George W Bush scraped to victory in the 2000 presidential election thanks largely to an array of hugely influential rightwing lobbyists and power-brokers. He knows what he owes them - and since September 11 their grip has grown yet tighter. Eric Alterman analyses the individuals and organisations that are calling the shots in the United States
We all know the whole world changed on September 11. We just don't know exactly how. Before the attack, George W Bush was considered to be a likable bumbler by most Americans and a potentially dangerous, reactionary buffoon in much of Europe. Bush's disappearing act on the day of the attack, replete with phoney cover story about a terrorist threat to Air Force One, seemed likely to etch these images in stone. Instead, Bush is now a hero to Americans, and at least a plausible Leader of the Free World in Europe.
But America is still America. Since the September 11 attacks, some 500 suspects have been detained. The FBI thought it a good idea to check whether any of them had bought weapons. But the justice department, under attorney general John Ashcroft, is refusing to deliver the relevant records. In other words, discovering whether or not the detainees have purchased guns is somehow considered a greater violation of their civil liberties than locking them up in jail without charge. And still American politicians resist the notion of cracking down on money laundering, even though it represents a powerful tool in the terrorist arsenal: that is because the gambling industry, a powerful special interest and large contributor to the Republican party, fears that such laws might interfere with its profitable sideline in internet gambling. The US is still a nation where an early reaction to the crisis was to insist on billions in tax breaks for big business and the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and next to nothing for the millions who lost their jobs as a result of the attacks. As House Republican Whip Richard Armey, of Texas, put it, "The model of thought that says we need to go out and extend unemployment benefits and health insurance benefits and so forth is not, I think, one that is commensurate with the American spirit." Oh, and as evidence now demonstrates, Gore won not only the national vote by nearly 540,000 but also a clear majority of all the legally votes cast in Florida. In other words, in virtually every counting scheme imaginable, save the one that the hapless Al Gore happened to choose when arguing before the Supreme Court, George Bush lost the election. Not that anyone seems to care...
Just before the attacks took place, Europeans participated in an opinion poll in which they were asked what they thought of the current US president. The answer shouted back was "not much". Vast majorities in Britain and the continent told pollsters that his environmental policies stunk, his support for the death penalty was immoral, and his desire to build a missile defence deluded. Only 17% of British, 29% of Italians, 23% of Germans and 16% of French told pollsters they approved of Bush's handling of foreign issues; Bush the Younger barely outpolled Vladimir Putin on the question of who could be trusted "to do the right thing regarding world affairs".
Such numbers were hardly surprising. Earlier this year, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland described the stereotypical European view of George W Bush as a "know-nothing fundamentalist fitness freak". This is appropriate, one has to admit, for a president of a nation, described (again, in stereotypical terms) by the Economist as "a gun-slinging, Bible-bashing, Frankenstein-food guzzling, behemoth-driving, planet-polluting [nation] in which politicians are mere playthings of mighty corporations".
At the time of the poll, which now seems aeons ago, Bush couldn't have cared less. Well, his feelings might have been a little hurt, but in truth Bush was a conservative American politician in a unilateralist age. As James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal's Opinionjournal.com wrote, "If the Europeans are right, this is great news for America." The conservative gadfly PJ O'Rourke went a bit further on the paper's editorial page: "We know what you other foreigners are up to with your Faustian bargaining sessions, your venomous covenants, lying alliances, greedy agreements, back-stabbing ententes cordiales, and trick-or-treat treaty ploys. Count us out." Only partially in jest, he invited readers to "count all the nations on the face of the earth that really count. The number seems to be one."
The funny thing about all of these caricatures is that they do speak to some genuine, albeit contradictory, truths about Bush's America, both pre- and post-September 11. Remember, first, that even though his popularity rating is at record highs for any American president since polling began, Bush's political coalition is still a minority in its own country. He lost the popular vote to Gore and Ralph Nader combined by a veritable landslide. Before the war, when such things were still believed to matter, Americans did not like Bush's decision to trash the Kyoto treaty any more than Europeans do. They preferred environmentalists to oil men. They even preferred improved schools, better health care and safer neighbourhoods to wealth-tilted tax cuts. Polls indicated unwavering majority opposition to almost every aspect of the far-right agenda that the administration has attempted to push through Congress since the Supreme Court greased its path into office.
