most of this information you have to dive into recent biographies of the former president or read old newspaper archives that are usually not available online. Not a word of Reagan’s role in slashing the UC funding exists, for example, on the Wikipedia pages for either the University of California or Reagan himself. Conservative foundations have poured millions of dollars into campaigns to scrub the Internet clean when it comes to Reagan’s past (and that of most other right-wingers).

Yet the reality is that before the Reagan presidency, it was possible for any American student with academic competence to attend college and graduate without debt.

Even in Michigan in the late 1960s, where education was not free but was highly subsidized by the state, my wife paid her way through college by working part-time as a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s. To the extent that I went to college (I completed less than a year altogether), I paid my own way by working as a DJ for $2.35 per hour, running my own TV repair business, pumping gas, and working as a cook at a Big Boy restaurant on weekends.

Such a scenario is unthinkable today. Instead public higher education has become a big business and is oft en totally corporate; costs are through the roof; and if you’re not from a very wealthy family, odds are you’ll graduate college with a debt that can take decades to repay. As a result, the United States is slipping in virtually every measurement of innovation, income, and competitiveness. A highly educated workforce is good for innovation and entrepreneurialism: every one of the top 20 innovative countries in the world—except the USA—offers free or very inexpensive college to qualified students.

Ireland took a cue from the pre-Reagan University of California and began offering free college tuition to all Irish citizens and a fl at-rate registration fee of 900 euros per year for all European Union citizens. Th e result, decades later, is that Ireland has gone from having a backwater economy that was largely based on agriculture and tourism to becoming one of the high-tech and innovation capitals of the world.

Ironically, Ireland’s vision—and California’s pre-Reagan vision—of education was at the core of Thomas Jefferson’s hopes for the country he helped found.

Jefferson’s Vision

On June 14, 1898, more than 70 years aft er Jefferson’s death, a new building (then called the Academic Building, now called Cabell Hall) was inaugurated at the University of Virginia. One of the nation’s most prominent attorneys at the time, James C. Carter of New York City, gave the dedication speech.[8] Carter noted that when Jefferson retired from public office, he was only 66 years old and still energetic and enthusiastic to do something for his country. That something was founding the University of Virginia. Carter said:

He had cherished through life a passion for the acquisition of knowledge, and was one of the best educated men, if not the best educated man, of his country and time…

He had in early manhood formed a scheme of public education, which, from time to time, had pressed itself on his attention throughout even the busiest years of his public life. It was part of his political philosophy.

Lover of liberty as he was, firmly as he believed that popular government was the only form of public authority consistent with the highest happiness of men, he yet did not believe that any nation or community could permanently retain this blessing without the benefit of the lessons of truth, and the discipline of virtue to be derived only from the intellectual and moral education of the whole people.

Carter noted that Jefferson had laid out, in numerous letters and discussions throughout his life, a broad overview of how education should be conducted in the United States. Jefferson envisioned the division of states into districts and wards with primary schools and the establishment of colleges and universities where deserving students “might acquire, gratis, a further and higher education.”

Jefferson envisioned the goal of free public education—from childhood through university—to be straightforward. In a report he prepared for a state commission in Virginia, Jefferson laid out the six purposes of education:[9]

1. To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business.

2. To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing.

3. To improve, by reading, his morals and faculties.

4. To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.

5. To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment.

6. And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness, all the social relations under which he shall be placed.

In other words, a well-educated citizenry can “choose with discretion” the elected representatives who are the holders of our government that protects our rights, and hold those politicians accountable “with diligence, with candor and judgment.”

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, promised during his election campaign of 1980 to “eliminate the Department of Education” from the federal government; and he appointed his friend William Bennett, who had campaigned and written extensively about destroying the federal Department of Education, as secretary of education —akin to asking the fox to guard the chicken coop. Between Reagan’s ax hacking at the roots of our educational systems and his tax cuts to “starve the beast” of government, we are now left with the highest illiteracy rate in the developed world and an electorate that is spectacularly vulnerable to demagoguery and cynical political manipulation.

The experiment of Reaganomics and Reagan’s anti-intellectual worldview are demonstrably disordered and dead; we must put them behind us and build anew our country on the solid Jeffersonian foundation of good and free education for all.

