Monday, July 02, 2012

The Fourth Deadbeat

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the July 2012 issue of the SCENE

Governments and mainstream media in Western Europe and the United States have always been good at describing their activities in noble terms. Thomas Carlyle long ago saw this in England: “Burke said that there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate, more important far than they all.” The image of Western government and media as “Estates,” soberly and judiciously taking care that the business of the people be done, is an enduring one featured in generations of school textbooks. 

Public relations experts might recognize the “Four Estates” image as part of a brilliant branding campaign. Like polluting corporations pitching “green” public personas, so called representative democracies living in the pocket of the one percent articulate their elite servitude as acting for “the people.” The shortsighted economic policy decisions of the last generation, from corporate free trade agreements to banking deregulation to trickle down taxing, were framed by their supporters as supreme victories for the masses. With victories like those, Citizen Jane and Joe don’t need crushing defeats.

The branding of coopted governmental bodies as peoples’ champions is not a recent phenomenon. Not new too is mainstream media’s refusal to play an effective role in exposing the sham populism of said governments. Yes of course we can all name some conscientious public officials and mainstream media personnel dedicated to telling the truth; but those worthy exceptions invariably face marginalization and thus prove the rotted system is the rule.  

It’s time to rebrand government and mainstream media for the 21st century. During the lead up to last month’s Father’s Day, I got to thinking that Western governments and the media providing cover have for some time taken on the characteristics of Deadbeat Dads. Deadbeat Dads avoid responsibility, scapegoat others for their own failings, and are often pathological liars. The worst won’t even pay for their kids’ socks absent a court order. Yet if you talk to a deadbeat dad he’ll express undying love for and loyalty towards the very people he hurts the most.

In this era of “austerity” in the US our Three Estates (Executive, Legislative, Judicial) now pontificate about deadbeat policies as if on some kind of grand moral crusade. Remarkably but not surprisingly, the Fourth Deadbeat goes along for the ride.

Let’s explore the deadbeatism of each Estate:

THE DEADBEAT PRESIDENCY: FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society were quite modest social welfare programs by global standards, but reflect rare examples of American presidents expending political capital on the people at large.  Modern presidents spend trillions of dollars on dubious national security adventures and then tell us that we’re spending too much on social programs. Today when presidents dare propose new entitlements (e.g. Bush’s prescription drug expansion of Medicare, Obama’s health care reform), private corporations have to make out like bandits. Dad has to take care of Big Pharma and Big Insurance before meeting his family obligations.

THE DEADBEAT CONGRESS: In Representative Joe Walsh (R-Illinois) the House of Representatives today houses a literal deadbeat dad. Walsh was named a “True Blue” member of Congress by the Family Research Council even though he owed thousands of dollars in back child support. The Congress as a whole elevates deadbeatism to a moral crusade: the leadership blames popular programs like Social Security and Medicare for the budget deficit while giving lip service to reigning in the excesses of the national security state and corporate welfare. Meanwhile, Grover Norquist holds the entire Republican caucus in check with the threat of primary opponents if they support even a half cent in tax increases. Norquist is like the loser girlfriend who gets more attention from the deadbeat dad than his own children.
THE DEADBEAT JUDICIARY: It’s not uncommon for deadbeat dads to surround themselves with friends offering “cover” to support the dad’s irresponsible behaviors. The United States Supreme Court now serves that friend function for the President and Congress. Time was when appointed judges were unpredictable; Earl Warren, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter are three examples of Supreme Court liberals appointed by conservative presidents. No more. The vetting process now removes the independent jurists from appointment consideration. We’re left with a partisan “super legislature” of nine bullish barristers, all appointed for life.*** Conservative columnist George Will recently endorsed a super legislature model for the Supreme Court, arguing that judicial activism is necessary to overturn laws and court decisions he doesn’t like (such as the 1873 Slaughterhouse cases). 

***Chief Justice John Roberts' recent majority opinion upholding the thrust of the Affordable Care Act (i.e. "Obamacare") has been interpreted by many as an affirmation of Roberts' independence. However, a careful reading of his opinion suggests that far from distancing himself from the right leaning judges, his opinion was entirely consistent with the rightward drift of the Court. See Jonathan Adler's "Lose the Battle, Win the War?" for a cogent explanation of the opinion.

THE FOURTH DEADBEAT: The 18th century Whig Edmund Burke understood that a vigorous press could, through sheer force of giving people the unvarnished truth, provide the spark necessary to overturn corrupt and coopted governments. Commercial media long ago stopped serving that role, choosing to enable rather than challenge the three deadbeats.

The late Australian scholar Alex Carey once wrote that “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”  Carey understood the “Fourth Estate” as more myth than fact. Can we somehow reverse course in the 21st century? Yes, but it will require We The People no longer accepting deadbeat dadism as a governing platform or method of media coverage.