Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April 9, 2001

Post-Modern Politics

December 4, 2000 -- Revised April 9, 2001

By Ernest Partridge
University of California, Riverside
www.igc.org/gadfly // gadfly@igc.org


The early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies -- the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions....

Non-stop distractions ... are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the [information and rational argument] essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.

Aldous Huxley
Brave New World Revisited.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.

H. L. Mencken

You can fool some of the people all of the time,
And you can fool all of the people some of the time.
And that is all that is required to win a Presidential Election.

The Gadfly (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln).


Al Gore's loss of the Presidential election is the result several factors that turned against him. Had any one of them been favorable, he would now be our President. We will focus on the following: (a) the strategy and management of the Gore campaign; (b) the strategy and management of the Bush campaign; (c) the Nader candidacy; and (d) the media coverage and "interpretation" of the campaign and the candidates. To all this, add the post-election "decision by indecision" by Bush's legal team, and his political allies in Florida, which successfully stalled and eventually cancelled a count of all the ballots.

Common to all these factors is "Post-Modernism:" i.e., the conviction that (a) all "truths" are subjective and relative (i.e., that there are no objective facts), and thus that (b) given the requisite public relations skill and resources, that the public is capable of being sold anything; accordingly (c) that relevant public issues and the candidates' qualifications can be effectively banished from a political campaign. If the success in this election of the "post-modernist" approach to politics encourages more of the same in the future (and why should we now believe otherwise?), then there are dark days ahead. The once-magnificent American political experiment in popular government may be past its peak, and on its downward slide toward oblivion. As philosophers of history, from Plato through Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee, have all pointed out: Every civilization that achieves a golden age, engenders its own decadence and eventual decline.

Is this to be our fate? Perhaps. But we do not intend to give up without a fight. And the first step toward renewal must be a reflective diagnosis of the health of our body politic.

Case in point: The 2000 Presidential election.

The Decision by Indecision: First of all, let's state the plain truth at the outset: Al Gore won this election -- not only with the national popular vote, but also with the Electoral vote, including Florida. "Won" in the sense that he received, in all probability, a plurality of votes cast in the Florida in the November 6th election, and therefore a majority of Electoral College votes. Moreover, a significant majority of Florida voters who went to the polls on election day clearly intended to vote for Gore, albeit several thousand were fooled by the Palm Beach "butterfly ballot," and even more Gore supporters in the Black and Hispanic precincts were turned away at the polls due to putative "registration irregularities." (See the Washington Post, 12/3/00, "Florida Ballot Spoilage Likelier for Blacks"). And in two Florida counties, GOP officials "arranged" (sans request or invitation) to have Republic absentee votes added to the tally, while they denied access to Democratic voters. But apart from all these irregularities, sufficient documentation of Gore's Florida victory probably sits under armed guard in vaults in a Tallahassee court house. Because Bush's lawyers, in cahoots with brother Jeb, good friend Secretary of State Harris, and finally the Supreme Court of the United States, succeeded in preventing a timely counting of those ballots, Dubya will be our next President.  

Richard Gephardt warns that after the election, the Florida "sunshine law" will permit academic investigators to get at those uncounted ballots, whereupon the truth will out. In reply, Christopher Hitchens, John Fund, Peggy Noonan and other such cable chatterers claim that there is no "truth" there to "out." Only "interpretation." "Judicial Watch," or other such conservative busy-bodies, we are told, will look at the same ballots and vindicate Bush. "Post Modernism" plain and simple: To which we reply: if there are no electoral "truths," and only "interpretations," then why have elections at all? Down that road lies the end of all we hold politically dear.

The Gore Campaign  inexcusably neglected the "prime directive" of any contest (military, sporting or political): "know the mind of your opponent." In addition, they disregarded Santayana's warning: "those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it." And repeat it they did, despite the fact that the campaign of Bush II was a virtual re-run of Bush I, circa 1988.

Poppy Bush's campaign managers, you may recall, burst out of the starting gate with an all-out effort to define their opponent, Michael Dukakis as "your typical bleeding-heart Massachusetts liberal." (As most students of public opinion will tell you, American voters tend to endorse the specifics of the "liberal agenda," while they steadfastly shun the label of "liberal." See our "Newspeak Lives!"). Then there were those trips to the flag factories, and the empty focus-group-tested phrases. Remember? "Stay the course!" "A thousand points of light." Repetition, ad nauseum of those TV spots: "Willy Horton" and "Boston Harbor." Up with images and slogans, and down with issues. Worst of all, as Dukakis manager Susan Estrich later admitted, Bush's smears were unanswered, and the Democrats learned too late that a charge unanswered is a charge affirmed.

Then, in the 2000 campaign, the Democrats forgot all that: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" "The Shrub's" handlers simply dusted off Poppy's play book as if the Gore Team had learned nothing from their past mistakes. And it turns out that the GOP was correct in this assumption. As Gore proved in his convention acceptance speech, and numerous polls confirmed, the public clearly preferred the Democratic position on the public issues. So public attention had to be drawn away from the issues. Throughout the campaign, Gore was seen as more qualified to serve as President, but of inferior character and trustworthiness as his opponent. Gore, we were told repeatedly, "will do or say anything in order to win." (See footnote).

Post-election events have vividly displayed just which of these candidates will, in fact. "do or say anything in order to win."

By all reliable accounts, Albert Gore is an honorable and trustworthy, even admirable, individual. The "trustworthiness issue" is thus a complete, and sadly a totally successful, concoction by his political opponents, promulgated without correction by the media.  

Thus Gore and his team made two essential errors that they might have avoided had they bothered to study the Dukakis Debacle: they allowed the opposition to define their candidate, and they permitted a devastating slander to go unanswered.  

The slander, of course, was that Gore was a pathological liar, who would "do anything to get elected." As we have pointed out earlier at this site, every specification of that charge was itself a lie -- namely, that Gore claimed to have invented the internet, to have discovered the Love Canal toxic site, falsely claimed to be the model of "Love Story," and so on. This smear was amplified without correction by a willing media, and without rebuttal by Gore or his handlers. Eventually, the pollsters tell us, this totally concocted "character flaw" was cited by the public as Gore's primary disqualification for office. And by thus "poisoning the well" early in the campaign, every subsequent pronouncement by Gore was automatically discounted by the media and thence the public. It was a masterful feat of manipulation by the Bush managers. (For elaboration and documentation, see our pre-election reflections, "The Hijacked Election").

In the meantime, Bush's numerous falsehoods and displays of ignorance in the debates and the campaign flowed harmlessly past the public consciousness, scarcely without comment or criticism in the media.

The Bush Campaign, in contrast to Gore's, was both masterful and ruthless. With a candidate of manifestly modest talent and devoid of intellectual curiosity, and with an agenda at odds with a majority of the voters, the GOP strategists took on three primary tasks: (a) draw the attention of the electorate away from the issues, (b) focus on the personal "charm" of their candidate, and (c) demonize the opposition.  

About the issues: According to numerous polls, a majority of American voters:

  • demand campaign finance reform

  • support a woman's right to choose.

  • support handgun control laws

  • prefer a retirement of the national debt (2/3 incurred under Reagan-Bush) to tax relief to the wealthy

  • insist upon HMO reform (a "patient's bill of rights").

  • support vigorous protection of the environment, and urgent attention to global warming.
    express suspicion with attempts to tinker with the Social Security system.

On all these issues and more, the public was in clear and overwhelming agreement with Al Gore. Moreover, Bush's hostility to these public positions was vividly displayed in his record as Governor of Texas. In addition, most voters agreed that Gore had the greater experience and competence.
With no chance whatever of winning on the issues or on the competence factor, the GOP and its wholly-owned subsidiary, the media conglomerates, pronounced them irrelevant. And the public largely accepted this dismissal, as the media focused attention on Gore's stage presence, tone of voice, and alleged "untrustworthiness" (as we have noted above and elsewhere, this was a concoction and a smear), while it gave Bush a license to spew out misinformation without correction, and to mangle the mother tongue without comment. Stage magicians call this device, "misdirection."

In his book, The Bush Dislexicon, Mark Crispin Miller quoted a sample of this "misdirection:"

On CNN... after the third encounter on October 17, Bob Novak got the ball rolling by suggesting that "there might have been a defeat for Gore on the likeability factor' ... From there, Jeff Greenfield took the ball and ran a long with with it, wondering whether 'Gore's clear decision to be aggressive, to try to define very sharp differences' might make him see 'assertive and tough minded' or 'rude and smug' -- although 'we're going to have to wait forty-eight hours or so to find out.' '' The 'analysts' at CNN said not one word about the substance of the candidates' exchange."

Facts, evidence, competence, enlightened self-interest -- all trumped by "bad vibes." Substantive ideas and coherent arguments set aside in favor of empty, focus-group-tested slogans ("compassionate conservatism,": "reformer with results," "a uniter, not a divider"). And finally, Bush was presented to us as a "more agreeable" person. The President of the United States as Prom Date.

