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May 16-22, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Political Derby

By Peter Byrne


The election of a neoconservative president in France has prompted thousands of worried French people to demonstrate and riot. On May 9, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported on that important situation with a tiny blurb on page three. The bulk of the daily newspaper's front page that day burbled on about a women-only roller derby. Turning away from this journalistic doodle, I found solace, yet again, in the wisdom of C. Wright Mills' 1956 study of American society, The Power Elite. Still fresh, Mills describes the social structure of our sad nation. He remarks that politicians and "warlords" rely upon advertising-news media to dull our senses with trivia, thereby diverting our attention from examining the cause of political upheavals.

In depicting the rise of a military-corporate-political complex, Mills notes, "Very little of what we think we know of the social realities of the world have we found out first-hand. Most of 'the pictures in our heads' we have gained from the media--even to the point where we often do not really believe what we see before us until we read about it in the paper."

It is almost a truism to remark that a "news" story must be packaged in advertisements before a quasi-literate populace will find it credible. According to Mills, though, our very system of governance is based upon false advertising: "Americans cling to the idea that the government is a sort of automatic machine, regulated by the balancing of competing interests."

He goes on to show that the Democratic and Republican parties are two sides of the same military-industrial bullet and that "in the absence of policy differences of consequences between the major parties, the professional party politician must invent themes about which to talk." Hence, the media focuses on what amounts to differences in hairstyles while ignoring evidence that the executive and legislative branches (aided by the judiciary) are nothing but rich men's clubs.

Mills included prominent sociologists as members of this elite group, saying that intellectuals often find "it is much safer to celebrate civil liberties than to defend them [or] to use them in a politically effective way." Without the aid of public-relations fog cheerfully generated by professional liberals, observed Mills, the war machine would sputter out.

This brings us to liberal sociologist Alan Wolfe, who wrote the afterword to my Oxford University Press edition of The Power Elite in 2000. Ironically, Wolfe is a card-carrying member of the liberal wing of the power elite. He writes opinionated blather for the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic, and teaches political science and religion at Boston College. He gets lots of grant money to write books about the "crisis of American democracy," praising it as an inherently healthy system of checks and balances, rather than as what it is: a plutocracy, a government by and for the wealthy. According to Wolfe's afterword:

  • "Mills' prediction that both the economy and the political system of the United States would come to be ever more dominated by the military is not borne out by the historical developments since his time."
  • "Domestic political support for a large and permanent military establishment in the United States, in short, can no longer be taken for granted."

  • "[T]oday the ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats are severe."
  • Desiring to know if Bush's global war on poor people has changed the professor's historical assessment of Mills, I called Wolfe up for a chat. He "retracted" his pre-9-11 analysis that domination of politicians by the corporate-military sector is on the wane. But he says that the military establishment is more "nuanced" than the weapons and energy executives running the "dishonest" Bush-Cheney administration. Many generals, Wolfe says, were unhappy that the president did not send enough troops to do the job in Iraq.

    This is also the retrospective spin that many liberals use to distance themselves from the quagmire they helped to initiate. Wolfe says that he perceives the two-party system as "healthy." He optimistically looks toward the Democrats to pull America out of the fire of Iraq. In short, he still denies Mills' thesis that an American power elite, or militarized ruling class, calls the shots to facilitate corporate profit-seeking.

    I could not help asking the wonky Wolfe if he remembered the RAND Corporation's Anthony Downs' Economic Theory of Democracy, written in 1957. Downs said, famously, "In a two-party system, it is rational for each party to encourage voters to be irrational by making its platform vague and ambiguous." Familiar with Downs' essay, Wolfe said that the electoral triumphs of Republicans has required the Democrats to move to the "middle of the road." But isn't that what Mills . . .

    Fuhgeddaboutit. Let's go to the roller derby!


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