Applause for the Numbers Machine

By RICHARD H. THALER, New York TImes, November 17, 2012

THE biggest winners on Election Day weren’t politicians; they were numbers folks.

Computer scientists, behavioral scientists, statisticians and everyone who works with data should be proud. They told us who was going to win, but they also helped to make many of those victories happen.

Three groups of geeks deserve the love they rarely receive: people who run political polls, those who analyze the polls and those who figure out how to help campaigns connect with voters.

Many people doubted the accuracy of political polling this year. Part of the skepticism was based on the wide range of predictions, with some showing President Obama in the lead, and others Mitt Romney. But there were additional, structural reasons to worry whether pollsters would be able to find representative samples of voters.

One problem is that people are harder to reach on the telephone these days. About a third of voters no longer have a land line, and many of those who have them don’t pick up calls from strangers. So modern polling companies have to work harder to find voters willing to answer questions, then have to guess which of these respondents will actually show up and vote.

So it may come as a surprise that, collectively, polling companies did quite well during this election season. Although there was a small tendency for the pollsters to overestimate Mr. Romney’s share of the vote, a simple average of the polls in swing states produced a very accurate prediction of the Electoral College outcome. Notably, the most accurate polls tended to be done via the Internet, many by companies new to this field. That’s geek victory No. 1.

This relatively accurate polling data provided the raw material for the second group of election pioneers: poll analysts like Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times, as well as Simon Jackman at Stanford, Sam Wang at Princeton and Drew Linzer at Emory University.

What do poll analysts do? They are like the meteorologists who forecast hurricanes. Data for meteorologists comes from satellites and other tracking stations; data for the poll analysts comes from polling companies. The analysts’ job is to take the often conflicting data from the polls and explain what it all means.

Worry about the reliability of the polling data led to widespread skepticism, or even outright hostility, toward poll analysts. The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” was one of the more polite criticisms bouncing around the Internet in the days before the election.

Because the polls were not, in fact, garbage, the first job of a poll analyst was quite easy: to average the results of the various polls, weighing more reliable and recent polls more heavily and correcting for known biases. (Some polls consistently project higher voter shares for one party or the other.)

A harder but more valuable task is to help readers translate the polling data into forecasts of the probability of victory. In Florida, where the final polls showed essentially a tie, according to Mr. Silver’s weighting method, it’s easy to see why he said the chance of either candidate winning the state was 50 percent. Ultimately, President Obama would very narrowly carry the state.

But what about North Carolina, where Mr. Silver projected that Mitt Romney would get 50.6 percent of the vote and President Obama, 48.9 percent? Looking at that very small difference, what probability would you have assigned to a Romney victory in that state?

Most people would guess something very close to 50-50. But not a good numbers guy. By looking back at previous elections with polling data this close, Mr. Silver estimated that Mr. Romney’s chances of winning North Carolina were 74 percent, a number that may seem surprisingly high. (Mr. Romney won the state.)

The slightly larger but still seemingly tiny lead that the president held in Ohio, another swing state, led poll analysts to predict that the chance of an Obama victory in Ohio was around 90 percent. And because Mr. Romney would have to win several such states with small Obama leads in order to prevail in the Electoral College, the analysts ended up with similarly high degrees of confidence in an overall Obama victory. They ended up predicting the Electoral College outcome almost exactly right, especially if you consider the final outcome in Florida to be a virtual tie, as they had projected.

Pundits making forecasts, some of whom had mocked the poll analysts, didn’t fare as well, and many failed miserably. George F. Will predicted that Mr. Romney would win 321 electoral votes, which turned out to be very close to President Obama’s actual total of 332. Jim Cramer from CNBC was nearly as wrong in the opposite direction, projecting that the president would win 440 electoral votes.

There is a lesson here. When it comes to assessing the chances of some complicated combination of events, gut feelings are pretty much useless. Pundits are no better at forecasting election outcomes than they would be at predicting the final path of a hurricane. Smart pundits should consider either abandoning this activity, or consulting with the geeks before rendering their guesses.

The third set of folks who deserve recognition in this election cycle were a group of young people working in a windowless room at Obama headquarters, affectionately known as the cave. They were part of the effort by the numbers-oriented campaign manager, Jim Messina, to maximize turnout.

THERE are two basic parts of an election campaign. The first comes under the category of messaging — deciding what a candidate should say and what ads to run. Most of the commentary we read about elections focuses on this component.

The second part is turnout, and in some ways is even more important. Here is a simple bit of math that you don’t have to be a geek to understand: It doesn’t matter which candidate a person prefers unless that person shows up and votes.

Pundits will debate for eternity which campaign did a better job of communicating its message, but there is no doubt which campaign won the turnout contest. Young, black and Hispanic voters all turned out in higher numbers than expected, and they often supported President Obama.

Much was made of the big Obama advantage in field offices in swing states. But those field offices would have been little good to the campaign without modern tools to find potential voters, have them register and encourage them to vote. In the weeks leading up to the election, the Obama canvassers had accurate lists of potential voters and field-tested scripts for their contacts with voters. This explains in part why Democrats were such heavy users of early voting.

By contrast, Project Orca, a get-out-the-vote computer program for the Romney campaign that wasn’t designed to be used until Election Day, reportedly had some bugs.

There should be something reassuring about this Obama campaign efficiency to all Americans, even those who supported Mr. Romney based on his success in business. When it came to the business of running a campaign, it was the former professor and community organizer who had the more technologically savvy organization and made more effective use of its resources, including geek power.

Richard H. Thaler is a professor of economics and behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He was an informal adviser to the Obama campaign.

The Fascinating Story of How Shameless Right-Wing Lies Came to Rule Our Politics

By Rick Perlstein [2], article first appeared in Mother Jones [1], posted on, May 26, 2011


It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us…So why does it seem as if we’re living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What’s changed?…a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound — until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.

…right-wing ideologues “lie without consequence,” as a desperate Vincent Foster put it in his suicide note nearly two decades ago. But they only succeed because they are amplified by “balanced” outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said “controversy.”…What’s new is the way the liars and their enablers now work hand in glove. That I call a mendocracy, and it is the regime that governs us now.

Full text

It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us: Kings, corporate executives, politicians, and ideologues from both sides of the aisle have been entirely willing to bend the truth when they felt it necessary or convenient. So why does it seem as if we’re living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What’s changed?

Today’s marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest — say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has “weapons of mass destruction,” or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation’s senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound — until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse.

For the past 15 years, I’ve spent much of my time deeply researching three historic periods — the birth of the modern conservative movement around the Barry Goldwater campaign, the Nixon era, and the Reagan years — that together have shaped the modern political lie. Here’s how we got to where we are.

PROLOGUE: Just Making Stuff Up

When an explosion sunk the USS Maine [5] off the coast of Havana on February 15, 1898, the New YorkJournal claimed two days later, “Maine Destroyed By Spanish: This Proved Absolutely By Discovery of the Torpedo Hole.” There was no torpedo hole [6]. The Journal had already claimed that a Spanish armored cruiser, “capable, naval men say, of demolishing the great part ofNew York in less than two hours,” was on its way. “WAR! SURE!” a banner headline announced.

The instigator was a politically ambitious publisher, William Randolph Hearst [7]. Kicked out of Harvard for partying, and eager to make a name for himself outside the shadow of his mining-magnate father, he made his way to New York, where he led the way in a sensationalist new style of newspaper publication — “yellow journalism.” In a fearsome rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer [8], he chose as his vehicle the sort of manly imperialism to which theWashington elites of the day were certainly sympathetic — although far too cautiously for Hearst’s taste. “You furnish the pictures,” he supposedly telegraphed a reporter, “and I’ll furnish the war.” The tail wagged the dog. At a time when the only way to communicate rapidly across long distances was via telegraph, it proved easy to make up physical facts.

