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A conversation with Bill Berkowitz at Talk2Action

The State of The New Left: An Interview With Bill Berkowitz

By Bruce Wilson
http://www.talk2action.org/story/2008/3/31/8843/09165

Early this March I interviewed Bill Berkowitz, who writes for Media Transparency and IPS News, about his sense of the state of the "New Left". The occasion was a piece Bill had just written about the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Heritage Institute, one of the most central early parts of the conservative infrastructure which played a crucial role generating the ideas and doing the ideological heavy lifting which powered the emerging new right from the 1970's up to the present.

Where's the new left at, as a movement ? Bill Berkowitz has a long-term understanding of the American right as a movement. How does he think the left, from that perspective, compares ?

Bruce Wilson:"So, you've just written about the 35th Anniversary of the founding of the Heritage Foundation [ http://www.mediatransparency.org/story.php?storyID=229 ] which, to put it mildly, has played a key role in pushing right wing ideology, along a broad front, since the early '70s.

You note that Heritage has played an important role in "designing and supporting President Reagan's contra wars in Latin America and Africa" as well as, currently, pushing for a US attack on Iran. In addition, Heritage has long championed Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program which some thinkers on nuclear deterrence theory maintain would push the world much closer to the brink of nuclear war. On the domestic front, as you put it, "[W]hen the Heritage Foundation first opened its doors ...the civil rights and the women's movements had won a number of transformative battles, having a social safety net was still a shared social value, privatization was a relatively little used term, and the "culture wars" had not yet punctured the national consciousness."

Three and a half decades after the founding of Heritage we've moved astoundingly far down the ideological path Heritage helped define but I have the sense that the left has yet to mount a truly effective counter-effort let alone form a compelling ideological vision around which a coherent movement can coalesce.

Is that your sense of things ?

Bill Berkowitz: My trouble with talking about the left is questioning what it is that makes up the so-called left in this country. I think one can argue that their are now liberal/progressive groups galore -- especially as represented on the web -- fighting the good fight, responding to right wing attacks and right wing institutions and generally doing the watchdog work that is necessary to try and keep the debate somewhat honest. But it is a movement? And if so, what is it trying to achieve? While I applaud his efforts and his ability to draw young people and some previously disaffected folk to his campaign, I don't think the Obama campaign is building a movement so much as its tapping into a wide reservoir of anti-Bush sentiment and the feeling that a new and charismatic voice is being heard across the land. But a movement needs more than charismatic leaders (although that can be a good thing, i.e. MLK, Jr. & Cesar Chavez), it also needs to spell out a vision for the future. This I don't see happening.

From 1973, the year the Heritage Foundation was established, until not too long ago, the political energy in this country resided with conservatives. In those early days, a small cadre of movement conservative activists and philanthropists -- William Simon, Paul Weyrich among them -- effectively made the argument that in order for there to be a long-term conservative shift in this country -- systemic change -- there had to be an infrastructure that would help make those changes possible. While a series of right wing philanthropists and corporate leaders accepted the proposition that they were preparing for the future regardless of how long it might take to achieve it, the left had no such unified or lofty goals.

Conservatives used the seventies, and the ensuing decades, to build institutions, finance them, and create a conservative vision: advocating building the military and a muscular foreign policy; supporting free-market economics including deregulation, privatization and tax cuts for the wealthy, and getting aboard the so-called family values bandwagon.

New Deal and Post New Deal social contracts and programs, such as environmental protection, funding for public schools, workplace safety regulations, affirmative action and welfare were targeted for demolition. While the right applied a full-court press on these and other issues through its think tanks, public policy centers, conservative foundations, and media outlets, a splintered, factionalized, and marginalized left was literally left in the dust.

While the right consolidated -- a not so easy task given the disagreements amongst different conservative sectors -- the left fought amongst themselves; were not able to articulate a vision for the future and could not convince those that held the purse strings to invest in developing a progressive movement with a long-term vision.

To better comprehend the scope of the right's initiatives, consider one of The Heartland Institute's projects. In April 2000, Z magazine published a piece I wrote about Heartland that I had written for CultureWatch, a monthly newsletter tracking right-wing movements and published by the DataCenter from May 1993 through October 2000. Founded in 1984, Heartland, I wrote in 2000, "spent its early years as a no-frills, conservative, free-market, tax-exempt research organization applying, 'cutting-edge research to state and local public policy issues'--and not really distinguishing itself."

In 1996, however, Heartland created a program that linked the conservative advocacy of a think tank with state-of-the-art technology to become one of the country's leading information clearinghouses. At a time when paper was still premium, Heartland's PolicyFax project delivered documents -- 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and free of charge -- on a host of public policy issues to public officials crafting legislation, editorial writers and op-ed columnists preparing a piece, advocacy organizations prepping for an anti-environmental campaign. The kicker: Every elected official in the U.S. (regardless of position), every significant media worker, and researchers from all the other think tanks received Heartland's complete set of resources delivered directly to their desks.

Heartland is still on the cutting edge of information delivery: PolicyFax has evolved into PolicyBot, a project that Heartland claims "is the Internet's most extensive clearing-house for the work of free-market think tanks, with more than 22,000 studies and commentaries from over 350 think tanks and advocacy groups."