Bush may be a dope in a lot of ways, but politics is not one of them. The murder of nearly 5,000 innocents and the destruction of the twin towers has temporarily transformed American politics in ways that favour the conservatives at every turn. Democrats fear they risk appearing unpatriotic merely by opposing Bush. There is no longer any significant opposition to increased military spending, and even the opposition to the dangerous and completely useless missile-defence boondoggle is lying low. The areas where Bush is perceived to be politically vulnerable - typically "soft" issues such as minimum wage, patients' rights, the environment and a woman's right to choose - are off the table for now. Nobody really knows how long this state of affairs will last. It would not be prudent - to borrow one of his father's favourite words - for the president simply to assume that the present wartime patriotic fervour will carry him through the next three years with his popularity intact. Given his all but unprecedented status as a minority president, Bush knows (Texas-style) who brung him to this dance and he knows better than to let them down. He owes his election almost entirely to the conservative coalition that, even before the terrorist war, managed to rule the American political system in spite of its relatively small numbers. He will do everything possible to keep them happy.
Today, Bush is reported to believe that he has been charged by God to win the war against terrorism. But that is a relatively new vocation. Before September 11, it was hard to know what Bush truly believed about anything, or if he had any fixed beliefs at all. According to friends, he chose to run for Congress for the first time in 1978, because he "thought that it would be cool to be a congressman", while the rest of his career options appeared to be petering out.
As late as 1988, when he worked in his father's presidential campaign, according to then press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, "We almost never showed interest in politics or policy." Rather, he preferred to chat about "what was in the newspaper or about sports". This is all of a piece. In the noblesse oblige world of the Bush family, politics is what you feel you have to say to get elected. Over the years, as the family torch has passed from the socially liberal Wall Street Republicanism of grandfather Prescott through the Connecticut/Texas schizophrenia of George HW to the Texas-through-and-throughness (by way of Harvard, Yale and Phillips Academy) of George W, the impetus has become ever more conservative. But believing what you say, or anything at all for that matter, in the Bush family business has always proven pretty much beside the point. What matters is winning.
Unlike liberals, conservatives have no problem supporting a leader whom they believe lacks a pure heart. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, a grassroots group he founded at the request of President Reagan in 1986, is almost certainly the most important conservative activist in the US. But even he does not pretend to know whether Bush's conservatism is heartfelt or opportunist. Nor does he much care. What Norquist does know, he says, is that Bush "understands" what Norquist calls "the centre-right coalition". Bush knows his dad lost his presidency because he upset true believers by revisiting his pledge never to raise taxes. It did not matter then and it does not matter now what most Americans believe about anything. Most Americans do not have political action committees, paid armies of lobbyists or their own television talk shows. And those that do, those that have control of the money, the single-interest lobbying groups and the television talk shows that influence politicians, are on the right.
Do not make the mistake of believing that the rightwingers who ran US politics before September 11, and whose grip is now even tighter, constitute anything remotely resembling a monolithic entity. The right is comprised of an extremely disparate collection of groups that stretches on a continuum from Nobel laureate economists to neo-Nazi skinheads, from southern Democratic governors to the late, unlamented Timothy McVeigh. Most do not even agree with one another on basic matters of theology or philosophy. What they do agree on is a list of their enemies. With the recent addition of Osama bin Laden, this would include: the media, liberals, homosexuals, feminists, the Clintons, the Kennedys, bureaucrats, "one-worlders", secular humanists, atheists, abortionists, New Yorkers, big-government, the 1960s, Hollywood, professors, do-gooders and the media.
Because so many conservatives seem to believe that almost everything that happens in America is the result of a secret conspiracy between an ever-shifting combination of the above, there is never any rest for the weary. Yes, they are riding high today, but decades in the political wilderness in the years before the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan taught them not to leave their political fortunes to chance. They understand the value of both patience and teamwork. They don't necessarily like one another. They may not even like themselves. But they've been rich and they've been poor, and guess what? Rich is better. They like running things and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure that they keep running things. (Witness the "bourgeois riots" in Florida to shut down the vote count when it looked as if Al Gore might take the lead.)
