It is hard to understand American politics without having a clear idea about the nature of how power is controlled and the important decisions made.
The first step to understanding is to not take seriously divisions along the lines of Democrat-Republican or liberal-conservative or left-right. While such terms may be useful in limited contexts, they are mostly used to distract people from seeing the real action, similar to the way that magicians Penn and Teller distract you without you even realizing it so that you do not see how the trick is really done. A good example of issues that are meant to distract was the infamous Terri Schiavo affair. (This is why I always say that it is not the things that politicians strongly disagree about to which we should pay close attention but the things that they agree on.)
The next step in understanding American politics is to realize that it is essentially a one-party political system consisting of the Big Business and War Party that is split up into two factions that differ on some social issues that do not really affect the profits of big companies or the wealth of the elites. These two factions are fluid, depending on the issue, and are the ones that are usually identified with the conventional dividing labels listed above.
But it is another division that is most important. This consists of those who belong to a group of insiders who really run the country and decide who they will allow to run for the highest offices. At its core, this group consists of the heads of major corporations and their boards and other wealthy elites. This group roughly corresponds to what President Eisenhower spoke about when he warned people about the dangers posed by the power of what he labeled the ‘military-industrial complex’. The decline of the industrial manufacturing base in the US and the rise in importance of new centers of wealth means that this group is now more appropriately labeled the ‘military-finance-health’ complex.
This core group’s agenda is transmitted and implemented by a secondary group which consist of key political leaders, some media figures (publishers and editors at the major newspapers and national TV outlets), the bigger think tanks, and opinion makers such as well-known political op-ed writers and newscasters (Tim Russert, Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts, George Will, David Broder, Maureen Dowd, Richard Cohen, etc.). This fairly extensive network of connected people socialize amongst themselves and thus informally arrive at a rough consensus of who they feel are “worthy” of being elected to high office.
It is hard to give a collective name for this group but one that has been floated recently is the “Villagers”. (I think the name was invented by Atrios who has a flair for this kind of thing, having already coined the term the ‘Friedman Unit‘.) Although this group consists of wealthy elites, not the types one normally associates with actual village people, this is an apt name nonetheless because it captures accurately the key mentality of this group: they are tightly knit, clannish, want to keep all resources to themselves, view everyone outside their charmed circle as inferior, and are determined to keep the status quo intact. You can get a good idea of who belongs in the Village by those who are asked to comment on important issues so that they can frame the debate, and the people who appear on the political talk shows and get invited to contribute op-eds.
It is important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily exposed. The secret of the Villagers’ success is that they act openly. They are a loose network of individuals and groups, all connected by their shared interests and business, political, journalistic, financial, and social dealings that result in them moving in the same circles and thus able to pick up the subtle cues that help them decide who should be in and who should be out. If you look at the network of marriages and other personal relationships alone, you will immediately see how such consensus views could seemingly arise “spontaneously.” For example, key Democratic political strategist James Carville and key Republican strategist Mary Matalin are married, as are Alan Greenspan and journalist Andrea Mitchell. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. You and I might wonder how they can keep their political differences out of their personal relationships but that is because we are naïve. They have no real differences. They all serve the same Village interests.
To be considered a “serious” candidate for things like the presidency or any other major elected office, you must get the approval of the Villagers and the way you do that is by giving them the cues that tell them that you know and will abide by the rules that they set. Otherwise you will be marginalized and ridiculed and driven out of the race. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer obtained their present influential positions because they are, or were willing to become, Villagers, which is why it is futile to expect more from them other than some symbolic act from time to time to give the illusion that they are independent agents listening to the will of those who voted them in. The higher people rise in the ranks of elected office, the more likely they are to be Villagers.
Grass-roots political activists sometimes ask in frustration why Reid or Pelosi (both Democrats) don’t show more backbone and challenge President Bush on key issues such as the Iraq war or torture or the FISA bill or the budget or other things, even though Bush’s ratings are at rock bottom levels, he has no political capital, and is easily headed towards being the worst US president in history. They accuse them of being weak-willed or stupid or outmaneuvered by a clever foe. But such views show that these activists have fallen into the trap of giving these party labels more significance than they deserve. They have not grasped the essential reality that Pelosi and Reid don’t challenge Bush on most issues because they don’t really disagree with him, even though they might pretend to. They are all serving the Village agenda. They will only do the right thing under severe pressure from the grass roots.
When it comes to elections, the Villagers will only give their stamp of approval to someone who they can definitely rely on to play by the rules that they have created. This means that any serious populist challenge to the interests of big business or the war machine faces huge obstacles to success. The weeding out process to get rid of unsuitable people takes place fairly early in the election process. People who are subordinate to the Villagers, like local newspapers and politicians around the country, take their cues from the Villagers and drum the message of who is worthy of consideration repeatedly into us so that we non-Villagers end up feeling that a vote for an unapproved candidate, even if it is someone we strongly support, is a wasted vote. By the time ordinary citizens like us actually go to the polls to vote in a primary or general election, we have been beaten down to think that we are faced with effectively just one or two “reasonable” candidates. The rest have been deemed “unelectable” or “fringe” by the Village.
The only time in recent history where a probable non-Villager approved candidate went on to win the presidential nomination of a major party was Democrat George McGovern in 1972. But that was because of special circumstances. That election immediately followed the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago where riots erupted and violent clashes occurred between the party bosses and those (especially those opposed to the Vietnam war) who wanted a radical break with the existing insider-controlled system. This resulted in major reforms in the nomination process with the introduction of the primary system to give voters a bigger say in selecting their party candidates. In 1972 the open primary system was too new for the Villagers to figure out how to control it to achieve the results they wanted. Fortunately for the Villagers, McGovern lost the presidential election.
The Villagers quickly learned their lesson and took control of the primary process soon after, to ensure that no one not approved by them even has a chance. They did this by making it necessary for candidates to raise huge sums of money to have a realistic chance of success. The way this is done is by avoiding at all costs mandating that candidates be given free airtime on TV, the way that some other democracies do, even though the TV stations are given access to our public airwaves free of charge on the condition that they serve the public interest. And since getting media exposure is the way to raise money, having the media marginalize a candidate early-on was the surest way to get rid of insurgent campaigns by creating a vicious cycle where negative or no initial media coverage meant low fund-raising which meant less ability to buy coverage. By making candidates have to pay exorbitant amounts for TV advertising, the Village media ensure that only those with strong Villager support have a chance because they can get positive free media coverage to kick start their campaigns.
After the McGovern scare, the next serious challenge to the Villagers’ control was Gary Hart in 1988, who also happened to be McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972. The Villagers quickly decided that Hart was too risky a bet for them, too unreliable because he had a sharp intelligence coupled with a populist bent and a streak of independence, all of which are signs of someone who might wander off the Village reservation. The media hounds were quickly set on him to make sure that he was drummed out of the race. It is true that Hart did have a sexual skeleton in his closet that was the ostensible cause of his destruction, but if you are a Villager-approved candidate, those things can be overcome, as we saw with Bill Clinton in 1992 (with Gennifer Flowers) and Rudy Giuliani this year (with too many scandals to count). Bill Clinton received the Villager seal of approval via the well-connected Washington socialite, the late Pamela Harriman, who ‘interviewed’ him early in the process and signaled to her fellow Villagers that Clinton understood how the Village game was to be played. Once in office, Clinton behaved exactly as the Village expected from him, pursuing all the policies that were important to them.
Next: The Village and the current election
POST SCRIPT: Burning the flag in the White House
Penn and Teller appear on The West Wing and show what the Bill of Rights means.