Machine Politics

Progressives will find their first reading of Fang’s book distressing

 

As Barack Obama was being inaugurated, he stood on a red and green carpet. That bright accompaniment, welcoming those come to see a progressive sworn in—ostensibly to further a liberal agenda—was manufactured by a Koch brothers subsidiary, INVISTA, which had won the contract to provide carpeting for the quasi-monarchical presidential ceremony. It would be the last time anything associated with the Koch brothers enjoyed a non-antagonistic relationship with the Obama presidency.

As Lee Fang notes in his dense little book, The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right—packed with depressing details about the highly-organized and ideologically motivated New Right—the corporate funding and support the Koch brothers have provided for supposed grassroots movements of resistance have resulted in the almost complete derailing of Obama’s legislative agenda and prompted Fang’s grim conclusion that America is headed for rule by a “small selfish oligarchy.”

Fang MachineThe modern Republican Party supposedly suffers from ideological confusion. It is for the regulation of gay marriage and reproductive rights; it is against the regulation of industrial pollution, healthcare insurance, and workplace safety. It is for the reduced power of the executive branch, except when it comes to spying on Americans and declaring war. It is for the religious freedom of Christian evangelicals but not Muslim Americans. These seemingly disparate platforms actually display a coherent unity: the American Right is committed to preserving all hierarchy and imposed order: men over women, white over black, rich over poor, bosses over workers, Christian majorities over Muslim minorities. This love of hierarchy, of entrenched power, is manifest in the most visible face of opposition to the Obama Presidency: the Tea Party and the new crop of Republican representatives it has sent to Congress. The Republican Party has been hijacked in the past; sometimes by anti-New Dealers, sometimes by the evangelical right; now it has been taken over by those committed to ideologically pure reactionary tendencies. Fang’s rich descriptions of the origins, tactics, tools and successes of this dedicated new force will make sobering reading for progressives.

Fang shows how the Tea Party never was, or is, a grassroots phenomenon; its birth is found in the tobacco industry’s resistance to government regulation, packaged in a verbal and visual co-optation of the language and symbols of the Boston Tea Party. Indeed, every instance of supposed bottoms-up Tea Party activism is shown to be corporate funded and organized to advance a corporate agenda, whether in pursuing tax breaks or derailing climate change legislation. This is best visible in Fang’s historically rich chapter on the Koch brothers, who have seamlessly married their financial bottom line to successfully resisting governmental regulation, all the while casting themselves as libertarian intellectuals.

An ideologically committed opposition with resources and organizational skills that allow it to derail a legislative agenda and replace it with its own can do severe damage to a successful incumbent.

Fang’s book shows how the New Right has mastered all the avenues of political change available to it: it deploys lobbyists to influence legislators; it provides financial backing and TV time in primaries to send its candidates to Congress; it elbows aside insufficiently ideologically committed Republicans through a barrage of rhetorical abuse, or compels them to move further right. Fang also details the right’s clever and flexible use of social media, where following a historical pattern, it quickly masters and exploits the tools developed by the left. These tactics show that technology can be bent to whichever political change its users deploy it for; the Tea Party has been aided, in particular, by a corporate media culture that needs a constant flow of news, no matter how minor or sensational, to fill its twenty-four hour programming commitments. The Tea Party has obliged this insatiable monster with a steady stream of misleading sound bites that help it win the war of words.

Through Fang’s book we learn how an ideologically committed opposition with resources and organizational skills that allow it to derail a legislative agenda and replace it with its own can do severe damage to a successful incumbent with a mandate from the electorate. Thus, the rhetorical and organizational tactics that led to the most famous failures of the Obama presidency—the healthcare public option, cap-and-trade carbon legislation and the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich—are described in depressing detail. Progressives are rightly disappointed with Obama.

Reading Fang’s book, they will realize he was confronted by a committed foe against whom he needed to bring his A-game (and didn’t). In sharp contrast to Obama and the Democratic Party, the activities of the corporate-funded and corporate-staffed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) demonstrate that the New Right can control the legislative process from start to finish—by writing bills and getting them passed by senators and congressmen beholden to it. The corporate right is equally effective at the state level, where legislation and litigation can ensure that seemingly broad federal protections and safeguards are eviscerated; unsurprisingly, Republicans have used the redistricting process in those states where they have legislative majorities to ensure uninterrupted control of state government and increased Republican representation in the U.S. House.

Progressives will find their first reading of Fang’s book distressing. The second time around they can use it as a primer for how to best resist the conservative juggernaut. It won’t be easy.


Samir Chopra is a professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College and the author of Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket. He blogs at samirchopra.com. Follow him @eyeonthepitch.