Welcome to the Post-Modern era! -- where gut supplants brain, imagery trumps thought, and appeals to logic and evidence are dismissed as "elitist" or still worse, borr-ing.

The misdirection strategy was most brilliantly employed in the Presidential debates. Therein, Gore was clearly the master of the substance, the argument structure, and the language. He addressed (albeit in too much detail and elaboration) issues of acute and relevant concern to the public. Bush, in contrast, sputtered and strung together incoherent fragments of his stump speech, struggled to fill out his allotted two minutes, all the while reminding us that in fifty-four years he had somehow failed to take full control of the English Language. Immediate, "unspun," public reaction confirmed this impression. Then the pundit and spin-doctor circus was brought in as we were all told what we "really" saw in the debates, and what we should "really" think of them. Gore's totally accurate account of a crowded schoolroom and his innocent error about a visit to a Texas flood was amplified into "proof" of his hopeless prevarication. "Focus groups" of allegedly "ordinary citizens" hand-picked by such "moderators," as GOP operative Frank Luntz, harped on Gore's sighs and posture, and on Bush's "likability," as all substantial issues were effectively shut out of serious reflection and discussion.  

No doubt, if Napoleon had Bush's spin team on hand at Waterloo, they would have convinced Wellington that he had lost the battle.

And so, persuaded that Bush was more "likable," more "honest," and shared their (unspecified) values, a minority of US voters, with the help of Bush's kid brother and an accommodating Florida GOP establishment bolstered by a small army of lawyers topped off by an ad hoc decision by five accommodating Supreme Court justices, all handed the Presidency of the United States to George W. Bush, with the unlikely hope that he might succeed in that office, after failing as a businessman and governor.  

There has not been a more egregious case of political over-achievement since Caligula appointed his horse the Proconsul of Rome.

Ralph Nader was correct in almost all his specifications against the corporate oligopoly that governs this once-magnificent republic. He was profoundly wrong in his insistence that there was no significant difference between Gore and Bush. (To note just one significant contrast: Bush does not acknowledge a "global warming" problem. Gore wrote a book about it). Nader's Leninist suggestion that a Bush victory would, by making things worse, hasten radical reform was, quite frankly, contemptible. Be that as it may, Nader gave us that Bush victory by drawing off, in his seventy thousand Florida votes, a comfortable margin of victory for Gore. Nader is an idealist, with ideals that we largely share. But he has proven himself to be bereft of an operative awareness of the political landscape which his "movement" inhabits, or of a concern for the practical and political consequences of his quixotic ambitions. We intend to look elsewhere for a leader in the coming struggle.

The Media -- Trivial Pursuits and the Triumph of Info-tainment.  According to the media, the great issues of this campaign were kisses (planted on Tipper Gore and Oprah), rodents (the "subliminable" word "Rats" in the GOP TV ad), dog medicine, lullabies, and sighs -- most of these, by now, mercifully forgotten. There were other issues in the contest, less conspicuous in the media: 

  • should we allow the courts and the Congress to continue to cede the rights and security of the citizens to the corporations?

  • should we consent to the "privatization" of public lands, the public schools, and even the Social Security system?

  • will we absent ourselves from international attempts to save the common oceans and to prevent catastrophic alterations of the common global climate?

  • shall we allow the government to claim control over a woman’s body?

Or else, to the contrary:

  • shall we, the citizens, take back our government from those who have purchased it through campaign "contributions"?

  • will the budget surplus be used to improve public education and health, and to reduce the national debt (6 trillion dollars, 2/3 of which was accrued during the administrations of Reagan and George The First), or will half of it be turned over to the wealthiest 1% of the population?

  • shall we, at last, put an end to "reverse Robin-Hoodism," whereby wealth moves from the poor and the middle classes (who produce the wealth) over to the rich (who own and control the wealth)? Incidentally, the attempt to reverse this trend is called, by "conservatives," "class warfare." Conservatives do not approve of such "warfare," preferring instead, unconditional surrender.

These issues were eclipsed because discussion and contemplation thereof require serious reflection, and critical linear thought has become less and less "fashionable" of late. In the evening network TV news shows, word-laden "content" has been replaced with "images." In cable TV, ideas and events give way to "personalities." Public Television has fallen ever more under the control of its corporate "contributors." Even the so-called "educational channels" (e.g., the Discovery and History Channels) have become the video equivalents of "The National Enquirer," whereby every sort of far-out kookery might be displayed, while informed scientific inquiry recedes into the background. The public demands "entertainment," and images have been found to be more entertaining than ideas, astrology more entertaining than astronomy, and "show-biz celebs" more entertaining than scholars, writers and scientists, who are dismissed as mere "talking heads." The "free-market of ideas," envisioned by Jefferson and J. S. Mill has succumbed to a kind of "Gresham’s Law," whereby quality ideas and argument are driven out by junk and drivel. And so, a new regime prevails in the media: If information is not also entertaining, then fagedabowdit! Hence "Infotainment."

