Saturday, February 24, 2007

Review of "It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush" (2007) by Joe Conason

Joe Conason's new book focuses on the governmental and partisan manifestations of the Republican Party's deep-seated authoritarianism. Though Conason is an investigative reporter in the tradition of I.F. Stone, his focus in this book is pulling together a coherent narrative describing the Cheney-Bush administration's drive to undermine the substance of American democratic and Constitutional government while leaving the forms in place. He relies on the wealth of material already in the public record, much of which he has reported in some form in his regular columns which appear in the New York Observer, Salon, and He makes full use of his knowledge and skill in desribing the roles of key players without reducing complex processes to personality quirks or individual ambitions.

As a close observer of the major press dysfunction during the Clinton administration and subsequently, it's not surprising that his descriptions of the press' role in the Cheney-Bush style of rule are particularly vivid. He gives the following memorable picture of Fox News, which could almost serve as a definition:

Never in the history of American politics or American broadcasting has any media outlet been so closely identified with a president or a party as Fox News is with George W. Bush and the Republicans. Overseen by Fox News boss Roger Ailes [formerly a Republican media consultant], it is an inappropriate and journalistically illicit relationship that long ago crossed whatever normal boundary separates politicians and press organizations. ...

Fox News represents an innovation in the authoritarian mode: a fully dedicated mouthpiece for the state that is nevertheless unofficial and in the private sector. Such is the ingenuity of American capitalism, in the hands of naturalized citizen Rupert Murdoch, the News Corporation mogul who abandoned his Australian citizenship in order to qualify as an owner of American TV stations. Aside from profit, which only began to flow after almost eight years and roughly $800 million in estimated losses, the separation of ownership from the state affords much greater credibility to the propaganda message.
(my emphasis)
The problem with American media reporting, though, is not restricted to the blatant partisans of Fox News and Oxycontin radio.

Conason skillfully describes how the toxic combination of lazy and compliant reporters, the extreme governmental secrecy that is a hallmark of Cheney's style of rule, corporate media dominance, and actual government-sponsored propaganda have combined to cripple the functioning of an independent press that is a critical element of democracy. He calls atttention to a trend in the Republican Party toward advocating overt censorship, still alarmed as they are about the amount of genuine journalism still being practiced in the US. He call special attention to an article by Gabriel Schoenfeld, Has the New York Times Violated the Espionage Act? Commentary March 2006, which lays out much of the ideological justification for this next level of authoritarian media regulation.

Conason creates a useful framework in which to view the authoritarian tilt of the Republican Party under the Cheney-Bush administration, from ideological organizations like the Federalist Society (which promotes corporatist legal doctrine) to the effect of having an atmosphere of permanent war. The latter is eseential for Dick Cheney's program of authoritarian rule, because only with such a climate of fear and threat can the Cheney policies of preventive war, torture, massive spying and an Executive not bound by any laws completely supplant the legal and Constitutional practices of the old Republic.

The Cold War provided such a framework, too. And in his concluding chapter, Conason fills in the dots leading from the Nixon administration's police-state measures known collectively as "Watergate" and the Reagan administration's secret war program which is best known through the Iran-Contra scandal to the Cheney methods of authoritarian governance which permeate the current administration.

Understanding the roots of the current situation in the darkest side of the Nixon administration is important because, as he writes, "[m]ost Americans, even those who lived through the Nixon era, have forgotten the context - let alone the details - of the Watergate scandal." He also observes, "The parallels are striking, but the difference is that Bush, Cheney, and Rove, and the forces they represent, are far more developed and powerful than the Nixon gang ever was." (my emphasis)

Though he doesn't mention it in the book, this illustrates the need for something lie a Truth Commission process after Cheney and Bush are out of power. Not only do we need prosecution of crimes committed - and there have been many - but we also need a process by which the abuses of this administration can be publicly aired and understood. We need to make it far harder for people like Cheney and Rumsfeld, who learned their governing principles and style from the worst aspects of the Nixon administration, to come to power 10, 20, 30 years down the line determined to succeed where Cheney, Rummy, Karl Rove and the rest will hopefully have failed. The criminal and antidemocratic practices of the Cheney-Bush administration need to be thoroughly discredited.

You can always quibble about what is not said in even the most thorough book. Conason only gives attention to the phoniness of the "moderate Republican" scam late in the book, while his earlier mentions of that bold Maverick John McCain could leave an excessively favorable impression on those not familiar with the Maverick's rightwing and downright militaristic record. Conason's book also only alludes to the role that segregationist practices from the Jim Crow era in the South play in the Republican Party's current authoritarian cast. But those really are quibbles about a book that provides a valuable understanding of the larger problem. In any case, Conason himself examined those issue more closely in Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (2003).

One thing Conason does here, though, that I haven't seen done so clearly elsewhere is to describe how the Wall Street wing of the Party and the Christian dominionists manage to combine what on the surface may seem conflicting agendas. In the chapter he devotes to this subject, "The Corporate State of Grace", he writes, "The creative destruction of modern capitalism disrupts traditions and disregards family values." In theory, this creates a tension between the goals of Wall Street free-marketeers and Christian theocrats.

But Conason does a great job of explaining that, in practice, these seemingly conflicting interests don't create the Party split that Establishment pundits constantly predict. In fact, the corporate interests and the Christian dominionists have "an informal but clear division of labor". What not so long ago was commonly called Big Business provides the money, the theocratis turn out votes of Republicans. (This division of labor also allows some politicians to pass themselves off as "moderate Republicans" while actually supporting the theocratic agenda.)

Many of the key Christian Right leaders are wealthy men themselves - few of them are women - and thus see their own economic interests as the same as those of corporate executives or investment bankers. "Whatever their differences, however, the religious right and the corporate right have much more in common", Conason writes.

Factional divisions can always cause problems. But the alliance of the stock market and the pulpit in the Republican Party has to be regarded at this point as a long-term and stable one. In particular, he notes pointedly, "The Chamber of Commerce types and the Baptist preachers both hate unions with a special passion."

The title of Conasons's book is derived from Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, which describes a fictional fascist takeover of the United States. Like all of Lewis' novels I've read - full disclosure: I'm a big fan of his - the decades-old historical context doesn't prevent It Can't Happen Here from being both entertaining and instructive. Elmer Gantry (1927) remains one of the best looks at American Protestant fundamentalism you can find. My second post at The Blue Voice quoted Lewis on a fictional rightwing in Gideon Plannish (1943), the Rev. Ezekiel Bittery, who gradually became known to a national audience:

And during all this time, the Reverend Ezekiel himself will, as publicly as possible, to as many persons as he can persuade to attend his meetings, have admitted, insisted, bellowed, that he has always been a Ku Kluxer and a Fascist, that he has always hated Jews, colleges and good manners, and that the only thing he has ever disliked about Hitler is that he once tried to paint barns instead of leaving the barns the way God made them.
A revival of interest in Sinclair Lewis' work would be a welcome development.

, , , , ,

No comments: