Monday, May 13, 2013

Information Flow and Action in Progressive Politics. 2013 and Beyond, What Is To Be Done?

by Fred Drumlevitch

Why do we blog? Do progressive political bloggers and the more structured progressive information sources matter, in the context of contemporary mainstream media’s massive footprint? What is the nature of mainstream media’s betrayal of democracy? How are mathematical models of infection relevant to dissent? Most important, what is to be done to advance progressivism? Those seemingly diverse questions are in fact intimately related, and can provide useful guidance as we strive to reverse the decades-long deterioration of the national social compact.

Bloggers: Pissed Is Prologue

It is apparent that serious political bloggers (and online commenters, as well) do so for a wide variety of reasons that may include the honing of one’s thoughts that hopefully results from formally presenting them, the desire for full control over their exposition, and the benefits of dialogue with like-minded individuals and rational opponents who may be quite dispersed geographically. Some old-fashioned idealism, a dash of ego, a hogshead of outrage, and a visceral appreciation for that old A. J. Liebling quip that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” might also be involved! We believe that we have an inalienable right to make our voices heard with regard to the governance of this country, and that right includes frequent and detailed expression if desired, not simply a largely co-optive vote every few years. We hope, in bits and bytes, for at least a modicum of influence with regard to the future of the nation.

Truth be told, though, the average independent blogger/commenter’s audience is minuscule, and even those that are most widely read reach an audience orders of magnitude smaller than that influenced by mass media’s “news” coverage and pundits. Worse yet, we are often “preaching to the choir”, addressing a self-selected group of generally similar-thinking people; much the same might be said about the more traditional progressive sources. In the parlance of an infectious disease political analogy, our contact rate is low, and mostly with those already “infected” with our political opinions — and that will not do much to further the spread of progressivism.

An aside: While the analogy of dissent in general and progressivism in particular as a communicable infection may initially be a bit off-putting, it ultimately should not be. A related metaphor is already in common use, the rapid spread of information being labeled “viral”. If an “infection”, progressivism is a beneficial one that immunizes people against the pustulant selfishness currently widespread among American right-wingers, much as cowpox protects against smallpox. If progressivism is an infection, I’m thankful to be infected. I assert that such a model is analytically useful even when the spread is not rapid, and has not — yet — produced an “epidemic” of rebellion.

Mass Media: Memory Holes and Burial Mounds

Moving on, well, what about the mainstream media as vector for progressivism? Here, we encounter other issues relevant to the control of information flow, and therefore to the control of dissent: unwarranted trust, and the low signal-to-noise ratio and high structural biases of modern Western mass media.

Despite the wide availability of alternative information sources in the Western democracies, the relative influence of accurate, bona fide alternative sources, measured across the still-important broad political middle of the population, may not be that much greater here than under authoritarian regimes. This occurs because some of the alternatives are not what they seem, and because the mainstream media in the democracies, inadequate though it may be, retains enough credibility with the bulk of the populace to maintain its dominance despite the many alternatives available.

That dominance comes at great cost to our society. Certainly, it is obvious to the thoughtful citizen that adequate coverage by the mass media of important problems and progressive solutions does not occur; the scant reporting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget proposals and of Senator Bernie Sanders’ trenchant analyses — even by the New York Times, the supposed U.S. “newspaper of record” — stand as clear examples. Even Paul Krugman, avowed liberal columnist for that paper, admitted on April 22, 2011 in his NYT “The Conscience of a Liberal” blog to inadequate coverage of the Progressive Caucus “People’s Budget”; he did mention it favorably two days later in his regular column at the paper, but never again referred to it by name within the Times. Nancy Folbre, of the University of Massachusetts, writing July 18, 2011 in the NYT “Economix” blog also noted the poor coverage of it by the Times, and elsewhere.

