January 10, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Today in his New York Times column, David Brooks asks President Obama to undo the harm Brooks’ Republican party has done to government. This is quite an extraordinary request, particularly because Brooks himself has made a fine career of undermining a once-successful “liberal” social compact in which the federal government served as a mediator among competing economic and social interests. Through regulation of business, a progressive tax code, social-safety-net legislation – and eventually civil rights (and environmental) legislation – the government mitigated economic and social iniquities.
Brooks writes, “Over the past 40 years, liberalism has been astonishingly incapable at expanding its market share.” So let’s see if anything that happened 40 years ago might explain this “astonishing incapacity” to Our Mister Brooks. Forty years ago Richard Nixon was president. Considered a conservative Republican back in the day, he was well to the left to those who pass for moderate Republicans today. Nixon, after all,
… implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program; oversaw the first large-scale integration of public schools in the South; dramatically increased spending on federal employee salaries; proposed a guaranteed annual wage (a/k/a a ‘negative income tax’); created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and he advocated comprehensive national health insurance (single payer) for all Americans.
Nixon appointed four Supreme Court justices, three of whom voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade. We’ll get back to one of those justices shortly.
Most people today think of the the Watergate break-in and related dirty tricks, including the Nixon “enemies list” as President Nixon’s darkest legacy. But there were two other matters associated with Nixon’s presidency that have had a far more long-lasting – and devastating – effect on the history of the nation. You have likely heard of the first one; the second, perhaps not.
The first was what most people now call Nixon’s “Southern strategy”: the GOP’s design to exploit Southern white racism and, in general, Southerners’ fears of federal power in social and economic matters. The South had left the union in 1860 under the guise of “states rights” and most Southerners had never gotten over the Civil War (a/k/a the “Northern War of Aggression”), so it was hardly difficult to coax 20th-century Southerners to loathe the long arm of the federal government. Today’s “Tenthers,” who seem so hair-brained to liberals and independents, actually come from a long and not-very-proud American tradition. The Southern strategy preceded Nixon – Barry Goldwater ran as a states-rights candidate in 1964 – but it was Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips who brought the strategy into the light of day in a 1969 book titled The Emerging Republican Majority, a sort of how-to book for Republicans. The New Yorker‘s George Packer has written that “if any one person can be said to have invented the 70′s, it was Kevin Phillips.” Phillips’ expanded on the “silent majority” of social conservatives whom Nixon had exploited to win the 1968 presidential election. Here’s how Phillips characterized people drawn to the “Sun Belt” – an area of the country experiencing population migration thanks to the wider use of air conditioning: “The persons most drawn to the new sun culture are the pleasure-seekers, the bored, the ambitious, the space-age technicians and the retired – a super-slice of the rootless, socially mobile group known as the American middle class.” But racism was “of the essence of the scheme.” As Phillips wrote in a 1970 New York Times op-ed piece – the very real estate that David Brooks would one day occupy,
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
A decade later, in 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia, Mississippi – a city whose name will ever be associated not with “brotherly love” but with the murder of three civil rights workers. Reagan chose Philadelphia to proclaim his support for “states’ rights.” In 1981, notorious Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained to Bob Herbert, another person who would become a New York Times op-ed columnist, how the Southern strategy had evolved:
You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.
The Southern strategy is still in effect today, and it has always had appeal outside the South. Particularly in economic hard times, people everywhere in the country look for a scapegoat. This year’s Republican presidential candidates have found the Southern strategy to be particular useful as they run against an African-American president. So we had Rick Santorum telling white Iowans last week, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better bygiving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” Santorum later claimed he didn’t say “black”; he said “blah.” But it doesn’t matter. White American “resentment” voters got the message: “I’m somebody, and the government is taking my money and giving it to undeserving black people just like Barack Obama.” And those resentment voters get the very same message when GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told them a short while ago – more than once – that children living in poor neighborhoods have “no habits of working and nobody around them who works.” His “anti-poverty” solution? Abandon “stupid” child labor laws and have the “poor” children work as school janitors. You think perhaps Gingrich was not sending a loud dog whistle to his white base? Ha. Here’s how he sent the same message last week in case Northerners were deaf to the whistle: “I’m prepared. If the N.A.A.C.P. invites me, I’ll go to their convention, talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” As for Barack Obama, Newt calls him “the first food-stamp president,” and had the gall to appear deeply offended when asked if the epithet had racial overtones. The food stamp program has been in effect since 1961. Why is the first black president “the first” food-stamp president? You tell me. Newt Gingrich is never “blah.”