Combine that with breaking up the media monopolies in this country and fostering competition and its attendant innovation through intelligent regulation of the “natural monopolies” in our nation, and we would have a more informed citizenry with better and faster access to real news and information—including information about our body politic.

These “radical” concepts of free public education all the way up to graduate degrees, breaking up companies that vertically integrate entire markets (particularly in the media), and requiring infrastructure-owning companies to off er their infrastructure to a wide variety of competitors work quite well in dozens of countries around the world. They can here too.

NOTES

1. “Ted Koppel Assesses the Media Landscape,” BBC World News, April 12, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/world _news_america/8616838.stm.

2. “Studio,” Museum of Broadcast Communications, http://www .museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=studio.

3. Yochai Benler, “Ending the Internet’s Trench Warfare,” New York Times, March 20, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/ opinion/21Benkler.html.

4. Wallace Turner, “Gov. Reagan Proposes Cutback in U. of California Appropriation; Would Impose Tuition Charge on Students from State; Kerr Weighs New Post,” New York Times, January 7, 1967, cited in Gary K. Clabaugh, “Th e Educational Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” NewFoundations.com, January 24, 2009, http://www.newfounda tions.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/Reagan.html#_edn3.

5. Steven V. Roberts, “Ronald Reagan Is Giving ‘Em Heck, New York Times, October 25, 1970, cited in Clabaugh, “Educational Legacy.”

6. Richard C. Paddock, “Less to Bank on at State Universities,” Los Angeles Times, October 7, 2007, http://articles.latimes.com/2007/ oct/07/local/me-newcompact7.

7. Gary K. Clabaugh, “Th e Educational Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” NewFoundations.com, January 24, 2009, http://www.newfounda tions.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/Reagan.html#_edn3.

8. James C. Carter, The University of Virginia: Jeff erson Its Father, and His Political Philosophy: An Address Delivered upon the Occasion of the Dedication of the New Buildings of the University, June 14, 1898 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 1898).

9. Albert Ellery Berch, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Th omas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), http://www.constitution.org/tj/jeff 02.txt.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling Project Censored Award winning author and host of a nationally syndicated progressive radio talk show. You can learn more about Thom Hartmann at his website and find out what stations broadcast his program. He is also now has a daily television program at RT Network. You can also listen to Thom over the Internet.

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The American Public’s Shocking Lack of Policy Knowledge is a Threat to Progress and Democracy

By Justin Doolittle, Truthout | Op-Ed, October 12, 2013

Excerpt

The genuinely shocking degree of public ignorance regarding the ACA that has been revealed by this slew of recent polls… ought to be viewed as a very serious political crisis and a grave threat to whatever semblance of health our badly disfigured democratic culture still maintains…..

The public is not just uninformed, but also misinformed…having been helplessly subjected to four years of relentless and fantastically dishonest propaganda regarding the policy on which they are opining…

Widespread civic ignorance is intrinsically beneficial to reactionaries and anathema to progressive politics. The lack of basic, sensible policy knowledge among the general public is hardly limited to the arena of health care…

The Republican Party, as well as what David Frum refers to as the “conservative entertainment complex,” combine to operate an extremely powerful, 24/7 propaganda machine, specifically designed to misinform Americans and spread an inherent distrust of any progressive policy ideas…

The reality of a massively uninformed public, though, is simply incongruous with this vision of a progressive future. So long as colossal swaths of the population are in the dark about the major policy issues of our time, the political scene will be ripe for ultra-right-wing demagogues and faux-populists to thwart progress at every turn...The vibrancy and legitimacy of our democratic culture depend on it.

Full text

With implementation of the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) finally upon us, pollsters have been busy soliciting current public opinion of the law, as the fanatical Republican Party continues its quixotic mission to destroy it. Ludicrous though it is to subject such a complex and multi-dimensional law to an up-or-down, binary referendum, the American people continue to “disapprove” of the ACA by a modest margin; this polling dynamic has been relatively consistent since 2010.

Far more interesting than the fatuous and oversimplified “approve or disapprove” question, though, is the more concrete polling data that reveals public perception of what is, and is not, actually contained in the reform package. Surely, before subjectivity even enters the equation, there must be a coherent, objective understanding of the law itself. Any negative – or positive – opinion about the ACA that is premised on a thorough lack of knowledge of the law’s actual substance may, of course, be dismissed as essentially meaningless.