More than six decades later, that still seemed to be the case. “Some of our boys are floating around in the water,” Lyndon Johnson told congressmen to goad them into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution [9] authorizing war in 1964, after a supposed attack on an American PT boat. “Hell, those dumb stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish,” LBJ observed later, after the deed was done. That resolution inaugurated a decade of official American military activities in Southeast Asia (unofficially, we had been carrying out secret acts of war for years). A full-scale air war began the following February, after the enemy shelled the barracks of 23,000 American “advisers” [10] in a South Vietnamese town called Pleiku. But that was just a pretext. “Pleikus are like streetcars,” LBJ’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said — if you miss one, you can always just hop on another. The bombing targets had been in the can for months, even as LBJ was telling voters on the campaign trail [11], “We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

It would have been possible all along for some intrepid soul to drop the dime on the whole thing. There were many who knew or suspected the truth, but with a villain as universally feared as communism was during the Cold War years, denying the facts felt like the only patriotic thing to do.

Then everything changed.

The ’70s: Question Authority

Walter Cronkite traveled to Saigon after the Tet Offensive in 1968, saw things with his own eyes, and told the truth: The Vietnam War was stuck in a disastrous stalemate, no matter what the government said. That was a watershed. By 1969, none other than former Marine Commandant David M. Shoup endorsed a book on the war called Truth Is the First Casualty [12]. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers [13], the Department of Defense study that plainly revealed that just about everything Americans had been told about Southeast Asia was flat-out untrue. When the Nixon administration ordered the newspapers not to publish the Papers, Supreme Court Justice Hugo* [14] Black thundered back [15] that “for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says.” The searing melodrama of the Watergate investigation exposed new Nixon lies every day.

America, it seemed, had had enough. In the mid-’70s, the investigating committees of Sen. Frank Church and Rep. Otis Pike revealed to a riveted public [16] that the CIA had secretly assassinated foreign leaders and the FBI had spied on citizens. Ralph Nader became a celebrity by exposing corporate lies. The mood of the Cold War had been steeped in American exceptionalism: The things America did were noble because they were done by America. Now, it appeared that America just might be susceptible to the same cruel compromises and corruptions as every other empire the world has known. Truth-telling became patriotic — and the more highly placed the liar, the more heroic the whistleblower.

The investigative reporter became a sexy new kind of hero — a shaggy-haired loner, too inquisitive for his own good, played by Warren Beatty [17] and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman [18]. Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, swooped in from nowhere to take the White House on the strength of the modest slogan “I’ll never lie to you.” And during his presidency, one of the grand, founding lies of western civilization itself — that there need be no limits to humans’ domination of the Earth — was questioned as never before.

The truth hurt, but the incredible thing was that the citizenry seemed willing to bear the pain. All sorts of American institutions — Congress, municipal governments, even the intelligence community (the daring honesty of CIA Director William Colby [19] about past agency sins was what helped fuel the Church and Pike investigations) — launched searching reconstructions of their normal ways of doing business. Alongside all the disco, the kidnapped heiresses, and the macramé [20], another keynote of 1970s culture was something quite more mature: a willingness to acknowledge that America might no longer be invincible, and that any realistic assessment of how we could prosper and thrive in the future had to reckon with that hard-won lesson.

Then along came Reagan.

The ’80s: Don’t Worry, Be Happy

In researching this period, I’ve been surprised to discover the extent to which Ronald Reagan explicitly built his appeal around the notion that it was time to stop challenging the powerful. A new sort of lie took over: that the villains were not those deceiving the nation, but those exposing the deceit — those, as Reagan put it in his 1980 acceptance speech [21], who “say that the United States has had its day in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith.” They were just so, so negative. According to the argument Reagan consistently made, Watergate revealed nothing essential about American politicians and institutions — the conspirators “were not criminals at heart [22].” In 1975, upon the humiliating fall of Saigon, he paraphrased Pope Pius XII [23] to make the point that Vietnam had in fact been a noble cause: “America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.”

The Gipper’s inauguration ushered in the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” era of political lying. But it took a deeper trend to accelerate the cultural shift away from truth-telling-as-patriotism to a full-scale epistemological implosion.

Reagan rode into office accompanied by a generation of conservative professional janissaries convinced they were defending civilization against the forces of barbarism. And like many revolutionaries, they possessed an instrumental relationship to the truth: Lies could be necessary and proper, so long as they served the right side of history.

This virulent strain of political utilitarianism was already well apparent by the time the Plumbers were breaking into the Democratic National Committee: “Although I was aware they were illegal,” White House staffer Jeb Stuart Magruder [24] told the Watergate investigating committee, “we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a legitimate cause.”

Even conservatives who were not allied with the White House had learned to think like Watergate conspirators. To them, the takeaway from the scandal was that Nixon had been willing to bend the rules for the cause. The New Right pioneer M. Stanton Evans once told me [25], “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

Though many in the New Right proclaimed their contempt for Richard Nixon, a number of its key operatives and spokesmen in fact came directly from the Watergate milieu. Two minor Watergate figures, bagman Kenneth Rietz (who ran Fred Thompson’s 2008 presidential campaign [26]) and saboteur Roger Stone [27] (last seen promoting a gubernatorial bid by the woman who claimed to have been Eliot Spitzer’s madam) were rehabilitated into politics through staff positions in Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. G. Gordon Liddy became a right-wing radio superstar.

“We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means,” wrote evangelist C. Peter Wagner [28] in 1981. “If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method.” Jerry Falwell once said his goal was to destroy the public schools. In 1998, confronted with the quote, he denied making it [29] by claiming he’d had nothing to do with the book in which it appeared. The author of the book was Jerry Falwell.

Direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie made a fortune bombarding grassroots activists with letters shrieking things like “Babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood.” As Richard Nixon told his chief of staff on Easter Sunday [30], 1973, “Remember, you’re doing the right thing. That’s what I used to think when I killed some innocent children inHanoi.”

1990-Present: False Equivalencies

Conservatives hardly have a monopoly on dissembling, of course — consider “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Progressives’ response has always been that right-wing mendacity — cover-ups of constitutional violations like Iran-Contra; institutionalized truth-corroding tactics like when the Republican National Committee circulates fliers claiming that Democrats seek to outlaw the Bible [31]– is more systematic. But the deeper problem is a fundamental redefinition of the morality involved: Rather than being celebrated, calling out a lie is now classified as “uncivil.” How did that happen?

Back in the days when network news was the only game in town, grave-faced, gravelly voiced commentators like David Brinkley and Eric Sevareid — and on extraordinary occasions anchors like Walter Cronkite [32]– told people what to think about the passing events of the day. Much of the time, these privileged men unquestioningly passed on the government’s distortions. At their best, however, they used their moral authority to call out lies with a kind of Old Testament authority — think Cronkite reporting from Saigon. It drove Johnson out of office, and it drove the right berserk.

On November 3, 1969, Richard Nixon gave a speech claiming he had a plan to wind down the war. The commentators went on the air immediately afterward and told the truth as they saw it: that he had said nothing new. Ten days later, the White House announced that Vice President Spiro Agnew was about to give a speech that it expected all three networks to cover — live.

The speech was an excoriation of those very networks and their Stern White Men [33]– “this little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal to every presidential address, but more importantly, wield a free hand in selecting, presenting, and interpreting the great issues of our nation…. The American people would rightly not tolerate this kind of concentration of power in government. Is it not fair and relevant to question its concentration in the hands of a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one, and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government?” Those in the habit of exposing the sins of the powerful were no longer independent arbiters — they were liberals. Such was the bias, Agnew argued, of “commentators and producers [who] live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington,DC, or New York   City,” who “bask in their own provincialism, their own parochialism.”