Meet the men and women who, now more than ever, run the American political system:
The religious right
With the recent announcement that Jesse Helms will be retiring from politics and with Strom Thurmond tottering his way through his final term at age 98, the larger-than-life superstars of southern Christian fundamentalism are passing into history. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Gary Bauer and even Ralph Reed have receded from view as well. But the quiet is deceptive. George Bush would almost certainly have lost the Republican nomination to John McCain had it not been for the efficiency of the Christian soldiers deployed by these organisations in the deep South.
The politics of religious fundamentalism suffered a significant setback on September 11, making it the only constituent member of the Bush coalition to do so. Its problems were twofold. First, the attacks gave religious zealots of all kinds a bad name, as it tended to remind people of the atrocities committed in the name of God. Second, Falwell and Robertson returned to the public arena with astonishingly tin ears. A mere day after the attack, the two men appeared together on the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club, hosted by Robertson, where Falwell announced, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve." "Jerry, that's my feeling," Robertson responded. Falwell then proceeded to blame "the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU [the American Civil Liberties Union], People for the American Way [the liberal group founded by television producer Norman Lear], all of those who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" Robertson nodded his head quietly in agreement.
The White House quickly distanced itself from these comments, and both men issued apologies, but not actual retractions. And Bush, who had campaigned hard for the blessings of both men during the primary season, was happy to let the matter drop. But while Falwell and Robertson may have inadvertently revealed the distance between their beliefs and those of mainstream America, they remain atop an incredibly powerful political machine of committed Christian activists. Tom DeLay, the Republican powerbroker in Congress, recently appeared on Robertson's programme to announce legislation that "allows us to come together and get on our knees before God". Robertson pronounced DeLay "a great guy. Well, he's very adroit in terms of the legislative process, but also is a very sincere believer. Thank God for him." He instructed viewers to "pray for him".
Actually, Robertson's loyal viewers have a great deal more to offer politicians such as DeLay than mere prayer. To focus on national or even state politics is to miss the genius of the religious right. In direct contrast to, say, Ralph Nader, who prides himself on leading leftwing activists out of the Democratic party and into oblivion, the God squad has taken to heart Mao's dictum for guerrilla warfare. They swim with the fishes. They run candidates for their local school boards, town councils and other offices where hardly anybody shows up on election day. They can therefore take over these offices, and their local Republican Party organisations, with as little as 10% of the eligible vote. And as McCain learned, any Republican politician who crosses them will do so at the peril of his entire political future.
What do they want? Ideally, it would be an entire House and Senate made up of politicians who follow the lead of their standard-bearer, Jesse Helms. Nicknamed "Senator No", Jesse was known abroad for his ability to screw up virtually any international agreement to which the US is a part. But Helms's real importance lies in what he represented domestically. Born in rural North Carolina in 1921, he was raised in an apartheid-divided society, where the old verities about people of colour, women, homosexuals and anti- patriotic subversives (read "liberals") were frequently invoked and rarely questioned. The world changed, but Jesse never gave an inch. Younger conservatives evolved into media-savvy, blow-dried talking heads who speak in code when appealing to racist, sexist or anti-homosexual biases, but Jesse never bothered. He turned his back rather than shake hands with Nelson Mandela. He opposed a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. As for gays, Helms liked them even less than blacks. He called them "weak, morally sick wretches", and their sexual behaviour "revolting". He was perhaps best loved by his minions for his hatred of the media, a prejudiced shared virtually everywhere on the right. In Helms's case, it coalesced with his distaste for gays. "The New York Times and the Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals," he has charged.
For all of Jesse's retro-appeal to die-hard confederacy types, his genius for communications technology was what separated him from the pack. Like Ronald Reagan, Helms was a radio pioneer before becoming a politician. After winning his senate seat in 1972, he hired the direct-mail wizard Richard A Viguerie to send millions of "personalised" letters to supporters of Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign, thereby generating millions of dollars to deploy as a kingmaker. This national fund-raising base allowed him vastly to outraise any local opponents and hence win elections. None of these strategies is likely to disappear with the retirement of their most effective primogenitor. America's "Taliban faction" is not going anywhere.