The genuinely shocking degree of public ignorance regarding the ACA that has been revealed by this slew of recent polls, more than three years after the law was signed by President Obama, should not be something to which we respond by simply shaking our heads and lamenting that the American people are so “disengaged.” No, this ought to be viewed as a very serious political crisis and a grave threat to whatever semblance of health our badly disfigured democratic culture still maintains.

The public is dramatically uninformed, and misinformed, about the law. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 76 percent of people currently lacking health insurance “didn’t understand the law and how it would affect them.” Just 51 percent of respondents were aware of the existence of the exchanges that launched; 49 percent were aware of the subsidies available for low-income people.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll asked respondents about the exchanges and even provided several choices of launch dates: October 1; Other date in 2013; Date in 2014; Other; or Don’t know/Refused.

Given the structure of the question, the results are astonishing: 64 percent of the public refused to even venture a guess, with just 15 percent answering correctly that the exchanges were set to launch on October 1. Among the uninsured, the bloc of people the new marketplaces are designed to help, it was even more striking: 74 percent did not know, and just 12 percent answered October 1. The poll was taken less than two weeks before the exchanges were set to go live.

As the years pass, there is virtually no evidence that accurate information about the ACA is successfully penetrating the public consciousness: Kaiser concluded “the public’s level of awareness about exactly which provisions are – and are not – included in the health care law has generally not increased in the three and a half years since the law was passed.”

If anything, the trend is going in the opposite direction, with the public having actually become less informed with time: Levels of awareness of other key provisions have either remained stable or declined over time.

For example, the shares who are aware of the law’s subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and closing of the Medicare prescription drug “doughnut hole” have all decreased since right after the law’s passage in 2010 (by 12 percentage points, 6 percentage points, and 7 percentage points, respectively). This leaves substantial shares unaware that the law includes each of these key provisions.

The public is not just uninformed, but also misinformed, about the most consequential social reform signed into law in many decades. More than half of Americans reported to Kaiser that a public option was, in fact, included in the ACA. More than 40 percent believe that the law provides subsidies to undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance, establishes something very closely resembling a death panel, and cuts benefits for seniors currently enrolled in Medicare (43 percent, 42 percent and 42 percent, respectively).

These statistics simply preclude any kind of serious discussion about the law’s “popularity” or lack thereof. It would be no more absurd to approach a group of 12-year-olds and inquire about their views of the conflict in Syria. And that analogy actually understates the case, because the 12-year-olds in question could at least respond honestly and instinctively, without having been helplessly subjected to four years of relentless and fantastically dishonest propaganda regarding the policy on which they are opining.

It’s worth remembering that these are the central provisions of the ACA. If so many citizens are unaware of the core tenets of the law, including those which are specifically geared to benefit them and have generated an enormous amount of media attention, it stands to reason that the dozens of smaller-scale programs and reforms contained within the law are unknown to virtually everyone except the most dedicated policy wonks.

What percentage of the public, for example, is aware of the provisions that

-   Prohibit insurance companies from imposing annual dollar limits on coverage, the cause of so many bankruptcies among American families?

- The 85 percent Medical Loss Ratio provision (requiring that percentage of premiums be spent on actual care rather than administration) that has already resulted in billions of dollars in rebates?

- The expansion of free preventive care?

- The development of Accountable Care Organizations, Electronic Health Records, and bundled payments, to finally address the rampant structural dysfunction in health care?

- The myriad cost control mechanisms?

Our health care system has long been an unconscionable international scandal, with terribly high costs and tens of millions of citizens lacking access. Democratic control of the White House and both chambers of Congress presented a unique opportunity to finally address the problem. The long and often grotesque legislative process eventually produced a law that, while further postponing the country’s eventual and inevitable embrace of some sort of single-payer system, contained a number of exceptionally propitious ideas and long overdue reforms. It’s a clear and undeniable step forward for health care in this country. Indeed, it’s virtually impossible to coherently argue – even for those of us who support single payer – that the ACA, in its totality, is not exceedingly preferable to what had been the status quo, at least from a utilitarian perspective.

How then, can the public be so consistently antipathetic about the law, given that it merely removes some of the most excessive brutality from the American system of health care, while making a multifaceted effort to both expand access and control costs?

It’s been theorized that the broad aversion stems from the fact that around 85 percent of American adults already have health insurance, are reasonably satisfied with it, and are therefore anxious about any sweeping overhauls of a system that is, as they see it, working tolerably well for them.

