Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Elections & Issues of Interest to the Public

by Gary Berg-Cross

I think that Noam Chomsky was the first author I read that pointed out the fact that issues that the public consider important are often not those deemed important for discussion & action by the ruling and elite class.  And the ruling elites often have different opinions on the issues that the public considers important which are things that affect them every day and are close at hand.  Examples include employment opportunities, debt and health as well as related items such as political corruption.  Add to this things like jobs going overseas, tax breaks for the wealthy, trade deals that lead to jobs going overseas, too-big-to-fail banks that escape responsibility and soldiers going to war and we have a host of problems that an oligarchic system doesn’t handle issues to public satisfaction.  Chomsky put it succinctly in an 11 year old article (October 29, 2004), called “The Disconnect in US Democracy

“  Often the issues that are most on people’s minds don’t enter at all clearly into debate"

True.  But every four years or so we have elite candidates who stand up and say they are talking about the issues that really matter to the American public.  Often this is lip service and a search for some OK words that will get ruling class candidates support from funders and action by their base of 10% or so.  It is enough to get through the election cycle.

Nearly eleven years ago  Noam Chomsky commented that,the national presidential election obsession misses the significantly greater relevance of social movements:

“Every four year yeas a huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics…

Polls often suggest what is on people’s  mind. You can see some analysis of what non party folks think at a recent Vox posting  by Lee Drutman "What Donald Trump gets about the electorate".

So while elite-funded an supported Republicans want to cut social security a majority of voters in both parties (in the abstract) want to do the opposite & increase it. But during a campaign pols find ways of brushing them off with fears like deficits from SS but not the military expenditure or tax breaks.

Back around 2004 then Vice President Dick Cheney showed how power speaks to people’s interests in response to ABS News’ Martha Raddatz question about recent polls showing that two-thirds of the U.S. populace thought the U.S. war in (on) Iraq was “not worth fighting.”

You may remember that Cheney gave one of his snake cold smiles  and smirked, “So?”

Raddatz  seemed surprised at the candor and followed up with “So…you don’t care what the American people think?” Nonplussed Cheney gave a simple “No” followed by “I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in public opinion polls.” 

Steven Kull, director of Program on International Policy Attitudes, noted four days after Cheney’s remarks that, the preponderant majority of Americans disagreed with this undemocratic, power monger sentiment.

Which brings us to this era’s political campaign when we the (disheartened) people have a constrained say about “how the way our system is set up” as Chomsky puts it.  Polls show that 90+ percent of U.S. citizens agree that “government leaders should pay attention to the views of the public between elections “ but it often comes down to this narrow window of time when pols have to appeal to public sentiment.  But pols have many things going for them in the United States of Amnesia.  There is the power of money, spin doctoring, disingenuous people and invested interests, the fog of hot button emotions, appeals to making America great (again) all playing to gullibility. Hearing a blend of populism, anger and nationalism, people can’t tell the difference between someone who sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about and someone who is actually serious about the issues. It’ results in the phenomena  of “What’s the matter with Kansas” evolved and writ large.

We are misled by many superficial things such as a connected feeling evoked by crafted, confident messages that candidates sound like me or feel our pain although our past experience is that this is largely faked by people with practice skill that plays like reality TV.

Or every 4 years accumulated anger and the search for someone to blame leads to one thought- stick it to them and throw the bums out.  This works well for some outsiders who position themselves for that gorge-like space yawning between the 2 established parties.  This may appeal to some moderates as some new, exciting centralist position but is it?  A recent WaPo article on democratic challenges and the misleading middle by E.J. Dionne cautioned us about the emotional impatience of falling for empty authenticity as we cast old pols out:  

In country after country, traditional, broadly based parties and their politicians face scorn. More voters than usual seem tired of carefully focus-grouped public statements, deftly cultivated public personas, and cautiously crafted political platforms that are designed to move just the right number of voters in precisely the right places to cast a half-hearted vote for a person or a party.
The word of the moment is "authenticity," and that's what electorates are said to crave. There's certainly truth here, but the science of persuasion is advanced enough that authenticity can be manufactured as readily as anything else. In any event, I am not at all certain that an authentically calm, authentically moderate, authentically practical and authentically level-headed politician would have a prayer against the current tide. Voters instead seem in a mood to demand heavy doses of impatience, resentment and outrage, whether these emotions are authentic or not."
Some advice in the midst of this includes a healthy dose of critical thinking and skepticism about what goes on in these media circus info tents and a larger movement prospective along the lines of, again, Chomsky’s earlier advice for a manufactured consent culture.  We need something that transcends this every 4 years I get to chose from the already chosen list of options.  We need a ground up movement that is responsive to people real interests.

“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…election …choices…are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.” Chomsky in“The Disconnect in US Democracy

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