Corporate Bias of ‘Mainstream’ Media

When people make accusations of liberal bias in the media, what are they even talking about? Are they utterly disconnected from reality? The so-called mainstream media is corporate media owned by a handful of parent corporations. Their only motive is profit.

Anyway, it’s not as if there is a lack of US media with a clear political right bias, both conservative or right-wing. This includes major media with large audiences and immense influence, but some of it is more directed at niche ideological groups and demographics. There is: Fox News, Yahoo News, Newsmax, Drudge Report, The Blaze, Breitbart News Network, Rush Limbaugh Show, Sean Hannity Show, Glenn Beck Program, The Dennis Miller Show, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, the Arizona Republic, The Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News, Cincinnati Enquirer, Reason, National Review, Cato Journal, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, The American, The American Conservative, City Journal, Chronicles, Human Events, The Independent Review, The National Interest, The New American, Policy Review, Regulation, Townhall Magazine, World, World Affairs, Newsweek, etc. And that doesn’t even include most of the moderate conservative media that gets labeled as ‘liberal’.

It’s not as if those on the political right are lacking media to support their worldview and confirm their biases. In fact, research shows that most media consumers on the political right exist within an echo chamber. The only reason they think the rest of media is biased is because the political right media that dominates keeps repeating this and, as the old propaganda trick goes, anything repeated enough to a large enough audience will be treated as if it were fact.

Here is one of the differences between ‘liberal’ media and ‘conservative’ media. On the political left, there is maybe more diversity of sources, none of which dominate all the others. But on the political right, Fox News controls the messaging, talking points, and framing for the rest of the news outlets that share a similar bias. Related to that, most Americans are further to the left on major issues than is the corporate media, as they are further to the left of both main political parties. When you are talking about media on the political right, that is bias that is extremely to the right of the general public. Maybe that is why more Americans are increasingly turning to alternative media, primarily available through the internet.

Another thing is that there is no simple relationship between media and viewers. Plenty of social science research shows that the liberal-minded tend to be more open and curious about the world, specifically about what is different. A large part of the audience of political right media is probably not people who are on the political right. I know that has been true of me. Because of curiosity, I can’t help but look at diverse sources, even when it just makes me angry. I doubt there are as many conservatives and right-wingers consuming news reporting from the New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR as there are liberals and left-wingers with the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh (although that would depend if one is talking about symbolic identities or operational ideologies).

According to Pew (Political Polarization & Media Habits), conservatives don’t get much news from a variety of political right media, as about half of the consistently conservative get most of their information from Fox News (with 84% having watched Fox News in the past week), a pattern not seen among consistent liberals. To put it in further context, the same Pew poll shows that those who are politically mixed get more of their news from sources that right-wingers claim to have a political left bias, which seems to indicate that centrists disagree with right-wingers about perceived media bias. In fact, the more liberal the demographic, the less they relied on a single news source (other data shows that the even more liberal and leftist young demographic relies on an even greater diversity of sources with more emphasis on alternative media and social media, including “approximately 85 percent of millennials regularly follow domestic and international current events both online and through print publications. Most millennials are following at least 10 topics at any one time and around 73 percent of young people are more interested in gathering information about viewpoints that they oppose than in learning more about stances they agree with.”). Also, that Pew data shows that most of the political left media clumps closer to the political center, at least in terms of viewers of mainstream media, whereas much of the political right media is far from the average viewer.

Comparing the two sides is false equivalency. All media is assumed to be liberal or leftist if it doesn’t strongly and ideologically promote some combination of:

  • blatant propaganda, political obstructionism, extreme opposition to democracy, voter suppression/purges/disenfranchisement, gerrymandering;
  • near-anarchist anti-government rhetoric, Ayn Rand Objectivism, right-wing (pseudo-)libertarianism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal corporatism;
  • proto-fascism, hyper-patriotism, war hawk neoconservatism, expansionist neo-imperialism, geopolitical interventionism, military adventurism, continuous war of aggression, military-industrial complex, intelligence-security-police state, gun nut militancy, oppressive law and order, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime laws;
  • religious fundamentalism, theocracy, Creationism, anti-Semitism, pro-Israeli, Social Darwinism, eugenics, hardcore social conservatism, white supremacy, ethnonationalism, scapegoating, dog whistle politics, race-baiting, red-baiting, attack politics, fear-mongering, hate-mongering, paranoid conspiracy theory;
  • climate change denialism, anti-science, anti-intellectualism, anti-immigration, anti-public education, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, basically anti-everything that involves social democracy, civil society, human rights, compassion and basic decency;
  • reverse political correctness, demagoguery, ideological purity, openly loyal Republican partisanship;
  • et cetera.

Everything else is part of a powerful secret cabal of leftist special interest groups, Jewish media moguls, journalist operatives, devious intellectual elite, and God-hating scientific dogmatists who have somehow taken over the global corporate media and are conspiring to push Democratic brainwashing, liberal indoctrination, left-wing propaganda, and the Communist-Islamic-Secular takeover of society. Yet oddly, when considering the details, that supposed liberal or leftist corporate media expresses views that are about the same as or to the right of majority public opinion.

The moderate-to-center-right media gets accused of being far left, the actual far left gets entirely ignored, and the far right media controls the entire framing of the debate about bias. Those who identify with or lean toward far right politics (liberarians, Objectivists, theocrats, etc) are regularly heard in the political right media. Many have their own shows, even on major outlets such as Fox News. When there are political campaigns and debates, we hear from panels that include these right-wing views. But when was the last time you noticed an equivalent openly ideological, hardcore left-winger (communist, anarcho-syndicalist, anti-imperialist, etc) with any prominent position in the supposed liberal-to-leftist media, with their own show or as a regular guest?

If you want to know the actual bias, look for who is making the accusation and getting heard. It is the right-wingers with massive backing from right-wing corporate media who are declaring that corporate media is left-wing. In their control of political debate, these right-wingers are using misdirection as part of their propaganda model. The fact of the matter is that all “mainstream media” is corporate media and, in our society, that means powerful big money corporatist media that is inseparable from the corporatist political system. There is no separation between the elites in government, corporations, and media. It’s all the same establishment of wealth and power.

It’s all rather pointless. According to corporate media and corporatist politicians, the views held by a majority of Americans—such as support for higher minimum wage, public option or single payer healthcare, abortion rights, stronger gun regulations, etc—represents an operational liberal bias (as opposed to the symbolic rhetoric so commonly used by the powerful to control debate and manipulate voters), which might be true in a sense if one is to call majority public opinion to be a bias. Maybe that is related to why, along with such negative opinions of ‘mainstream’ politics, only 6% of Americans (2% of young adults) trust ‘mainstream’ media. When we talk about bias, we have to ask who is being accused of bias, who is making the accusations of bias, what is the accuser’s bias, and how this relates to the biases of the general public along with various demographics. Compared to most Americans, the entire ‘mainstream’ media is biased toward the right-wing. But it’s unsurprising that, according to the right-wing, the rest of media and all of reality is biased to the left-wing. I’m not sure why we should take these right-wingers seriously. It does tell me much about corporate media that they love to obsess over and promote these right-wing accusations that largely come out of corporate media.

These days, with even NPR funded by big biz, where in the ‘mainstream’ media is someone supposed to look for hard-hitting news reporting and morally courageous investigative journalism about the wealthy and powerful who own the corporate media and control the corporatist political system? Once upon a time, back when newspapers were the main source of info for the majority of Americans, most newspapers had both a business section and a labor section. There also used to be prominent newspapers that were dedicated solely or primarily to labor issues. Is it surprising that as almost all ‘mainstream’ media has been bought up by big biz that the news reporting critical of big biz has disappeared from what has become corporate media pushing a corporatist worldview?

If there is a liberal bias among the corporate media gatekeepers, it is specifically the neoliberalism of inverted totalitarianism that is supported by a state-linked corporatist propaganda model. Calling that ‘liberal’ would comfort few liberals and even fewer leftists. There is a kind of liberalism that dominates in our society, including in ‘mainstream’ media, but the issue is about what kind of liberalism is this. Even many conservatives claim to be ‘liberal’ (e.g., classical liberals). So, what is this supposed ‘liberal’ bias? Is the corporate media actually biased to the left, considering the viewing public is itself biased even further to the left? So, left of what exactly… left of the right-wing?

It is true that the entertainment media is often rather liberal, but that is because it is seeking to make profit by entertaining the fairly liberal American viewing public. Liberalism sells because we live in a liberal society. There is nothing shocking about it. On a broad level, our entire society and everyone in it is liberal. Even American conservatives are, in this sense, just varieties of liberals. The liberal paradigm has dominated the West for a couple of centuries now. But it is a liberalism of the status quo, not a liberalism of left-wing revolution. This liberalism is not just neoliberal in its capitalism and corporatism. It also has much of that old school Whiggish progressivism favored by the classical liberals, the ideology that promoted imperialism, colonialism and genocide in order to spread freedom and democracy. It’s a paternalistic, authoritarian, and condescending liberalism that has become the heart of so-called American ‘conservatism’. The unscrupuous libertinism of our society may seem opposite of conservative ideals, but it is inseparable from capitalism and certainly not embraced by much of the political left.

Is the political right hoping to enforce right-wing bias onto the public, no matter what they’d prefer, just to make sure they are indoctrinated properly? The problem is those who complain the most about a ‘liberal’ bias are the very people who are the least conservative. Instead, they are right-wing reactionaries who in their radicalism want to push society even further into a skewed fantasy that has nothing to do with traditionalism.

Just listen to president Trump complain about the media and have his words parroted by the alt-right, even as he is the least conservative president in US history. In comparison, he makes Obama’s administration seem like a stalwart defense of traditionalism. After decades of capitulating to the far right and serving their corporatist interests, it’s amusing to watch some in the center-right corporate media finally protesting because their status quo is under attack by the far right. To the far right, the corporate media can never be far enough right, at least not until they are under authoritarian control of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth.