More recent coverage remains similarly deficient. The Progressive Caucus’ subsequent budget proposal, the fiscal year 2013 “Budget for All”, was released March 26, 2012. According to my own searches, done May 12, 2013 using LexisNexis, Google, and site-specific search tools, this moderately-progressive budget alternative has in the more than a year since its release received no formal news coverage or analysis whatsoever from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, or USA Today, all “top-ten” newspapers based on U.S. circulation data. Upon release, it was superficially looked at in the Washington Post’s “2Chambers” blog of March 26, 2012. As commenter “kwilson4” succinctly noted there on April 1, 2012: “Ryan's budget got news stories in this paper. This budget is mentioned in a blog. Hardly balanced coverage. What gives?” There would be neither answer nor improved coverage from the Post. The only other (and very brief) mention of the “Budget for All” in that paper was in their “Wonkblog” of November 21, 2012. The CPC’s later and more limited “Deal for All”, House Resolution 733, was the subject of an August 1, 2012 photo and caption, and an op-ed piece by Congressman Keith Ellison on November 18, 2012, both in USA Today (and neither indexed by LexisNexis). An online column by Katrina vanden Heuvel at the Washington Post on December 31, 2012 made passing reference to that “Deal for All”. And Greg Sargent penned a WaPo opinion column February 5, 2013 on the CPC’s more recent “The Balancing Act” proposal, H.R. 505 (summary, full bill). Then, on March 14, 2013, the CPC’s just-released FY2014 “Back to Work” budget was referred to briefly by Paul Krugman in his NYT column and in more detail by Jamelle Bouie and Ezra Klein in two blogs at the Washington Post — with Klein beginning favorably, but pivoting to deride it as a “fantasyland” … “analogue to Ryan’s budget”. The New York Times editorial board gave this latest CPC budget a one-sentence derogatory reference in a March 15, 2013 editorial, columnist David Brooks devoted his March 18 NYT opinion column to lambasting it, and the Times referred to it in a March 20 article focused on House of Representatives budgetary polemics — all three assiduously avoiding mention of the CPC budget’s actual name. A Washington Post opinion column by Katrina vanden Heuvel on March 19 did a good job of advocating for it, while the Post’s Plum Line blog of March 19 references that vanden Heuvel column and adds one sentence of comment. And an article in the Los Angeles Times on March 20 (not indexed by LexisNexis) gave it one sentence of superficial description after its defeat in the House. These citations constitute the full extent of more than thirteen and a half months “coverage” by the above-referenced “journalistic” enterprises of all CPC budget proposals released since March 26, 2012. In contrast, a Lexis-Nexis search for co-occurrences of “budget” and (“Paul Ryan” or “Paul D. Ryan”) at those same four publications during the same March 26, 2012 – May 12, 2013 period produces a total of 1285 hits. And the Obama budget released April 10, 2013, which violates basic principles of progressivism (and morality), has already received extensive favorable coverage from those newspapers. Lastly, let us not forget the 2012 presidential election, where Jill Stein, Rocky Anderson, and all other third-party candidates were barred from the televised debates, and virtually ignored by the mainstream media not only during the campaign but even in defeat. My November 7 examination of the web sites for the New York Times, the PBS NewsHour, and the news divisions of NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX, found national vote totals for the third-party presidential candidates only at CBS News.

The conclusion is inescapable: For the majority of the populace that does not take the initiative to actively seek out reputable alternative information sources, mainstream media’s minimal to non-existent coverage of progressive thought effectively equates to suppression. In our “kinder-and-gentler” megacorporation-run, advertising-sponsored information tyranny, no “ministry of information” directives prohibit certain coverage. No reporters are brutally “disappeared”. But the effect of the invisible hand is much the same.

In fact, mass media’s poor coverage of politics and other issues of great importance is, in some ways, worse than nothing. The trivial is abundant, and the most absurd far-right claptrap is presented with a frequency and deference unwarranted by any objective standard — while actually being fully explainable. Much of it may be understood as part deliberate noise component that obscures the signal of rational and moral solutions, part strongly-repeated Social-Darwinistic/ pro-business/ authoritarian/ militaristic/ jingoistic/ xenophobic content that seeks to phase-lock the populace to its reactionary paradigms. In 1956, the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ranted at the West “We will bury you”. He did not succeed, but the mainstream media of our modern so-called democracies has. That mainstream media, in its service to corporate, plutocratic, military, and governmental interests, has adopted a highly effective interment strategy with regard to progressive solutions to national problems, burying them under a never-ending flow of distracting rubbish and manipulative falsehoods. (For an in-depth look at this process, see the classic “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”, 2002 updated edition, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky). Progressivism has been thoroughly marginalized via domination, distraction, dilution, and distortion, the four horsemen of a disinformation apocalypse. Returning to the communicable infection analogy, both the absolute amount and relative strength of the infectious progressivist agent have been much reduced, thus greatly reducing the rate of transmission.

