An Interview With Mike Lofgren, Author of “The Party Is Over”
Friday, 03 August 2012 00:00 By Leslie Thatcher, Truthout | Interview
“The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted“
By Mike Lofgren
Viking, 2012, 240 pages.
Here’s a new book based on an exclusive Truthout commentary that became a national media sensation. Inside the front cover, publisher Viking Press (Penguin) even mentions that this bombshell insider’s view of Capitol Hill began as a professional and personal confession that “was posted on Truthout and read by millions.” Receive a copy of Mike Lofgren’s “The Party Is Over” by making a minimum contribution to Truthout by clicking here.
Mike Lofgren spent twenty-eight years working in Congress, the last sixteen as a senior analyst on the House and Senate Budget committees, which gave him ringside seats on the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Hurricane Katrina disaster relief, debates on the Pentagon budget and the amazing antics of various deficit-reduction commissions. His “coming out” article as a citizen, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” garnered over a million views on Truthout. Lofgren has expanded on the insights of that article in his just-issued book, “The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.” Lofgren talked about the current situation with Truthout’s Leslie Thatcher in a recent email exchange:
Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Mike, in the title of your book, you describe the Republicans as “crazy,” but in articles and interviews here and elsewhere, you’ve described their tactics as deliberate political terrorism. How are those policies crazy for the super-funders who determine GOP policy?
Mike Lofgren: That is an interesting question that goes to the heart of a paradoxical aspect of the GOP. Of course people like the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson are engaging in a rational exercise to maximize their wealth. Their contributions will come back manifold in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and exclusive franchises. The primary purpose of the GOP these days is to provide tax breaks and other financial advantages (such as not regulating pollution and other socially costly externalities) to their wealthy donor base. All the rest of their platform, all the culture wars stuff, is simply rube bait.
One cannot get a majority of voters – who are decidedly non-rich – to knowingly pull the lever for a party that nakedly says “our platform is further enrichment of the wealthy, and, oh, by the way, we’re also going to make your retirement benefits take a hit.” That’s where deep psychological insight comes into play. Most people, even when they have a sneaking suspicion that they are being shafted economically, are not well attuned to the complexities of credit default swaps, the London Interbank Offered Rate, or quantitative easing. And the media are definitely not interested in wising them up, especially when they can instead supply celebrity interviews, singing contests, or commercialized orgies like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics
Since the GOP is loath to tell the public in straightforward terms what their economic agenda is, and the media are not exactly forcing the GOP’s hand, and, finally, the people are operating in a knowledge deficit, Republicans respond by sleight of hand: “We’re more American than that Kenyan socialist in the White House!” Or “The Obama administration is riddled with Muslim extremists.” Or “Planned Parenthood is taxpayer-subsidized murder.” Or “Obama wants to take away your guns.” Even “Obama raised your taxes,” when in fact he lowered them. Stuff that is not terribly persuasive to well-informed people, but a lot of people are surprisingly ill-informed, and very few institutions – the corporate media least of all – have any interest in their being well-informed.
Now ask yourself, what kind of person can say some of the things the GOP says with a straight face? Granted, there are a number of intelligent, but deeply cynical, politicians who will say or do anything, knowing that what they say is false. But increasingly, the GOP’s ranks are being filled with what psychologist Erich Fromm called the “true believer.” Despite the carnival aspect of American politics, I actually credit Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Louie Gohmert, and the rest of them, with being sincere. They really believe the drivel they are saying, and their groping and inarticulate sincerity connects with a certain populist and anti-intellectual strain in the American people that has been evident since the days of de Tocqueville.
I find it very significant, for example, that the Kochs were early funders of Michele Bachmann’s presidential race. Titans of billion-dollar oil industries are, of course, too shrewd and cynical to believe the childish bosh that Bachmann spouts daily, but as a political stooge, she is worth the investment. The more controversy is stirred up about death panels and Muslim infiltration of the government, the less discussion there is, for example, about the tax subsidies for the oil industry. These people know what they’re doing. They use a superficial populism tinged with craziness to further a rational, plutocratic agenda.
LT: You’ve blamed the “1 1/2” parties we have in this country for the shafting of the middle class, but have noted elsewhere that at one time working people understood their own economic and political interests a little more accurately than at present. Can this be corrected?
ML: My answer to the previous question has already partially limned the issue: the public is not particularly well-informed, and there aren’t many institutions that have an interest in their being informed. Somehow or other, the sodbusters of the 1880s and 1890s knew exactly who was manipulating them economically, and they vilified the railroad corporations, the grain middlemen, and the predatory banks – and rightly so. The powerful interests fought them, and many a farm went under the auctioneer’s hammer, but eventually they achieved things that seem utopian today – North Dakota got a state-run bank, and state-controlled grain silage was set up in some states; railroad rates were regulated.