I wanted to finish with a different but connected issue. The Pew data I mentioned above offered something that right-wingers latched onto. Consistent liberals are more likely than consistent conservatives to stop talking to someone because of political disagreement. But what this misses is that liberals are more likely to talk to people who they disagree with. A larger percentage of conservatives, because they live in ideological isolation and are trapped in a media echo chamber, never interact with anyone they disagree with. They can’t stop talking to people they never started talking to in the first place.

As a typical person on the political left, I seek out diverse news sources and so interact with diverse people. For every person I intentionally stop talking to, I meet dozens of other new people with all kinds of views. So, I still end up interacting with more people I disagree with than the average consistent conservative.

This is relevant to the perception of bias. Conservatives are less likely to actively seek diverse sources of news and less likely to interact with diverse people. Maybe it’s partly because, as data has shown, the most consistent conservatives tend to live in homogeneous communities and so are never forced to acknowledge anything outside of their reality tunnel (whereas liberals are attracted to diverse communities for the very reason they are diverse). What this means is that the political right accusation of political left bias isn’t based on much if any actual familiarity with media outside of the political right.

From my political left perspective, it is a thousand times better to listen to someone even if you later decide the interaction is undesirable than to never listen at all, to preemptively shut out all views that disagree, to accuse others of bias before you can even honestly claim to know what their views are.

* * *

About this topic, there is a bad article by Ross Douthat, The Missing Right-of-Center Media.

I only mention it because the comment section is a worthy read, helping to explain everything wrong with articles like that. What makes it amusing is that it is an article from the New York Times, supposedly among the most leftist of the liberal media. The reality is that there is no missing right-of-center media. The New York Times, publishing writers like Douthat, is right-of-center media.

More helpful are two answers to a Quora question, Which media outlets in the USA are right-wing and which are left-wing? One answer is from William Goff and another from Mitchell Langbert.

I could offer tons of links to articles and such, of course. But there is no point. Besides, I’ve written about this enough before. The only reason I wrote this new post was because of the callers I heard on CSPAN who probably represent the minority of the population that still gets most of their news from corporate ‘mainstream’ media. I still retain the capacity to be shocked by how many people still don’t understand such basic things as how media bias actually operates.

Anywho, here are my previous posts:

Conservatives Watching Liberal Media
Bias About Bias

What Does Liberal Bias Mean?

This Far Left And No Further
Controlling the Narrative: Part 1
Response to Rightwing Misinformation
Black and White and Re(a)d All Over
NPR: Liberal Bias?
The Establishement: NPR, Obama, Corporatism, Parties
Man vs Nature, Man vs Man: NPR, Parking Ramps, etc

* * *

 

 

On Infrastructure and Injustice

There is the issue of public infrastructure and who pays for it. My dad brought it up to me and it led to an argument. He couldn’t understand why there was a national discussion about fixing infrastructure. And he seemed to assume that it was citizens and local leaders demanding this. But I’m not sure why he made that assumption.

First, this ignores that it is being talked about because the Republican president made it a main point of his proclaimed agenda. Trump campaigned on progressive-sounding rhetoric, including a promise for a New New Deal program for rebuilding infrastructure. He and those representing him repeated this promise many times. So, considering Trump is now president, all of this is coming from a federal level. The kind of infrastructure being discussed is such things as bridges, the kind of thing that politicians like to focus on. But most people don’t sit around thinking about bridges.

That brings me to a second point. The kind of infrastructure that concerns people is much more basic. They want a paved road so that they can more easily get to work and more quickly get back home after work to take care of their family. They worry about affording basic healthcare for easily treatable diseases and having clean water so that their children don’t get brain damage from lead toxicity. They would like reliable access to electricity, phone lines, etc. These were the priorities of the New Deal and the War on Poverty. These are fairly basic things that we expect in a modern industrialized society, the prerequisite for a functioning social democracy for all citizens.

The people most effected with infrastructure problems are the poor. This leads to multiple problems in solving these problems. Many poor people live in poor communities, oftentimes because of a history of racial segregation. Poor communities have poorly funded governments. But more importantly, it’s not just poverty. It is how that poverty is created.

The government regularly gives away trillions of dollars of public wealth to corporations, not just subsidies and bailouts but even more through cheap access to natural resources on public lands, which is to say from the commons that belongs as much to future generations (not to mention the money spent help corporations on the international market, including using military force to ensure they also have cheap access to natural resources on foreign public lands). By the way, the infrastructure to access those publicly-owned natural resources is typically built by government for free, for the sole purpose of the benefit of wealthy private interests who just so happen to donate lots of money to key campaigns and political organizations. The poverty we have in the US is enforced by those in power, not natural or God-given.

People don’t have a right to demand that their government serves their interests, that is the argument my dad makes. It’s obviously an insincere argument. What he means is that he doesn’t believe a government should serve anyone’s interests but the privileged, the worthy and deserving, ya know, people like him. Everyone else should solve their own  problems or else suffer. But that is mind-boggling ignorance. Civil Rights leaders attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but were met with resistance and oppression. Residents in poor communities dealing with lead toxicity have attempted to solve their own problems at a local level, but officials and governments have ignored them. It usually takes decades or generations of local struggle before higher levels of government ever take notice, assuming their is a large enough protest movement or legal case to force them to take notice.

The thing is my dad acts like we have a functioning democracy, even as he knows we don’t. Besides, the fact of the matter is that he doesn’t want a functioning democracy. His argument against federal government being involved in local affairs is an argument that the federal government should not be democratic, should not represent the public nor serve the public good, should not be of the people, by the people, for the people. But he can’t admit it, not even to himself, because his actual beliefs are so morally horrendous.

It isn’t just about federal government. The same argument applies at the state level and even further down. Why should state taxpayers help with the problems at the level of communities? As far as that goes, why should the taxpayers in urban areas of a county pay for the infrastructure of rural areas of the same county? Heck, why should the wealthy people in one neighborhood help the poor people in the same city have access to basic utilities? Why have public goods at all? Why not make every all infrastructure privately owned? Why have any government at all since, as the right-wingers claim, taxation is theft and government isn’t possible without such supposed theft? Why not instead have a world of individuals where it is a constant war of one against all? As Margaret Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society.”

If you don’t have the money, then you shouldn’t be allowed to drive anywhere, drink clean water, or go on living — who is paying for that air you’re breathing, you pneumatic welfare queen! That is the principled libertarian solution. How dare those who suffer and struggle demand a basic response of human decency and compassion! It’s not the privileged controlling the government and the economy who are authoritarians. No, it’s the poor people crying out in desperation who are the real oppressors.

My dad (and people like him) don’t understand and don’t want to understand the very system he benefits from. But on some level, I know he understands. That is the thing that bothers me. My dad is not ignorant, even when he pretends to not know something. I know what he knows because of past discussions we’ve had. Yet each new discussion begins from a point of feigned ignorance, with a denial of what had been previously discussed. It’s frustrating.

If my dad didn’t have his privilege, if he and his family were being racially oppressed, economically segregated, and slowly poisoned by the only water they have access to, if he and his neighbors were politically suppressed and if the government refused to even acknowledge his existence other than to hire more police to keep him in his place, if there had been a long history of political failure at the local level, if wealthy and powerful interests almost always got their way no matter the harm to local residents, would my dad honestly resign himself with libertarian moral righteousness that it was all his fault and that he must be punished for his suffering because his poverty is proof of his inferiority? Would he watch his loved ones suffer and do nothing? Would he just lay down and die? No, he wouldn’t.

It’s not just conservatives such as my dad. I see the same thing with disconnected liberals, in their attitude toward poor people when they vote the wrong way or when a homeless camp appears in a nearby park, and then all the good liberal intentions quickly disappear. I see how easy people are turned against each other, no matter their ideology. And I see how easy ideology becomes rationalization. It reminds one of how quickly an authoritarian government can emerge.

As the desperate unsurprisingly act desperate, the upper classes will demand a response and it won’t be to help alleviate that desperation. It will be a demand for law and order, by violent force if necessary. Put them down and put them in their place. Put them in prisons, ghettos, internment camps, or maybe even concentration camps. Just make them go away or somehow make them invisible and silenced.

The line of thought my dad is following down can only lead to one place, increasing authoritarianism. Without a functioning democracy, there is nowhere else for our society to go. Either that or eventually revolution. So, apparently my dad is hoping for an authoritarian government so oppressive that it effectively stops both democracy and revolution, forcing local people to deal with their own problems in misery and despair. That is the world that good citizens and good Christians, the good people like my dad, are helping to create.

What happens when those who could have done something to stop the horror finally see the world they have chosen, their beliefs and values made manifest?

But Then It Was Too Late

They Thought They Were Free
by Milton Mayer
ch. 13

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.

* * *

Later on, I was able to have a more fruitful conversation with my dad. That emphasizes what was so frustrating in that argument earlier. I know he is capable of understanding the point I was making. But something about it so often triggers him. It’s so easy for social conservatives to fall back on such things as Social Darwinism, as almost a default mode.

It’s not like I’m a great defender of big government. Most people aren’t for big government on principle. Few would turn to a government any larger than is necessary. The first response the average person has is to seek what solutions might be had nearby. They only turn elsewhere when all immediate possibilities are frustrated or denied. This isn’t about big versus small government. It’s simply about government that functions democratically, on any and all levels.

So, I finally found a way to communicate this to my dad. But it is always a struggle. If I don’t frame it in the exact right way, he reacts with right-wing ideology. I have to put it into conservative terms of community and social fabric.

I find that a shame because the framing I’d prefer is simple honest concern for other humans, as if they mattered. I don’t want to live in a society where I have to carefully frame every argument in order to not accidentally elicit knee-jerk prejudices. I wish we were beyond that point. I wish we could have discussions that went straight to the problems themselves, instead having to first somehow prove that those suffering are worthy of our compassion.

I did apologize to my dad for getting so upset with him and lashing out at him. It’s not what I want. But these debates aren’t academic. It’s real people suffering, millions of Americans. These people don’t care if it is local or national government that helps them solve problems. They just want a better life for themselves and their children. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for. I have no apology for caring.

Interestingly, one way I got my dad’s mind onto a new track of thinking is by sharing a passage from a book. It was something I had read yesterday, about old school progressives. For some reason, maybe because of the framing of religious moral reform, the following passage was able to shift our dialogue.

