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Dec 20 2007

Meet the Villagers-1: How the American political system really works

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 na├»ve. 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.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Rian

    I agree with your characterization, but here’s some food for thought:

    The Democratic wing does not necessarily want anything but power. So, despite actual differences in policy from time to time, their strategy (which is the same it’s been since 1968 and the disastrous campaign) is to give the Republican wing all the rope it needs to hang itself, so that the Democrats can style themselves as the ‘party of change’. The past eight years is no different.

  2. 2
    Joshua Terchek

    Mano,

    I wonder if you have ever heard of the book “The Power Elite” by C. Wright Mills? It essentially discusses the same group of individuals in much more detail.

    I also like that the term “power elite” a little bit better than “villager.” While you cite “villager” as apt in several regards, to me the common denominator of a villager is geography. As we are well aware, this group is not bound to a location (and some may argue a nation). Also, the term Power Elite has been around since the 50′s and widely used in sociology.

    A nice overview of the concept of a Power Elite can be found here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_Elite

  3. 3
    Corbin

    Hi Mano,

    This is an interesting idea, and it has the ring of “plausibility” inasmuch as it serves to explain what otherwise might be inexplicable behavior by politicians. But what evidence can you cite that directly supports your contention that such a group of “villiagers” exist and acts in any kind of coordinated way? I do not find your example of married couples particularly compelling. I worry a that this all smells a little too much of a “conspiracy theory” kind of thing: it’s not much of a leap from Villiagers to Illuminati.

    If you wanted to persuade the skeptic that these things are really going on “right out in the open” as you say, what evidence would you give by way of example?

  4. 4
    Tom

    Mano:
    To help answer Corbin’s question, I see what you describe as a manifestation of class struggle. The lines between class may be somewhat nebulous but the “ruling class” have many similarities. As you look back through history not much has changed, just the technology. One has to look at other European history other than from the Anglo view to fully comprehend what is meant by class struggle. We may have had a period of enlightenment here in the US with the founding fathers but that has seemed to have slowly deteriorated through the years. How is it that a majority of people in this “democracy” want the troops home from Iraq but they still remain in Iraq? Could it be that the “villagers” want them in Iraq?

  5. 5
    Mano

    Corbin,

    The idea that there exist ruling classes and that the media is used to hide their dominant role is one that is well analyzed around the world. I have discussed this extensively in my posts on the media (See under Categories) where the work of Robert McChesney, Ben Bagdikian, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Herman is discussed. The last two authors’ classic work “Manufacturing Consent” goes into it in great detail.

    Do you really think that those who largely own the economy are going to leave it up to the voters who might elect people who challenge their dominance? Don’t you think that it is perfectly rational for them to rig the system in their favor since they have so much to lose if the “wrong” people get elected? Why do you think that media consolidation has bipartisan support, as does opposing free media access for candidates? Why do you think that so many hurdles are raised (again in a bipartisan manner) to prevent more poor people from voting?

    Tom’s point about Iraq is a good one. I have said many times in the past that it is a bipartisan consensus to have a permanent US troop presence in Iraq. Again, you have to look at what is not discussed which is the routine funding for the building of huge permanent military bases there, which all the attention is focused on some troop withdrawals.

    It is a tribute to the success of the propaganda model in the US that discussing the class nature of politics is taboo and considered vaguely conspiratorial, even by otherwise progressive middle classes, when the actual facts are right there in front of one’s face.

  6. 6
    Mano

    Joshua,

    I have heard about Mills’ book and your comment reminds me that I really should read it. It addresses the same issue amd arrives at similar conclusions, though the important role of the media is more clearly recognized now than in 1956.

    I agree that the term “Villagers” has some problems but it also has advantages. When waging a political struggle, labels are important. “Power elite” sounds too respectful and deferential, while “Villagers” has a negative and derisory tone, which makes it a more effective rhetorical tool, I think.

  7. 7
    Paul Jarc

    Corbin: you mention coordinated action, but as I understand it, part of the idea here is that the Villagers are not coordinated, at least not explicitly. There is no central person or small group handing down orders; rather, people who attain a certain level of money and power want to keep it, and so they ultimately play by the same rules for their benefit. There is a sort of coordination in the effect of their actions, but not so much in their decisions to take those actions. So the coordination is more of an emergent property. It reminds me of an ant colony.

  8. 8
    Joshua Terchek

    Mano,
    I guess words have different meanings for different people or groups. I certainly understand the importance of using labels during a political struggle.