Earlier I mentioned President Nixon’s Supreme Court appointments. One of them was Lewis Powell, who before his appointment to the Court was a Richmond, Virginia, lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association who sat on a number of corporate boards.
Forty years ago, in August 1971, a few months before Nixon nominated him, Lewis Powell wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, a prominent member of the National Chamber of Commerce who later became the Chamber’s director. Powell began his memo with the “problem”: “… the American economic system is under broad attack…. The assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued….” The sources of the attack, Powell wrote, were now “perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.” Powell considered it a “bewildering paradox” that the media and universities were controlled by corporate interests who seemed to be asleep at the wheel. He described consumer advocate Ralph Nader as “the single most effective antagonist of American business.”
Charlie Cray, writing in Common Dreams, has an excellent synopsis of the content and effect of Powell’s memo: Powell wrote that the Chamber and business leaders who have to marshal their resources to change the tide of political discourse. “The memo emphasized the importance of education, values, and movement-building. Corporations had to reshape the political debate, organize speakers’ bureaus and keep television programs under ‘constant surveillance.’” Powell envisioned the U.S. Chamber as the organizing force behind an enduring campaign that employed “new think tanks, legal foundations, front groups and other organizations” that formed “a united front.”
After Powell’s Supreme Court confirmation, someone leaked the memo to syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, who made its contents public and questioned Powell’s objectivity. Anderson’s column only served to broaden the base of business support for the Powell scheme: Cray writes,
Soon thereafter, the Chamber’s board of directors formed a task force of 40 business executives … to draft a list of specific proposals to ‘improve understanding of business and the private enterprise system,’ which the board adopted on November 8, 1973….
Powell’s Memo is widely credited for having helped catalyze a new business activist movement, with numerous conservative family and corporate foundations (e.g. Coors, Olin, Bradley, Scaife, Koch and others) thereafter creating and sustaining powerful new voices to help push the corporate agenda, including the Business Roundtable (1972), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC – 1973), Heritage Foundation (1973), the Cato Institute (1977), the Manhattan Institute (1978), Citizens for a Sound Economy (1984 – now Americans for Prosperity), Accuracy in Academe (1985), and others….
The Powell memo essentially marks the beginning of the business community’s multi-decade collective takeover of the most important institutions of public opinion and democratic decision-making…. The decades-long drive to rethink legal doctrines and ultimately strike down the edifice of campaign finance laws – breaking radical new ground with the Roberts Court’s decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission – continues apace.
Those who read David Brooks will know that Brooks is more than comfortable with the right-wing organizations Cray names. A former writer for a number of conservative publications, most notably the National Review, theWashington Times, the Wall Street Journal, the American Spectator and the Weekly Standard, Brooks regularly uses his New York Times column to promote studies and reports by the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation. Brooks appears as a speaker and participant in Business Roundtable and Manhattan Institute events.
So when David Brooks asks, “Where have all the liberals gone?” he need only look in the mirror to discover part of the answer. As George Packer wrote, there once existed in this county “an unwritten social contract among labor, business, and government — between the elites and the masses. It guaranteed that the benefits of the economic growth following World War II were distributed more widely, and with more shared prosperity, than at any time in human history.” David Brooks was a child 40 years ago when Richard Nixon’s political and corporate allies began two insidious organized efforts to turn Americans against that “liberal” social contract. If Brooks was not in on the plot to destroy the social contract, he has been and remains a primary vehicle for perpetuating it. And today, if Brooks wants to keep on keeping on, perhaps he has made a mistake in asking President Obama to serve as a modern-day “Martin Luther…, stripping away the corruptions, complexities and indulgences that have grown up over the years.” David Brooks himself would be one of the first to go.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com