Can Elites Convince Victims of Top-Down Policies to Blame Themselves?
By Randy Shaw
In The Unwinding, New Yorker political writer George Packer argues that elite-driven economic policies have negatively "unwound" the lives of millions of Americans. This view is hardly uncommon, yet the June 9, 2013 Sunday New York Times Book Review found a reviewer - Republican and Times columnist David Brooks - to deny that the nation's elite have "failed." Brooks claims the elite "comes from the finest universities" and is the most "diverse" and "equal opportunity" elite in history - a defense of elite rule and polices that could come from a Jon Stewart parody.
Photo credit: Brian SimsI have previously noted the neoconservative takeover of the Sunday Times Book Review in its unfounded attack on Hampshire College and its exclusion of black and Latino critics. The Times' own Paul Krugman has made a similar point about the Book Review's use of neocons to attack progressive books, which clearly is the case here. But Brooks' review raises a larger issue: how the nation's elites are using the traditional media to deny that economic policies are rigged in their favor, and to convince Americans that debt, hunger and low wages are their own fault.
David Brooks' attack on George Packer's new book challenges the "intellectual structure" of claims that millions are suffering from an elite-driven economic crisis. It comes as the Koch Brothers are seeking to promote Brooks'-style intellectual "rigor" by turning the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other newspapers into mouthpieces for their libertarian agenda.
What troubles Brooks and the nation's conservative elite is that the victims portrayed by Packer and others are not being "held responsible for their own decisions." Brooks and company want to go back to the days when most Americans believed that they were personally to blame for unemployment, poverty, and debt, rather than blaming society. Stories of people's lives crumbling in the face of "organized money" cause readers to blame a "rigged" economy rather than the individuals themselves, so such accounts must be disregarded as "lacking a foundational theory of history.
When Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America came out in May 2001, it was universally praised for depicting the trials of millions of low-income Americans. But conservatives knew that Ehrenreich's account would not impact national policies, since George W. Bush was in the White House and a massive tax reduction for the wealthy was near passage.
The past two presidential elections have changed this conservative calculus. Conservative elites fear their policies have created a political backlash that, unless redirected, could spell another presidential defeat in 2016.
That's when intellectual poseurs like David Brooks are brought in to try to redirect the debate. Brooks' job is to convince people that what they see and hear about the crisis faced by millions of Americans has no connection to "elites," and that "narrative and anecdotes are not enough" to establish elite responsibility for any social "unraveling."
The Koch Brothers' effort to seize the Tribune newspaper chain is part of this elite-driven strategy. Adding the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and other papers to the right-wing media machine led by Fox News would boost stories blaming individuals and government programs for the nation's "unraveling" rather than elite economic policies.
When the Republican Party says that their problem is not their ideas but how they are packaged, this is what they mean. The GOP truly believes Americans will go back to the days of blaming themselves for high student loan debt, wage stagnation, and the inability to get a full-time job. It's just a question of finding the right message to convince them that it is their own lack of hard work and industriousness that put them in their situation.
From the 1960's through 2004, Republicans were able to get enough white working and middle-class voters to blame African-Americans for their problems to win presidential elections. But the electoral map has changed, which is why conservative panic - and efforts by Brooks and others to reinstate the individualism blame game - has set in.
Packer's book has been widely praised in the daily New York Times as well as elsewhere. He certainly does not need me to defend it, as he has been on NPR and many of the leading national forums.
But the attack on The Unwinding is not really about the book; it's about whether elite forces or individuals themselves are to blame for growing inequality, the shrinking middle-class, and the current economic crisis. And it is a debate that Republicans have already lost, just as they have lost national debates over gay marriage, immigration reform, and health care.
Randy Shaw is a Bay Area attorney, author and activist, and the editor of the Beyond Chron online journal, where this article was originally published.