It is disheartening to observe how often American journalists and citizens now defer to corporate and government abuse of power, how venality, vapidity and violence rule the day.
During the Progressive Era at the start of the 20th century, crusading journalists and informed, activist voters provided the impetus for many of the humane reforms we take for granted in the United States today. Before our entrance into what is known as World War I, America’s anti-war movement was quite vigorous and vocal. But these days a majority of the nation is enamored with propaganda, and our various “mainstream media” too often act like public relations firms, excusing both corporate greed and endless war in the name of journalistic “balance” and patriotism.
Worse, the Internet fosters a vast bloom of “yellow journalism” and general ignorance which sometimes is allowed to invade the more rational and responsible media universe. The First Amendment says nothing about having to give hogwash and injustice a broad forum and equal time. That so much of our media in now controlled by Big Money means that the “Fourth Estate” has been gradually merged with the other powerful institutions. For all our talk of defending our freedoms, never in the history of the nation have we been less independent and more politically ignorant and fearful under the rule of The Great Estate.
But all is not lost, nor is it so dire that we can’t restore both journalism and democracy. Here in Wisconsin we are on the verge of swerving away from the “tea party” propaganda that elected both Gov. Walker and Senator Ron Johnson. Polls suggest the race for governor and attorney general are close, and two conservative-leaning newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Appleton Post-Crescent have endorsed Democratic candidate Mary Burke for governor. We are, of course, far from any real progressive renaissance in Wisconsin, a state with a celebrated progressive tradition, but the state may be slowly returning to its senses, at least by a slight majority of those who bother to vote.
Though the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel now prefers not to throw its endorsing hat into the political ring, the newspaper did provide on Sunday four op-ed endorsements by individual writers, two of which (Mills and Gurda) were accurate and intelligent, and, for balance, two of which (Schneider and Esenberg) were less so.
Historian John Gurda lambasts Gov. Walker for turning Wisconsin’s progressive tradition– the fight against corporate “special interests”– on its head:
“He is our own Governor Glib, whose thoughts go from his brain to his lips through a natural spin filter, coming out as bite-sized morsels that deflect criticism, assign blame and offer a distinctive take on reality. In the process, Walker has completely inverted the traditional understanding of the fighter’s role. When La Follette and Hoan attacked “the interests,” everyone knew they were taking on the fat cats and plutocrats, the unbridled capitalists and grasping utility magnates.
Walker has used similarly cartoonish rhetoric to attack … public schoolteachers. During the Act 10 firestorm, he railed against the “thuggery” of “union bosses” who were, in his view, trying to rob the public blind. Voters always have resented what they consider undue privilege. Perhaps Walker’s most remarkable achievement has been turning the public’s traditional enmity from tycoons to teachers, from those bent on private gain to those working for the public good.”
It is now fashionable even in the mainstream media to speak of public unions, citizens’ protest groups and conservationists as “special interests.” Putting this progressive label that denotes greed and abusive power on populist causes is supposed to provide, you know, journalistic balance. So it is right of Gurda to point out the inane ignorance of Walker’s “fight” for destroying public employee unions while cutting corporate taxes, health care, environmental protection, and public transportation.
Where I think Gurda goes astray a bit is in the second part of his argument, his focus on Walker’s divisiveness, Walker’s failure to accept “democracy as a balancing of interests.” The Progressives of old were not outright Socialists, but they were not interested in compromising much with “the trusts” or what Sen. Robert M. La Follette called “the money power and the subjugated press.” The point was to reveal the true nature of corporate power and place strict limits on it; the ultimate power should always rest with people, families and communities and government should act on their behalf. This progressive idea, known in Wisconsin as the Wisconsin Idea, was, to say the least, considered divisive in some economic circles.
The problem with Gov. Walker and the Republican Party he represents is not that they won’t play nice; it is that they are now firmly and often extremely on the side of the money power (and military intervention) and have convinced a large part of the nation, against our best interests, to join them.
The Democrats have in recent decades not been all that progressive either, kowtowing to Big Money and war fever when it suits their purposes. It is telling that the only viable Democratic candidate for governor of Wisconsin is a very wealthy former corporate executive. But Mary Burke, Susan Happ and other Democrats in Wisconsin and across the nation still retain some sense of humane populism, and more Democrats than Republicans express an anti-war sentiment.
For now, the Democratic Party is our best hope to restore and preserve our democracy.
Postscript: And, as John Nichols points out, progressivism is still considered divisive by those who speak for special interests.