To be sure, there is some truth to this. For all the systemic problems with health care in this country, most Americans families do have health insurance, and, within this group, many families are facing other, often quite dire economic challenges. Understandably, they might have wanted federal policymaking to be focused elsewhere in 2009 and 2010 (on the foreclosure crisis, for example).

Less Than Half Know About Closing “Doughnut Hole”

Of course, this explanation fails to account for the lack of support for the numerous cost-control mechanisms in the ACA, which, if effective, will benefit everyone, not just the currently uninsured; or, for example, the closing of the dreaded Medicare “doughnut hole,” something that benefits all seniors – and something that, to this day, less than half of Americans know is included in the law.

Nevertheless, due to various social, political and economic realities, not everyone will support sweeping social legislation, and this is unavoidable. The one strain of opposition – or indifference – to the ACA that is not unavoidable, though, and on which the progressive movement should focus, is that which is based on pure lack of information.

Thomas Jefferson once said that, “though the people may acquiesce, they cannot approve what they do not understand.” This is especially true when what they are being asked to approve is something as complicated and far-reaching as the ACA.

Widespread civic ignorance is intrinsically beneficial to reactionaries and anathema to progressive politics. The lack of basic, sensible policy knowledge among the general public is hardly limited to the arena of health care.

It’s no great secret which political actors are responsible for this democratic crisis. Our national political media is led by people like Chuck Todd, who, in a moment of breathtaking honesty, openly confessed that he does not view the dissemination of accurate and factual information as part of his job description as a journalist.

The Republican Party, as well as what David Frum refers to as the “conservative entertainment complex,” combine to operate an extremely powerful, 24/7 propaganda machine, specifically designed to misinform Americans and spread an inherent distrust of any progressive policy ideas.

Indeed, going down the line of policy realms on which the public is ignorant, in virtually every instance, it benefits the ultra-right-wing. Indifference to climate change is rampant. The public judges levels of income inequality in the United States to be much less dramatic than they are in reality. Support for the extraordinarily idiotic “balanced budget amendment” is overwhelming. In all of these cases, wildly uninformed public opinion serves to provide tactical support to Republicans and aid them in their vicious ideological crusades.

There is cause for optimism about the future of progressive politics in the US Demographic realities, seismic shifts in public attitudes on social issues and a lasting feeling of abomination at the unhinged lunacy of the Bush years are just some of the reasons to feel hopeful about our political direction over the long term.

The reality of a massively uninformed public, though, is simply incongruous with this vision of a progressive future. So long as colossal swaths of the population are in the dark about the major policy issues of our time, the political scene will be ripe for ultra-right-wing demagogues and faux-populists to thwart progress at every turn. Progressives have to confront the fact that, technically, Republicans are right when they say that the ACA is “unpopular” or that “the American people” want a balanced budget amendment. This has to change. The vibrancy and legitimacy of our democratic culture depend on it.

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19279-the-american-publics-shocking-lack-of-policy-knowledge-is-a-threat-to-progress-and-democracy

The Decline of Critical Thinking

The Problem of Ignorance by LAWRENCE DAVIDSON, CounterPunch Weekend Edition April 5-7, 2013

Excerpt

…most Americans were…readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble…the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention…The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities…

They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth…

the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired… loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end…The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors….

Full text

In 2008 Rick Shenkman, the Editor-in-Chief of the History News Network, published a book entitled Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (Basic Books). In it he demonstrated, among other things, that most Americans were: (1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears, and public relations babble.

Shenkman spent 256 pages documenting these claims, using a great number of polls and surveys from very reputable sources. Indeed, in the end it is hard to argue with his data. So, what can we say about this? One thing that can be said is that this is not an abnormal state of affairs. As has been suggested in prior analyses, ignorance of non-local affairs (often leading to inaccurate assumptions, passive acceptance of authority, and illogical actions) is, in fact, a default position for any population.

To put it another way, the majority of any population will pay little or no attention to news stories or government actions that do not appear to impact their lives or the lives of close associates. If something non-local happens that is brought to their attention by the media, they will passively accept government explanations and simplistic solutions.