Foreshadowing Reagan’s framing of reform-minded truth-telling as a brand of elitist meddling, Agnew singled out for opprobrium the kind of reporting that “made ‘hunger’ and ‘black lung’ disease national issues overnight” (quotation marks his). TV reporting from Vietnam had done “what no other medium could have done in terms of dramatizing the horrors of war” — and that, too, was evidence of liberal bias.

Agnew’s remarks reinforced a mood that had been building since at least the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when many viewers complained about the media images of police beating protesters. By the 1980s the trend was fully apparent: News became fluffier, hosts became airier — less assured of their own moral authority. (Around this same time, TV news lost its exceptional status within the networks — once accepted as a “loss leader” intended to burnish their prestige, it was increasingly subject to bottom-line pressures.)

There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged “balance” over truth-telling — even when one side was lying. It’s a real and profound change — one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration’s “Watergate morality.” Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will [34], lambasting the “liberal” contention that scientific facts are facts — and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It’s happened to me more than once — on public radio, no less.

In the same vein, when the Obama administration accused Fox News [35] of not being a legitimate news source, the DC journalism elite rushed to admonish the White House. Granted, they were partly defending Major Garrett, the network’s since-departed White House correspondent and a solid journalist — but in the process, few acknowledged that under Roger Ailes, another Nixon veteran, management has enforced an ideological line top to bottom.

The protective bubble of the “civility” mandate also seems to extend to the propagandists whose absurdly doctored stories and videos continue to fool the mainstream media. From blogger Pamela Geller [36], originator of the “Ground Zero mosque” falsehood, to Andrew Breitbart’s video attack on Shirley Sherrod [37] — who lost her job after her anti-discrimination speech was deceptively edited to make her sound like a racist — to James O’Keefe’s fraudulent sting [38]against National Public Radio, right-wing ideologues “lie without consequence,” as a desperate Vincent Foster put it in his suicide note [39] nearly two decades ago. But they only succeed because they are amplified by “balanced” outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said “controversy.”

And here, in the end, is the difference between the untruths told by William Randolph Hearst and Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the ones inundating us now: Today, it’s not just the most powerful men who can lie and get away with it. It’s just about anyone — a congressional back-bencher, an ideology-driven hack, a guy with a video camera — who can inject deception into the news cycle and the political discourse on a grand scale.

Sure, there will always be liars in positions of influence — that’s stipulated, as the lawyers say. And the media, God knows, have never been ideal watchdogs — the battleships that crossed the seas to avenge the sinking of the Maine attest to that. What’s new is the way the liars and their enablers now work hand in glove. That I call a mendocracy, and it is the regime that governs us now.


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The Occupy Movement and the Politics of Educated Hope

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout, posted on, May 22, 2012

 “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair inevitable.” —Raymond Williams 

American society has lost its claim on democracy. One indication of such a loss is that the crises produced on a daily basis by crony capitalism operate within a discourse of denial. Rather than address the ever proliferating crises produced by market fundamentalism as an opportunity to understand how the United States has arrived at such a point in order to change direction, the dominating classes now use such crises as an excuse for normalizing a growing punishing and warfare state, while consolidating the power of finance capital and the mega-rich. Uncritically situated in an appeal to common sense, the merging of corporate and political power is now constructed on a discourse of refusal—a denial of historical conditions, existing inequalities and massive human suffering—used to bury alive the conditions of its own making. The notion that neoliberal capitalism has less interest in free markets than an enormous stake in the dominance of public life by corporations no longer warrants recognition and debate in mainstream apparatuses of power. Hence, the issue of what happens to democracy and politics when corporations dominate almost all aspects of American society is no longer viewed as a central question to be addressed in public life.(1) 

As society is increasingly organized around shared fears, escalating insecurities and a post 9/11 politics of terror; the mutually reinforcing dynamics of a market-based fundamentalism and a government that appears immune to any checks on its power render democratic politics both bankrupt and inoperable. The hatred of government on the part of Republican extremists has resulted not only in attacks on public services, the cutting of worker benefits, the outsourcing of government services, a hyper-nationalism and the evisceration of public goods such as schools and health care, but also in an abdication of the responsibility to govern. The language of the market with its incessant appeal to self-regulation and the virtues of a radical individualization of responsibility now offer the primary dysfunctional and poisonous index of what possibilities the future may hold, while jingoistic nationalism and racism hail its apocalyptic underbelly. 

The notion that democracy requires modes of economic and social equality as the basis for supportive social bonds, democratic communities and compassionate communal relations disappears along with the claims traditionally made in the name of the social justice, human rights and democratic values. Entrepreneurial values such as competitiveness, self-interest, deregulation, privatization and decentralization now produce self-interested actors who have no interest in promoting the public good or governing in the public interest.(2) Under these circumstances, the 1 percent and the financial, cultural and educational institutions they control declare war on government, immigrants, poor youth, women, and other institutions and groups considered disposable. Crony capitalism produces great wealth for the few and massive human suffering for the many around the globe. At the same time, it produces what João Biehl calls “zones of social abandonment,” which “accelerate the death of the unwanted” through a form of economic Darwinism “that authorizes the lives of some while disallowing the lives of others.”(3) 

As market relations become synonymous with a market society, democracy becomes both the repressed scandal of neoliberalism and its ultimate fear.(4) In such a society, cynicism becomes the ideology of choice as public life collapses into the ever-encroaching domain of the private, and social ills and human suffering become more difficult to identify, understand and engage with critically. The result, as Jean Comaroff points out, is, “In our contemporary world, post 9/11, crisis and exception has become routine and war, deprivation and death intensify despite ever denser networks of humanitarian aid and ever more rights legislation.”(5) In addition, as corporate power and finance capital gain ascendancy over society, the depoliticization of politics and the increasing transformation of the social state into the punishing state has resulted in the emergence of a new form of authoritarianism in which the fusion of corporate power and state violence increasingly permeates all aspects of everyday life.(6) Such violence with its every expanding machinery of death and surveillance creates an ever-intensifying cycle, rendering citizens’ political activism dangerous and even criminal as is obvious in the current assaults being waged by the government against youthful protesters on college campuses, in the streets, and in other spaces now colonized by capital and its machinery of enforcement.(7) 

In opposition to the attacks on critical thought, dissent, the discourse of hope and what Jacques Ranciere calls the erosion of “the public character of spaces, relations and institutions,”(8) the Occupy movement has provided both a call to and demonstrated a common investment in what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s call the need “to hang on to intellectual and real freedom” and to insure that thinking does not become “immune to the suggestion of the status quo,”(9) thus losing its “secure hold on possibility.”(10) This is evident in the willingness of the protesters’ “challenge to capitalism front and center among its concerns and passions [and] to make economic injustice for the 99 percent and the ruling economic system central, defining issues.”(11) Worth noting is that the Occupy protesters believe that intellectuals (those willing to exercise critical thought) come from a broad range of jobs, fields and institutions and should inhabit the realm of politics, be willing to cross intellectual and physical boundaries, connect questions of understanding and power and unite passion, commitment and conscience in new ways in order to reflect on and engage with the larger society. This intervention is both intellectual and political and it suggests contesting neoliberal capitalism on several registers.


