Apocalypse Now?

May 20, 2007

Apocalypse Now?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, May 20, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: Let’s start with the Chris Matthews Show discussion about Mike Bloomberg and Chuck Hagel running as independents for the presidency and vice presidency. What you get in this segment is a recap of a lot of the stuff that’s out there on this story: Bloomberg has the money. There’s a basis for a third way. Hagel is against the war. There’s going to be a long period between the end of the primaries and the general election, particularly if the nominees are decided on February 5th. The voters might get restless. An independent ticket could get put together. This is typical “Matthews Show.” No new reporting, just retelling a story that’s out there. But the thing that is most conspicuous about it is that they never talk to any independents when they “cover” this story. It’s all speculation about the billionaire and the big names who have access to the media and so forth. They showed a clip of Ross Perot from the debate in 1992 and cutaway to a shot of George Bush’s (the father) disdainful facial expression while Perot was running down a litany of things that were wrong with bi-partisan governance – which was pretty astute – and then Matthews says: ‘Bush must have been thinking Who let this guy in here?’ That’s not just the attitude to Perot. It’s the attitude to independents.

There’s a lot of interest in this scenario because it would scuttle the race and shake things up. Matthews asked his “Matthews Meter” crowd: ‘If Bloomberg were to get in as an independent, would it determine the outcome of the race?’ And nine of the Matthews Meter people said ‘Yes, it would.’ But nobody talks to independents; nobody except us. There’s a whole history to the independent movement, there’s a whole lexicon of experience and real people who’ve grappled with real issues including organizing issues, fundraising issues, getting-into-the-debates issues – the whole bit. But the independents are not part of any story.

Newman: You’re right. The pundits’ position is you don’t give any credibility to the people who are not currently accepted in the game. You don’t let anybody in. It’s like Chris Matthews’ caption for Bush. ‘How did these people get in here?’ Think of this as a battle between the Establishment, which is saying How did these independents get in here? And the independents saying How did the Establishment get in here? We have a political establishment looking to keep people out and we have people en masse who are looking to get in, looking to assert their opinions and their views. That’s the struggle. If the Establishment gives any concession on this, it’s to “legitimate” forces like Unity08.

Salit: Exactly right. But even Unity08 now feels they have to connect with independents.

Newman: It’s not that the Establishment is overlooking us. This is a tactic on their part to deny our existence, except as either an undifferentiated mass of swing voters or as something that gives Bloomberg credibility. In the final analysis, did Ross Perot pay any attention to actual independents on the ground? No. Did Ralph Nader pay any attention to actual independents on the ground? No. So, it’s not just that the Establishment doesn’t pay any attention. It’s that nobody pays any attention.

Salit: Can that dynamic last forever?

Newman: Maybe, I don’t know. Or maybe someone comes along from the Establishment who can successfully impersonate an independent and then lots of people will be satisfied with that.

Salit: Will the independents “on the ground” be satisfied with that?

Newman: Maybe, but I hope not. The Establishment is counting on the likelihood that independents on the ground will get worn out. That we’ll get tired and go someplace else, before the Establishment is forced to acknowledge us. And there’s probably a lot to that position.

Salit: They might be right. There is a little bit of a game of chicken going on. Independent voters just swung control of Congress to the Democrats. So, you would think that the Democrats would be all over the independent movement, looking to build a bridge to the independent voter.

Newman: But, I wouldn’t think that and I don’t. I don’t agree with you. I don’t think it’s the case that “you would think…” Because, from their point of view the story is: We just got the full benefit of the independent vote without having conceded anything to them. So why would that lead them to think that they have to be “all over” the independent voter?

Salit: The exception would be if one or more individual candidates, in the context of the Democratic primary, see the link to indies as a way to get an edge over their competitors. There are 29 states with open primaries. Now, fundamentally who’s going to vote in the Democratic primaries are Democrats, unless you reach out to independents and appeal to them and energize and mobilize them. The argument that I can see for one of them reaching out is, for example, Obama decides that this is going to be his edge over Hillary or over Edwards or whomever. But we don’t see that happening, except in the most minute kinds of ways.

Newman: In the final analysis, the Democratic candidates are there because the Democratic Party agreed that they could be there. If someone actually made a play of the sort that you’re describing, in a debate, for example, it would cause an uproar. I know that sounds extremist, but the parties are fierce about loyalty and putting party interest above all else. And they have reason to believe that they can win without giving any credibility to the independents. Do they know that they need those votes? Well, yes and no. They know that they need the votes of those people. But do they accept that there is such a thing as the “independent movement,” that independents form a coherent grouping that stands for particular things? No, they don’t. And neither do the people who might come in to get the “independent nomination.”

Salit: And, in my opinion, that includes Mike Bloomberg.