    To me, the connotation village would be somewhat positive one, especially as a social scientist. When considering the history of the social sciences, many (but certainly not all) early theorist and thinkers viewed the modern society negatively, often painting pre-modern life in a positive manner. This is clear in the idea of Rousseau’s “noble savage”, Ferdinand Tonnes’ Gemeinschaft(community)and Gesellschaft(society), amongst others.

    While you point out some traits of a villager, I believe you overstate the negatives. There are countless historical examples of villagers being welcoming to outsiders and generous with their resources. Howard Zinn cites this many times in his work, showing how the charity of the native people(who lived in villages) was taken advantage of by Europeans.

    As you point out, the term “villager” is in a derisory tone. To me this tone makes the term more confusing than it needs to be. If you walked up to someone and said “oh, the villagers are running the country?” I would think you were talking about rural America. Why change an already established terminology that is both accurate and concise. Also, try googling “villager.” Now try “Power Elite.” Lets give sociologists some credit.

    Mills also had a lot to say about the media. Here are two quotes:
    “In Marx’s day there was no radio, no movies, no television; there was only printed matter. . .It was easier to overlook the role of mass media or to underplay it, when they were not so persuasive in effect . . .”

    “The explicit political content of the mass media is, after all, a very small portion of their managed time and space. This badly handled content must compete with a whole machinery of amusement, within a marketing context of distrust. The most skilled media men and the highest paid talent are devoted to the glamorous worlds of sports and leisure. These competing worlds, which in their modern scale are only 30 years old, divert attention from politics by providing a set of continuing interests in mythical figures and fast-moving stereotypes.”

    Just my thoughts on the topic.

  9. 9
    Corbin

    Hi Mano,

    Hmmm. Thank you for your response. These
    are quite interesting ideas, and I will take
    some time to re-read some of your old posts
    on this subject. But I would also say that
    to my mind you did not really directly address
    my question.

    Assume I am a skeptic. Assume that appeals
    to other authorities carry no weight.
    Can you give me an example of some direct
    evidence that such a group called the
    “Villiagers” exists and that they are acting in
    a coordinate manner? I am not talking about
    indirect evidence such “how else can you
    explain it?” or “doesn’t it make sense that
    things should be this way?” I am talking
    about direct evidence. Like a list of persons
    who are villiagers and some historical evidence
    of particular actions linked to these persons
    to support one particular example of how they
    acted in a way to benefit themselves at the
    expense of society at large. That sort of thing.

    Paul above suggests that the ruling elite
    are not actually acting in a coordinated
    manner and that the effect of the Villiagers
    is one that results from all of these
    individuals who are in power acting for their
    own benefit. Would you (Mano) agree with Paul’s
    characterization? I ask because the picture
    you (Mano) are painting here is not one of a
    group of independent persons. The picture
    you are painting is one of a single group,
    clearly defined, (you are either in or out)
    working collectively for their own benifit,
    un-noticed in society and yet acting in
    “plain view” so that we can all see what is
    going on if we would just take a look.

    I find the example given here of the Iraq war
    only slightly compelling. Yes, most Americans
    want the troops home as soon as possible,
    but surveys also show that they want the US
    to succeed in Iraq and they want to “support
    the troops”. As a whole, I believe the US
    population remains rather conflicted about
    the war. At least that is my impression.

    I will be the first to admit that there is
    plenty of evidence that the wealthy as a group
    have far to much influence on polical life
    (this is true in every nation of the world,
    not just the US, I would expect). I will be
    the first to agree with the assertion that
    big money has a huge negative influence on
    the realization of democracy in the ideal form.
    And I will be the first to admit in any setting
    that those who are in power will tend to take
    any action that they perceive will strengthen
    and continue their hold on power.
    But these truths do not automatically imply
    to me that there must exist a particular
    and identifyable group of people who are
    setting specific policies to which the
    leadership of our government are deeply
    beholden.

  10. 10
    Mano

    Corbin,

    I completely agree with Paul’s characterization of the group and am sorry if I gave an erroneous impression. It is definitely not a central group that has a coordinated command and control structure. As I said in my post “It is important to note that the Villagers are not a secret conspiracy or cabal. Such groupings are easily exposed.” If such a group is easy to identify, it is not as influential.

    The strength of this group in the US lies in the fact that (unlike in some other countries where they are a more obvious self-serving group) most of the members do not even see themselves as serving a narrow interest. They see themselves as serving higher values: the journalists seek “truth” and the business leaders seek what is “best for the economy”. A few of the very sophisticated members do understand what is going on and occasionally articulate it but that is rare. In my posts on the neoconservatives and Leo Strauss, I spoke of the open cynicism with which they viewed their manipulation of people. But that is just one subgroup of the set.