At issue here is that the protesters seek to rescue the political possibilities of ambivalence from the powerful, break open the sordid appeal to common sense, unmask casino capitalism’s most pernicious myths (especially the alleged belief that capitalism and democracy are the same), struggle to restage power in productive ways, enact social agency from those places where it has been denied and work to provide an accurate historical accounting of the racial state and racial power. What has emerged in the Occupy movement is the refusal on the part of protesters to accept the dominant scripts of official authority and the limitations they impose upon individual and social agency, thus using spaces of critique, dissent, dialogue and collective resistance as starting points from which to build unfamiliar, potential worlds. In the process of thinking seriously about structures of power, state formation, militarism, capitalist formations, class and pedagogy, the protesters have refused to substitute moral indignation for the hard work of contributing to critical education and enabling people to expand the horizons of their own sense of agency in order to collectively challenge established structures of financial and cultural power.


This rethinking of politics bristles with a deeply rooted refusal to serve up well-worn and obvious truths, reinforce existing relations of power, or bid retreat to an official rendering of common sense that promotes “a corrosive and demoralizing silence.”(12) What emerges in these distinct but politically allied voices is a pedagogy of disruption, critique, recovery and possibility, one that recognizes that there is no viable politics without will and awareness and that critical education motivates and provides a crucial foundation for understanding and intervening in the world. As Stanley Aronowitz argues, “The system survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population and the conformity of its intellectuals.”(13) While a pedagogy of disruption and possibility offer no guarantees, it does create the formative culture necessary to create the conditions to enable the hard work necessary to make the “long march” “through the institutions, the workplaces and the streets of the capitalist metropoles.”(14)


Collectively, the Occupy movement also explores, in different ways, how politics demands a new language and a broader view of pedagogy that is both critical and visionary. This commitment translates into a pedagogy capable of illuminating the anti-democratic forces and sites that threaten human lives, the environment and democracy itself; at the same time, its visionary nature cracks open the present to reveal new horizons, different futures and the promise of a global democracy. And yet, under the reign of neoliberal ideology, racist xenophobic nationalisms, the rise of the punishing state, and a range of other anti-democratic forces, citizenship is increasingly privatized, commodified, or subject to various religious and ideological fundamentalisms that feed a sense of powerlessness and disengagement from democratic struggles, if not politics itself. Neoliberalism presents misfortune as a weakness and the logic of the market instructs individuals to rely on their own wits if they fall on hard times, especially since the state has washed its hands of any responsibility for the fate of its citizens. And it is precisely this marriage between fate and the dictates of capitalism that the Occupy movement is challenging.


If the act of critical translation is crucial to a democratic politics, it faces a crisis of untold proportions in the United States, as the deadening reduction of the citizen to a consumer of services and goods empties politics of substance by stripping citizens of their political skills, offering up only individual solutions to social problems, and dissolving all obligations and sense of responsibility for the other in an ethos of hyper-individualism and a narrowly privatized linguistic universe. The logic of the commodity penetrates all aspects of life, and the most important questions driving society no longer seem concerned about matters of equity, social justice and the fate of the common good. The most important choice now facing most people is no longer about living a life with dignity and freedom, but facing the grim choice between survival and dying. As the government deregulates, privatizes and outsources key aspects of governance, turning over the provisions of collective insurance, security and care to private institutions and market-based forces, it undermines the social contract, while “the present retreat of the state from the endorsement of social rights signals the falling apart of a community in its modern, ‘imagined’ yet institutionally safeguarded incarnation.”(15)


One consequence is that the specters of human suffering, misfortune and misery caused by social problems are now replaced with the discourses of personal safety and individual responsibility. Increasingly, as social institutions give way to the machinery of surveillance, punishment and containment, social provisions along with the social state disappear. Similarly, the exclusionary logic of ethnic, racial and religious divisions render more individuals and groups disposable, excluded from public life—languishing away in prisons, dead-end jobs, or the deepening pockets of poverty—and effectively prevented from engaging in politics in a meaningful, powerful way. Instead of vibrant democratic public spheres, neoliberal capital creates what João Biehl calls “zones of social abandonment,” the new domestic “machineries of inscription and invisibility” that thrive on the energies of the unwanted, unbankable and unrecognized—a category that now includes more and more groups including students, women, immigrants, poor people of color and those who refuse to narrate themselves in the sphere of consumer culture.(16)


As the machineries of social death expand, politics seems to take place elsewhere—in globalized regimes of power that are indifferent to traditional forms of power and hostile to any notion of collective responsibility to address human suffering and social problems. Chris Hedges captures the spirit and politics of this mode of corporate colonialism and it is worth repeating. He writes:


We are controlled by tiny corporate entities that have no loyalty to the nation and indeed in the language of traditional patriotism are traitors. They strip us of our resources, keep us politically passive and enrich themselves at our expense…The colonized are denied job security. Incomes are reduced to subsistence level. The poor are plunged into desperation. Mass movements, such as labor unions, are dismantled. The school system is degraded so only the elites have access to a superior education. Laws are written to legalize corporate plunder and abuse, as well as criminalize dissent. And the ensuing fear and instability—keenly felt this past weekend by the more than 200,000 Americans who lost their unemployment benefits—ensure political passivity by diverting all personal energy toward survival. It is an old, old game.[17]
It is an old game reinforced by an authoritarian politics that is unapologetic about its abuses and ongoing production of violence and human misery. It is a politics that owes more to the older fascist regimes of Germany, Italy and Chile than to any notion of democracy. And it is precisely in the reclaiming of politics, one that challenges the current structures of power and ideology, that the Occupy movement offers its greatest promise. What is particularly important in this movement is the growing recognition that moral condemnations of greed, corruption, consumerism and injustice provide only “the minimal positive program for socio-political change,” which further demands addressing the more crucial need for systemic transformations in American society.(18)


We live at a time when the crisis of politics is inextricably connected to the crisis of education and agency. Any viable politics or political culture can only emerge in a determined effort to provide the economic conditions, public spaces, pedagogical practices and social relations in which individuals have the time, motivation and knowledge to engage in acts of translation that reject the privatization of the public sphere, the lure of ethno-racial or religious purity, the emptying of democratic traditions, the crumbling of the language of commonality and the decoupling of critical education from the unfinished demands of a global democracy. As the Occupy movement increasingly addresses what it means politically and pedagogically to confront the impoverishment of public discourse, the collapse of democratic values, the erosion of its public spheres and the corporate colonizing of the American society, it puts in place a language for developing public spheres where critical thought, dialogue, exchange and collective action can take place. At work here is the attempt to develop a new political language for rescuing modes of critical agency and social grievances that have been abandoned or orphaned to the dictates of global neoliberalism, a punishing state and a systemic militarization of public life. Against such hard times for the promise of democracy, the Occupy movement offers an incisive language of analysis and hope, a renewed sense of political commitment, different democratic visions and a politics of possibility.


Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market value replaces social values and people with the education and means appear more and more willing to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of family, religion and consumption. In this case, hope is privatized and foreclosed, just as the conditions disappear in which certain kinds of democratic politics are possible. Those without the luxury of combining individual, political and social rights that make choice meaningful pay a terrible price in the form of material suffering and the emotional hardship and political disempowerment that are its constant companions. Even those who live in the relative comfort of the middle classes must struggle with a poverty of time in an era in which the majority must work more than they ever have to make ends meet.


Mainstream theorists, intellectuals and talk-show pundits revere the thought that politics as a site of contestation, critical exchange and engagement is in a state of terminal arrest or has simply come to an end. The only politics that matters for this diverse group of extremists is a politics that benefits corporations, the rich and the servants of finance capital. However, the Occupy movement argues in diverse and often complex ways that too little attention is paid to what it means to think through the realm of the political, particularly how the struggle over radical democracy is inextricably linked to creating and sustaining public spheres where individuals can be engaged as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need not only as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up. The growing cynicism in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying intellectual, ethical, economic and political projects, especially as they work to reframe questions of agency, ethics and meaning for a substantive democracy.