Ditto for labor. In those days, going on strike was a serious business that could get you killed. Governors routinely called out the national guard with orders to shoot to kill, and companies hired Pinkerton thugs to murder strike leaders. All with the blessing of the courts, who considered working men and women organizing for a living wage to be conspiracy in restraint of trade and violation of the sanctity of contract. Yet, somehow, they got wage and hour laws, abolition of child labor, the recognition of unions, and other improvements. The upward arc of their accomplishments led to a middle class society by the end of World War II – a rising tide of generalized prosperity that I grew up in during the 1950s and 1960s.
Yet, somehow, this movement ran out of steam. It may partly have been due to the very consumer society it created, because its fruits – particularly the electronic media – encouraged an atomization of society and a personalization of our problems and failures. Solidarity at the union hall doesn’t cut it when American Idol is on. And since the 1970s, the religious right has worked assiduously to make sure ordinary socially conservative working people confuse religion with politics, and confuse personal salvation with collective action.
What happened to working people also affected the top of the income scale. While there were many exceptions, most captains of industry after the Crash of ’29 accepted that they would have to give a little to keep the rest of what they had. And in World War II, there were heavy windfall profits taxes; woe unto some clueless millionaire who groused about his taxes when our boys were hitting the beaches of Anzio, Normandy, and Iwo Jima. And in the 1950s, President Eisenhower resisted suggestions from advisors that he should reduce the top marginal rate of 91 percent; he was rightly concerned with fiscal responsibility, and in any case, the economy was humming along quite nicely as it was.
But that changed. So-called globalization resulted in our economic elites having a ready relief valve anytime workers become restive. And it effected a psychological change. Where our elites were once national, now they identify more with their elite counterparts in London, Tokyo, and Beijing than with their own countrymen of lesser means. At present, Facebook billionaires renounce their citizenship, and a current candidate for president, despite all his jingoistic crowing and war-whooping, once ran away to France when he actually had a chance to put his tough-guy philosophy into action. And now he hides his money in offshore accounts. So it won’t do to recount the failings of working people without mentioning that they are up against a pretty repellent overclass with unlimited funds and all the propaganda instruments at their disposal.
Mass distraction and mass mystification such as we have seen come virally and epidemically; a correction comes only slowly, and one person at a time. And there is so much money washing through the political system that political action through the traditional party system has been neutralized. To some extent, and nuances aside, Obama has pretty much presided over George W. Bush’s third term. Look at the career path of Tim Geithner if you are skeptical of my claim.
LT: Do you see any realistic way out of the situation we’ve created?
ML: If I knew the answer to that I would patent it. The problem is that when militaristic empires (which we’ve become) get into trouble, their elites tend to double down on the same failed policies that got them into trouble in the first place. Realistically, a country with a $15-trillion debt, failing infrastructure, and very mediocre world rankings in terms of life expectancy, social mobility, and poverty, simply cannot afford the extravagance of reckless interventionism combined with a fiscal policy that hollows out the country in order to reward rich political contributors. Yet what is definitely not in the long-term national interest certainly is in the short-term selfish interest of the people who got rich from scamming us in the first place.
But it won’t suffice simply to note the disparities of power within the clash of material interests. There is a psychological component in American behavior that requires an Erich Fromm or a Wilhelm Reich to explain it. I am certainly not professionally competent to discuss it in detail. But I did notice that the twin shocks of the last decade – 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse – caused a significant segment of the American people to collectively lose their minds. The year and a half between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq was a period that can only be described as mass war psychosis. I have attempted to describe it in greater detail in my book, and what it felt like to work in Congress amid the hysteria. And there are no doubt significant numbers of Americans who ascribe the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression to the Community Reinvestment Act (of 1977!), or ACORN, or Saul Alinsky, or whatever bogeyman the program directors of Fox News decide is the world’s greatest threat to humanity.
We can devise all the clever schemes imaginable to clean up politics and get money out of campaigns, but it won’t work until the American people collectively give up on certain fond illusions: the Horatio Alger myth, American Exceptionalism, and the whole mass of magical thinking that boils down to the belief that God loves America because we’re so virtuous, handsome, and smart, and that we, too, could win the lottery. Well, we’re not necessarily any of those things. The truth is that we lucked into adverse possession of a mostly empty continent in a temperate zone with lots of resources, and straddled east and west by two huge moats. We had firearms and resistance to smallpox, and the original owners didn’t. Virtue had very little to do with it.
And now, thanks to globalization, our original advantages matter less. Go to certain areas of the once-industrial Midwest. Some of the places look like Dresden after the bombing. We are in a tough, competitive global environment, and we simply cannot afford to squander our potential by playing the world’s policeman abroad and running a healthcare/service economy at home where half the population empties the bedpans of the other half. And plutocracy is not a stable political basis for a successful nation-state. As Lincoln said, we must disenthrall ourselves.