The primary issue is “does it impact my life?” If it does, people will pay attention.  If it appears not to, they won’t pay attention. For instance, in Shenkman’s book unfavorable comparisons are sometimes made between Americans and Europeans. Americans often are said to be much more ignorant about world geography than are Europeans. This might be, but it is, ironically, due to an accident of geography. Americans occupy a large subcontinent isolated by two oceans. Europeans are crowded into small contiguous countries that, until recently, repeatedly invaded each other as well as possessed overseas colonies. Under these circumstances, a knowledge of geography, as well as paying attention to what is happening on the other side of the border, has more immediate relevance to the lives of those in Toulouse or Amsterdam than is the case for someone in Pittsburgh or Topeka.  If conditions were reversed, Europeans would know less geography and Americans more.

Ideology and Bureaucracy

The localism referenced above is not the only reason for widespread ignorance. The strong adherence to ideology and work within a bureaucratic setting can also greatly narrow one’s worldview and cripple one’s critical abilities.

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.

Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

Moments of Embarrassment 

That American ignorance is explainable does not make it any less distressing. At the very least it often leads to embarrassment for the minority who are not ignorant. Take for example the facts that polls show over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30% don’t know what the Holocaust was. We might explain this as the result of faulty education; however, there are other, just as embarrassing, moments involving the well educated. Take, for instance, the employees of Fox News. Lou Dobbs (who graduated from Harvard University) is host of the Fox Business Network talk show Lou Dobbs Tonight.  Speaking on 23 March 2013 about gun control, he and Fox political analyst Angela McGlowan (a graduate of the University of Mississippi) had the following exchange:

McGlowan: “What scares the hell out of me is that we have a president . . . that wants to take our guns, but yet he wants to attack Iran and Syria. So if they come and attack us here, we don’t have the right to bear arms under this Obama administration.”

Dobbs: “We’re told by Homeland Security that there are already agents of Al Qaeda here working in this country. Why in the world would you not want to make certain that all American citizens were armed and prepared?”

Despite education, ignorance plus ideology leading to stupidity doesn’t come in any starker form than this. Suffice it to say that nothing the president has proposed in the way of gun control takes away the vast majority of weapons owned by Americans, that the president’s actions point to the fact that he does not want to attack Syria or Iran, and that neither country has the capacity to “come and attack us here.” Finally, while there may be a handful of Americans who sympathize with Al Qaeda, they cannot accurately be described as “agents” of some central organization that dictates their actions.

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Unfortunately, one can multiply this scenario many times. There are millions of Americans, most of whom are quite literate, who believe the United Nations is an evil organization bent on destroying U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, in 2005 George W. Bush actually appointed one of them, John Bolton (a graduate of Yale University), as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Likewise, so paranoid are gun enthusiasts (whose level of education varies widely) that any really effective government supervision of the U.S. gun trade would be seen as a giant step toward dictatorship. Therefore, the National Rifle Association, working its influence on Congress, has for years successfully restricted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from using computers to create a central database of gun transactions. And, last but certainly not least, there is the unending war against teaching evolution in U.S. schools. This Christian fundamentalist effort often enjoys temporary success in large sections of the country and is ultimately held at bay only by court decisions reflecting (to date) a solid sense of reality on this subject. By the way, evolution is a scientific theory that has as much evidence to back it up as does gravity.

Teaching Critical Thinking?

As troubling as this apparently perennial problem of ignorance is, it is equally frustrating to listen to repeated schemes to teach critical thinking through the public schools. Of course, the habit of asking critical questions can be taught. However, if you do not have a knowledge base from which to consider a situation, it is hard think critically about it.  So ignorance often precludes effective critical thinking even if the technique is acquired. In any case, public school systems have always had two primary purposes and critical thinking is not one of them. The schools are designed to prepare students for the marketplace and to make them loyal citizens. The marketplace is most often a top-down, authoritarian world and loyalty comes from myth-making and emotional bonds. In both cases, really effective critical thinking might well be incompatible with the desired end.

Recently, a suggestion has been made to forget about the schools as a place to learn critical thinking. According to Dennis Bartels’s article “Critical Thinking Is Best Taught Outside the Classroom” appearing in Scientific American online, schools can’t teach critical thinking because they are too busy teaching to standardized tests. Of course, there was a time when schools were not so strongly mandated to teach this way and there is no evidence that at that time they taught critical thinking. In any case, Bartels believes that people learn critical thinking in informal settings such as museums and by watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He concludes that “people must acquire this skill somewhere. Our society depends on them being able to make critical decisions.” If that were only true it would make this an easier problem to solve.

