Published on Wednesday, June 22, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
by David Michael Green
I have seen the future of American politics, and its name is John Conyers.
Finally. Finally. It looks like the heavy cloud of this dark and ugly chapter of American history may be lifting.
The best bit of evidence for this greatly welcome and long overdue development came last Thursday in Washington. The setting for this historic moment appeared remarkably inauspicious, but the import of what occurred there was unmistakable. Indeed, in many ways the incongruity between the locale and the events it contained only underscored the degree to which Thursday's proceedings were so consequential.
Packed into a 20' by 30' room in the basement of the capitol, Congress launched the process that -- let us be clear -- may well topple this country's most deceitful, dangerous and venal government.
But not officially Congress, and not officially launched, because Republican's not only won't touch this issue, of course, but are desperately seeking to bury it forever. The House leadership wouldn't even provide a proper room for hearings to be held, despite the fact that many were available, let alone would it convene a formal committee session. And even that degree of obstreperousness was not enough to satisfy them. They also called important committee meetings simultaneous to this session, and scheduled a record 11 floor votes in order to try thwarting the devastating truth from emerging at this hearing.
It didn't matter. There, in the over-stuffed, windowless box known as HC-9, the case for impeachment slipped into second gear, and gave every indication of being a force beyond the ability of the sorcerers Rove and Cheney to control. This hearing had the distinct feel of history in the making, and I was proud and honored to attend. I went home that night more optimistic for the prospects of America and the world than I have been in a long time. Cindy Sheehan, one of the witnesses, said that Thursday was the happiest day she'd had since Mr. Bush's war of personal opportunism claimed the life of her son.
Presiding over it all was America's unlikely new hero, John Conyers. Closer to the end of his long career in American government than the beginning, the congressman from Michigan has established himself of late as a rare specimen within the hopeless and hapless party of the alleged opposition.
Howard Dean may be throwing out some tough sounding statements that animate those of us full of anger at what has been done to our country, and to the world by our country, but Dean makes the mistake of substituting character assassination for hard-hitting policy critiques. I love his passion, but I'd much rather it took the form of Iraq war denunciations, health care and economic justice themes, than that of ad hominem remarks concerning the Republican Party's racial composition or its members' work ethic, however true those comments may be.
John Conyers, on the other hand, is saying and doing precisely what a real member of a real party of the opposition should be doing. Ever gentlemanly, ever gracious and measured in tone, he is at the same time pounding methodically and undeterredly against the great and obvious disgraces perpetrated by the Dark Side, whether they be stealing elections or cooking up wars based on lies.
This guy is my new hero, and if the rest of his Democratic colleagues looked a lot more like Conyers and a lot less like Kerry, the radical right would be able to get away with a whole lot less than they do, presidency or not, majority in both houses or not.
The Democratic Party has more or less been lost in the wilderness since Reagan showed up in 1980. Conyers is showing the way back.
On Thursday I saw the future of American politics, and it has another name as well: Participatory Democracy.
Nothing in the public life of this country has been more shocking and ominous to me in my lifetime than the complete abdication of the mainstream media in fulfilling its responsibility for covering the regressive right's exploits in government, especially all things related to the Iraq war. Bill Clinton, not even a liberal, was hounded mercilessly over bogus Whitewater allegations and a bit of oral sex on the side. George Bush tells incredible lies, makes policy choices of disastrous proportions, and produces death and destruction every chance he gets. Not only does the press give him a free pass (as some have even admitted to doing) by failing to critically assess his wild assertions, they are now willfully ignoring and distorting evidence of lies which have cost tens of thousands of lives.
For some, this will only serve as a validation of my naiveté, perhaps even -- as a political science professor -- inexcusable naiveté Still, I maintain that we've not seen in the post-WWII era abominations quite like those of the last years. It was horrendous enough that the Washington Post and New York Times both had to apologize for their complete failures to serve the American public as we were considering whether or not to go to war in Iraq. But to then, on top of that, to fail to report the atomic bomb of the Downing Street Memo (or even worse, to 'report' it snidely, loaded with bias) has taken my breath away.