LT: Or even just a way out of Congressional gridlock?
ML: When I was writing the book, I sometimes wondered if my descriptions of Congress’s machinations were not influenced by my own idiosyncratic point of view. But luckily, two sober-sided political scientists, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, have recently published a book that confirms my personal observations about Congress in virtually every particular. They depict the rancorous partisanship and polarization, use of the filibuster, the decline of legislative problem-solving in favor of grandstanding and confrontation, and the universal domination of the institution by money. And they do not fail to note the tincture of craziness that has overcome the GOP in the past decade, and particularly since Obama’s election.
Nothing will be solved in Congress until we get the money out of politics. And by that I mean all private money. Federally funded campaigns will undoubtedly create new problems, but can they be remotely as bad as the auctioning of candidates that occurs today? George Will has claimed that the amount of personal and corporate money that flows into U.S. elections is relatively insignificant compared to the national economy; if that is the case, the public can finance a much smaller sum of money to ensure that bribery and extortion do not corrupt the democratic process. With a small, guaranteed sum to campaign with during a limited campaigning season (perhaps Labor Day until the election, which is generous compared to election campaigns in the United Kingdom, which last less than a month, or Australia, where they last about six weeks) against an opponent who would get the same amount, but no more, we could call an end to the endless campaign season (which in the House begins the day a new member is sworn in) and incumbents could at last spend time governing rather than going to fund-raisers and dialing for dollars outside their congressional offices.
But of course, doing that is a chicken-and-egg problem insofar as the current money-dominated system is designed precisely to prevent that from happening. In 2010, the Supreme Court made the whole process infinitely worse by basically hanging a “for sale to the highest bidder” sign around the institutions of government. Recently, I listened with less than amusement to an NPR interview of Justice Scalia. At some length, Scalia was pontificating to Nina Totenberg about the sanctity of the principle of stare decisis, whereby judges should be respectful of established judicial precedent. Of course, poor Nina Totenberg was too befuddled to ask his lordship why he and his colleagues decided to heave a century of rulings upholding campaign finance limitations out the window with the Citizens United decision. Nor did she have the wit to interrogate him further when he said that although money is speech, the names of contributors should be publicly disclosed. The particularly sinister feature of Citizens United is that there has been a flood of anonymous money in its wake. Scalia simply makes up rationales as he goes along, and when for once a representative of the media gets to question a potentate of the Supreme Court about one of the most consequential Supreme Court rulings in a century, she flubs it.
LT: When we last talked, you discussed creating a vocabulary primer. For example, you said, “take ’empower.’ Empower means ‘cut ’em off; you’re on your own.’ Empowering seniors by cutting off social security means they’re going to be mopping the floor at McDonald’s.” Is that still in the offing or have you covered the rectification of words to your satisfaction in the present book?
ML: I devote a whole chapter of my book to the subject; the chapter’s title is “A Devil’s Dictionary.” Aside from providing a glossary of loaded terms like “empower,” “class warfare,” and “job creators,” I also trace the history of the two parties’ use of language. I conclude that the Democrats’ language tends to derive from the leaden jargon of academia, while the Republicans’ language comes from the world of advertising and PR. One party goes for the cerebral cortex (with minimal success), while the other goes for the solar plexus.
The inspiration for much of the GOP’s adroit use of language ultimately comes from two of the founders of modern public relations, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays (the latter was, curiously enough, a nephew of Sigmund Freud). Both were men of decidedly reactionary outlook, and both believed that the common herd had to be subliminally influenced and controlled for its own good. Lee, by the way, ended up doing PR for the I.G. Farben chemical cartel at around the time Hitler took power in Germany.
Fast forward a few decades and we are in the era of Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz, and focus group-tested political slogans. I find it curiously revealing that in 1990, Gingrich authored a memo titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Note that he didn’t say persuasion or influence, he said control: what one does to prisoners or lab rats. Watch Gingrich closely enough and the sociopathic clues pile up!
LT: What do you say to people who feel powerless to effect any changes because of what’s happened?
ML: I could have retired into obscurity and simply gone fishing. Instead, I decided to write about what I saw during my career as an unknown congressional staffer. Somehow or other, it struck a chord. I hope it contributed, however minutely, to a growing public discourse whereby people are finally saying out loud, “wait a minute. The system is broken.” And there is this: however bad things look – and I know everything I’ve said must sound rather depressing – these problems are not existential “givens,” like desertification of the Sahel or some asteroid hurtling at us. They arose because of stupidity and lack of attention, and they are amenable to solutions we can devise.