American Character
by Colin Woodard
pp. 134-135

When another terrible depression shook the country in 1893, reform movements sprang up across its northern tiers. Like the Massachusetts Brahmins, these turn-of-the-century Progressives weren’t opposed to free-market capitalism or Lockean individualism, but they did believe that laissez-faire was destroying both. Their philosophical mentor was the sociologist Lester Ward, the son of old New Englanders who had settled in the Yankee north of Illinois, and who became the greatest foe of Herbert Spencer and the social Darwinists. “How can . . . true individualism be secured and complete freedom of individual action be vouchsafed?” Ward asked in 1893. “Herein lies a social paradox . . . that individual freedom can only come through social regulation.” He elaborated a theory of collective action to maintain the conditions required to keep individuals free:

Such a powerful weapon as reason is unsafe in the hands of one individual when wielded against another. It is still more dangerous in the hands of corporations, which proverbially have no souls. It is most baneful of all in the hands of compound corporations which seek to control the wealth of the world. It is only safe when employed by the social ego, emanating from the collective brain of society, and directed toward securing the common interests of the social organism.

It was in essence the approach Massachusetts had been taking for decades, which would now be adopted by insurgents in other parts of Yankeedom (Jane Addams in northern Illinois, Charles Evans Hughes in upstate New York, and Robert LaFollette in Wisconsin), the Midlands (William Jennings Bryan in eastern Nebraska), and New Netherland (where Herbert Croly helped found the New Republic in 1914 and from whence came the movement’s greatest figures, Al Smith and Theodore Roosevelt).

Teddy Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909, broke up Standard Oil, Northern Securities (which controlled both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railways), the American Tobacco Company, and other great corporate trusts; intervened in a major mining strike to secure a solution beneficial to workers; and founded the National Park Service, national wildlife refuges, and the U.S. Forest Service. He presided over the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, and the Hepburn Act, which regulated railroad fares. His goal, he told a rapt audience at the laying of the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1907, was to restore the spirit of the early Puritans, who yoked the individualistic Protestant work ethic to communitarian goals and institutions. “The Puritan owed his extraordinary success in subduing this continent and making it the foundation for a social life of ordered liberty primarily to the fact that he combined in a very remarkable degree both the power of individual initiative, of individual self-help, and the power of acting in combination with his fellows,” he said. “He could combine with others whenever it became necessary to do a job which could not be as well done by any one man individually. . . . The spirit of the Puritan . . . never shrank from regulation of conduct if such regulation was necessary for the public weal; and it is this spirit which we must show today whenever it is necessary.”

 

Polarizing Effect of Perceived Polarization

“You probably have the sense that polarization is getting worse in our country, that the divide between the left and the right is as bad as it’s ever been in any or our lifetimes. But you might also reasonably wonder if research backs up your intuition. And in a nutshell, the answer is sadly yes.”

That is how Robb Willer began his TED Talk, How to have better political conversations. A commenter said, “He never answered why the polarization has gotten so much worse though.” In my opinion, it hasn’t gotten worse.

The US presently isn’t more divided than it was during the 1960s, isn’t more divided than it was during the violent early 1900s, isn’t more divided than it was in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and isn’t more divided than among the founding generation of Federalists vs Anti-Federalists. This is another one of those simplistic, superficial, and misleading mainstream narratives. And yet it is an extremely compelling story to tell.

People aren’t disagreeing more than ever. It’s just that they are being heard more and hearing others more, because of the growth of mass media and social media. People are being faced with knowing what others think and believe, not being allowed to remain in blissful ignorance as in the past. People feel polarized because they see it in activist groups, mainstream politics, and corporate media. That experience shouldn’t be dismissed, as it feels all too real and does have real consequences. Still, this sense of conflict is misleading. In reality, most Americans agree more about most issues than they disagree. But it depends on how you frame it.

If you make Americans choose between the labels of liberal and conservative, most people of course will pick one of them and the public will be divided. You can use that to frame questions and so prime people to give polarized answers. But the fact of the matter is that if you give people another option such as independent, most won’t choose either liberal or conservative.

If you only give Americans two viable political party choices, many will consistently choose candidates of the same party from election to election. But most Americans identify as independents and would prefer having other choices. Consider the fact that some of the voters that helped Republican Trump win were supporters of Democratic Sanders. Few people are ideological partisans. That is because few people think in ideological terms.

Consider specific issues.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they are for or against tough-on-crime policies, polarization in public opinion is the inevitable result. But if you ask people about crime prevention and rehabilitation, most would prefer that. The thing is few polls ever give people the full, accurate info about the available choices. The framing of the questions leads people to answer in a particular way.

That is because those asking the questions are typically more polarized and so they have an self-interest in finding polarized answers (in order to confirm their own biases and worldview), even if their motivations are unconscious. The corporate media also likes to frame everything in polarized terms, even when it isn’t the best framing, because it offers a simplistic narrative (i.e., entertainment news) that sells advertising.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support pro-choice or pro-life, you will get a polarized response from the public. But if you ask people if they are for both women’s rights and abortion bans, you’ll find most Americans support both simultaneously. And if you ask people if they want to decrease abortions, you’ll find almost everyone wants to decrease abortions. It’s just people see different ways of decreasing abortions.

Most pro-choicers aren’t for increasing abortions (i.e., killing babies). And most pro-lifers aren’t for taking women’s rights away (i.e., theocratic authoritarianism). It’s just they see different policies as being more effective in achieving what pro-lifers claim to support. The two sides at worst disagree about methods, not goals or necessarily even fundamental values. Isn’t it interesting that so many pro-lifers support a women’s right to choose, depending on how the question is framed?

If you give people a forced choice question about whether or not they support same sex marriage, you get an almost evenly divided polarization of public opinion, with an ever so sleight majority toward support. But if polling is done differently, it is shown that the vast majority is tolerant of or indifferent toward this issue. People simply don’t care who marries whom, unless you intentionally frame it as a liberal agenda to use the government to promote gay marriage and force it onto the public. Framed as an issue of personal right of choice, most Americans are perfectly fine with individuals being allowed to make their own decisions. Even the average conservative doesn’t want to force their political views onto others, no matter what is asserted by the polarized GOP establishment and partisans who are reactionaries, authoritarians and social dominance orientation types.

If you give people a forced choice question about whether they support gun rights or gun regulations, you will get what appears to be polarization. But if you give them a third choice of supporting both stronger gun rights and more effective gun regulations, most will take that third option. That is even true with NRA members who disagree with ideologically polarized NRA leadership. And it is also true of liberals, a demographic shown to have surprisingly high rates of guns in the household.

Here is the takeaway. The general public is not polarized, as research again and again has proven. It is the mainstream media and political elites, the political parties and think tanks, the lifelong partisans and ideological activists who are polarized. In economic terms, it the middle-to-upper class and not the lower classes that are polarized.

The apparent hyper-partisanship comes from not increasing number of partisans, but from increasing number of moderates identifying as independents and increasing number of non-partisans entirely giving up on the political system. I’d also add that it isn’t that this has happened equally across the board. Studies show Democrats aren’t any more liberal than they were decades ago (more conservative, if anything; or at least more neocon and neoliberal), even as Republicans have moved ever further to the right. This has caused public debate to become disconnected from the public opinion, disconnected from the beliefs, values and concerns of most Americans. On many major issues, the general public has moved to the political left which exacerbates this disconnection, creating a situation where the two choices are a conservative Democratic Party and a right-wing Republican Party.

The problem is that the polarized (or rather polarizing) minority entirely controls public debate and the political system. Watching this meaningless spectacle of polarized conflict and dysfunction, the non-polarized majority is some combination of not registered, not voting, voting third party, voting semi-randomly, identifying as independent, politically apathetic, demoralized, hopeless, resigned, confused, overwhelmed, frustrated, etc. Some of the general public can be temporarily manipulated by polarization, such as when given forced choices and when threatened with fear-mongering, but in the end their basic values and concerns don’t support polarization.

Meanwhile the party insiders of both main parties, when the issue is important enough to the interests of themselves, their cronies and the donor class, always seem to find a way to agree and cooperate about passing bills and enacting laws that further push public policy toward neoconservatism and neoliberalism. The culture war framing makes for good stories to tell on the corporate media for mass consumption, but they aren’t what drive actual politics.

At the very highest level of wealth and power, there is very little polarization and a whole lot of collusion and cronyism. Some would argue that even the political elite aren’t actually more polarized. They may be arguing more about more issues, even as the substance of conflict might not indicate any greater disagreement overall than in the past. Others, such as myself, would see most of the partisan bickering as yet more political theater to keep the public distracted.

Certainly, there is no polarization in the deep state, the double government, or whatever you wish to call it. Major public policies aren’t left to chance. Research has shown that the general public has little influence on what politicians do. Some take this argument further, pointing that often even elected officials have little power to change things. That is because elected officials represent a miniscule part of the entrenched bureaucracy. Besides, many political elites don’t necessarily operate within the government itself, such as think tanks shaping policy and lobbyists writing bills. For those who aren’t part of the ruling elite, this discourages them from getting involved in politics or running for office.

How would we know if our society is more polarized, in what ways, what it means, and to whose benefit? Polls don’t just tell us what public opinion is. They shape public opinion and polling during elections can influence voting behavior. And what data the corporate media decides to report and how they frame it shapes the public mind. Some might call it public perception management. Is the public really polarized or made to feel polarized or that everyone around them is polarized? What is the agenda in making the public feel divided and individuals isolated?

One thing is so clear as to be beyond all argument. We don’t have a functioning democracy: gerrymandering, establishment-controlled nomination process, third parties excluded from debates, partisan corporate media, perception management, think tank propaganda, astroturf organizations, paid trolls, voter disenfranchisement and suppression, campaigns and political access determined by big money, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, legalized bribery, pervasive secrecy and unaccountability, etc. So, we don’t have elections that offer real choices and actual influence. And because of this, we don’t have political elites that represent the citizenry.

I’m not sure what polarization means within a political system that is oligarchic, plutocratic, corporatist, and inverted totalitarian. Is it really polarized or is it working according to design? And for the all too real divisions that exist, are they ideological or demographic? Are the majority of poor, white and non-white, politically polarized in any meaningful sense when most of them are so politically apathetic as to not vote? As inequality grows along with poverty and desperation, will our greatest concern be how polarized are the tiny minority of the remaining middle-to-upper class?

