What Happened to America?

Extrait de: What Happened to America?,  Marty Kaplan, Huff Post, Posted: 9/6/11
It was while I was explaining to an Australian student that Rupert Murdoch was the reason America had gone batty that I realized how inadequate my answer to his question was.
"How did this happen to America?" I was in Australia just after the debt-ceiling debacle, and by "this" the student meant the highchair spoon-banging in Washington that had nearly caused a world financial tailspin.
As we talked, I saw that "this" also meant other jaw-dropping news that had reached them down under -- like the near-unanimity among Republican presidential candidates that global warming is a hoax; the Gallup finding that 40 percent of Americans believe "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years"; the Tea Party signs saying "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare"; the surging number of American children living in poverty; the gap between the rich and the rest growing so extreme that the U.S. is now the 42nd most unequal country in the world, below Cameroon and the Ivory Coast, and only just above Uganda and Jamaica.
During the three weeks I traveled in Australia, I was often asked, with genuine bafflement and considerable sympathy, how the world's greatest nation had become captive to a band of ideologues and fundamentalists, how the American dream -- a beacon to people everywhere -- had become so powerless to deliver on its promise of opportunity for all. From kids in the classroom, from journalists and executives, from people on the boat to the reef and in the van to the rain forest: virtually everyone wanted to know what caused America to take such a sharp wrong turn.
So I gave them my usual answers.
Our political system has become the problem, not the solution. Our Founders could not have known that campaigning and governing would turn out to be all about ads, and the money required to pay for them, and the special interests tapped for that cash, and the quid pro quos inherent in those transactions, not to mention the profits raked in by the TV stations that get free licenses to use the public's broadcast spectrum because they promise to serve the public interest.
The profit to be made from monetizing attention has transformed our republic from one where education was declared the bedrock of democracy, to one where entertainment has pretty much swallowed up every other domain, including news, which has abandoned its obligation to sort through competing claims ("we'll have to leave it there"), replacing journalism with propaganda and civic discourse with food fights.
But as I went on in this vein, I realized that my account was missing something, and it took a taxi driver to show me what it was. Yes, I know that The Taxi Driver is straight out of Cliché Central -- the character who conveniently supplies an apt quote making a point that a columnist would prefer to attribute to some salt-of-the-earth guy instead of himself. So I don't expect you to believe me when I tell you what happened. But it's true; you can't make up stuff like this.
I had just finished speaking in a class on media and politics for the United States Studies Centre on the University of Sydney campus. I'd wrestled with the question of how America had reached this dispiriting moment. And then I went out to City Road and hailed a cab.
Usually I'm not much of a talker in taxis. But the driver, an Australian who looked to be in his early thirties, asked me what I'd been doing at the uni, and I told him about the class -- not in detail, but enough to indicate that America's predicament in the time of the Tea Party and the climate-change deniers had been on the table.
For a bit, we rode in silence. Then he said, "Do you happen to know of a fellow named Noam Chomsky?"
"Yes, I do," I said, after a beat, trying to conceal my astonishment.
"By any chance," he asked, "are you familiar with his concept of 'spectator democracy'?"
Once I got past the out-of-body experience of having this conversation at this moment with my taxi driver, we talked about "spectator democracy" as he drove across Sydney. Now I suppose it's hopeless to discuss anything Chomsky ever said without first taking a stand on whether he's anti-Semitic, so I'll stipulate that whatever you think about that, you're right, and that (but that) it's (still) very much worth engaging with his take on current history.
Framed approvingly by Walter Lippmann in the early 20th century, "spectator democracy" is the idea that the U.S. public is a "bewildered herd" that needs to be benevolently directed, manipulated and controlled by elites with the tools of propaganda and disinformation. As they consume content about politics, people gain the (false) impression that they're actively participating in democracy -- that they're empowered, not bludgeoned, by the media.
What Chomsky adds is that spectator democracy is now on steroids not because of technology, or because the media industry has figured out how to make a tidy profit from political spectacle.
It's because more than ever before, the functioning of the American economy requires distracting the herd from the
immensity of corporate power.
Fox News doesn't rile the Republican base because Karl Rove tells Roger Ailes what to do. It does it because the investment banks and the war industry and Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers and the rest of the oligarchs and plutocrats running the show need to divert the public's attention away from their economic power, their ownership of the political system, their plunder of public resources.
'How did this happen to America' is the wrong question. After decades of corporate triumphalism, which has concentrated wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, and after generations of government being so demonized and compromised that it is no longer capable of checking that power, the better question may be: How could it not have happened?
Oligarchie furtive

Oh, il ne s'agit pas une oligarchie assumée, occupant physiquement le pouvoir, comme dans la Grèce Antique, ou les oligarques, tirant leur privilèges principalement de la propriété terrienne, entendaient explicitement asservir la population au prétexte de leur supériorité matérielle. Ce n'est pas non plus une oligarchie politiquement institutionnelle comme celle dont rêvait Saint-Simon, qui voyait dans la création de chambres regroupant industriels, savants, artistes, intellectuels, et ingénieurs, le seul outil pertinent pour administrer le pays.