    Whether this model is an accurate reflection of the ways things work is not something that can be proven to the complete satisfaction of someone who is reluctant to accept it, and I don’t even try. It is like disproving the existence of god to a determined religious believer. No evidence is ever enough. One can only lay out the case as best as one can and people have to determine if it is plausible enough, and if the level of circumstantial evidence in support is sufficient enough, to accept it, or at least to warrant further investigation on their own.

  11. 11
    Corbin

    Okay that clarifies things quite a bit, thanks!

    Whether or not the model is accurate seems to me
    an important question. If I am going to invest
    my personal resources in the political process
    in a way that optimizes the chances to obtain the
    outcome that I personally think will lead to the
    best possible society for all persons, then I need
    to know as accurately as possible how the system
    really works. For example, if your model is
    accurate, then one might conclude that there
    there is not much value in supporting the
    Democratic party as a whole since — regardless
    of whatever ideals the party might profess –
    these ideals will likely to be trumped by a
    small group of “influence peddlars” who really
    run the show.

    Let me also be clear about my personal
    disposition. I actually suspect that you
    are probably correct in your overall assesment
    and that this kind of model is more accurate
    than not in describing how things work in
    this country. And it is easy to see indirect
    “clues” to this: most recently the public
    housing debacle in New Orleans comes to mind.

    But I actually have no real sense of having
    any strong evidence to support my own
    suspicions that these “villiagers”
    really effectively have such an
    tangible and — at least in the picture that
    you seem to paint — a nearly unbreakable
    influence on US polical life. It seems
    like a plausible idea, and it fits reasonably
    well with my personal political biases.
    But I do not see how I can defend the
    model directly, beyond the application of
    “circumstantial evidence” as you say.

    The particular aspect of the model that seems
    most debatable is the question of whether
    effectively the same group of people are
    pulling the strings of players on both sides
    of the aisle. It’s easy to see that big money
    and big business are directly and openly
    supported within the central structure of the
    Republican party. It’s not as obvious to see
    whether or not the same is true to the same
    extent in the Democratic Party.

    There are alternative possibilities, it seems
    to me. For example, it might be true that the
    Democratic party leaders are acting out of
    fear to a real or percieved vulnerability
    (e.g., as being weak on terrorism) instead
    of responding to the real or percieved
    demands of an “effective ruling oligarchy”
    of influence peddlers. This is one possible
    explanation for their failure to stand up to
    the administration on several issues. Maybe.

    So I am not so much convinced of one position
    and demanding that you show me otherwise as
    I am asking if you know of any additional
    evidence that would might move me from
    concluding that this were true based on
    sound reasoning instead of just personal
    and political intuition.

    This sounds like a great PhD thesis topic
    for a political science graduate student…

  12. 12
    henry

    Villagers are running the show?

    Sounds like talk of a New World Order or the Bilderberg Group. If you are arguing that a group of powerful elite are running the show then it is possible that another smaller group is behind that group.

    Powerful bankers, satan worshippers, facisists. Which of these are pulling the strings?

  13. 13
    Mano

    The people behind each party are not identical. As I said, there are factions that differ on some social issues and these will result in their supporting different parties and giving different amounts to different parties.

    The point is that once elections became long, very expensive, and depend heavily on big media, you have all but guaranteed that the support of members of a very small group of people is essential for success. And that group has more shared interests than differences so it is not necessary for this group to coordinate their actions in any conscious way. It all seems “natural” to them

    The really interesting PhD thesis will be to analyze the flow of money in elections using some kind of class-based model and correlate it with a class-based analysis of the impact of decisions made by the elected officials.

    The most obvious target is the way that the media have been allowed (in a very bipartisan way) to move towards increasing consolidation and monopolization. It is impossible to run a newspaper or radio or TV station without having a huge amount of money these days. Quite different from the old days. And observe how the low-power community stations are being driven out. Any truly democratic society would encourage multiple voices and views to flourish. But that would threaten the Villagers’ interests by allowing competing views a platform.

    The next target is the internet because the low cost of entry into that medium is dangerous. It allows the riff-raff (i.e. non-Villagers) too much of a say. So look out for ways that access to that will seek to be controlled and limited. It will usually come under the guise of “public interest”, i.e. as due to limiting pornography or the threat of terrorism or something like that.

  14. 14
    jackie dabb

    Yes, there is only one political power. They established a two party system to divide the people while they laugh and have dinner together. You can call this power elite villagers, but I prefer their real name, the Illuminati. There evil plan to reduce the world population and financially control the world is well in place. You need to read “Atlas Shrugged” to see our future. They have destroyed this country in order to build their Utopia.

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