Thus, in the present campaign, rats, moles, kisses, lullabies and sighs prevail over health care, education, national defense, global warming, etc. And in the "Great Debates," we have seen the media behave more like drama critics than journalists, as they meticulously examined demeanor, tone, charisma, "comfort level," and "connection," while they ignored substantial issues and policies.
The media, with the acquiescence of the candidates, have adopted "the mushroom theory of politics: "Keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em bullshit."

Quite frankly, as a citizen of the US of A, I am acutely embarrassed, and I fear for the future of my country as I contemplate Jefferson’s observation: "That nation that wishes to be ignorant and free, wishes what never was and never will be."

The Pundits: In their post-election post-mortems, the pundits chronicled the brilliance of the Bush campaign strategy, and the blunders of the Gore campaign. Fair enough. But we also heard of the "resonance" of Bush's message with public concerns. This is certifiably pure hogwash. In fact, the American voter was hoodwinked by a lie and by an ingenious use of misdirection. As the economic "miracle" comes to a screeching halt, the environment is trashed, the national debt resumes its growth, and the transfer of personal wealth from the middle and lower classes to the "top" accelerates, the pundits will look about for culprits. The last place that they will look is within -- to the media that they serve.

And yet, the stubborn fact remains: the presidency of this super-annuated frat-boy is the gift of the media conglomerates to the US public. Even with all the blunders of the Gore campaign team, a fair, balanced and open public discussion of the issues and the candidates would have yielded a different outcome. The most damaging myths to survive this election, is the continuing belief that we have a "free press" in the US, and that the media were innocent and transparent purveyors of news and balanced opinion.

What is to be done?

The silver lining in the cloud that covers our political landscape, is that the post-election shenanigans have deprived our President-Elect of political legitimacy. Those sequestered Florida ballots will eventually be counted, and we may all learn what we now suspect: that this Administration is the result of a hijacked state election. Add to that, an evenly divided Senate, and House of Representatives on the verge of tipping toward the Democrats -- if, at long last, the DNC finally acquires the historical memory and political and public relations savvy that was so conspicuously absent in the recent election campaign.

(We say all this with no great admiration for the Democratic Party. It has paid the homage to wealth and power that is requisite to being a major political force in the contemporary United States. No national political party can effectively compete without campaign funds, and under current conditions, this means corporate funds. Clinton's "New Democrats" are now what we used to call "moderate Republicans. But the Democratic Party, as the lesser of the evils, must be nudged incrementally to the left. As a political champion, the Democratic National Committee isn't much, but it is the best we have).

Clearly, the first objective must be control of the Congress by the Democrats in the 2002 election. If Bush makes even modest progress implementing the program that most of the public (which elected him) opposes, and as his intellectual and leadership limitations become more apparent, the prospect of a mid-term turnover becomes more likely. Even so, a Congress in the hands of the opposing party can only practice damage control. Nothing much can be accomplished until the next Presidential election.

In addition, the Democratic party must learn from its mistakes. Veterans of the Dukakis campaign have often said that their greatest mistake was their failure to appreciate that an accusation unanswered is an accusation affirmed. Yet the Gore campaign repeated that error, with fatal results. The managers of the next Democratic presidential campaign must devote careful study to Bush 2000 -- how the Bush managers finagled the media, defined the opposition, "poisoned the well" with an unscrupulous and groundless attack upon Gore's character and credibility, and directed attention away from issues and toward personality traits and a litany of vacuous slogans ("compassionate conservatism") and cliches ("the mess in Washington").

Next, the 2000 election debacle should vividly remind us that the voting rights struggle did not end at Selma and with Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act. That struggle continues today, with every election. Civil rights organizations devoted enormous effort in registering minority voters and getting them to the polls, only to encounter voter harassment, irregularities and ultimately the disenfranchisement of thousands. Obsolete and error-prone punch-card ballot devices predominated in the poor precincts, while in the Bush precincts, newer devices facilitated a more complete and accurate count. A Miami Herald study (December 2, 2000) estimates that "if the vote were flawless" in Florida, Gore would have won the state by 23,000 votes. Obviously, brother Jeb's Florida government had no interest in assuring a "flawless" vote. This is not consistent with those words stone-hewn on the Supreme Court in Washington: "Equal Justice Under Law." Hopefully, the NAACP and allied organizations have, through this misadventure, learned how to sharpen their pre-emptive strategies, and that they will be well-prepared for subsequent elections.