Non, cette oligarchie-là a l'opportunisme furtif et presque honteux.

Il faut avant tout préserver l'illusion démocratique, celle qui fait croire au cochon de votant que placer son bulletin dans une urne lui donne une once d'influence sur son avenir.

L'imbrication avec l'état, ultime protection des oligarques

Mais il est un autre pilier de l'oligarchie qui a montré son effroyable nocivité pour nos économies, et qui exerce de facto son pouvoir sur les états au plus haut niveau, parce que ces derniers se sont laissé enchainer par un endettement croissant qui les lie à ceux qui les aides à se refinancer.

Les grandes banques ont su profiter de la volonté de l'état américain de faire du "social" en permettant aux plus modestes de s'endetter pour devenir propriétaires pour monter un schéma d'enrichissement rapide sans regard pour une éventuelle faillite, schéma révélé dans toute son ampleur par le scandale du Foreclosure Gate. Les grands perpétrateurs de ces hold ups bancaires ont profité de leur position de dirigeants pour faire adopter à leurs banques des profils de risques générateurs de grosses marges, et donc de très gros bonus, et partir avec la magot avant que le chateau de cartes ne s'écroule.

Topic: The “excess” of democracy 

Noam Chomsky discusses the limits of civic participation in the U.S., and the extensive efforts that political and business elites have made to keep it that way, vidéo.
American elites, this goes back to the Constitutional Convention, have been very concerned over what's sometimes called an "excess of democracy." That is, real participation by the public in formulating policy.  In fact the constitutional system was designed to prevent that.  [James] Madison's conception was that, what he called the "wealth" of the nation, the responsible set of men, they're the ones who should set policy.  That's why the senate, which represented the wealthy, was given most of the power in the constitutional system—least responsive to the public and more consisting of wealth.
And there have been battles about this all through American history and of course things have changed a lot since the Constitutional Convention, but the basic theme remains the same. 
So, for example, the leading public intellectual of the 20th century, Walter Lippmann, was progressive, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, progressive.  Now his view, he wrote what are called "progressive essays on democracy," was very influential. 
And his view was that the public should be spectators, not participants and that what he called the "responsible people," people like him, the ones who make policy, they should be insulated from the public. 
As he put it, they ought to be protected from the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd, the general public, ignorant and meddlesome outsiders who don't belong in the political system.
That's a very standard view.  This is a version from the progressive sector, but it extends pretty much across the spectrum.
There was an outburst of democratic participation in the 1960s, in fact it significantly civilized the society.  But it caused enormous concern among elites.  There was a major study called The Crisis of Democracy, by relatively liberal elites, basically, for example, the [Jimmy] Carter administration was drawn from their ranks, that sector, internationally.  And they were concerned about the excess of democracy—too much participation.  It's an overload on the state, you can't have all these so-called special interests pressing their own demands.  Who are the special interests?  That’s minorities, women, the young, the old, farmers, workers, in fact, the population.  They're the special interests.
Then there's the national interest, which has to be sustained and that's the interest of the one sector that they don't mention, namely concentrated private capital, which is overwhelming in its influence, but they represent the national interest, so it's okay.  In fact, [James] Madison had rather similar ideas.
That's a leading conception of social and political thought and there's a lot of effort put into instigating it.  That's what propaganda's about.  We don't call it propaganda, what appears in the media and the schools and so on, and you can see its effects.

The way they do that, of course, is by serving people with real power.
The people with real power are the ones who own the society,
which is a pretty narrow group.
If the specialized class can come along and say, I can serve your interests, then they'll be part of the executive group. You've got to keep that quiet. That means they have to have instilled in them the beliefs and doctrines that will serve the interests of private power.
Unless they can master that skill, they're not part of the specialized class. So we have one kind of educational system directed to responsible men, the specialized class. They have to be deeply indoctrinated in the values and interests of private power and the state-corporate nexus that represents it. If they can get through that, then they can be part of the specialized class.
The rest of the bewildered herd just has to be basically distracted. Turn their attention to something else. Keep them out of trouble. Make sure that they remain at most spectators of action, occasionally lending their weight to one or another of the real leaders, who they may select among.