Newman: The fight going on is the people on the outside, whatever you want to call them – the people who are doing something new – to establish their group existence. It’s partly a psychological issue. In social therapy, we always talk to the group about building the group. But that’s very hard to do, because the individuated members are concerned with themselves, so creating a group is hard, even from the point of view of the people who are trying to build it. So, if you multiply that by millions, it’s hard to build a movement. The individuals – Perot, Bloomberg, whomever – who come and go for their own purposes aren’t going to build a movement. It’s got to come, somehow, from the millions of people “on the ground.” How do you accomplish that? How do you get independents to function as a mass movement? That’s very hard. And the Establishment is not going to give an inch on this. Not an inch. Independents are 40% of the electorate today. It could go up to 50%, 60%, 90%. It won’t make a difference.

Salit: The parties can still hold on to their institutional location and institutional control.

Newman: Yes. Look at George Bush. He says: Seventy percent of the population doesn’t like the war in Iraq. But I decide whether it’s going to last for another day. Disconnect? Yes, in one way. But, one could also argue, that’s the way representative government works. George Bush is elected to the presidency and the president is the commander in chief. That’s who runs the war. And when the war turns out to be enormously unpopular, which it has, then Bush says: Well, I have the courage to fight an unpopular war. So suddenly, no matter how large the opposition to the war gets, even if it gets to 100%, he’s still the best president in the history of the world, because he had the “courage” to be unpopular. Is there a way out of that? Yes. What is it? I don’t know.

Salit: A related issue came up for me during the various discussions this morning about the war and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and internationally. Now, this could be because I had a few glasses of wine last night and watched “Casablanca” on TV, but I found the discussions today disturbing, because there are no good answers to what to do about this situation and there seems to be no way to address that fact. You listen to the Newt Gingrich and Chris Dodd debate. These are both intelligent, informed guys. Essentially, Dodd is saying, as I understand it: There is a way to get back to normalcy. We do statecraft. We talk to this one, we set a date for withdrawal, and we can make this thing work out. And Gingrich says: Nope. Everything is abnormal now. We’re fighting a war on terrorism and we’re losing. The forces of freedom are in retreat. And then he gives a very graphic description of everything that’s going on from the streets of Baghdad to New Jersey, where we cracked a terrorist ring that was going to attack Fort Dix. He says, We’re fighting World War III. That’s the picture. What are we supposed to make of this discussion?

Newman: What’s common to their two positions is the existential reality that they’re both acceptable guys who are on “Meet the Press” talking to each other. And so when the show draws to a close, they pat each other on the back, make a few jokes about their hair having turned white and say we’re still pals. Which is fine, it’s civil. But the real message, it seems to me, is the existential message that they’re there talking but no representative of the independent movement, or the anti-war movement, or the outsiders, is there. Once in a while someone from those movements is allowed to speak. But these are the guys who have the power. They make the decisions. This boondoggle in Congress and between Congress and the executive is the American power system.

Salit: Well, as you said before, that’s representative government. That’s the design of the thing.

Newman: Right. And they would say to us – Oh, you outsiders, you just want to get on television. Well, yes, that’s right. I do just want to get on television. To me, those two guys don’t seem bright at all. They seem narrow, locked into the fact that they’re on the list of people allowed on these shows. They don’t advance the discussion at all in any serious way. But, if you stop playing the game, you’re no longer on television, no longer on the list. Are there ways of breaking out of that? We don’t know.

Salit: It’s unknowable because some things have to be created and grow that introduce new options…

Newman: Maybe that will happen. Maybe that won’t happen. Look, Dodd and Gingrich are debating what will happen if we pull troops out on April 30th of next year. What will happen? One says: Oh, it will be calamitous. There will be a civil war. There will be people murdering each other in the streets. The other one says: People are already murdering people in the streets.

Salit: And they’re both right.

Newman: And when you combine those two, in some profound existential sense, you see that nothing will happen. Nothing will happen, meaning what will happen is what will happen. These people simply use these prognostications to support their positions. But it’s all made up. Will the Sunnis and the Shia make friends after hundreds and hundreds of years being at war with each other? Well, probably not, but they’re not making friends now. Are they ever going to make friends? Probably not. Will they accelerate the battle? I don’t know. That depends on a lot of things like the mullahs and the militias and how many cups of coffee so and so had before he drove by the Green Zone. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Will things go back to normal? No, because nothing goes “back to normal” because history is an ever-changing thing. This whole thing reminds me of Leon Festinger’s studies in developing a theory of cognitive dissonance. As you know, he worked with these apocalyptic cult groups in the mountains of California. Different apocalyptic cult groups thought the world was coming to an end on such and such a day – August 17th, whatever. They’d go and sit outside in the mountains when the day came, and the hour would pass, and the world didn’t come to an end. And these cults would pick up from their seats on the ground, they’d go home, and they’d continue their lives. This reminds me of that. All of these people say: This is going to happen, that is going to happen. If it does, it does. But, if it doesn’t, they still go on. No matter what happens, they go on. These people are “official” people. They’re in suits and ties and they work in Washington. The cults were just a bunch of slobs out in California. But they do the exact same thing. There’s no real difference.

Salit: On that note, Fred, I think I might have another glass of wine. Thanks.