Secular conservatives share many goals with religious conservatives, but little of their divine inspiration. Their definition of liberty rests more on unregulated free markets than inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist, wrote in The Road To Serfdom that economic freedom is inseparable from all other notions of freedom because economic power "is the control of the means of all our ends". This is the secular conservatives' first commandment. Their second commandment has to do with guns. Norquist's organisation asks all candidates to sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge against raising taxes under virtually any circumstances. To date, 209 Congressmen, 41 Senators and 1,100 state legislators have signed, and George Bush Senior learned the consequences of changing his mind on this count. Not that there was anything remotely progressive about Bush's tax rise, however, for even he understood that any attempt to redistribute wealth by taxation would be resisted with all available energies including, potentially, force. This threat is significant because the people who resist the government's right to tax are the same people stocking up on guns. In fact, some gun-owners actually argue their case as being even more important than economic freedom. The National Rifle Association's (NRA) president, Charlton Heston, says he believes that, "The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows rights to exist at all... It alone is the one that protects all the others."
This ideology flows from deep reservoirs in American history and culture. George Washington was forced to put down three near rebellions by well-armed local militias against what was then almost negligible federal taxation. Alas, prior to the Civil War, most Americans had little or no contact with the federal government. In the view of Hegel, the early 19th-century German philosopher, America's sorry excuse for a government in those days did not even qualify as a "state" in the European sense of the word. As a result, the notion of a national community was slow to develop and continues to be resisted today, particularly among conservatives. Few go as far as the revered confederate leader John C Calhoun, who insisted, "The very idea of an American People, as constituting a single community, is a mere chimera." But many conservatives continue to distrust anything the federal government undertakes, particularly now that the cold war is over and the common enemy dissipated.
The National Rifle Association, the most ferocious and effective lobby on Capitol Hill, keeping congressmen in a state of permanent terror, does not pretend to scholarship or even popularity, yet George Bush probably owes his election to the organisation's get-out-the-vote-efforts among its four million-plus members. The organisation's leadership put out the message that Al Gore and the Democrats planned not only to ask them to register their handguns, as Gore had actually proposed during the campaign, but also planned to take away their rifles, assault weapons and assorted anti-personnel mines and hand them over to the fellows in the black helicopters coming to rape their daughters and chickens. The strategic brilliance of the gun-nuts lies in their insatiable greed. No matter how many concessions they extract from the politicians they control, it's never enough. In late August, for instance, the Utah Gun Owners Alliance caused a small stir when vice-president Richard Cheney, a fellow prairie-born-and-bred anti-gun-control fanatic, was scheduled to address the Republican party's state convention. It seems the secret service deemed that firearms would not be welcome inside the hall where the Veep was speaking. The group termed this "completely unacceptable", apparently because leaving their Uzis in their trucks would force "a choice between personal safety and voting on important party business". Mark Shurtleff, Utah attorney general, tried to defuse the crisis by providing lockers for the weapons. Not good enough. The gun-owners picketed and two knives, 25 guns and countless ammunition rounds were confiscated and later returned.
This combination of fanaticism and organisational discipline buys the right concession after concession from a political system in which most people prefer disengagement. Polls consistently demonstrate a three-to-one majority in favour of the legal registration of all guns and handgun-owners, and more than nine-to-one in support of a mandatory waiting period before buying a gun. Meanwhile, the NRA and its allies give more than eight times as much money as their pro-gun-control opponents do to candidates for Congress, spending $4.4m in the 1998 congressional elections alone. This combination of cash and craziness allows gun-owners to prevent almost any gun restrictions from passing, democracy be damned. (According to current law, guns cannot even be regulated as consumer products in the manner of, say, toys.) Moreover, these people tend to have a great deal of time on their hands and they use it to call, write, email and generally harass any elected official who fails to follow their lead. One of the movement's most important communications devices is a website called FreeRepublic.com. During the Clinton impeachment crisis, this publicised every rumour imaginable and some that weren't.
Its supporters organised demonstrations everywhere Bush spoke and provided shock troops to impede the vote recount in Florida last November. Occasionally, one of the website's 16m visitors tends to go overboard. While posts terming Gore a "traitor" are commonplace, as are the publication of the addresses and phone numbers of liberal politicians and judges, a UPI story not long ago found one poster who sympathised with Timothy McVeigh and another who called him a "modern-day Paul Revere". But here's the really scary part: according to measurements published in the New York Times recently, the average amount of time a Freeper (as they call themselves) spends at the site is four hours 22 minutes. (At one time!) While September 11 had little or nothing to do with any of these issues, these organisations have done everything possible to exploit the moment for their own benefit. Shortly after the attacks, a writer in National Review magazine insisted that the fatal hijackings could have been avoided if only passengers on the plane had been invited to carry their own weapons on board.
