President Obama and public-sector unions. ACORN and NPR. Planned Parenthood and Common Cause. What do these have in common? In the past two years, they have all been subjected to systematic attacks. Conservative activists have methodically targeted each for a campaign to undermine their public images and reputations.
The challenges to the President and to the unions are obvious and part of routine politics—as we are often reminded, elections have consequences. What’s not always obvious is the systematic effort by conservative forces to undermine and delegitimize the groups and institutions that support the Democratic Party or are associated with liberal causes.
Even before Barack Obama was elected president, he was instantly branded as “not one of us.” All sorts of claims came from any number of quarters. The mildest asserted that he was born in Kenya; the wildest posited an intergenerational conspiracy to install a “Manchurian candidate” in the nation’s highest office. Though easily discredited, the claims still persist as mainstream Republican figures (Mike Huckabee, for example) repeat and validate nuanced versions of the same fantasy.
Public-sector unions, groups protecting the rights and interests of teachers and firefighters, have been the subject of more recent right-wing attacks. Since the midterm elections, these unions have been criticized for everything from obstinacy to elitism. Having played no role in the financial collapse caused by avaricious Wall Street bankers, free-market acolytes bailed out by taxpayers, public-sector employees are now portrayed as the trulygreedy ones. Teachers, in particular, have been cast as budget-busting do-nothings, gorging at the public trough. In state after state, and in the U.S. Capitol, government workers of all kinds must now bear the brunt of government cost-cutting measures. In other words, they have to take the blame for the economic failings of others.
The organized attacks on ACORN, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause, and NPR are different from those directed at elected officials and unions. They rely on entrapment and exposure—techniques used by law enforcement officers and guerrilla journalists alike. As video provocateurs using hidden cameras, right-wing activists try to show what they regard as the seamy side of once respected organizations. It should come as no surprise that scandal-mongering videos appear just as Congress is considering budget cuts directed at such groups as Planned Parenthood or NPR.
No liberal or progressive group is immune because they all have earned the ire of conservatives. (Amnesty International and the ACLU beware.) Whether these efforts reveal regrettable missteps, true corruption, or fabricated controversy is immaterial. The only thing that matters is that the skunk has sprayed the target. The conservative movement and the news media will take care of the rest.
Today’s effort to delegitimize liberal groups is not new. Back in the mid-1990s, the “Republican Revolution” was built on the hyperbole of talk radio and the rhetorical excess of candidates who had learned “to talk like Newt.” Then, conservative activists sought to “defund the left” and impeach a president. Now, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that dogged President Clinton is back to finish the job, with a vengeance. From Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck, from Dinesh D’Souza to James O’Keefe, the tactics of rhetorical overkill, character assassination, and exposure by entrapment are used with increasing fervor and great relish.
Make no mistake: This is a systematic effort to deprive liberal organizations, if not the government itself, of any legitimacy whatsoever. If they continue to lose support and good will, they simply will not be able to protect people from economic hardship, serve the public good, or invest in our common future. As the Right gets bolder, we see repeated actions done with the same object, using the same language, employing the same tools. To be systematic, the effort need not be a “conspiracy” orchestrated from above. It need only be a clear pattern of action, much like the “long train of abuses” that Jefferson identified in the Declaration of Independence.
While demonstrations and petitions are encouraging signs of activism from liberal groups, the most effective challenge to this strident conservatism remains a progressive movement that understands what is at stake. Progressives are in a long-term war of ideas over the meaning and nature of our institutions, our society, our culture. They can no longer just sit back and savor the irony of “The Daily Show” or the double-irony of “The Colbert Report.” They cannot rest content with circulating the latest outrages of Fox News commentators on websites; we cannot be satisfied with puncturing the closed loop of conservative thinking with posts on Facebook.
Progressives need to take the political and ideological situation seriously. The time has come to expose the forces behind these alleged exposures. Corruption, extremism, and elitism are no doubt as endemic on the right as they are portrayed to be on the left; it just needs to be uncovered and shown to the public. The sort of committed effort now undermining liberal groups and public institutions must now be turned on the plutocrats and prigs of the partisan Right.