* * *

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects
Political Elites Disconnected From General Public
Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism
Warmongering Politicians & Progressive Public
Racial Polarization of Partisans
Most Americans Know What is True
Liberalism: Label vs Reality (analysis of data)
Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals
US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism
Public Opinion On Government & Tea Party
Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life
Public Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich
Most Oppose Cutting Social Security (data)
The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1 & Part 2
Vietnam War Myths: Memory, Narrative, Rhetoric & Lies

* * *

7 in 10 Americans ‘Not Upset’ with Gay Marriage, New iMediaEthics Poll Finds
by Andy Sternberg and David W. Moore

Liberal Policy Preferences are Everywhere
by Yeggmen

America Is Much Less Conservative than the Mainstream Media Believe
by Eric Alterman

America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think
by Lee Drutman

Why most conservatives are secretly liberals
by John Sides

You’re Probably Not as Conservative as You Think
by Tom Jacobs

You May Think You’re Right … Young Adults Are More Liberal Than They Realize
by Ethan Zell and Michael J. Bernstein

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…
by George Hawley

Ideological Labels in America
by Claassen, Tucker, and Smith

Political Ideology
by Jost, Federico, and Napier

Operational and Symbolic Ideology in the American Electorate
by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson

The Ideological Right vs. The Group Benefits Left
by Matt Grossmann

In Search of the Big Sort
by Samuel J Abrams

Who Fits the Left-Right Divide?
by Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner

Despite Headline, Pew Poll Does Not Show a Polarized America
by Todd Eberly

Most experts think America is more polarized than ever. This Stanford professor disagrees. And he thinks the 2016 election has only buttressed his interpretation.
by Jeff Stein

Polarized or Sorted? Just What’s Wrong With Our Politics, Anyway?
by Alan I. Abramowitz and Morris P. Fiorina

Disconnected: The Political Class versus the People
by Morris P. Fiorina

Has the American Public Polarized?
by Morris P. Fiorina

America’s Missing Moderates: Hiding in Plain Sight
by Morris P. Fiorina

Moderates: Who Are They, and What Do They Want?
by Molly Ball

Politics aren’t more partisan today–we’re just fighting about more issues
by Heather Hurlburt

Preference Change through Choice
by Petter Johansson, Lars Hall, and Nick Chater

(Mis)perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil Malhotra

(Mis)perceiving Political Polarization
by Nathan Collins

Americans overestimate political polarization, according to new CU-Boulder research
by Greg Swenson

The Effect of “False” Polarization
by Matthew S. Levendusky and Neil A. Malhotra

Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think
by Leviston, Walker, and Morwinski

Constructing Public Opinion
by Justin Lewis

Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?
by Matthew Levendusky and Neil Malhorta

Do Partisan Media Add to Political Polarization?
by Anne Kim

The Limits of Partisan Prejudice
by Yphtach Lelkes and Sean J. Westwood

Elite Polarization and Public Opinion
Joshua Robison and Kevin J. Mullinix

How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship
by Harry J Enten

Elite Polarization, Partisan Ambivalence, and a Preference for Divided Government
by Lavine, Johnston, Steenbergen, and Perkins

Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Party Fit Matters for Partisan Polarization in Congress
by Danielle M. Thomsen

How party activists, not voters in general, drive political polarization
by Gillian Kiley

Polls of Persuasion: Beware of the Horse Race
by Alicia Wanless

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith

MSMsplaining Poor Whites.

There is a Vox video about the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) and Trump voters. The article that goes along with it was written by Sarah Kliff.

The author is an award winning journalist who has interviewed Obama about the ACA, although her education isn’t in journalism. She is now a senior editor at Vox and regularly reports on healthcare. Vox, owned by Vox Media, is a major news website founded in 2002 by Ezra Klein. It is serious journalism of the mainstream variety. Their model is what they call “explanatory journalism”, the above mentioned video and article being prime examples.

Vox has received both praise and criticism. There is plenty of negativity toward Vox from the political right, but that is mostly a disagreement about which ideological bias is preferable. More interesting is a statement made by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept. He writes about, in relation to the Democratic Party, the liberal media such as Vox “suppressing reporting that reflects negatively on them and instead confines itself to hagiography.”

I state all of that as a way to frame Sarah Kliff’s journalism. She has acted as a cheerleader for Obamacare. I’m not against people supporting what they believe in, but it isn’t what I’d prefer from journalism. The video ends up less interesting for this reason. Kliff is telling a story and it falls into a mainstream narrative framing that is somewhere between unhelpful and irritating.

This has to do with the mainstream media’s recent obsession with poor whites, especially poor rural whites. It isn’t limited to the liberal media. Everyone has been turning the spotlight on this minority population, as if their existence is supposed to explain everything. Charles Murray wrote about poor whites in Coming Apart and J.D. Vance did so in Hillbilly Elegy, both of which largely downplay economic realities and portray this population as a failure, having supposedly failed not just economically but also according to morality and culture, imagination and self-initiative. Going by Vance’s account, you’d think that if you look at poor whites wrong they might shoot you or beat you up, that is when they aren’t doing drugs and slutting around.

It’s been bugging me. Leave the poor whites alone. Or if you feel that understanding them is really going to help you understand the sorry state of America, at least look to authors worth reading such as Joe Bageant or Nancy Isenberg. To be honest, I don’t see anything particularly special about poor whites. They aren’t all that different from any other variety of poor people. Poverty sucks. I suppose it’s nice that the upper classes are noticing, for whatever that is worth.

It’s not that Kliff’s journalism is horrible nor what is seen on the political right. I actually did like Kliff’s video at first, but it bothered me the more I thought about it. I have no reason to think she wasn’t trying her best to be fair. The problem is that the upper classes (including the upper middle class) are so disconnected from reality on the ground that they bring so many biases to any attempt at understanding. This is why they fall back on stale narratives. The mainstream media view of race and class hasn’t fundamentally changed since the early 20th century. We keep being told the same basic stories over and over, as if the stories were all that meaningful in the first place and as if nothing has changed in all that time.

* * *

Let me give a detailed response to the video. But first I should explain what the video focuses on.

The setup is this. Sarah Kliff visited some white people in a particular area of Kentucky, Whitley County. The reason the county is relevant at all is because a woman living there, Kathy Oller, who has worked signing people up for Obamacare. This woman, horror of horrors, admitted that she voted for Trump in the hope that he would improve Obamacare. One unstated assumption is that the few people she interviews in that place can be generalized to all Trump voters. Another unstated assumption is that Obamacare was a primary reason or factor behind most people voting for Trump.

It would have been nice if she had talked to Whitley County residents who supported or voted for candidates other than Trump. What percentage of this population would have voted for Sanders, if he had been nominated? It would have been even better if she had talked to the majority who probably didn’t vote at all. I doubt most eligible voters voted for Trump because most poor eligible voters don’t vote. Why didn’t she talk to people who didn’t vote and ask them why they didn’t?

I’d also like to hear from those who aren’t eligible voters such as prisoners and ex-cons. Poor rural areas have high rates of incarceration. There is a detention center in Whitley County and a federal prison in adjacent McCreary County. Many people move to live near where their family members are incarcerated, to make visitation easier. I wonder what those people thought about the various candidates and about politics in general, specifically political reform. Why do we treat these people as if they are irrelevant? Are they not also citizens who will be effected by public policy?

Also, it would have been useful to hear from the 3% of blacks (and other minorities) living in Whitley county. It’s easy to forget that there are still large populations of rural blacks in the South. Besides maybe Hispanics, blacks were the last large racial/ethnic group to become majority urban. Whether rural or urban, with a population of 35,637, Whitley County includes over a thousand minorities. Plus, there are thousands of minorities in the surrounding counties, along with around 700,000 minorities in Kentucky (about half being black). Minorities are among the poor in Kentucky and they too have been hit hard by economic problems. Yet not a single minority was interviewed, as if minority Kentuckians don’t exist because they don’t fit mainstream stereotypes. The words ‘blacks’ and ‘minorities’ weren’t even mentioned. And the only non-white person shown in the video and discussed in the article was Barack Obama. There were minorities who voted for Trump. Who were these minorities? And what were the expecting from such a vote?

We’ll never know from this kind of “explanatory journalism”.

* * *

I always wonder about the background.

I know quite a bit about Kentucky from doing genealogical and historical research of the state. I had family there from the late 1700s to the late 1800s (some of my earliest Kentucky family came from Pulaski County which is adjacent to McCreary County and nearly touching the corner of Whitley County). Kentucky used to have a large number of blacks, about a quarter of the state’s population, and they were mostly rural. When I visited there a few years ago, I didn’t see a single black person in any rural area.

Most blacks either left the state or moved to the cities, as the early 1900s began a violent time in Kentucky. There was racial cleansing and the enforcement of sundown towns—see: James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, Elliot Jaspin’s Buried in the Bitter Waters, and George Wright’s Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940. All three of those books discuss a well documented Whitley County incident in Corbin, Kentucky that happened in the fall after the Red Summer (1919). Loewen notes that a least certain residents were still trying to maintain it as a sundown town into the 1990s and some suspect that it is still a sundown town.

On a positive note, I’d point out two things about the 1919 incident. The Corbin mob violence was immediately condemned by the then editor of the local newspaper. And the mob leader was prosecuted by the state. But less positive, the moral atrocity of this incident was wiped from the public memory in the local population and recent local officials have fought anyone attempting to bring it to public attention. Even so, the reputation of these places aren’t forgotten by blacks, as to this day many fear going near towns like Corbin.

In terms of demographics, Jaspin offers the details (Kindle Locations 2874-2877):

“In fact, census records show that the black population in Corbin, which had been sixty in 1910, was exactly three in 1920: Emma Woods and her sixty-five-year-old boarder Steve Stansbury and the affectionately nicknamed “Nigger” Dennis. Beyond the city limits, there was a lesser but still substantial drop. Laurel County saw its black population cut in half from 657 to 333 between 1910 and 1920. Whitley County’s black population went from 1,111 to 600. By 1930 it would be cut in half again, and after 1960 it would never again rise above 150.”