Call me naive if need be, but this is NOT 'how it's always been'. With Watergate much in the news of late, the comparison is especially apt. Then, the Post worked hard to doggedly develop a story, starting with little beyond a police blotter recording the facts of a fairly conventional office break-in. In the case of the Downing Street Memo, on the other hand, the story has instead plopped itself into the lap of American news outlets, and they've worked nearly as hard to make it go away as the Post once did to develop Watergate. (For a particularly egregious example of this from the same people who's work once inspired a generation of Woodward and Bernstein wannabes, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/16/AR200506... . To then set the record straight, and to get a taste of John Conyers in action, see http://rawstory.com/news/2005/Congressman_Conyers_hammers_the_Washington... .)
This is very frightening stuff. I fully and completely expect the Bush-DeLay-Scalia Axis of Evil to horrify me at every turn. And, because of those rarely unfulfilled expectations, I am at least hardly ever shocked, however disgusted I always am. These guys are capable of just about anything, and they don't often disappoint.
The media, on the other hand, has been nothing but disappointing. And that's actually far too generous an assessment. Looking particularly at the Times and the Post, and considering especially that they failed so badly prior to the war that they chose to issue apologies, it is especially astonishing that they would do so again with the release of the Downing Street documents.
The excuses they've given for this are incredibly lame and implausible, especially given the magnitude of the Downing Street revelations (I have discussed this theme in some depth, with respect to the Times at least, in my Afterdowningstreet.org blog). This is all the more true because of past failures, and because of the additional angle of a political clash which also makes this story newsworthy, as over 120 members of Congress are now demanding answers from the White House.
I, for one, can no longer avoid the conclusion that there is a willful policy decision being made by these 'news' organs to avoid what is perhaps the second most important story since the Cold War ended, bested only by 9/11. Whether that has to do with bias, profits, intimidation or some other explanation, I don't know, but I can no longer believe that this most remarkable omission is accidental or random. Especially after the obsessive coverage of the supposed transgressions of the Clinton administration. Especially after 2,200 journalists were present in California covering the Michael Jackson trial.
That's the very bad news. The very good news is that, in a pinch, we did the media's job for them. That the public would have to be responsible for keeping themselves informed and would have to lean on the media to do its job is, on the one hand, a remarkably dispiriting development. On the other hand, though, whatever happens to Mr. Bush and gang of thugs, I believe this same development will mark a watershed in American history.
The silver lining here is that events over the last month have delivered measurably and substantially on the aspiration for a more participatory form of democracy which many have sought for a long time. That is, rather than continuing to be passive objects in the American political system, who at best show up every two years and cast a ballot for either Tweedledee or Tweedledum, the Downing Street process has turned us into agents and actors who may now not only shape outcomes to a larger degree, but will shape information content as well. Out of the awful conditions of our time has emerged a greater potential for participatory democracy that we've seen for a very long time, if ever.
Finally, on Thursday I saw the future of American politics, and what made that and all of the above possible. Its name is the Internet.
We've heard for years now how the Internet is going to revolutionize politics. There has been some delivery on that claim -- notably Drudge on Clinton, and Dean's fundraising and organizational prowess -- but mostly disappointment.
Not any more. When the story of the Downing Street scandal is written by historians, the Internet will play a crucial and indispensable role, providing the vehicle by which the political landscape was reshaped -- if it ultimately is -- particularly since the failures of other institutions left no other alternative. Twenty years ago such ominous conditions as we know today likely would have meant the death of a story like this. Today that is not happening.
The indicator which suggests this especially clearly is the bizarre anomaly of the mainstream media currently all chockablock with stories about how and (supposedly) why they're not covering the DSM, while at the same time running few pieces anywhere on the actual issue. How is this to be explained? If they're not covering it, what makes the fact that they're not covering it newsworthy (as opposed to millions of other stories they also don't cover)? The answer is that the blogosphere is all over this thing, and is angrily taking the media to task for its failures. Were it not for that disconnect, it wouldn't make any sense to write stories about the absence of stories on this or any other topic.
What all this demonstrates is the nascent power of this still-youthful medium. It is a power which permits individuals to be heard like they have not otherwise been for perhaps centuries, and it is a power which gives citizens a fighting chance against the monolithic institutions that have dominated policy-making for so long. No longer do the Karl Roves or the Rupert Murdochs of the world have a monopoly on determining what is important, or what is acceptable to say or think. We are reclaiming that power for ourselves.