For the Occupy movement, there is a pressing need to get beyond the discourse of negation in order to imagine another world, a future that does not simply reproduce the present. Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, involving the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites and the renewal of civic courage among citizens, residents, and others who wish to address pressing social problems.(19) Hope says “no” to the totalizing discourse of the neoliberal present; it contains an activating presence that opens current political structures to critical scrutiny, affirms dissent and pluralizes the possibilities of different futures. In this sense, hope is a subversive force.


In opposition to those who seek to turn hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss efforts to look beyond the horizon of the given, the promise of the Occupy movement lies in its ability to develop the spaces and places for a democratic formative culture, language of collective struggle, one that embodies and becomes both a project and a pedagogical condition for providing a sense of opposition and engaged struggle. As a project, Andrew Benjamin insists, hope must be viewed as “a structural condition of the present rather than as the promise of a future, the continual promise of a future that will always have to have been better.”(20) At the same time, as Alain Touraine points out, “Opposition to domination is not enough to create a movement; a movement must put forward demands in the name of a positive attribute.”(21) Clearly, hope in this instance is not an individual proclivity or a simple act of outrage, but rather a crucial part of a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible.


Hence, hope is more than a politics—it is also a pedagogical and performative practice that provides the foundation for enabling human beings to learn about their potential as moral and civic agents. Hope is the outcome of those pedagogical practices and struggles that tap into memory and lived experiences, while at the same time linking individual responsibility with a progressive sense of social change. As a form of utopian longing, educated hope opens up horizons of comparison by evoking not just different histories, but also different futures; at the same time, it substantiates the importance of ambivalence while problematizing certainty. In the words of Paul Ricoeur, it serves as “a major resource as the weapon against closure.”(22) Critical hope is a subversive force when it pluralizes politics by opening up a space for dissent, making authority accountable and becoming an activating presence in promoting social transformation.


The current limits of the utopian imagination are related, in part, to the failure of many individuals and social groups to imagine what pedagogical conditions might be necessary to bring into being forms of political agency and social movements that expand the operations of individual rights, social provisions and democratic freedoms. At the same time, a politics and pedagogy of hope is neither a blueprint for the future nor a form of social engineering, but a belief, simply, that different futures are possible, which holds open matters of contingency, context and indeterminacy. It is only through critical forms of education that human beings can learn to “combine a gritty sense of limits [of the present] with a lofty vision of possibility.”(23) Hope poses the important challenge of how to reclaim social agency within a broader struggle to deepen the possibilities for social justice and global democracy. The Occupy movement recognizes that any viable notion of political and social agency is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unravelling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”(24)


The project of asking questions that make power accountable, of reclaiming politics from exile, must strike a careful balance between leaving itself forever open to future questions and acting decisively to change the lived experience of ever-expanding ranks of dispossessed and disposable peoples. Reclaiming politics requires a form of educated hope that accentuates how politics is played out on the terrain of imagination and desire as well as in material relations of power and concrete social formations. Freedom and justice, in this instance, have to be mediated through the connection between civic education and political agency, which presupposes that the goal of educated hope is not to liberate the individual from the social—a central tenet of neoliberalism—but to take seriously the notion that the individual can only be liberated through the social.


Central to the Occupy movement is the premise that hope as a subversive, defiant practice should provide a link, however transient, provisional and contextual, between vision and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential, it has to be grounded in a pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pessimism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the on-going struggle for a global democracy. One of the great promises of the Occupy movement is its recognition that the greatest threat to social justice and democracy is not merely the existence of casino capitalism, but the disappearance of critical discourses that allow us to think outside of and against the demands of official power as well as the spaces where politics can even occur, where people can learn and assert a sense of critical agency, embrace the civic obligation to care for the other and refuse to take “shelter where responsibility for one’s actions need not be taken by the actors.”(25)


An inclusive democratic politics must be responsive to the varied needs of the citizens who comprise it. In order to facilitate critical thought and nurture the flexibility it requires, the Occupy movement protesters do not provide totalizing answers as much as they offer better questions. They open up conversations in which acts of critical recovery unleash possibilities that have been repressed by official history or caught in the trap of existing social realities. In an age when the dominant tendency among academics is to follow power and fashion, the protesters exhibit both a strong sense of political conviction and an admirable civic courage in their willingness to speak against the status quo, take risks and struggle to give history back to those who are increasingly removed from the political sphere. They also put their bodies on the line in the face of a society that is willing to unleash the police on its youthful protesters rather than invest in their future.


There is more at stake here than saying no, making power visible and recognizing that our individual and collective experiences are not dictated by fate. There is also the challenge of confronting the actual with the possible, of pulling hope down to earth, of making sure that the possibilities we mobilize engage real problems and concrete expressions of domination and power. In addition, there is the need to translate theoretical concerns into public action, lift up the level of discourse in an attempt to connect the academy to the dynamics of everyday life and give worldly expression to our critical work. Politics as an act of translation is essential to the struggle against the coming darkness that brands critical judgment as an enemy of the state and destroys public space, paving the way for existing elements of authoritarianism to crystallize into new forms that deform language. A democratic politics may take many forms, but central to connecting its diverse expressions is the need for individuals, groups and social movements to be able to reveal individual problems as public concerns, use theoretical resources to change concrete and systemic relations of power and challenge “a hateful politics toward the public realm, toward politics.”(26)


Such a challenge is essential to any emancipatory politics of hope and meaning. Without the ability to see how each of our lives is related to the greater good, we lack the basis for recognizing ourselves bearers of rights and responsibilities—the precondition of our being human—who can assume the task of governance rather than simply be governed. We lack the basis for raising questions about the goals and aims of our society and what we want our society as a whole to accomplish, especially in the context of the challenge of creating a global democracy. In short, we lack what makes a democratic politics viable. The alternative is a growing national security state and a species of authoritarianism that encourages profit-hungry monopolies; the ideology of faith-based certainty; the pursuit of ethno-racial purity; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of civil liberties; the practice of torture; and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, responsible dissent, critical thought and collective struggles. The crises facing American society are much too urgent to give up on and necessitate a resurgence of critique and a discourse of hope premised on the feasibility of a more democratic and just future along with the social movements that will make it possible.




1. Colin Crouch, “The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism” (London: Polity, 2011), pp. viii-ix.
2. Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, “Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction,” (Oxford University Press, 2010). See also Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011), pp. 705-728.
3. João Biehl, “Vita: Life in A Zone of Social Abandonment,” (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 20.
4. This theme is taken up particularly well in Jacques Ranciere, “Hatred of Democracy” (London: Verso Press, 2006).
5. Jean Comaroff, “Beyond Bare Life: AIDS, (Bio)Politics and the Neoliberal Order,” Public Culture, 19:1, (Duke Press: Winter 2007), pp. 197-219.
6. I take up this issue in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, “The Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Politics in the Age of Disposability” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2012).
7. For a broader theoretical framework for understanding the militarization of American society, see Stephen Graham, “Cities Under Siege: the New Military Urbanism” (London: Verso, 2010).
8. Jacques Ranciere, “Democracy, Republic, Representation,” Constellations 13, no.3 (2006): 299-300.
9. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (London: Verso Press, 1989), 243.
10. Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture,” ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 1991), 292.
11. Richard D. Wolff, “Capitalism is Taboo in America,” Truthout (May 15, 2012). Online here.
12. Ellen Willis, “Three Elegies for Susan Sontag,” New Politics X, no.3 (Summer 2005),  (accessed January 2007)
13. Stanley Aronowitz, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” Situations, IV, no.2, (Spring 2012). p. 68.
14. Ibid., Stanley Aronowitz, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” Situations, p. 68.
15. Zygmunt Bauman, “Has the Future a left?” The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies (2007) , pp. 1-26.
16. João Biehl, “Vita: Life in A Zone of Social Abandonment,” (Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 10-11.
17. Chris Hedges, “Colonized by Corporations,” Truthdig (May 14, 2012). Online here.
18. Slavoj Žižek, “Occupy Wall Street: what is to be done next?” The Guardian UK, (April. 24, 2012).
19. On the related issues of hope and pedagogy, see Mark Cote, Richard J.F. Day and Greig de Peuter, eds. “Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neoliberal Globalization” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).
20. Andrew Benjamin, “Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism” (New York: Routledge, 1997), 1.
21. Alain Touraine, “Beyond Neoliberalism” (London: Polity Press, 2001), p. 6.
22. Bauman, “Work, Consumerism and the New Poor” (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1998), 98.
23. Ron Aronson, “Hope After Hope?” Social Research 66, no.2 (Summer 1999): 489.
24. Zygmunt Bauman and Keith Tester, “Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman” ( Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2001), P. 4.
25. Zygmunt Bauman, “Liquid Life,” (London: Polity Press, 2005) pp. 213.
26. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, “Why Arendt Matters” (New York: Integrated Publishing Solutions, 2006), 6.