To put this in a larger context, Loewen writes (pp. 71-72):

“In the first two decades of the twentieth century, whites expelled African Americans from almost the entire Cumberland Plateau, a huge area extending from the Ohio River near Huntington, West Virginia, southwest through Corbin, Kentucky, crossing into Tennessee, where it marks the division between east and middle Tennessee, and finally ending in northern Alabama. In most parts of the plateau throughout most of the twentieth century, when night came to the Cumberlands, African Americans had better be absent.69 The twenty Cumberland counties in eastern Kentucky had 3,482 African Americans in 1890, or 2% of the region’s 175,631 people. By 1930, although their overall population had increased by more than 50%, these counties had only 1,387 black residents. The decline continued: by 1960 the African American population of these counties had declined to just 531, or 0.2%, one-tenth the 1890 proportion.”

This is far from ancient history, as Loewen explains (p. 381):

“Corbin, a sundown town in the Kentucky Cumberlands, had not relented as of 1990. In his 1991 movie on the community, Trouble Behind, Robby Heason asked a young white man if it would be a good thing for blacks to move into Corbin. “Black people should not live here,” he replied. “They never have, and they shouldn’t.” He did not know that African Americans had lived in Corbin until whites drove them out at gunpoint in 1919, and his attitude surely boded ill should a black family try to move in. As of 2000, almost none had; Corbin’s 7,742 people included just 6 African Americans; adjacent North Corbin had just 1 African American among 1,662 inhabitants. Around 1990, McDonald’s brought in an African American to manage a new restaurant, but he and his family left before it even opened, reportedly after a cross was burned in his yard.”

Apparently, since that time, one black man moved to Corbin and has remained. So, I guess it is possible for a black man to not entirely fear for his life now in that town. But few blacks want to press their luck. Still, maybe this signals a positive change, however slight.

I would put all of this in perspective. This kind of oppressive racism was as bad or worse all across the Northern and Western United States, including in Solid Blue states. Oregon is the only place that was officially a sundown state, excluding minorities entirely by law. Oregon also has high rates of white poverty and unemployment. How has Oregon voted in presidential elections for several decades? Democrats every time. Racial cleansing and sundown towns is how so many blacks ended up concentrated in inner cities. The point being that this doesn’t make Whitley County atypical in any way. It doesn’t seem to have made the residents any more strongly and consistently partisan, as I note further down. Besides, much of the exodus was at least partly for economic reasons, causing many whites to flee as well. It was often the economic stress that led to or fed into racial conflict.

I was looking at a map of the percentage of blacks in each Kentucky county. Whitley County is way down in the southeast part. It is mostly surrounded by counties that have relatively higher percentages of black population. McCreary County next door has 5.8% blacks and nearby Clay County has 4.4%. What is interesting is that, according to the 2000 census, McCreary only had 0.63% blacks. The video says there are 97% whites in Whitley and I assume that means the other 3% is mostly blacks, but in 2000 there were 0.34% black residents.

Maybe some of the harshest racial tensions are beginning to break down. The living memory of racial cleansing is gone with our only being a few years away from the hundred year anniversary of the Red Summer.

Anyway, the changing demographics seems to indicate some shifting of populations, since birth rates couldn’t have that kind of impact. There has been increasing numbers of Northerners, black and white, moving South. That has to do with cheap housing and employment. I’m sure there is cheap housing in the poorest counties. But obviously there is much unemployment, at least in Whitley. The question is why would there be population shifts, unless the changing racial percentages has as much or more to do with who is moving out than who is moving in.

There is something odd going on here. The unemployment rate now there is 5.7%. That isn’t particularly high compared to the national average at 4.9. It is about half of what it was in the years following the Great Recession and about the same as it was before. It was much higher back in the early-to-mid 1990s, almost to the levels following the Great Recession. Then it dropped below the present national average in the late 1990s.

Sure, the people living there are poor. But the vast majority of them are working and they live in an area that has cheap living costs. They may not have affordable healthcare now, but most of them never had affordable healthcare at any point in their lives. In objective terms, there is nothing obviously worse about their lives now than in the past. Yet these are the populations that for some reason are experiencing worsening mortality rates. It’s not loss the loss of good mining jobs that has changed recently, as good mining jobs have mostly been gone for decades.

So, what’s happened? Drug addiction and suicide rates are unsurprisingly high. And they are worsening for these poor rural populations. But these are results, not causes. They are indicative of something going on that is making many of these people’s lives seem intolerably bad.

* * *

It’s also interesting to look at voting patterns.

Whitley County is far from being a Solid Red county. In the last 20 presidential elections, the county has half the time gone to Republicans and the other half to Democrats. They voted for Bill Clinton twice and voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt four times, among other Democratic candidates. Of course, it was a way more Democratic state in the early 20th century. It was even more Democratic not that long ago. In the county, 15% are now registered as Democrats, but more than a third were back in 2000. It would have been even higher during the Clinton administration and earlier.

Whitley County is party of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield. Coal mining is known for its history of militant labor organizing and labor unions are known for their support of the Democratic Party (along with radical left-wing politics): “During the Great Depression, New Deal programs and the organizing of the United Mine Workers of America made many of the eastern counties Democratic” (Wikipedia). Even as other regions turned toward the political right, the labor solidarity in coal country helped maintain for much longer that old school Progressivism. Maybe it is unsurprising that, as coal mining jobs disappeared and local labor power was broken, the longstanding Democratic alliance faded.

It’s not like these people are ignorant partisans. When a candidate speaks to their concerns, they’ll vote for either party. Once upon a time, that meant Democrats. It isn’t as if they didn’t vote for Obama just because he was a black guy. They also didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore. The Democrats have ignored them since Bill Clinton and even he only gave them lip service, which was still more than what most Democrats offered. According to inside sources, Hillary ignored Bill’s advice to focus on working class whites. Why exactly would these people vote for a party that treats them like they don’t exist or don’t matter?

It’s rather unsurprising that they voted for Trump, considering they’ve voted Republican in the last several presidential elections. It might have had nothing to do with Trump (nor with Obama and Clinton). That is what is wrong with the video. It portrays their voting for a Republican candidate this time as somehow different than when they voted for Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. The better question is why did they entirely stop voting for Democrats after Bill Clinton left office.

Here is a major problem with this kind of news entertainment, as I mentioned earlier. It is falling into a mainstream narrative. It doesn’t really explain anything, focusing as it does on one single narrow issue, that of Obamacare in relation to the presidential election. It tells a story and tries to cram the lives of real people into the storyline. But the narrative framing doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Why is the mainstream media looking to rural whites to explain Trump? Most whites aren’t rural. And more specifically, most whites who voted for Trump aren’t rural. Actually, the earliest and strongest supporters of Trump during his campaign were economically above average, compared to the general population. How is looking at a poor county in a rural state supposed to explain Trump as somehow different when that county has voted for Republicans in the previous four elections?

The implication is that this is about poor rural people. But it isn’t even clear what percentage of whites in that county are rural. The unemployment rate is close to the national average and most of the population would work in whatever major cities are nearby.

More interesting to know would be to look at the places that voted for Obama in one or both of the last elections but then voted for Trump. Those places would be better indicators of what has changed. The problem is many of those places are urban, suburban, and exurban. They don’t fit into the mainstream narrative. Why did strongly Democratic states such as Wisconsin and Michigan go to Trump? Wisconsin isn’t known for its desperately poor white population and Michigan has a large population of minorities and union members. How would any mainstream narrative explain that?

Also, explain to me a rural state like Minnesota that is majority white. Why has Minnesota not gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1972? And why is Minnesota the only state to not have voted for Ronald Reagan either time? Similarly, why did so many majority white states in the rural Midwest vote for Obama, even after Obamacare? And then why did some of those states then vote for Trump? Riddle me that, Batman.

* * *

Out of curiosity, I looked at the Whitley County data for rural versus urban. It is mostly rural, at 65% of the population. I’d first emphasize that this also means 35% are urban. And urbanites vote at higher rates, partly because they have easier access to polling stations.

A second thing is that rural can describe a diversity of residential situations. Barely outside of the city I live in are many ‘rural’ residents living in old farm houses and trailer parks (my parents’ house is in a fully urban upper middle class neighborhood within the city limits and it is just a few blocks from rural country roads among vast stretches of farmland). Most of those ‘rural’ folk work here in the city and often with decently paying jobs, only living outside of the city for cheap housing. With that in mind, what percentage of that rural population in Whitley County lives near an urban area or commutes to a job in a city? More importantly, what kind of jobs are they working? What is the pay and benefits? And what are the costs of living?

Here is another thought. I know there is a difference between the reported unemployment rate and the real unemployment rate. The data I was looking at probably was only the reported data. Around 95% of the population there isn’t reported as unemployed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are employed either. We’d need to differentiate between the percentage employed and the percentage permanently unemployed, both sets of data not shown in the standard unemployment data.

My guess is that the permanently unemployment rate is higher there. If so, how high? Even so, the real unemployment data has been kept hidden since the Reagan administration. It’s not anything new. The fact remains that unemployment was lower by the time Obama left office, unless there really has been an increase in the permanently unemployed in such counties.

It’s hard to find accurate data. And even harder to determine what it means. On what basis are we to conclude that Whitley County is representative of the average white person, the average poor white person, the average rural white person, and/or the average Trump voter? Also, how do we know the people interviewed in that video are representative of the average person in that county, in that state, or in that region? It would have been nice if they had used the interviews alongside public opinion data.

Some historical background would have been helpful as well, even simply for the sake of telling a good story. There were many angles that could have been taken that would have offered far more depth of analysis and insight. By Vox’s asserted standard of explanatory journalism, the video and article was rather miserly with the explanatory details. I’m left with more questions than answers. It fails as worthy news reporting. It certainly doesn’t meet the standards of investigative journalism. Instead, it ends up being yet another human interest story, eliciting from viewers some combination of sympathy, outrage, and perplexity. Whatever the viewer response, it sells advertising and makes profit.