Bruce Wilson: Let me put it this way - in the fall of 2006 I came across Paul Weyrich and Erik Heubeck's "Integration of Theory and Practice", which some call "Paul Weyrich's training (or teaching) manual", and the document, first published in 2001 by the Free Congress Foundation, represents ideas that Weyrich and others had been implementing in some fashion probably since Heritage was founded. Among other themes it recommended that conservatives 1) form their own parallel institutions, 2) work to tear down existing societal institutions, 3) harass, attack and keep the left constantly off balance. The piece described a total kulturkampf to remake America but, beyond that, I was so struck by the sophistication of the ideas that I was moved to rewrite it as a manifesto for the new left. So, I did and lately Sara Robinson, who writes often at Dave Neiwert's Orcinus and is a "futurist" (her field of study) picked up on my piece and the source document, and did a three part series at the Campaign For America's Future ( http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/learning-cultural-conservativ es-part-i-messing-their-minds ), in which she writes "Make no mistake: When the conservatives set out to take over America 30 years ago, they were working off of a well-thought-out plan.

The plan was put in place by a wide variety of thinkers--but three of the main strategists were Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Paul Weyrich, each of whom wrote important books and papers laying out the goal of creating a conservative America, and showing specifically how the movement could make that happen...

Reading these plans now, as a progressive, it strikes me: We're now living in an America in which every institution is dominated by these guys."

Heritage has played a very important role in those accomplishments, as you note. However, when I took a look on Google News, your piece on Heritage's 35 Anniversary was one of 3 stories on the subject - the Indianapolis Star and Townhall.com also covered the event.

Otherwise, the modest amount of recent, related coverage was mainly on George W. Bush's and Dick Cheney's speeches at Heritage. One would think, with Bill Buckley's recent death, the media would pay more attention to the Heritage Foundation, and especially because of the rather prominent nod Cheney gave to the institution, in the 2nd sentence of his March 12, 2008 address ; "It's always a pleasure to come back to Heritage. An invitation from the Heritage Foundation, obviously, is always very special -- only more so when it provides an opportunity to talk about Ronald Reagan's visionary Strategic Defense Initiative." I found Heritage's 25th anniversary celebration of Ronald Reagan's SDI troubling ; as far as I know, antimissile defense systems still have the same ability to increase risk of nuclear war as they did 25 years ago.

For me, media neglect of Heritage's mammoth significance, in shaping the current American political landscape, seems symptomatic :

I'm wondering if you have a similar sense of things - it's been my perception that there's too little in the way of deep, strategic thought going on among the American liberal or progressive leadership and I see that as perhaps being part of a general malady, a myopic inability to perceive how politics get advanced, by institutions such as Heritage for example, slowly -incrementally in fact- through "framing" and re-framing, by shifting the conceptual substrate- that underlies and defines political perception -right out from under the feet of the left.

And, as you note, Heritage is also pushing for a US war with Iran ; it works to shape more immediate events (or catastrophes, as it were) too. But elements on the right working to build support for a possible US attack on Iran are doing that in a way similar to the manner in which Heritage moves ideology; by increments. Demonization of Muslims and Islam has been a growing staple of US public discourse since 2001, and lately I've noticed that some veteran observers of the Christian right are struck by the extent to which the movement's energy has shifted from traditional culture-war issues to the promotion of a [supposedly necessary or unavoidable] war between Christianity and Islam. There's a large scale push on, from a broad, diverse coalition, both religious and secular, with all sorts of motivations - religious, geopolitical, financial, nationalistic - but I don't believe I've come across any analysis, anywhere -on any venue, in any publication -which discusses the phenomenon. That's one stark example (out of many I could cite) of what I'm getting at.

It seems to me that you tend to cover the American right, and religious right, in a less sensationalist and more analytic manner than many -that you tend to pay attention to ideological and institutional trends and developments on the American right, and the religious right, which don't tend to get widely noticed even when they're of transcendent importance. So, I thought you'd be a good person to ask :

Why don't efforts such as Heritage's get more widely noted (or do they?), not to mention studied ? Do you share my sense that the left (or its leadership at least) is less than fully savvy to politics via ideological diffusion ? Is there a lack of strategic thinking corresponding to the caliber of Weyrich's and Heubeck's "Integration of Theory and Practice" ? Is the promotion of right-wing ideology unstoppable because that process advances, like Global Warming, in an incremental way that slips under perceptual thresholds ? Many questions.

Bill Berkowitz: I too was struck by the fact that The Heritage Foundation's 35th anniversary was barely noted in the mainstream press. On the one hand I thought, well, maybe that's the nature of organizations. Heritage has been around a long time; it's no longer the new kid on the block and maybe its not as buzzworthy as it once was.

However, after thinking a bit more about it, it seems more that the mainstreamers have never really given organizations like the Heritage Foundation it props. While Heritage staffers might not be grabbing headlines, their work gets noticed in more profound ways: in defining the parameters of public policy debates, creating legislative initiatives, and in the general gestalt of what is perceived as commonly held reality within society.

Over the years, clearly one of the problems with mainstream reporting on conservative movements is that it wasn't able to focus in on a well-organized political movement that was advancing a particular set of political ideas and values Reporting tended to be piecemeal; an event would be described, an organization might be profiled, but it was in isolation of each other. A few years ago, if someone mentioned the term "vast right wing conspiracy" they would get laughed at in the mainstream media. Nowadays, because of the Internet, especially the Blogosphere, the conservative movement has been brought out of the shadows.

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