All of the above, to sum, represents a blast of long-overdue good news and a sign of hope that, at last, progressive politics -- let alone just plain decency -- now has a chance to prevail in America again. The current context of a transparently failed war and an increasingly unpopular and distrusted president makes this especially possible. Producing documentary evidence of Bush's Iraq lies constitutes an entirely different affair in May 2005 than it would have (or did, if you count testimony from Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke and others) only two years earlier, in March 2003.
Back then, 9/11, relative success in Afghanistan, Bush's extended honeymoon, and a concerted propaganda campaign convinced a slight majority of the American public to support the war, even if reluctantly, and even if many people understood at some level that it was being oversold.
Today, the war is a complete disaster, the WMD and al Qaeda claims have been shown to be completely bogus, Bush has earned a giant credibility gap for himself, terrorism has receded into the rearview mirror of major concerns for Americans, and there is a generalized bad mood in the country now, coupled with a hostility toward incumbents in government. In this changed context, evidence that the president knowingly lied to the world in order to launch a calamitous war for his own personal purposes becomes potentially much more highly inflammatory.
This country has been living under the punishing effects of a perfect storm of bad political conditions for half a decade now. Not only are we governed by a depraved and vicious political movement which has captured all three branches of government, but the dominance of these public institutions has been coupled with a near-complete deterioration in the will of exogenous actors to fulfill their intended mitigating and balancing role, as contemplated in the Founders' conception of limited government. The opposition party has been in hiding to such a degree that it warrants that title in name only. The press has shown itself cowardly, stupid and corrupt, to the extent that Americans wanting real news have to go around -- and often in contradiction to -- the mainstream media in order to find it. But, in truth, few Americans have displayed a willingness to take on such challenges, opting instead to affix a 'Support Our Troops' magnet on the back of the SUV and get on with the more important business of sports, celebrities and runaway brides.
This lethal combination of a malevolent and monolithic government and an AWOL opposition, media and public represents the ideal formula for disaster. Indeed, if we escape the current nightmare without slipping into full-blown fascism, it will be in large measure because of a combination of dumb luck coupled with the last bit of tailwind from long-standing traditions in American political culture.
Notwithstanding that more hopeful possibility, the country remains perilously close to slipping toward a much graver fate, and it is by no means out of the woods just because conditions are a bit brighter at the moment than the darkness we've known of late. Probably another 9/11, real or fabricated (as growing numbers believe the first one was), would be all it would take. Even short of that, Bush, Cheney and the movement they lead have shown themselves capable of the most egregious transgressions against the institutions of American democracy. I remain unconvinced that they will necessarily voluntarily respect those institutions in the election of 2008 or should they be successfully impeached and convicted prior to that. Indeed, there would be no Bush presidency -- first or second term -- were they willing to respect the workings of democracy. Moreover, this vast and multi-tentacled criminal enterprise now has enormous incentives to keep itself or its allies in power. A change in the configuration of any of the three branches of government, let alone more than one, could well mean jail time for these guys, or worse. (Note: If they do leave on or before January 20, 2009, watch for the wholesale theft and destruction of documents which will precede and accompany that exit).
But all that said, the worst may be over, as American democracy has recently shown some signs of righting itself, particularly in the context of Bush's uniformly disastrous policy failures all now coming a cropper (Iraq, al Qaeda, domestic security, jobs, deficits, environment, No Child Left Behind, The Patriot Act, etc.), and a resultantly angry public.
Our perfect storm appears to be dissipating.
Now Democrats are finding a bit of spine, led by the efforts of John Conyers.
Now the public is finding its voice and demanding accountability for government policies and lies.
And now the media is being driven to do its job by means of the technological powers inherent to the Internet, powers which permit a new leverage on old media.
I do not wish to wax Pollyannish here, and suggest all is well. Far from it. There is much work to be done, much danger ahead, and the high probability that the best we can hope for in the near future would be a return to a Clinton-like politics of (considerably) less aggressive neoliberal conservatism, but still a politics of neoliberal conservatism just the same.
But, all that said, things are more hopeful now than they have been for half a decade, and the Orwellian moment of maximum danger may now have passed.
David Michael Green (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. In addition to articles posted on this site, he is blogging on New York Times coverage of the Downing Street Memo at www.afterdowningstreet.org .