These criticisms wouldn’t be so important if they weren’t so widely applicable to all of mainstream media. This is just one example among many and far from the worse. It stood out to me for the reasons that, by the standards of mainstream media, it is above average in quality. It is a well made video and interesting to watch. It does have some basic value, even if only in hearing a few ordinary Americans explain how they view the political situation, just as long as you keep in mind that they aren’t necessarily representative of anyone else.

* * *

As fun as it is to chastise MSM hacks for their lack of curiosity and vision (or whatever exactly they are lacking), I feel like ending on a different note. Let me bring in the personal, by offering some observations from my own experience. After that, I’ll add some concluding thoughts.

I find no difficulty or resistance to pointing out the problems of whites who are some combination of Southern, poor, and rural. I have some sense of who these people are. My paternal grandmother was from the Deep South. Much of my mother’s family spent a couple of centuries in Kentuckiana, an area I’ve often visited. My mother, a Hoosier by birth, had a Southern-sounding accent when she was younger. I was born right at the edge of Appalachia in Ohio where I spent my earliest years of childhood. I’ve lived in the Carolinas, South and North. I’ve been friends with rednecks, dated hillbillies, and fraternized with lower class whites of a diverse variety. I live in a majority white state in the Midwest where rural life is a common experience.

Since the video is about Kentucky, let me deal with that. A few years back, my parents and I took a trip down there and it gave me felt sense of a part of the South that I didn’t know as well, even though I already indirectly knew of it from visiting my Hoosier family over the decades. In doing genealogical research, we went to many rural counties, including in southern Kentucky. I did see in some places a kind of rural poverty I hadn’t often come across before, but overall it didn’t seem like a bad place to live. Despite how it gets portrayed, Kentucky isn’t a hellhole of hopeless poverty. There are thriving big cities there, even a metropolitan area that extends up into Indiana. The county seats seemed like nice towns like found anywhere else—with public schools and public libraries, along with civic organizations.

What stood out to me most of all was how friendly and helpful people were. Kentucky has some of the feeling of the Midwest. In many ways (geographically, historically, and culturally), it is as much part of the Lower Midwest as it is part of the South. It is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln and the state government never sought to secede during the Civil War (initially declaring neutrality and then joining the Union). I didn’t meet a single person who fit the stereotype of a mean redneck or threatening hillbilly, as J.D. Vance described his own family.

In doing genealogical research and traveling around back roads, my parents and I experienced nothing but kindness. Complete strangers went out of their way to help us, again and again and again. I’m not just talking about the staff at public libraries, genealogical centers, and county courthouses. Random people were simply nice.

While looking for an old family cemetery, we stopped to talk to people on a country road. I knocked on one rundown house and an entire family peeked out at me, but they didn’t have a snarling vicious dog nor did anyone point a gun at me. They politely answered my questions. Another guy I talked to was mowing his lawn and, after questioning him as well, he directed me to a nearby house. Once again, I knocked on a stranger’s door in this rural area and one of the nicest guys you could ever meet answered the door. He was so welcoming that he welcomed us onto another neighbor’s land by taking us to where the old family homestead was located. After that, he invited us back to his home.

When further down south in Kentucky, probably in Putnam County, we were looking for another family cemetery. It too was on private property. We drove down this lane where it opened up on someone’s yard. We parked and a guy came out to greet us. He didn’t act fearful or aggressive toward us. If anything, it was plain old Southern hospitality, more than I ever experienced when living in South Carolina. He didn’t mind us being on his property and showed us around and told us what he knew about the property.

These random people we met in rural Kentucky seemed like basic working class whites. I don’t know where they were in relation to the poverty line, but they were decent people. The guy who guided us around the neighbor’s property at one point spoke of someone as being a “good Christian”. That is different from the Midwest where, when praising someone, it is more typical to hear it said that the person is a “hard worker” or some such thing.

I must admit that I like the attitude of judging people by their moral worth, not their work status. Blaming people as lazy for being unemployed when jobs are scarce is neither fair nor compassionate. And then blaming their economic conditions for their voting patterns is plain pointless. People vote for the best option they see, but the sad state of affairs is that our political system rarely offers many good choices.

That was the one thing the Vox reporting got right, if it was only briefly acknowledged. The main person interviewed, Kathy Oller, explained her reasons:

“Oller likes the idea of universal coverage. She supported President Obama in 2008 and 2012 specifically because of his promises to expand affordable health insurance. But in 2016, she decided to vote for Trump. In part, she felt it was a bit of a toss-up. She kept describing voting as something akin to “Russian roulette” — you never really know what you’ll get with a candidate, she argued.”

That is what US elections are. They are a gamble where your life is on the line, as with “Russian roulette” (in the video, she describes it as pulling the lever on a slot machine; an election is a gamble where you don’t know whether you’re pulling a slot machine lever or a gun trigger, not until after it’s already too late). There is almost no way to rationally choose, under such conditions. It’s the attempt at blindly weighing of harms versus benefits and so deciding who is the lesser evil. It should be a wake up call for Democrats that so many Americans perceived Donald Trump as a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton.

This isn’t about poor rural white people, those who get called hillbillies, rednecks and white trash. It’s simply about ordinary people facing impossible decisions that can’t and will never lead to good results. Most people vote out of a desperate sense of hope, despite all the evidence that politicians of both major parties mostly ignore the public while doing the bidding of monied interests.

If journalists are going to attempt to explain something, then that might be a good place to start.

* * *

As for poor rural whites, specifically the Appalachian hillbillies, below are some more edifying pieces about who are these people and communities, what it all means or symbolizes, and why there is such obsessive concern by outsiders, specifically the moralizing paternalism among elites.

Appalachia this election year: So many stories, so little depth
by CD, The Homesick Appalachian

There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”
by Elizabeth Catte

Hillbilly Elitism: The American hillbilly isn’t suffering from a deficient culture. He’s just poor.
by Bob Hutton, Jacobin

J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America
by Sarah Jones, New Republic

Hillbilly Shuffle: Don’t Blame Appalachia For Trump
byJeff Biggers, Common Dreams

Author too removed from culture he criticizes
by Brandon Kiser, Lexington Herald-Leader

* * *

Some of my previous posts:

Presidential Candidates and Voter Demographics
Trump is not the White Savior
On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem
WASP Elegy
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
American Class Bigotry
Whites Understanding Whites
Joe Bageant: On the White Underclass
On the White Trash Heap
What Is Kentucky?
Are White Appalachians A Special Case?
On Racialization of Crime and Violence
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Fearful Perceptions
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery
Patchwork Nation: Evangelical Epicenters & Tractor Country

A Generation to End All Generations

Steve Bannon is someone to be taken seriously. A while back, I quoted something he said that is quite telling when put in context. He declared that, “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.” Isn’t that a strange statement by a right-wing extremist. That statement has gone along with progressive rhetoric that Trump rode to power.

Bannon directed the documentary, “Generation Zero”, in 2009. It is a propaganda piece that was pushed by right-wing media. And unsurprisingly it blames the political left, along with some good ol’ fashion hippie punching and minority scapegoating. The documentary attempts to resurrect the culture wars for the purpose of somehow explaining the economic crash. Even so, it is based on an insightful, non-partisan generations theory that should be taken on its own terms. If you want to know the playbook Bannon is going by, you’d need to read The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

What the theory explains is that the last time we were at this same point in the cycle Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and entirely restructured the American economic and political system. And I’d note that this was accomplished with the use of a soft form of corporatism, most apparent in Californian big ag. This earlier corporatism kept its distance from the worst aspects of fascism. But with the living memory of World War II fascism fading, Bannon and Trump are a lot less wary about playing with fire.

Here is the documentary that puts a right-wing spin on Strauss and Howe’s theory:

I forgot that it was Bannon who made that documentary. I saw that when it came out. It didn’t get much attention at the time outside of right-wing media. My only interest in it was that it used Strauss and Howe’s generations theory which I’d been reading about since the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Largely unknown to the general public, Strauss and Howe’s work has been known by politicians for years. As I recall, Bill Clinton had positive things to say about the theory. You’d think he could have explained to Hillary why she should take it seriously because obviously she didn’t take it any more seriously than Obama.

For years, people speculated and warned about the possibility of those like Trump and Bannon using the theory as a playbook for gaining power. I guess it worked. I think Bannon is misreading the situation quite a bit, though. Or rather he is reading into it what he wants to believe.

He probably does have a good basic grasp of Strauss and Howe’s theory. And so I’m sure he understands where the country is right now. But his understanding of the reasons is most likely shallow, as is typical of the right-wing mind. He has a narrative in his head. The problem is reality doesn’t tend to conform nicely when humans try to project narratives onto it.

Ideological narratives can be dangerous, especially when we start believing our own bullshit. Some see Trump as non-ideological, as a new form of authoritarianism that doesn’t require those old forms of ideological justification, from fascism to communism. This theory proposes that we’ve entered a post-ideological era. That is naive. Trump may have a simplistic ideology of plutocracy, but no doubt it is an ideology. And Bannon for certain is playing an ideological game. In generations theory, he found the perfect frame for a political narrative.

Like Bannon, I years ago sensed the moment we were entering into. It was as if I could hear the clicking of gears. I barely could contain myself because I knew something entirely different was afoot. And it had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Barack Obama. There were larger forces in society, like vast ocean currents. But I’ve never been one to so easily try to force my own narrative onto events. Unlike Bannon, I’m not seeking power. I have no desire to try to force reality to conform to my beliefs and ambitions. When it comes to theories such as this, I take them with a grain of salt. But I realized that, true or not, someone could take it as a plan of action and make it real.

Bannon is a man with a vision and with a mission. He will change America, if at all possible, or else maybe destroy it in the process. He is playing for keeps. With generations theory, he has a sledgehammer and he is going to whack everything in sight. This won’t be remembered as an era of ideological subtlety. The lies and propaganda, the spin and bullshit is going to come at us with the fury. Alternative facts is just the beginning of it. It will feel like we’ve entered an alternative reality.