It may very well be that (consciously or unconsciously) societies organize themselves to hold critical thinking to a minimum. That means to tolerate it to the point needed to get through day-to-day existence and to tackle those aspects of one’s profession that might require narrowly focused critical thought. But beyond that, we get into dangerous, de-stabilizing waters. Societies, be they democratic or not, are not going to encourage critical thinking about prevailing ideologies or government policies. And, if it is the case that most people don’t think of anything critically unless it falls into that local arena in which their lives are lived out, all the better. Under such conditions people can be relied upon to stay passive about events outside their local venue until the government decides it is time to rouse them up in some propagandistic manner.

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors. They are called gadflies. You know, people like Socrates, who is probably the best-known critical thinker in Western history. And, at least the well-educated among us know what happened to him.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/05/the-decline-of-critical-thinking/print

How to Read in 2013

By ROSS DOUTHAT, New York Times, December 29, 2012

COME what may in the next 12 months, 2013 has this much going for it: It’s a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race. This means that for a blessed 365 days you can be a well-informed and responsible American citizen without reading every single article on Politico, without hitting refresh every 30 seconds on your polling-average site of choice, without channel-hopping between Chris Matthews’s hyperventilating and Dick Morris’s promises of an inevitable Republican landslide.

So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

Here are three steps that might make such roving particularly fruitful. First, consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share. I’m using the word “subscription” advisedly: it may sound fusty in the age of blogs and tweets and online hopscotching, but reading the entirety of a magazine, whether in print or on your tablet, is a better way to reckon with the ideas that its contributors espouse than just reading the most-read or most-e-mailed articles on its Web site, or the occasional inflammatory column that all your ideological compatriots happen to be attacking.

So if you love National Review’s political coverage, add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell. If you’re a policy obsessive who looks forward every quarter to the liberal-tilting journal Democracy, consider a subscription to the similarly excellent, right-of-center National Affairs. And whenever you’re tempted to hurl away an article in disgust, that’s exactly when you should turn the page or swipe the screen and keep on reading, to see what else the other side might have to say.

Second, expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective, and the fact that most American political writers live in just two metropolitan areas tends to cramp our ability to see the world entire.

So the would-be cosmopolitan who currently gets a dose of British-accented sophistication from The Economist — a magazine whose editorial line varies only a little from the Manhattan-and-D.C. conventional wisdom — might do well to read the London Review of Books and The Spectator instead. (The multilingual, of course, can roam even more widely.) The conservative who turns to Manhattan-based publications for defenses of the “Real America” should cast a bigger net — embracing the Californian academics who preside over the Claremont Review of Books, the heartland sans-culottes at RedState, the far-flung traditionalists who write for Front Porch Republic. And the discerning reader should always have an eye out for talented writers — like the Montanan Walter Kirn, the deserving winner of one of my colleague David Brooks’s Sidney Awards — who cover American politics from outside D.C. and N.Y.C.

Finally, make a special effort to read outside existing partisan categories entirely. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean reading reasonable-seeming types who split the left-right difference. It means seeking out more marginal and idiosyncratic voices, whose views are often worth pondering precisely because they have no real purchase on our political debates.

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme. There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.

If these exercises work, they’ll make 2013 a year that unsettles your mind a little — subjecting the views you take for granted to real scrutiny, changing the filters through which you view the battles between Team R and Team D, reminding you that more things are possible in heaven and earth than are dreamed of by John Boehner and Harry Reid.

Then, and only then, will you be ready to start counting the days till the 2016 Iowa caucuses arrive.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/opinion/sunday/douthat-how-to-read-in-2013.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20121230

Teaching People to Hate Their Own Govt. Is at the Core of the Project to Destroy the Middle Class

By Dennis Marker, AlterNetAugust 21, 2012

The following is an excerpt from Dennis Marker’s new book 15 Steps to Corporate Feudalism [3], published this year. In the text  below, Marker shares one of the steps he sees as central to the destruction of the middle class since Ronald Reagan took over. 