It looked like a proverbial no-brainer when the Senate voted, immediately after the crisis, by a 100-0 margin to federalise the business of protecting our airports. Not so fast, said Tom DeLay. He, the Washington Post reported in late October, "summoned nearly 20 lobbyists from the airline and airport security industries to the basement of the Capitol" and instructed them to join his fight to replace the Senate's plan with this own, mandating the use of only private security firms. When some resisted, his deputy reminded the lobbyists how quickly he and his minions had rushed through Congress the recent $15bn funding to stave off bankruptcy in the airline industry. We can only wonder if anyone at the meeting thought it prudent to bring up the current status of a federal review of Argenbright Security, the country's largest airport-screening contractor.
Having previously been found guilty of hiring convicted felons to screen baggage at Philadelphia International Airport, the company was nevertheless discovered by the department of transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to be in violation of federal regulations at 14 airports, including the employment of illegal immigrants, and this was after September 11. DeLay's ploy to prevent the addition of 28,000 people to the federal payroll, thus strengthening the union movement, which passing security over to government would involve, was roundly denounced by editorial pages and virtually everyone not directly associated with it: everyone, that is, except George W Bush. Remember, he knows who brung him. It took a month for the compromise deal to be reached on November 16, which, by the way, allows airports to opt out of the newly imposed federal programme after three years.
Neo-conservatives are difficult to pigeonhole. Most were old-fashioned liberals until the early 1970s, when they decided, as a group, that America was going to hell in a hand basket and that 1960s-style radicalism was to blame. Like the vulgar Marxists a number of them had once been, the newly minted rightwingers soon detected an unspoken conspiracy ruling American political and cultural life. Harvard and Yale, feminism and taxes, school prayer and Soviet power, abortion and pornography, communist revolution and gay rights: all of these social ills and more stemmed from the same source, namely the post-Vietnam victory of the "New Class" and the "permissive" culture it has foisted upon the nation.
This New Class, with its ready access to the media, the educational structure and the world of foundations, was able to manipulate Americans into believing that they were an evil people who rained death and destruction on Vietnam to feed their own sick compulsions. Watergate, where the media carried out a successful "coup d'état" (in Norman Podhoretz's judgment), only increased its appetite. New Class radicals had swallowed the entire political and academic establishment and annexed the Supreme Court.
The Neocons turned to big business to finance their counter-attack. With tens of millions of dollars solicited from conservative corporations, foundations and zillionaire ideologues such as Nelson and Bunker Hunt, Richard Mellon Scaife, Rupert Murdoch, Joseph Coors and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, they created a new conservative counter-establishment, aping the institutions of the establishment and replacing them with its own. They not only succeeded in this endeavour, they also helped to move the old establishment to the right, as its denizens went in search of the same sources of cash.
It is a Neocon tradition to fall madly in love with a politician, only to be disillusioned when he or she fails to follow their advice. The most recent object of their affection was senator John McCain. With him out of the picture, sulking, the Neocons have a problem. The president gives every impression of never having finished a book in his life, including the autobiography he claims to have written. It is depressing for people who fancy themselves to be intellectuals to have to genuflect before someone who so clearly demonstrates contempt for the world of ideas. On the other hand, two things the Neocons like are well-paid government jobs and war, and George Bush is the only man who can give them both. Since September 11, they have been clamouring for attacks not only on Bin Laden and the Taliban, but also on Saddam Hussein and Iraq, Haffez Assad and Syria, and, unsurprisingly, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. At this point, they need Bush more than he needs them, so the anguish on their side will be palpable and, for liberals, one of the few enjoyable spectator sports in American politics right now.