“It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

* * *

Trump, Bannon and the Coming Crisis
from Generational Theory Forum

Is Steve Bannon the Second Most Powerful Man in the World?
David Von Drehle

Donald Trump, Stephen Bannon and the Coming Crisis in American National Life
by David Kaiser

What’s Next for Steve Bannon and the Crisis in American Life
by David Kaiser

What Steve Bannon really wants
by Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad

Bannon’s film blamed racial-bias law for financial collapse
by Ben Schreckinger

Steve Bannon film outline warned U.S. could turn into ‘Islamic States of America’
by Matea Gold

President Trump’s chief strategist believes America will face a ‘massive new war’
from The Week

Revealed: Steve Bannon ‘is obsessed with a book arguing institutions are destroyed and rebuilt every 80 years’
by Clemence Michallon

For haters only: watching Steve Bannon’s documentary films
by John Patterson

What I Learned Binge-Watching Steve Bannon’s Documentaries
by Adam Wren

You can learn a lot about Steve Bannon by watching the films he made
by Ann Hornaday

These Films That Steve Bannon Produced Are Terrifying
by Cate Carrejo

The Rightwing Documentary Producers Who Are Shaping Trump’s America
by Peter Hamilton

As our options dwindle down…

Some want to argue that we have a functioning democracy because we have the outward forms of democracy. We can protest in the street, vote, etc. But then why does it rarely lead to democratic results, specifically at the Federal level? And why is there so little ability for the public to force transparency and accountability?

It’s because those forms are separate from the actual seat of power. The two party system and corporate media is controlled by oligarchs. They use public perception management (AKA propaganda), backroom deals, cronyism, revolving door politics (e.g., politicians becoming lobbyists), regulatory takeover, and a thousand other kinds of anti-democratic tactics. They use these to determine who we are allowed to vote for and what those people can do while in office.

This system is so well entrenched that is protected from the voting public. But it isn’t just the government. Polls show that union leadership advocate for positions and support politicians that union membership often doesn’t support. The same thing is seen with organizations like the NRA, a divide between those who control those organizations and the members.

Of course, the leadership of these organizations have close ties to the two party system that controls the government. So, these organizations can’t be used by the public to exert influence on politicians. They are part of the social control. No amount of petitions or protests can change this. Present strategies of activism and attempts of reform have been failing for longer than I’ve been alive.

If what you are doing has been proven not to accomplish what you claim to want, then what do you do? You either lower your expectations by making excuses or you try something new.

We have two options left to us. The first is a constitutional convention. But the first constitutional convention more than a couple of centuries ago was taken over by powerful (pseudo-)Federalists who, unconstitutionally according to the first constitution (The Articles of Confederation), forced through an anti-democratic document to ensure their rule. Powerful forces would attempt to do the same thing with another constitutional convention. So, if that fails, that leaves only one option left. That is revolution, whether peaceful or not.

As our options dwindle down, our choice of action becomes simplified. The only question remaining is do we have the moral vision and moral courage to take action. It is up to the oligarchs about whether or not they want to push us to the edge, seeing how far we can be pushed before we simply go over. But as we find ourselves teetering on the edge, what do the rest of us do, We the People?

As citizens of the United States, here is something to keep in mind. Fool the American public once, shame on the oligarchs. Fool the American public a thousand times, that is the shame of our entire society. We’ve been played for fools and we’ve acted accordingly. Let’s take this as a lesson learned the hard way. So, what do we do now? The first step might be learning to make important distinctions.

Pseudo-democracy is to democracy as truthiness is to truth. The spectacle of pseudo-democracy gives us the appearance of democracy to absolve the public’s sense of failure and guilt. The public can say that, well, at least I voted, joined the union, protested, signed a petition, volunteered for a campaign, etc. It allows small impotent acts in order to avoid the possibility of actions that would make a difference.

If we want actual functioning democracy, it is our collective responsibility. We have to act outside of the anti-democratic system. That would require creating a new parallel system that acts independently. We need to create our own separate government, not unlike what the American colonists did when they turned revolutionary, and then put so much public support and power behind it that it can’t be denied. We’ve waited long enough for the oligarchs to do the right thing. It’s now in our hands.

All of that is easier said than done. But it is either that or we continue our decline. As always, it’s a choice to be made.

“Where were they?”

Maybe Trump is a fascist who will destroy America. But where were these people when Obama was bombing wedding parties in Kandahar, or training jihadist militants to fight in Syria, or abetting NATO’s destructive onslaught on Libya, or plunging Ukraine into fratricidal warfare, or collecting the phone records of innocent Americans, or deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, or force-feeding prisoners at Gitmo, or providing bombs and aircraft to the Saudis to continue their genocidal war against Yemen?

Where were they?

That question was asked by Mike Whitney over at CounterPunch. And it’s a good question, directed at liberals. Where were they? It’s a question I take seriously, as I’m sympathetic to the liberal cause, even as I’m frustrated by liberal failure. Whitney states, “Can we agree that there is at least the appearance of hypocrisy here?” After a lifetime of observing liberals up close, I’m strongly inclined to argue that it is far more than mere appearance. It easily could be taken as straight hypocrisy. And I have no doubt that hypocrisy was involved for many.

But to be fair, there was much else going on. From a personal perspective, I have to admit that I never protested in the streets about Obama’s wars, although for damn sure I made my voice heard as best as I was able. I didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 and so it wasn’t as if I felt he was my responsibility. I was openly and vocally complaining of Obama even before he was elected, often arguing with partisan Democrats about him. And I didn’t stop my criticisms in the following 8 years.

The thing is I did protest against the Iraq War during the Bush administration. It was the largest protest movement in world history, at least at that time. And it happened before the war even began. Even the Vietnam War protests only happened after many years of fighting and many soldiers dead. The anti-war protests under Bush were impressive and they included people across the spectrum. Most Americans initially did not support that war and it required a lot of beating of the war drums along with deceitful propaganda to change that.

Yet public opinion and public outrage meant nothing. Not even the largest protest movement in world history could stop the oligarchs from doing what they wanted. When Obama came along, he was simply repeating the policies of Bush. Sure, new countries were involved, but it was the same old shit. It was a continuation of the War on Terror, which plenty of Democrats supported even under Bush. It’s not like Obama’s wars were shocking and came out of nowhere.

I didn’t protest because protest was proven impotent. I realized that, unless the public was well informed and unless a new narrative could take hold in the public mind and unless we the public could force politicians to comply by threat of force if necessary, outward forms of political activism could accomplish nothing. The Bush years left me demoralized. And I never believed Obama’s bullshit. It was obvious to me that Obama would do little if anything good while in office and I was proven right.

So, what were we supposed to protest? That the same old shit continues no matter what we the public do. What concerns me is that the next time I care enough to protest it will mean we are on the verge of revolution. And that might come quicker than some expect. The coming years likely will radicalize many Americans.

Trump is not the White Savior

Any time a candidate or the media claim that some demographic was won, be extremely skeptical. With so many people not voting or else among those voting choosing third party, it is rare for a candidate to win any demographic. Let us consider an example getting much attention as of late, the white demographic.

There are over 245 million white people in the US (77.7% of the population). And the vast majority of those are non-Hispanic whites (62.6%). That is about 200 million more whites in the US than in 1900 and so not exactly a shrinking population in terms of raw numbers. In fact, among children born in the US in recent years, 50.4% are non-Hispanic whites. Even the foreign born fertility rate shows that non-Hispanic whites aren’t that far below Hispanics of any race (1.94% vs 2.46%).

About 183 million non-Hispanic whites are 20 years old or older. And about 156 million non-Hispanic whites are eligible voters. That is a large chunk of the population that is eligible to vote (69% of the electorate), but a larger part of the population doesn’t vote. A little over half of all eligible voters cast a ballot. So, maybe 90 million non-Hispanics voted. Just to be on the safe side, will round it up to an even 100 million.

So, how many white people voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election? Well, 58% of registered whites voted for Trump, although I’m not clear if that includes or excludes Hispanic whites. Assuming that is non-Hispanic whites, that means Trump won 58 million non-Hispanic white votes. That is only about a third of the eligible voters in that demographic.

The vast majority of non-Hispanic whites did not vote for Trump. He is not the candidate of white people. He does not have a white mandate. Most Americans, including most most whites despise Trump, the most unpopular candidate since data was kept and now the most unpopular president (even Nixon was more popular when he was first elected). Trump hasn’t come close to being seen as a white savior.

Let’s be clear. When Trump or the media states that Trump won the white demographic, know that such claims are total bullshit. This goes far beyond his not having won the popular vote. There are those on both the political left and political right who want to push various racial narratives, along with other forms of identity politics. But such framings are some combination of false, inaccurate, misleading, and unhelpful.

Trump’s victory doesn’t fundamentally indicate or change anything within the general population. White nationalists, white supremacists, and white bigots exist. Right-wing authoritarians, alt-right loonies, and ethnocentric nativists exist. Still, they remain a small part of the total white population. The mainstream media obsesses over them to a degree that forms an exaggerated portrayal of their numbers.

Most important of all, remember this. It was that same mainstream media that promoted Trump by giving him more coverage than all other candidates combined. And we now know that some of those within the mainstream media were working directly with the DNC and Clinton campaign. As revealed in some of the leaks, it was part of the strategy of the Democratic establishment to ensure Trump got the Republican nomination. Democrats did more to elect Trump than did racist white voters. That is the sad reality.

If we don’t understand any of this, how are we going to move forward? We need new ways of understanding that offer a vision of change, not yet more division and divisiveness. Don’t rely on what is said by any candidate or media source. Look at the data for yourself. Research topics and come to your own conclusions. Be careful when you find yourself mindlessly being drawn into a narrative. Ask yourself: What exactly is this narrative? And why is it being pushed?

Trump the Train Wreck

If I was an evil mastermind who wanted to destroy the Republican Party, it’s hard to imagine a better possibility than getting someone like Trump elected president. The next four years will be a train wreck in slow motion. Trump will destroy the GOP as it so far has existed. That may or may not destroy it as a functioning political party. But for sure it will never be the same.

I had such thoughts back during the campaigns. It occurred to me that, once Clinton and Trump were nominated, this was an election neither party should want to win. Either was going to be a disaster for their respective party. The president now will get blamed for so much. And both of these people were severely disliked and distrusted.