Under those conditions, waiting for progressive thought to passively spread to the majority of the American people is as futile as waiting for Reagan-inspired economic trickle-down to occur. The megacorporate mainstream media will not voluntarily assist — indeed, as I have argued, it is often an impediment — though profit considerations and fear of audience desertion may push them to anemically follow once a trend becomes too big to ignore. And the universe of progressive bloggers, websites, and traditional alternative press, alone or together, cannot solve the problem. In the United States, these elements have managed to communicate to a significant minority of the populace the ideological foundations for progressive opposition, plus important news and encouragement, but they have not remade the political landscape.

What Is To Be Done: Overall Strategy

A rational analysis suggests that a multi-pronged strategy is necessary, the first part of which is that progressivism should be actively communicated to all potentially receptive citizens. And one size does not fit all. We need a wide spectrum of information dissemination and involvement, ranging from modern electronic methods to old-fashioned leafleting and broadsides, picketing, marches, direct co-worker and neighbor engagement, broader organization, satire, and yes, even the theatrical absurdity, carnival-barkery of the late-1960s Yippie movement. We have begun to see those things episodically, and hopefully they will grow; in any season, the nation would certainly benefit from an “American Spring” rebuttal to the authorities’ anti-democratic efforts to quash visible protest.

But for the progressive message to be considered relevant by the broader target audience, it must be coupled with substantial progressive actions — serious electoral challenges by authentically-progressive candidates, unrelenting pressure by progressives on core issues such as adequate and fair taxation, proper national spending priorities, a livable minimum wage, the protection of civil liberties, and restraints on U.S. militarism both abroad and as expressed in corollary form by domestic law enforcement. We also need a broad range of other actions including the development of non-governmental institutions beneficial to the people and the movement (as suggested in Michael Kazin’s September 25, 2011 New York Times op-ed “Whatever Happened to the American Left?”). The breadth and depth of the national systemic rot necessitates a wide diversity of nonviolent actions both inside and outside of the system, vigorously pursued irrespective of which persons or parties hold political power.

Yet in all of that strategizing, there exists a significant paradox, game theory 101: A logical plan and extensive groundwork may well be a recipe for defeat, for the movement does not operate in a political vacuum, and every day the reactionary right acts in a multitude of venues to consolidate and extend its multi-decade dominance and looting of the nation. The seemingly-beneficial strategy of strengthening progressive foundations will actually be counterproductive if we excessively delay the actions that should arise from the foundations, or if enhanced foundations can be easily neutralized. We need to act accordingly.

Therein lay the genius of “Occupy”: finally, dramatic popular democratic action that hadn’t been expected, accompanied by a narrative at least part of which resonated quite broadly — a currency of protest, made current. Occupy melded action, education, consciousness-raising, solidarity, resistance to co-optation, unpredictability, and media spectacle. Even that combination, however, is insufficient to guarantee victory, particularly in the context of a mass media that shirks its duty to investigate and inform and an American public that has been extensively brainwashed into the meme of unfettered capitalism. As noted by Chris Hedges a year and a half ago (“Occupiers Have to Convince the Other 99 Percent”, at Truthdig, October 24, 2011), the bulk of the American people do not consider themselves to be even liberal, let alone leftist; they often view those political philosophies as alien by reason of style and ideology, or discredited by past accommodation and ineffectiveness. But one must be careful to not take away an incorrect conclusion from that. While a better political education of the public in the value of true progressivism would be desirable, it should never be forgotten that to act is semantically implicit in the word activism, and that to delay action until some supposed necessary fraction of the populace has first been thoroughly schooled in progressivism is simply a prescription for permanent impotence. Drawing upon an old metaphor, I would say that the workers of the world aren’t much impressed to hear yet again that they have nothing to lose but their chains; they could, however, be responsive to clear evidence of timely actions to help free them. Or to put matters in a more modern way (and as any salesperson can attest): Interest in a product is not sustainable if there are no signs that the product will be available within a reasonable time frame. We need to bring some examples of the product to market now. The most impressive argument for progressivism would be progressivism’s dynamic, determined, contemporary actions in support of the people — and there are countless ways that such desired actions could find expression.