This article may not be republished without permission from Truthout.

Regressive Republicans

The Sick Social Darwinism Driving Modern Republicans by Robert Reich, Robert Reich’s Blog, Posted on, Decem­ber 6, 2011 — What kind of soci­ety, exactly, do mod­ern Repub­li­cans want? I’ve been lis­ten­ing to Repub­li­can can­di­dates in an effort to dis­cern an over­all phi­los­o­phy, a broadly-shared vision, an ideal pic­ture of America. They say they want a smaller gov­ern­ment but that can’t be it. Most seek a larger national defense and more mus­cu­lar home­land secu­rity. Almost all want to widen the government’s pow­ers of search and sur­veil­lance inside the United States – erad­i­cat­ing pos­si­ble ter­ror­ists, expung­ing undoc­u­mented immi­grants, “secur­ing” the nation’s bor­ders. They want stiffer crim­i­nal sen­tences, includ­ing broader appli­ca­tion of the death penalty. Many also want gov­ern­ment to intrude on the most inti­mate aspects of pri­vate life. They call them­selves con­ser­v­a­tives but that’s not it, either. They don’t want to con­serve what we now have. They’d rather take the coun­try back­wards – before the 1960s and 1970s, and the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Act, Medicare, and Med­ic­aid; before the New Deal, and its pro­vi­sion for Social Secu­rity, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, the forty-hour work­week, and offi­cial recog­ni­tion of trade unions; even before the Pro­gres­sive Era, and the first national income tax, antitrust laws, and Fed­eral Reserve…Social Dar­win­ism offered a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the wild inequities and social cru­el­ties of the late nine­teenth cen­tury.Social Dar­win­ism also under­mined all efforts at the time to build a nation of broadly-based pros­per­ity and res­cue our democ­racy from the tight grip of a very few at the top. It was used by the priv­i­leged and pow­er­ful to con­vince every­one else that gov­ern­ment shouldn’t do much of anything. Not until the twen­ti­eth cen­tury did Amer­ica reject Social Dar­win­ism. We cre­ated the large mid­dle class that became the core of our econ­omy and democ­racy….

The Five Strands of Conservatism: Why the GOP is Unraveling By Drew Westen, Huffington Post, April 16, 2009 …the modern conservative movement…was built on an ideological foundation–and a coalition–that was fundamentally incoherent. It took a charismatic leader to bring it together (Ronald Reagan), a tacit agreement among its coalition partners to give each other what they wanted, and a message machine to start selling the idea that that there was coherence to a conservative “philosophy” that was anything but coherent. Modern conservatism wove together five discrete strands and interest groups that couldn’t coexist. What is remarkable is how well it held together despite the fact that those strands were actually difficult to interweave. The first strand is libertarian conservatism, reflected in leaders from Barry Goldwater to Ron Paul. Libertarian conservatives believe government should be small and weak and kept that way through low taxes…The second strand, with which libertarianism is entirely incompatible, is social conservatism, particularly Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of any sort believe that they have privileged knowledge of God’s Will and hence have the right to use whatever methods available–including the instruments of state–to impose that will on others.The third strand of conservatism is old fashioned fiscal conservatism… essentially soft New Dealers, who accept the premises of the New Deal–that we need a safety net…but prefer the safety net and tax codes to be thin…The fourth strand, national security conservatism, is a different breed. National security conservatives tend to be hawkish…The final strand of conservatism is the one Nixon exploited with his Southern Strategy and the Republicans have exploited ever since, whether the issue is voting rights, “welfare queens,” affirmative action, or the fate of “illegals”: prejudice…conservatives don’t have much on their side on this one either, except to the extent that they can block the vote, because demographics are running in the wrong direction for them over the next 50 years. …the right [is] short on ideas, but they’re long on selling ideas, however vapid. Second, Democrats are exactly the opposite: They’re long on ideas but short on the ability to bundle them into coherent, emotionally compelling narratives that make people want to buy them

Plu­toc­racy, Paral­y­sis, Per­plex­ity by Paul Krug­man, New York Times, May 4, 2012…Today, Wash­ing­ton is marked by a com­bi­na­tion of bit­ter par­ti­san­ship and intel­lec­tual con­fu­sion…The Con­gres­sional schol­ars Thomas Mann and Nor­man Ornstein…say our polit­i­cal dys­func­tion is largely because of the trans­for­ma­tion of the Repub­li­can Party into an extrem­ist force that is “dis­mis­sive of the legit­i­macy of its polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion.” …money buys power, and the increas­ing wealth of a tiny minor­ity has effec­tively bought the alle­giance of one of our two major polit­i­cal par­ties, in the process destroy­ing any prospect for coop­er­a­tion…the Repub­li­can Party is dom­i­nated by doc­trines for­merly on the polit­i­cal fringe…a party that, as Mr. Mann and Mr. Orn­stein note, is “unper­suaded by con­ven­tional under­stand­ing of facts, evi­dence, and science.”…billionaires have always loved the doc­trines in ques­tion, which offer a ratio­nale for poli­cies that serve their inter­ests.…the real struc­tural prob­lem is in our polit­i­cal sys­tem, which has been warped and par­a­lyzed by the power of a small, wealthy minor­ity. And the key to eco­nomic recov­ery lies in find­ing a way to get past that minority’s malign influence.

Apocalypse Now 

How Party of Budget Restraint Shifted to ‘No New Taxes,’ Ever 

Obstruct and Exploit 

The conservative learning curve 

Conservatives’ Reality Problem

The GOP’s Voter Suppression Strategy

6 Right-Wing Zealots and the Crazy Ideas Behind the Most Outrageous Republican Platform Ever

Five Practical Reasons Not To Vote Republican

How the G.O.P. Became the Anti-Urban Party

Inside the Values Voter Summit By Rob Boston, Octo­ber 2012,

The Rise of the Regressive Right and the Reawakening of America by Robert Reich October 16, 2011 by Robert Reich’s Blog, posted on - A fundamental war has been waged in this nation since its founding, between progressive forces pushing us forward and regressive forces pulling us backward. We are going to battle once again. Progressives believe in openness, equal opportunity, and tolerance. Progressives assume we’re all in it together…Regressives take the opposite positions.…today’s Republican right aren’t really conservatives. Their goal isn’t to conserve what we have. It’s to take us backwards…The regressive right has slowly consolidated power over the last three decades as income and wealth have concentrated at the top. In the late 1970s the richest 1 percent of Americans received 9 percent of total income and held 18 percent of the nation’s wealth; by 2007, they had more than 23 percent of total income and 35 percent of America’s wealth. CEOs of the 1970s were paid 40 times the average worker’s wage; now CEOs receive 300 times the typical workers’ wage. This concentration of income and wealth has generated the political heft to deregulate Wall Street and halve top tax rates. It has bankrolled the so-called Tea Party movement, and captured the House of Representatives and many state governments. Through a sequence of presidential appointments it has also overtaken the Supreme Court…

Yet the great arc of American history reveals an unmistakable pattern. Whenever privilege and power conspire to pull us backward, the nation eventually rallies and moves forward….regressive forces reignited the progressive ideals on whichAmericais built. The result was fundamental reform. Perhaps this is what’s beginning to happen again across America.