Campaign finance reform is essential -- and unlikely in the short term. And there is a dismal long-term prospect that Bush's Supreme Court appointees may validate Antonin Scalia's association of political bribery with First Amendment rights to "Free Speech." That mid-term turnover is an essential first-step to campaign reform. 

Finally, if we are to reclaim our government, we must restore a free, open and diverse press. Make no mistake, this will be a prolonged struggle. That struggle includes a restoration of "the fairness doctrine" (abolished during the Reagan administration). Without it, "talk radio" and cable TV have become a coast-to-coast and 24/7 flood of unopposed right-wing blather. When millions of our fellow citizens are immersed, hours on end, in wall-to-wall Limbaugh and Imus, more than a few of them become certified "ditto-heads" -- quite enough, it seems, to turn a Presidential election.
Let the broadcasters be reminded that the broadcast spectrum is public property, and that they are licensed "in the public interest." While the government has no business dictating broadcast content, it can require that a fair representation of public opinion be heard.  

Media conglomerates must be broken up, and independent media outlets established. Local "stakeholders" must be appointed to governing boards of newspapers and radio and TV stations. Access to these media by public interest groups and competent professional citizens must be regarded as a right, and not as a privilege. The public must appreciate and the government must enforce the principle that the press and the media are, first and foremost, essential components of a democratic society, and only secondarily profit-making enterprises. Accordingly, the monotone message of mega-corporate promotion must be replaced by a polyphony of competing ideas and contending opinions.  

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "it expects what never was and never will be... The people cannot be safe without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe." However, with all due reverent respect to Jefferson, this is an oversimplification. For "all to be safe," "every man" (and woman) must be both able and willing to read, and to do so critically. And so, if we the people are to regain our freedom and control of our body politic, our teachers, scholars, scientists and writers must celebrate, exhibit and above all teach critical thinking -- that excellence of human capacity, so conspicuously absent in this election.   
To our great embarrassment and concern, a critical and inquisitive intellect appears to be absent from the cognitive inventory of our President-Elect: a man capable, in this new century, of entertaining serious doubts about the theory of evolution or the reality of global warming. And critical reflection has, in this this election, been likewise found to be absent from a public that has proven itself to be indifferent to facts and evidence (even as they directly affected each citizen's personal welfare), and susceptible to unscrupulous lies, crude fallacies and overt manipulation.

Post-Modern Politics:

"Post-modernism" reduces all knowledge to subjective "belief" -- thus equating information confirmed by science and logic with far-out kookery: equating evolution with "creationism," astronomy with astrology, thermodynamics with alchemy (cf. "Perilous Optimism," this site). As (appropriately) Rush Limbaugh put it in his defense of the tobacco industry, "we'll put our scientists up against their scientists." Post-modernism is the "method" of the hired-gun publicist: "that is our position, now go out and find us some 'facts' to base it on." And it is the "method" that was employed by the winning side in the first Presidential Election of this millennium. (See "No Mo Po Mo," this site).

"Post modernism" entails a detachment from the natural world and a disinclination to learn from nature through the disciplined and cumulative method of investigation and demonstration which we call "science." "Post Modernism" is a point of view that George W. Bush has found to be attractive, and which his handlers have proven to be the key to Bush's success. For if his political base, the Religious Right, requires Bush to doubt the theory of evolution, the foundation of all life science, then he will accommodate them. If two-thousand leading atmospheric scientists sign and publish a warning of global warming which puts the investments of his political sponsors in peril, then he will tell the world that he is unconvinced. And if the engineering faculty of MIT advises him that missile defense is technologically unattainable, "well then," he might tell us, "what do they know?"

As should be clear to any rational individual, such an attitude leads straight ahead to disaster. And if it is the attitude of our new President, then we are all riding together toward that precipice. Richard Feynman gave us fair warning: "... reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."  

We are entering perilous times, made all the more so by our collective willingness to tear out the eyes of our reason.

Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge

NOTE:  Just before the election, the Wall Street Version published these poll results: "Which candidate has the knowledge and ability to be President?" Bush: Extremely/Very -- 41%; Somewhat/Not Very -- 58%. "Which candidate has the character and trustworthiness to be President? Gore: Extremely/Very -- 40%; Somewhat/Not Very -- 59%. (From MSNBC. Sorry, they listed only half the poll. No data on Gore/"Ability" or Bush/"Trustworthiness."


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .