America, we are told endlessly, is a "shining city on a hill," to use the Reaganite phrase. We are a "beacon of democracy," whose shining light is supposed to inspire the peoples of the world to throw off their shackles and usher in a global golden age. There are even those who say that we shouldn’t wait for the world’s peoples to be inspired, and that America must "export democracy" – forcibly, if necessary; peacefully if possible – to the four corners of the earth. The moral pretensions of this argument are considerably deflated, however, if we consider the lack of democracy right here in the good old USA. American "democracy" is a fraud – and nothing exemplifies this better than the recent announcement of the quasi-official "Commission on Presidential Debates" of its criteria for inclusion in the major political event of this election year.
"The approach we announce today is both clear and predictable," the co-chairs of the Commission averred in their press release – and surely it was both all-too-clear and all-too-predictable. "The CPD . . . requires that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recent publicly reported results at the time of the determination." What polls, taken when? Selected – by whom? The Commission was mum on these vital points, but the intent was clear enough. The two co-chairs of this "nonpartisan" Commission none other than the two past chairs of the two "major" parties – Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., and Paul G. Kirk – have decided to effectively exclude all third parties (and specifically Patrick J. Buchanan, probable Reform Party candidate) from the debate. Are we supposed to be shocked – shocked! – that these two old warhorses of the Establishment would rule in favor of maintaining the status quo? How predictable can you get?
The story of the Commission and how it came to be is part of the history of the elites’ attempt to control the political dialogue in this country and rein in all forms of dissent, whether from the right or the left. Its’ aim, from the beginning, was to "institutionalize" the quadrennial debates, just as the two-party system has been institutionalized, not only in custom but in statute. The Century Foundation, formerly the Twentieth Century Fund, the nonprofit voice of big investment bankers and their corporate satellites, was the initiator of the project, and the campaign kicked off with the publication of For Great Debates: A New Plan for Future Presidential TV Debates, by Newton N. Minow and Clifford M. Sloan, and two studies conducted by the Fund, which treated "third" parties as basically diversions away from the main business of providing a platform for the two "major" parties:
"The question of third-party candidates should not undermine the goal of institutionalizing debates between the Democratic and Republican party candidates. (That question can be considered, in all its complexity, in the context of a guaranteed minimum of debates between the major party candidates.)"
In the vision of Minow and Sloan – the former you may remember from the sixties as the FCC chairman who denounced commercial television as "a vaste wasteland" and called for extensive government involvement and regulation of content – the "minor" parties would be relegated to the status of a sideshow. Something could be arranged, perhaps "such as free television time for candidates" to get around this privileging of the two "majors."
The great irony of the Commission’s decision is that it verifies and underscores the very point that Buchanan has made the signature theme of his presidential campaign: an unelected elite is running this country, and the interests of ordinary people are not even a factor in their policies and decisions. The Washington-New York axis around which the country is expected to turn dominated the make-up of the panels that eventually formed the Commission on presidential debates: the list is a veritable Who’s Who of the Washington Establishment, including Katharine Graham, Tony Coelho, Hamilton Jordan, Vernon Jordan, Fahrenkopf, John Sununu, Chuck Robb, Lloyd Cutler, Robert Rubin, Lloyd Bentsen, Charles Black, and co-chairs Melvin Laird and Robert S. Strauss.
But even more indicative of the character of the Commission – and illustrative of Buchanan’s anti-elitist campaign theme – is the list of corporate sponsors of the Commission. In 1996, a major sponsor was Anheuser-Busch Corporation, which has one of the most extensive lobbying efforts in Washington. Another sponsor was Sheldon S. Cohen, a top official of the powerful law firm, Morgan, Lewis, and Bockius, Lucent Technologies, Sprint, Philip Morris, the Sara Lee Corporation, a couple of Rockefeller-connected do-gooder nonprofits, as well as the omnipresent Twentieth Century Fund. Past sponsors included AT&T, IBM, Dun & Bradstreet, Atlantic Richfield, and others, with the same coterie of corporate lawyers, Beltway bureaucrats, special interests, and self-appointed media mavens lurking in the background.
The elites, in business, politics, and the media, have a vision that is in large part at odds with the popular view of America’s role in the world. In the realm of foreign policy, the elites are notoriously contemptuous of ordinary folks for their seemingly inborn ‘isolationism’ and indifference to events overseas. Americans have had to be coaxed, prodded, pushed, and tricked into war – from the series of Wilsonian machinations that got us involved in World War I, to FDR’s successful scheme to provoke the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. The internationalist elites, however, know what is best for the ignorant masses, and have worked tirelessly to prevent the natural "isolationism" of the American people from taking its course. Aside from the endless propaganda that pours forth from their twenty-four-hours-a-day publicity machine, the War Party has managed to rig our presidential "elections" once every four years.
The struggle of the Eastern wing of the GOP to retain its iron grip – or, at least, a veto – over the party, and its success in preventing the "isolationist" Senator Robert A. Taft from claiming the Republican presidential nomination, has often been told: this was the theme of Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 manifesto, A Choice Not an Echo, the title of which became the battle-cry of a whole generation of GOP conservatives. I will not repeat that history here, except to point out that the pattern, since 1936, has recurred virtually every four years: the American people never get to vote on their country’s foreign policy. As the Old Right pamphleteer and editor Garet Garrett put it:
"Between government in the republican meaning, that is, Constitutional, representative, limited government, on the one hand, and Empire on the other hand, there is mortal enmity. Either one must forbid the other or one will destroy the other. That we know. Yet never has the choice been put to a vote of the people."
A major function of the Commission on Presidential Debates is to ensure that things stay that way. Our bipartisan foreign policy of internationalism, of endless intervention and outright empire-building, profits ordinary people not at all. But it enriches exporters, investment bankers, transnational corporations, and the war industries (including journalism) that feed at the public trough and profit from war. What do we call this system of exploitation, plunder, and mass murder? That depends on what end of the traditional left-right axis you’re coming from: leftists call it "capitalism," rightists call it "socialism," and political scientists call it social democracy, the mixed economy, or even "the managerial state." I call it cronyism, which can be defined in terms of its exact opposite – laissez-faire.
But that’s another column. For the moment let us just observe the richness of this moment, which dramatizes the essence of Cronyism in America, and is expressed in the pontifications of our esteemed Commissioners as the would-be arbiters and gatekeepers of American politics. They are even now congratulating themselves on their cleverness at having put one over on the American people, who sit narcotized in front of their television sets, mesmerized by Oprah and hypnotized by Jerry Springer.
But they should at least wait a decent interval before they break out the champagne and celebrate their victory. The hypocrisy and absolute foolhardiness of this attempt to smash all dissent in the name of "informing" the electorate could boomerang, and badly. The elites miscalculated in Seattle, when the people unexpectedly rose up against their unelected rulers, and were caught off-guard and knocked off balance. Blinded by their own arrogance, America’s self-appointed best-and -brightest are stumbling into another dark alley, blissfully unaware of the dangers, and practically begging for trouble. Here’s hoping that they get what’s coming to them. I can hardly wait.
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