The Worst Of Times by Paul Krugman, April 16, 2010, New York Times blog
A question for the history-minded, related to today’s column: has there ever been a time in US political history when one of the two major political parties was so addicted to doublethink, so committed to pretending that it’s advocating the opposite of its actual agenda?
Obviously things like this have happened in world politics — Orwell wasn’t a fantasist, he was drawing on actual experience. But did a major U.S. political party ever sound so Orwellian before? I’d say no — but maybe it has been airbrushed out of our history. Inquiring minds want to know.

GOP must slip its ugly skin by Jeffrey Kolnick, Star­Tri­bune, August 22, 2012

Paul Ryan’s Biggest Influence: 10 Things You Should Know About the Lunatic Ayn Rand by Jan Frel, Alter­Net  August 12, 2012

War Room: The three fundamentalisms of the American right By Michael Lind

40 years after Watergate, Nixon was far worse than we thought

Alan Simpson Slams Fellow Republicans For Unwillingness To Compromise,, May 27, 2012

Are Republicans Social Darwinists? By Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, April 2012

What Are Conservatives Trying to Conserve? by Ira Glasser, Executive Director, ACLU (1978-2001, Retired), 03/24/2012

What Happened to the Traditionally Conservative Republican Party? By Cliff Schecter, Al Jazeera English, Posted on,  September 30, 2011

Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult by Mike Lofgren,  Truthout | News Analysis, September 3, 2011

A grand old cult by Richard Cohen, Washington Post, July 4, 2011  -

In America Today, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower Would Be Bernie Sanders in the U.S. Senate By Rachel Maddow, AlterNet, January 28, 2011

The Rise of the New Confederacy: How America-Hating Right-Wingers Took Over the GOP By Theo Anderson, In These Times,, December 8, 2011

Understanding the modern conservative movement by Carl T. Bogus ,, November 29, 2011

Far-Right John Birch Society 2010 by Jonathan Karl,, February 19, 2010

Party of No: How Republicans and the Right Have Tried to Thwart All Social Progress by Arun Gupta,, posted on May 23, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Compassionate Conservatism by E.J. Dionne, Jr. Washington Post, published on, November 17, 2010

How the Right Went Wrong by Karen Tumulty, Time Magazine, March 15, 2007

This is Not Fiscal Conservatism. It’s Just Politics by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, February 24, 2011

How Religion’s Demand for Obedience Keeps Us in the Dark Ages By Adam Lee, AlterNet, March 19, 2012

The Sad Race for Bottom on the Loony Right By Robert Reich, Robert Reich’s Blog, February 27, 2012

A challenge to conservatives By E.J. Dionne Jr.


A Politics for the 99 Percent by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Robert L. Borosage

The Nation – posted June 6, 2012; appeared in the June 25, 2012

This year will feature the most ideologically polarized election since the Reagan-Carter face-off of 1980. A radical-right Republican Party, backed by big-money interests, has made itself the tribune of privilege and will do significant damage if it takes control in Washington. Staving off that outcome depends on mobilizing the Democratic base. Yet President Obama’s agenda is far removed from what is needed to meet the challenges this country faces. Because of this, we believe progressives must expand the limits of the current debate, even as they rally against the threat posed by a Republican victory.

No one should discount the potential destructiveness of a victory for Mitt Romney. The widespread media assumption that he’s really a “Massachusetts moderate” who adopted extreme positions to placate the Republican electorate before resetting his Etch A Sketch would be irrelevant even if it were true. A Romney victory could be accompanied by GOP control of all branches of government, with the party’s right-wing majority in the House driving the agenda. As Grover Norquist argues, “We are not auditioning for fearless leader…. We just need a president to sign this stuff.”

The “stuff” they would pass—already endorsed by Romney—includes repeal of the modest reforms enacted to police corporations after the Enron scandal and banks after the financial collapse; repeal of healthcare reform, stripping some 30 million people of coverage; budget cuts that would gut almost all domestic functions of the government, from education to child nutrition to safeguarding clean air and water; and an end to Medicare and Medicaid as we know them. These draconian measures would be used to pay for increases in military spending and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Under the Romney plan, those making over $1 million a year would receive an average tax break of $250,000. A Romney victory would buoy a Republican right eager to roll back social progress, constrict voting rights and exacerbate racial divides in an era of middle-class decline. The offensive against labor and workers’ rights would escalate. And Romney’s bellicose foreign policy would make George W. Bush look dovish. If Romney wins, we will spend four years fighting to limit the damage he will inflict on the nation.

Obama has indicted the right’s extremes, arguing eloquently for public initiatives to save the middle class and revive the American dream. He’s made inequality a central theme of his campaign, and he will defend tax hikes on the wealthy and investments in areas vital to our future, from education to new energy. In attacking the vulture capitalism of Romney’s Bain Capital, defending the auto industry rescue and promoting investment in new energy, he makes an implicit case for industrial policy. Obama’s defense of human rights—for women, gays and minorities—stands in stark contrast to his opponent’s views. His re-election would help consolidate the emerging reform-coalition majority based on minorities, the young, single women, professionals and union households. Obama is winding down two wars, but his embrace of a modified “war on terror”—drones, renditions, expanded surveillance and other trappings of the imperial presidency—poses deep perils for the country. Even so, at least if Obama wins—and particularly if the Democrats manage to take back the House—our chances of reversing these policies, and winning the broader battle for reform, are vastly greater.

The System Isn’t Broken; It’s Fixed

Yet on the central issue of the campaign—the economy—the limits of the Obama agenda are apparent. In his “economic Sermon on the Mount,” delivered three months after he took office, Obama argued that we could not return to an economy built on debt and bubbles; we had to build “a new foundation” that would work for working people. He proposed moderate measures in critical areas: an economic stimulus, plus reforms in the healthcare, energy and financial sectors. But despite the economic crisis, an election mandate and Democratic majorities in both houses, Republicans combined with entrenched interests to delay, dilute and in some cases defeat reform.

Now the old economy has recovered, even if Americans have not. The big banks are more concentrated than ever and back to making big bets, certain that they are too big to fail. The trade deficit is growing, back up to an average of more than $1.5 billion a day. Wages continue to fall, with more and more Americans struggling to afford healthcare and retirement. Student debt exceeds credit card debt, and the piecemeal privatization of public education continues. Inequality continues to grow, with the top 1 percent capturing a staggering 93 percent of the income growth in 2010.

Beneath Washington’s polarized politics, an establishment consensus has congealed around austerity. After this fall’s election, the United States will face a fiscal train wreck: the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of the year, as will the payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits. The debt ceiling must be raised again, and Republicans are threatening to hold the country hostage once more. The legacy of the last negotiation is an automatic sequester that requires cutting about 10 percent of the discretionary budget—both domestic and military programs. If all the cuts are made, the still-weak economy will plunge back toward recession. That specter is used to justify the call—made by both parties—for a grand bargain based on “shared sacrifice,” in which “everything is on the table.” In this construct, deficits pose the biggest threat, with austerity the needed remedy. Since we have all lived beyond our means, the argument goes, we should all share in the necessary sacrifices.