The Conservative Media
One of the conservative movement's strokes of genius has been to invest a fortune in persuading the rest of the nation of the existence of a beast called the "liberalmedia". This is, from a conservative standpoint, extremely useful nonsense. Journalists may be a bit more liberal on cultural matters such as abortion and pornography than many Americans, but they are probably more conservative on economic questions, and in any case take their orders from editors and producers who are often extremely conservative. The multinational or even family-controlled corporations that own the mainstream media do not appoint leftwing radicals to oversee their properties. Never mind the lie, conservatives have set up their own network of extremely generously funded media, on the phoney grounds that this is needed just to give their views a fair shake. This network includes the Moonie-owned Washington Times, the Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel, New York Post and Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, the Drudge Report, Rush Limbaugh, the American Spectator, the venerable National Review, and a host of others.
During the Clinton years, the value of this network - or "vast rightwing conspiracy" as Hillary Clinton injudiciously characterised it - was its ability to inject into the news-stream almost any accusation against the president, no matter how egregious or outlandish. Made up stories were recycled - sometimes by way of the rightwing British press or the online Drudge Report - in more respectable outlets such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The explosion of 24/7 cable television talk shows occurred around the same time, creating an endless demand for guests willing to make wild and outrageous allegations, the more salacious the better. These shows, in turn, drove the discussions on the weekend network gabfests, where the cycle began anew. Rarely did anyone who circulated these wild stories take responsibility for even attempting to verify them. They were "out there", and that was good enough. In this manner, the conservatives were able to drive the political direction of the entire US media as they simultaneously subverted its standards.
With George Bush riding high, Al Gore in hiding, Bill Clinton writing his memoirs, and Hillary lying relatively low in the Senate, the rightwing media has been forced to find a new focus for its obsessive fear and loathing. The pickings have been slim, as the Democratic opposition has proven rather listless since the election - the more so since September 11 - and no clear leader for the party has yet emerged. Grasping at straws, rightwing broadcasters have been forced to go to amazing lengths to keep the faithful interested. This desperation was more than evident on a July afternoon this summer when the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who frequently uses terms such as "environmentalist wackos" and "radical feminazis", expounded at length on the hypothesis that Tom Daschle, the soft-spoken South Dakotan leader of the Senate Democrats, might really be another name for Satan. I am not making this up.
Shortly after this broadcast, the new president of CNN, Walter Isaacson (formerly editor-in-chief of Time Magazine), contacted Limbaugh to try to convince him to join the CNN team. Limbaugh could afford to be choosy, however, as he had recently inked another radio contract reputed to be worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
Because there is no leftwing equivalent to any of the conservative media conglomerates, more and more mainstream media outlets cast their news to the tune demanded by the right. Just before the twin towers attacks took place, journalists were starting to admit aloud that they were bending over backwards to be kind to Bush because it was so much easier than taking the flak that honest criticism would have involved. The Washington Post's White House correspondent, John Harris, admitted as much earlier this year, when he wrote: "The truth is this new president has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under Clinton." The reason: "There is no well-coordinated corps of aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president... the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist."
Now that criticism of Bush is equated with communism in the bad old days, the rightwing media are riding as high as John Wayne in an Indian massacre. When Susan Sontag wrote critically of the president in the New Yorker in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, she was greeted with so loud and unending chorus of boos, you would think she was pointing out that America was being led by an unelected president.
Most corporate conservatives are not genuinely conservative except in the traditional sense. Most could not really care less about matters of ideology. They believe in keeping the government out of their business unless their business needs a hand from the government, in which case they are prepared to be flexible. The CEOs of the nation's top 200 companies enjoy, on average, compensation packages in excess of $20m a year. They are not looking to remake the country. They like things pretty much the way they are - and are prepared to pay the price by underwriting the cost of multi-million-dollar television campaigns.
Since the conservatives do a better job of protecting corporate interests than liberals, it is into their coffers that a great deal of corporate cash falls, like so much protection money paid to the Mafia. When George W decided to run for president, he raised an unprecedented $100m just for his primary campaign. The effect of their donations is that very little happens in American politics that corporations do not want to happen. Few politicians are brave enough to buck the interests that pay for their campaigns. For instance, in 1998 cigarette makers spent $40m on an ad campaign to kill a proposed settlement of state and federal lawsuits. Two years later, the drug industry spent double that to prevent Congress from enacting laws that would eat into their profits. For a $110bn-a-year industry, this is peanuts, but it is enough to create a stranglehold on the legislative process, no matter who is in office. Neither party can survive without doing the businessman's bidding.