Mini-excerpt

…Teaching the middle class to hate their government was an essential part of the [conservative] plan… A middle class cannot exist without a strong government. This is because only a government has the power to stand up to the giant corporations of today’s world …Thirty years ago at the onset of the Reagan Revolution, the middle class basically appreciated and respected their government…the basic message of Reagan and the conservatives was that everyone would be better off if the federal government just disappeared. They were smart enough not to say this directly, however. Instead, they just landed one body blow after another without openly expressing their desire to destroy the government….

Excerpt

…Teaching the middle class to hate their government was an essential part of the plan to implement Corporate Feudalism. A middle class cannot exist without a strong government. This is because only a government has the power to stand up to the giant corporations of today’s world, or the powerful individuals and private armies of earlier times…If you want to put an end to the middle class and replace it with a feudal republic, you would need to change people’s perception of their government…

Thirty years ago at the onset of the Reagan Revolution, the middle class basically appreciated and respected their government and believed that living in the United States was good for the middle class. They took their status for granted. The connection between what was good about the United States and its government was clear to the American public … government is very different from what it was when Reagan took office. It is much weaker, no longer able to offer the protections or provide the services the middle class took for granted thirty years ago… And in its weakened state the US government has lost the support of the very citizens who depended on it the most, the middle class.

How did this happen? When Ronald Reagan got to Washington, he set out to convince the middle class that their government was their enemy, using his considerable powers of persuasion. The basic message of Reagan and the conservatives was that everyone would be better off if the federal government just disappeared. They were smart enough not to say this directly, however. Instead, they just landed one body blow after another without openly expressing their desire to destroy the government….

Full text

Your goal for this step is to figure out how to teach the middle class to hate their own government using a strategy that takes into consideration the political climate of theUnited Statesof thirty years ago.

Teaching the middle class to hate their government was an essential part of the plan to implement Corporate Feudalism. A middle class cannot exist without a strong government. This is because only a government has the power to stand up to the giant corporations of today’s world, or the powerful individuals and private armies of earlier times. It is the government that enforces the laws to protect the middle class from those who would like to become their economic rulers. That is why prior to the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the middle class all economies were run according to some version of the feudal system. If you want to put an end to the middle class and replace it with a feudal republic, you would need to change people’s perception of their government.

Obviously a government does not have to be on the side of its people, as can be seen by the existence of countless dictatorships and oligarchies throughout the world. Even the corporatocracy that currently exists in theUnited States falls far short of being on the side of its middle class. But US history shows that a government committed to serving its citizens can, in fact, help create and maintain a healthy middle class even in the face of powerful corporations whose only interest is maximizing their own power and profits.

It is like the story in old westerns of a big bad landowner who takes what he wants when he wants it, ruthlessly terrorizing a town without a strong sheriff. Any individual who tries to stop the landowner is beaten into submission or killed. The situation continues until the town finds a strong enough sheriff to regain control over the landowner and his gang. This is the Old West version of the feudal system. In westerns, the feudal lord comes first and the sheriff comes later. But in the United States of thirty years ago, the government was the strong sheriff keeping the late-twentieth-century feudal lords from taking what they wanted. As long as the government was supported by its citizens—particularly its middle class—no one could ride into town and steal what belonged to the people. But if the government were weakened or destroyed, a different situation would arise. The intent of the plan for Corporate Feudalism was to convince the middle class to fire their sheriff. And that’s just what happened.

Thirty years ago at the onset of the Reagan Revolution, the middle class basically appreciated and respected their government and believed that living in the United Stateswas good for the middle class. They took their status for granted. The connection between what was good about the United Statesand its government was clear to the American public. For the most part, people believed the government was on their side and largely responsible for the high standard of living they enjoyed. Their government built the roads that made transportation easy. Their government made the laws and regulations that kept US workers safe at their jobs. Their government ensured that their food was safe. The labor strife that had empowered the middle class was now decades old, and the Vietnam War had ended, although not well. In many ways the United Statesof thirty years ago was a happy place, and most people understood their government’s role in keeping it that way. While there were problems, including the energy crisis, they seemed manageable. Not everyone was happy with everything the government did, of course, but there was general agreement that the USgovernment was the best government anywhere.

Then the US government found itself in the crosshairs of the brand-new Reagan Revolution with no way to understand why it was under attack and no way to defend itself. For thirty years, it took blow after blow. Now, while still standing, that government is very different from what it was when Reagan took office. It is much weaker, no longer able to offer the protections or provide the services the middle class took for granted thirty years ago—the same kinds of services that many European democracies have continued to provide for their citizens during the period of US economic and social decline. And in its weakened state theUS government has lost the support of the very citizens who depended on it the most, the middle class.