In fact, mass unemployment, not the deficit, poses the biggest threat to the economy. A turn to austerity would essentially be a declaration that chronic, widespread joblessness—with the declining wages and rising insecurity that accompany it—is the new normal, to which Americans must adjust. The mantra of shared sacrifice ignores the reality that most Americans already have sacrificed—in reduced wages, lost savings, collapsed home values. The question now should be: Who pays the tab for the mess created by Wall Street excesses, costly wars and thirty years of failed conservative policies? The “shared” sacrifice of austerity saddles the most vulnerable and the middle class with the tab. Wall Street gets bailed out and the rich get lower tax rates, while the 99 percent get unemployment and cuts in education, government services, retirement security and affordable healthcare.

The situational populism of presidential campaign rhetoric cannot mask the limits of the Obama mandate. He will offer no transformational agenda, no new foundation for an economy that works for working people, no plan for reviving the middle class. And no matter who wins, only sustained popular pressure will forestall a debilitating “grand bargain” that will further undermine the middle class and the poor.

The Progressive Response

Not surprisingly, the high stakes of 2012 have fueled the perennial debate over the importance of electoral politics versus movement politics. In the face of the threat posed by the right, Democrats urge activists to swallow their disappointment with the president and pull together to get out the vote. In contrast, many movement activists scorn electoral politics, arguing that both parties are so corrupted and compromised that energy should be focused on building independent movements and protests.

Frances Fox Piven terms this a false dichotomy. “Elections and movements do not proceed on separate tracks. To the contrary, electoral politics creates the environment in which movements arise.” And movements can challenge the limits of the electoral debate, forcing politicians to address issues and adopt positions they might otherwise shun. The dedication and imagination of Occupy Wall Street forced inequality, mass unemployment and declining wages onto the national agenda, issues that Romney argued should be talked about only “in quiet rooms.” Popular movements in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere have won dramatic victories in repelling the right’s offensive against unions and working people—even as they have also compelled Democratic politicians to talk once more about workers’ rights. Successful movements build their own narrative, mobilizing activists around a cause and forcing politicians seeking a majority to change their calculations.

In 2012 progressives have little choice but to do both: to take the election seriously while continuing to organize independent movements and challenge the limits of the debate. Committing to electoral politics need not mean—cannot mean—simply folding into an existing campaign and trumpeting a politician’s exaggerated promises. Progressives should see elections as an opportunity to identify champions, drive issues into the debate and hold politicians in both parties accountable. This requires building an infrastructure independent of the Democratic Party, and a movement willing to challenge compromised incumbents. A prime example was Ned Lamont’s 2006 campaign against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut over the Democratic senator’s support for the Iraq War. After Lamont’s stunning upset victory in the primary, Democrats who had begun the campaign arguing about the supply of bulletproof vests finished it calling for an end to the war, which helped them win a majority in the House.

In this election, there are several high-profile races that could send Washington a message—notably the Senate campaigns of Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have argued forcefully for taming Wall Street, and both of whom are prime targets for the right. In the House, there are more than a dozen progressive challengers who, if elected, would strengthen the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

At the state and local levels, the stunning mobilization against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, followed by recall challenges of Republican senators, helped inspire progressives (and sober conservatives) across the country, who will push their own campaigns no matter what the outcome of the recall. Progressive Majority will field hundreds of local and state candidates while targeting key races that could flip state legislatures.

Even without primary challenges, movements can raise the public’s awareness of progressive issues and force politicians to adopt positions they might otherwise avoid. Activists are moving to put the housing crisis and corrupt banking practices at the center of the national debate. While Occupy Our Homes mobilizes in communities to defend citizens against foreclosure and the Campaign for a Fair Settlement demands that we hold Wall Street accountable for the pervasive fraud that inflated the housing bubble, the Home Defenders League is organizing underwater homeowners in targeted states to demand that banks pay for resetting mortgages, which would bring dramatic benefits in jobs and growth to the overall economy. If these movements gain traction in Florida, Ohio and Nevada, the presidential and Congressional candidates will have to respond.

With student debt greater than credit card debt, students and Occupy activists have started to challenge university tuition hikes, demanding relief from Washington and Wall Street. The president has pushed for extending lower interest rates on student loans, in part to appeal to young voters.

This fall the biggest challenge for progressives will be finding a way to use the election to break the establishment consensus on post-election austerity. This requires mobilization around the demand of Good Jobs First and condemning a premature turn to austerity that would force working families to pay for the mess that Wall Street created. In addition, a broad-based coalition could join the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Senator Bernie Sanders and prominent economists to lay out a common-sense approach to growth and deficits. The most effective deficit-reduction measure is putting people to work—as soon as the unemployed start collecting paychecks, they spend and stimulate the economy, putting even more people to work and expanding tax revenue. Fair tax reform that shuts down corporate loopholes and tax havens and hikes taxes on the wealthy can help pay for the investments we need to build a new foundation for growth. Borrowing money at current interest rates, which are cheaper than free, and investing it in renovating our decrepit infrastructure—roads, sewers, energy systems—will put people to work and have a positive economic return. After we do this, we can focus on getting our books in order over the long term—not by cutting Medicare or Social Security but by fixing our broken healthcare system.

With Romney and the Republicans championing a return to the policies that have devastated the middle class, the election also offers an opportunity to overcome what has been the most baffling of Obama’s failures: his unwillingness to “re-litigate the past,” to educate Americans about the bankrupt ideas and policies that served the 1 percent as they failed the country. It is a measure of that stunning default that after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the right could be revived electorally without being forced to rethink its assumptions or agenda, and without having to change even a comma of its creed.

Occupy Wall Street has helped to expose how a rigged system threatens our democracy and our economy. Progressives should use the election to hone our narrative on how we got into this mess and how we can get out of it. The conversation shouldn’t simply be about an agenda, though. It should be about values—about the standards we hold in common, now offended by a system that tramples the basic beliefs most Americans hold about their country. In this post–Citizens United world, big money and both parties are flooding the airwaves with billions of dollars in negative ads, but this election can serve as a perfect teachable moment—if progressives counter with teach-ins, house parties, demonstrations, nonviolent protests and marches.

An Honest Politics

Americans understand that the system is broken—and rigged against them. They increasingly see both parties as compromised, and they have little sense of an alternative and even less of a sense that anyone is prepared to fight for them. Progressives must therefore be willing to expose the corruption and compromises of both parties. This requires not only detailing the threat posed by the right but honesty about the limits of the current choice.

We also must go from opposition to proposition. Broad coalitions and campaigns are needed to lay out alternatives and fight for them. Occupy Wall Street challenged the heart of darkness, and the commitment and sacrifice of the thousands who took part in that movement have inspired hope. That’s why sustained efforts to mobilize and drive issues into the debate, while using nonviolence and direct action to defend people in peril, are vital. At the same time, progressives can champion candidates who will fight to transform the Democratic Party into an instrument of the 99 percent.

Defeating Romney and the right’s ruinous agenda is necessary but not sufficient. We need to worry less about co-optation and more about collaboration and expansion. A new course will require electing progressive champions and holding them accountable. It will require bold mobilizations around neglected issues to break the establishment’s stranglehold on our politics. It will require new ideas, new ways of organizing, new strategies of reconstruction.

We are still struggling to free ourselves from the ideas and institutions of the conservative era. We see more clearly than ever the flaws of a system rigged to benefit the few. The money politics that supports market fundamentalism has been exposed. The perils of the politics of division—enforced by a beleaguered, aging white minority against an emerging, more diverse America—are clear. Now we must reach out, teach, engage and mobilize millions of Americans. We must provide them with a sense of hope, a story of possibility, and enlist them to create change. It won’t be easy. But it never is.
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