For America's corporations, the war is just one more excuse to use their political power to take advantage of the rest of us taxpayers. Using their leverage over the House Republican majority, they recently convinced the House of Representatives to vote them a $212bn "stimulus package" with two-thirds of benefits going to corporations and three-quarters of the rest going to the top 10% of all taxpayers. The proposed bill gives more to GM and Ford alone ($3bn plus) than it sets aside for potential spending on health insurance for the newly unemployed. Included among the goodies are:
· $25 billion in corporate-rebate checks
· a permanent extension of a tax shelter that would allow multinational corporations to shift profits offshore through manipulation of their interest payments
· a cut in the top tax rate on capital gains
· a scheduled reduction in the 28% individual tax rate down to 25%, brought forward from 2006 to next year. (Three-quarters of taxpayers would not see a dime of this $56bn giveaway.)
· a grand total of 41% of benefits going to the best-off 1% or taxpayers, averaging $27,000 per person.
Even the Democrats could not resist snuggling up to corporations. Max Baucus, senate finance committee chair, together with majority whip Harry Reid, recently proposed doubling the deduction allowed for a business lunch, as if frugal dining among executives is what is ailing America's battle against terrorism. The Wall Street Journal demanded that Bush exploit his "nearly universal public support" to do what needed to be done in the wake of the tragedy, viz, exactly what, in their view, needed to be done before September 11 - namely, "pro-growth tax cuts" to enable "more domestic energy production, including drilling for oil in Alaska" and more "free-trade negotiating authority". In the ensuing weeks, George W demanded each of these from Congress, explicitly citing the crisis as the reason why his already well-to-do constituencies should be fattened even further.
Any one of the five groups of conservatives listed above would probably be strong enough to defeat the entire panoply of liberal organisations. Working together, they put the historically inclined in mind of Rome and Carthage. Of course, they could not achieve so much were the rest of the nation paying attention. Nor could they be so effective if they did not act with such impressive discipline, particularly when compared with the liberals, many of whom seem to hate one another with greater ferocity than they do their opponents. Before the terrorist war, conservatives had lost the Soviet Union as a rallying cause, and their coalition occasionally looked ready to implode. What held them together was the strategic vision of their leaders and the mountains of money that underwrite their efforts. The issues appeared to change almost daily. One day the threat was taxes, on another it was guns. A third day it was stem cell research, and the next Hollywood, homosexuals and abortion rights.
Their weekly agenda was hammered out every Wednesday at a meeting chaired by Grover Norquist, a rightwing Leninist who believes in an ever-shifting tactical alliance. Sometimes this involves courting the business community, as it did when fighting for Bush's tax cut. Sometimes it means opposing them, when, for instance, the movement wishes to punish the Chinese communist infidels. Norquist has been known to describe the US government as "tyrannical and overbearing", a regime that "steals too much of people's money and... murders people in Waco". He says his goal is "to cut government in half in 25 years... to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub". Among those who attend the invitation-only meetings are spokespeople and representatives of NRA, the Christian Coalition, the Heritage Foundation; corporate lobbyists, the top people from the Republican party and the Congressional Republican leadership, and chief White House aides. Trusted rightwing journalists and editors also attend, though the meetings are off the record.
While the ostensible purpose of the meeting is to share information and coordinate strategy, they also give Norquist the opportunity to act as an ideological enforcer. When one member of the Bush administration worried to a New York Times reporter that the administration's plan to repeal the estate tax would cripple charitable giving, he was publicly warned by Norquist that this was "the first betrayal of Bush", and was gone not long afterward. When a conservative pundit named Laura Ingraham criticised a fellow conservative in the House of Representatives for over-zealousness, she was immediately informed by Norquist to decide "whether to be with us or against us". She was no longer welcome at the meetings. It was Norquist's organisation, the National Taxpayers' Union, that promoted the notion that a tax-cut for business was necessary to fight a war against terrorists. "By reducing the rate at which capital gains are taxed, President Bush and Congress could help revitalise the sagging economy and bring new revenues to Washington, decidedly aiding our war against terrorism," they announced. The idea is patently ridiculous, of course, but you can bet that George W Bush will fight for it for the duration of his presidency if necessary. After all, war or no war, he knows who brung him.