What Is To Be Done: Let’s Get Specific

“Occupy” made a good start, and showed that strategy and tactics should include an amorphous and unpredictable component. However, I believe that achieving progressivism’s ultimate goal of an equitable, just, and humane society requires a greater current focus on a strategically-chosen set of more proximate goals, plus crystal-clear relevance, a broader permanent base, a diversity and flexibility of tactics yet resolute firmness with regard to goals large or small. None of that should surprise — it was the playbook of the African-American Civil Rights Movement during the time of its greatest gains, and such a strategy is needed once again, this time in the service of broader public needs, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and others envisioned. If social justice and economic justice are fundamental human rights as we claim, surely they merit, right now, specific substantive widely-supportable truly-non-negotiable demands, and concerted nonviolent action in furtherance of those demands, not merely the expression of anger or general yearnings that history indicates will likely permit continued co-optation and suppression by the traditional power structure.

In the near term, the most pressing item on the agenda must be to block all moves by the wealth-lackey Social-Darwinist Republicans and spineless complicit Democrats to cut social spending as even a partial response to the contrived crisis of the “fiscal cliff” and its sequelae. Members of the poor and middle classes have for decades been losing ground not only relative to the wealthy but also in comparison to their same-class historical peers, particularly when costs such as higher education, health care, and retirement are included. Note, though, that with regard to the poor, the argument needn’t — shouldn’t — be based solely upon a relative decline. By absolute measures, many in this country live under conditions of appalling deprivation that should shame the well-off who clamor for reduced taxes and cuts to government-funded social services. The bottom line is that our less-fortunate citizens bear little or no responsibility for our national economic problems, and it is patently unjust — actually, immoral — for them to be expected to bear any of the burden of economic remedies.

We must also effect a transformation of the very nature of the U.S. national economy, both governmental spending as well as the spending that comprises the rest of our economy.

Substantial cuts to our bloated military spending should be front and center in any attempts to reform U.S. governmental finances. It is often stated by progressives that U.S. military spending exceeds that of the next fifteen or so countries combined. Less well publicized is what that military spending would buy for this country and its people if applied to more rational and moral uses. The tradeoff is astounding, far in excess of the even-then high costs that President Eisenhower cited in his April 16, 1953 “The Chance for Peace” speech. At that time, Eisenhower equated the cost of one fighter plane to one-half million bushels of wheat. (Note: Eisenhower’s reference to one-half million bushels of wheat could not have been the lower flyaway cost (marginal cost), which for the F-86D, the most expensive F-86 variant/derivative operational at the time of his speech, was at 1953 prices the equivalent of only about 183,000 bushels of wheat. So he was probably referencing full life-cycle costs). Now, the procurement cost of the modern F-35B/C is an estimated $237 million per planenearly thirty-four million bushels of wheat (at May 10, 2013 closing prices for May futures) — with the estimated life-cycle cost even higher, $618 millionmore than 88 million bushels — per plane, and $1.51 trillion for the entire F-35 program216 BILLION bushels of wheat at current prices! (Time Magazine in its U.S. December 3, 2012 issue incorrectly reported the F-35B cost at $160 million apiece, and $400 billion for the whole program; the New York Times in a November 29 article incorrectly reported cost per plane as $137 million, and total program cost as $396 billion. All those lower (but still massive) costs appear to be based on outdated and/or optimistic estimates of both the flyaway cost and R&D costs, both of which have already ballooned far more than the GAO and the Pentagon have been willing to admit. Most important, though, is that the vast majority of mainstream media references have grossly under-stated the true cost by ignoring all operating costs).  Calculate some relevant equivalencies — in health care, education, physical infrastructure, social services, environmental preservation and restoration — and then talk up — no, shout, scream — all the various numbers, as loudly and as often as possible, so that the obscene opportunity costs of our national militarism can be brought to the forefront of public consciousness. U.S. military spending should be significantly reduced, and it can be, without harm to either our national security or economy. The military spending reductions mandated by “sequestration” are actually only a tiny fraction of the much more substantial military cuts that should begin now and continue over at least several years. Worth noting is that an 89% cut in U.S. military spending occurred post-WWII, 1948 vs. 1945, and that very large cut, even at a time when military spending comprised a much greater percentage of our GDP than it does now, did not cause our economy to collapse. Rather, it heralded an era when our industry would greatly increase output of products that our populace needed and wanted.

As to the non-governmental portion of our economy, much of it has failed both the nation and the people. While so-called conservatives continually denounce the government for its supposed distortions of what they see as an otherwise wondrous free market, the truth of the matter is that our most damaging systemic distortions originate with inadequately-regulated capitalism itself, and include: reckless financial system speculation and other misuses of capital; unfair advantage resulting from information differentials; anti-competitive domination by a small number of large corporations in many economic sectors; subjugation of labor leading to the exploitation, endangerment, and even deaths of workers; off-shoring and outsourcing destructive of individuals and communities; sophisticated manipulation of consumer demand via advertising; and countless instances of environmental damage, the costs of which are not borne by the perpetrators. All of this is greatly exacerbated by business’ subversion of democratic political processes through undue influence over politicians and by concurrent marginalization of opposition viewpoints. Not only are fundamental global, national, and human needs not being beneficially addressed by contemporary capitalism, they are often very much worsened by it. As FDR understood (but many contemporary capitalists do not), governmental policies and regulations reining in the excesses of capitalism and promoting basic social and economic justice do not harm capitalism, they assist its survival.

Fundamental changes to that non-governmental segment are necessary. The excessive political influence of corporations effected through advertising and political contributions must be ended; corporations are not people, and artificial economic constructs should not have the free speech or other rights of individuals. An increase of the minimum wage to living levels would permit those at the bottom of our economy to live with a measure of dignity. Progressive import tariffs based on the degree to which trans-border businesses negatively externalize costs would partially counter the current “race to the bottom” in worker compensation and environmental degradation caused by so-called “free trade”. Our present tax revenues being wholly inadequate to correcting the well-documented needs in this nation, particularly in the context of American capitalism’s inherent dedication to maximizing its own profit regardless of societal costs, we need a much more progressive domestic tax structure with some significant (but certainly bearable) tax increases on the well-off, on capital gains, on corporate profits, and most of all, on financial system transactions (especially for short-term holdings, which cannot with any honesty be called socially-useful investments). This would not only help fund government-directed infrastructure and social programs, it would also discourage the non-productive speculation that has become rampant in modern capitalism. The stick can be accompanied by carrots: a concomitant expansion of tax credits and subsidies for individual and business activities that responsibly address true needs could provide a modest financial incentive to “do the right thing”, as well as promote a competitive diversity of approaches to remedy our problems. (Caveat: Strong controls are absolutely essential to prevent inter-governmental “bidding wars” and other abusive manipulations by business of governmental incentives such as were detailed in New York Times articles in-print December 2, 3, and 4, 2012). A further benefit of an economic restructuring that increases our focus on true needs and genuine desires is that such an economy would be more resistant to recession.

For the long term, none of these issues should even require debate. Our fundamental human rights, as well as the obligations of government, the corporations, and the wealthy, to both the nation and the people, should all be legally codified via new Constitutional foundations — a twenty-first century Bill of Rights that establishes a framework for a rational and moral social contract. However, the degree to which our older Bill of Rights has been shredded during the past decade by deceptive or demagogic politicians aided by reactionary courts and a complicit mainstream press suggests that serious sociopolitical activism will always be necessary.

The great mass of ordinary Americans must escape the abattoir of mainstream-media-assisted co-optive American politics — where we are first herded to a place of individual and collective paralysis; then drained of our hopes, dreams, and future; carved up into manipulable political-demographic chunks; and finally rendered completely powerless. Genuinely-liberating transformative action is essential, and time is short.

Copyright: Fred Drumlevitch

Fred Drumlevitch blogs irregularly at
He can be reached at FredDrumlevitch12345(at)