How did this happen? When Ronald Reagan got to Washington, he set out to convince the middle class that their government was their enemy, using his considerable powers of persuasion. The basic message of Reagan and the conservatives was that everyone would be better off if the federal government just disappeared. They were smart enough not to say this directly, however. Instead, they just landed one body blow after another without openly expressing their desire to destroy the government.

For example, Reagan attacked government workers, contending they were lazy, they wasted taxpayer money, and they involved themselves in issues they knew nothing about, like regulating large businesses and corporations. Within the first few years of Reagan’s election, the morale of the federal workforce plummeted as these employees saw their image shift from being considered public servants trying to make life in the United States better for everyone to being seen as lazy, despised bureaucrats wasting taxpayer money. Far from being a place where committed public servants worked to help the public,Washington,DC, became known as the place where crooks, thieves, and lazy workers stole taxpayer money for foolish purposes or their own personal benefit.

While federal workers had unions to protect their jobs, they did not have high-priced lobbyists and media consultants to safeguard their image. The unions representing federal workers came under the same harsh attack as the workers themselves, but the attacks went largely unanswered. The nation’s first movie star president had intentionally created this negative image of government workers, and he was convincing.

Following Reagan, other conservatives continued to lead the charge against the government, often using the same language the Reagan administration had employed. Few found language more effective than the Reagan one-liner, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” but they didn’t need to. The leap from John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” to Reagan’s cynical and supposedly frightening “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” had been successfully made.

In addition to waging a full-scale campaign against the government and its employees, the Reagan administration also implemented another practice that was equally destructive to the image of government—filling government positions with people who hated government, a practice that continues to this day. For those seeking to change theUnited States from a middle-class democracy to a corporate feudal republic, there are three major advantages to this practice. First, you give government jobs to your conservative friends and cronies. Second, you keep dedicated public servants who want to see government succeed out of government. Third, and most importantly, you have a cadre of conservative ideologues working inside the government to sabotage and destroy the government at every turn.

The advantages for conservatives of sabotaging and destroying the government are almost limitless. Looking at a few examples from George W. Bush’s administration shows why. Thirty years ago the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a government agency committed to protecting the public by monitoring the safety of toys and other products, made a positive difference in people’s lives. However, during George W. Bush’s administration conservatives who filled many of the civil service positions and all of the politically appointed slots did not believe the government should be in the business of helping to protect the public, and they did everything in their power to avoid carrying out their responsibilities. When Congress tried to give the CPSC more money to do a better job of regulating products imported fromChina, for example, the Bush-appointed agency head refused. She said they had plenty of money to do their job, although in reality they weren’t doing their job at all. Then reports started coming in about unsafe toys originating in China. People were outraged, as they should have been, and blamed the government. By failing to do their jobs, the conservatives were encouraging people to give up on their own government, which was exactly what conservatives wanted.

Thirty years ago, in an effort to make their point, conservatives often exaggerated the examples of government corruption and waste, but during George W. Bush’s administration scandals involving everything from toys to military contracting became the norm. And who were the perpetrators of most of these crimes against the United Statesand its taxpayers? They were government-hating conservatives working inside the government, placed there for this very reason. Each time one of these conservatives was caught in another scandal, the American public’s view of government deteriorated a little more. If you believe in a government that helps its citizens, this seems bad. But if you believe that the best government is no government this seems great, so the people who wanted to establish Corporate Feudalism couldn’t have been happier.

That was the plan used by Corporate Feudalists to convince millions of middle-class people to hate their own government. Did you think of a more effective way to accomplish this goal? Or do you believe the plan that was used was the most effective one available?

Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/teaching-people-hate-their-own-govt-core-project-destroy-middle-class

Links:
[1] http://www.alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/dennis-marker
[3] http://thefifteensteps.com/
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/middle-class
[5] http://www.alternet.org/tags/government-0
[6] http://www.alternet.org/tags/corporate-feudalism
[7] http://www.alternet.org/tags/reagan-revolution
[8] http://www.alternet.org/tags/george-w-bush
[9] http://www.alternet.org/tags/conservatives-0
[10] http://www.alternet.org/tags/consumer-product-safety-commission