There is a difference, though. Most of the people who voted for Clinton were simply Democratic partisans. They were hoping to save their party, even though pushing out Sanders did long term harm. The dynamic was different on the other side.

There are also partisan Republicans who held their nose while voting for Trump, assuming that he was better than nothing. But there were many other Trump supporters who weren’t partisan Republicans and they couldn’t care less if the GOP goes down in flames. They are a frustrated group who just want to be heard, by any means necessary. They might even take pride in destroying the GOP.

The GOP has a tiger by the tail and is afraid to let go. They might discover, though, that they don’t have the tiger. The tiger has them. I wish them luck, as I’d rather see both parties reformed than destroyed. The two party system has been a failure, but at the moment what would replace it might be worse. What we really need, if we were to be honest, is a constitutional convention. The system needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

If reform fails, as it seems it will, there are those who’d rather push failure to its inevitable conclusion of self-destruction. The same frustration and outrage that led to obstruction of Obama now has infected the heart of the GOP. The beast will turn on itself, devouring its own entrails. I’ll leave you with that pleasant image.

Democratic Republicanism in Early America

There was much debate and confusion around various terms, in early America.

The word ‘democracy’ wasn’t used on a regular basis at the time of the American Revolution, even as the ideal of it was very much in the air. Instead, the word ‘republic’ was used by most people back then to refer to democracy. But some of the founding fathers such as Thomas Paine avoided such confusion and made it clear beyond any doubt by speaking directly of ‘democracy’. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the first founding document and 3rd president, formed a political party with both ‘democratic’ and ‘republican’ in the name, demonstrating that no conflict was seen between the two terms.

The reason ‘democracy’ doesn’t come up in founding documents is that the word is too specific, although it gets alluded to when speaking of “the People” since democracy is literally “people power”. Jefferson, in writing the Declaration of Independence, was particularly clever in avoiding most language that evoked meaning that was too ideologically singular and obvious (e.g., he effectively used rhetoric to avoid the divisive debates for and against belief in natural law). That is because the founding documents were meant to unite a diverse group of people with diverse opinions. Such a vague and ambiguous word as ‘republic’ could mean almost anything to anyone and so was an easy way to paper over disagreements and differing visions. If more specific language was used that made absolutely clear what they were actually talking about, it would have led to endless conflict, dooming the American experiment from the start.

Yet it was obvious from pamphlets and letters that many American founders and revolutionaries wanted democracy, in whole or part, to the degree they had any understanding of it. Some preferred a civic democracy with some basic social democratic elements and civil rights, while others (mostly Anti-Federalists) pushed for more directly democratic forms of self-governance. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was clearly a democratic document with self-governance greatly emphasized. Even among those who were wary of democracy and spoke out against it, they nonetheless regularly used democratic rhetoric (invoking democratic ideals, principles, and values) because democracy was a major reason why so many fought the revolution in the first place. If not for democracy, there was little justification for and relevance in starting a new country, beyond a self-serving power grab by a new ruling elite.

Without assuming that large number of those early Americans had democracy in mind, their speaking of a republic makes no sense. And that is a genuine possibility for at least some of them, as they weren’t always clear in their own minds about what they did and didn’t mean. To be technical (according to even the common understanding from the 1700s), a country either is a democratic republic or a non-democratic republic. The variety of non-democratic republics would include what today we’d call theocracy, fascism, communism, etc. It is a bit uncertain exactly what kind of republic various early Americans envisioned, but one thing is certain: There was immense overlap and conflation between democracy and republicanism in the early American mind. This was the battleground of the fight between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (or to be more accurate, between pseudo-Federalists and real Federalists).

As a label, stating something is a republic says nothing at all about what kind of government it is. All that it says is what a government isn’t, that is to say it isn’t a monarchy, although there were even those who argued for republican monarchy with an elective king which is even more confused and so the king theoretically would serve the citizenry that democratically elected him. Even some of the Federalists talked about this possibility of republic with elements of a monarchy, strange as it seems to modern Americans. This is what the Anti-Federalists worried about.

Projecting our modern ideological biases onto the past is the opposite of helpful. The earliest American democrats were, by definition, republicans. And most of the earliest American republicans were heavily influenced by democratic political philosophy, even when they denounced it while co-opting it. There was no way to avoid the democratic promise of the American Revolution and the founding documents. Without that promise, we Americans would still be British. That promise remains, yet unfulfilled. The seed of an ideal is hard to kill once planted.

Still, bright ideals cast dark shadows. And the reactionary authoritarianism of the counter-revolutionaries was a powerful force. It is an enemy we still fight. The revolution never ended.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 2862-2929

Fascism has been defined as “an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers individual and other societal interests inferior to the needs of the state, and seeks to forge a type of national unity, usually based on ethnic, religious, cultural, or racial attributes.”[ 130] If there is a significant difference between fascism thus defined and the society enunciated in Plato’s Republic,[ 131] in which the state is supreme and submission to a warrior class is the highest virtue, I fail to detect it. [132] What is noteworthy is that Plato’s Republic is probably the most widely known and widely read of political texts, certainly in the United States, and that the word “republic” has come to be associated with democracy and a wholesome and free way of life in which individual self-expression is a centerpiece.

To further appreciate the difficulty that exists in trying to attach specific meaning to the word “republic,” one need only consult the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.[ 133] There one will find a long list of republics divided by period and type. As of this writing, there are five listings by period (Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, Early Modern, 19th Century, and 20th Century and Later), encompassing 90 separate republics covered in Wikipedia. The list of republic types is broken down into eight categories (Unitary Republics, Federal Republics, Confederal Republics, Arab Republics, Islamic Republics, Democratic Republics, Socialist Republics, and People’s Republics), with a total of 226 entries. There is some overlap between the lists, but one is still left with roughly 300 republics— and roughly 300 ideas of what, exactly, constitutes a republic.

One might reasonably wonder what useful meaning the word “republic” can possibly have when applied in such diverse political contexts. The word— from “res publica,” an expression of Roman (i.e., Latin) origin— might indeed apply to the Roman Republic, but how can it have any meaning when applied to ancient Athens, which had a radically different form of government existing in roughly the same time frame, and where res publica would have no meaning whatsoever?

Let us recall what was going on in Rome in the time of the Republic. Defined as the period from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings (509 B.C.) until Julius Caesar’s elevation to dictator for life (44 B.C.),[ 134] the Roman Republic covered a span of close to five hundred years in which Rome was free of despotism. The title rex was forbidden. Anyone taking on kingly airs might be killed on sight. The state of affairs that prevailed during this period reflects the essence of the word “republic”: a condition— freedom from the tyranny of one-man rule— and not a form of government. In fact, The American Heritage College Dictionary offers the following as its first definition for republic: “A political order not headed by a monarch.”

[…] John Adams (1735– 1826), second President of the United States and one of the prime movers behind the U.S. Constitution, wrote a three-volume study of government entitled Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (published in 1787), in which he relies on the writings of Cicero as his guide in applying Roman principles to American government.[ 136] From Cicero he learned the importance of mixed governments,”[ 137] that is, governments formed from a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. According to this line of reasoning, a republic is a non-monarchy in which there are monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. For me, this is confusing. Why, if one had just shed blood in unburdening oneself of monarchy, with a full understanding of just how pernicious such a form of government can be, would one then think it wise or desirable to voluntarily incorporate some form of monarchy into one’s new “republican” government? If the word “republic” has any meaning at all, it means freedom from monarchy.

The problem with establishing a republic in the United States was that the word had no fixed meaning to the very people who were attempting to apply it. In Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton says, “Sparta, Athens, Rome and Carthage were all republics”( F.P., No. 6, 57). Of the four mentioned, Rome is probably the only one that even partially qualifies according to Madison’s definition from Federalist No. 10 (noted earlier): “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place,” in which government is delegated “to a small number of citizens elected by the rest” (ibid, No. 10, 81-82).

Madison himself acknowledges that there is a “confounding of a republic with a democracy” and that people apply “to the former reasons drawn from the nature of the latter ”( ibid., No. 14, 100). He later points out that were one trying to define “republic” based on existing examples, one would be at a loss to determine the common elements. He then goes on to contrast the governments of Holland, Venice, Poland, and England, all allegedly republics, concluding, “These examples … are nearly as dissimilar to each other as to a genuine republic” and show “the extreme inaccuracy with which the term has been used in political disquisitions.”( ibid., No. 39, 241).

Thomas Paine offers a different viewpoint: “What is now called a republic, is not any particular form of government. It is wholly characteristical [sic] of the purport, matter, or object for which government ought to be instituted, and on which it is to be employed, res-publica, the public affairs or the public good” (Paine, 369) (italics in the original). In other words, as Paine sees it, “res-publica” describes the subject matter of government, not its form.

Given all the confusion about the most basic issues relating to the meaning of “republic,” what is one to do? Perhaps the wisest course would be to abandon the term altogether in discussions of government. Let us grant the word has important historical meaning and some rhetorical appeal. “Vive la Republique!” can certainly mean thank God we are free of the tyranny of one-man, hereditary rule. That surely is the sense the word had in early Rome, in the early days of the United States, and in some if not all of the French and Italian republics. Thus understood, “republic” refers to a condition— freedom from monarchy— not a form of government.

* * *

Roger Williams and American Democracy
US: Republic & Democracy
 (part two and three)
Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality
Pursuit of Happiness and Consent of the Governed
The Radicalism of The Articles of Confederation
The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution
Wickedness of Civilization & the Role of Government
Spirit of ’76
A Truly Free People
Nature’s God and American Radicalism
What and who is America?
Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
About The American Crisis No. III
Feeding Strays: Hazlitt on Malthus
Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
American Paternalism, Honor and Manhood
Revolutionary Class War: Paine & Washington
Paine, Dickinson and What Was Lost
Betrayal of Democracy by Counterrevolution
Revolutions: American and French (part two)
Failed Revolutions All Around
The Haunted Moral Imagination
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”
“…from every part of Europe.”

The Fight For Freedom Is the Fight To Exist: Independence and Interdependence
A Vast Experiment
America’s Heartland: Middle Colonies, Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest
When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory