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Commentary: Are we headed for gridlock?

Partisan punditry appeals to the fringes, but damages intelligent discourse

POSTED: November 7, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Much has been made recently of the manner in which entrenched interests have settled their differences in France. Yet, with this week's election results, Americans will likely face similar political deadlock as our own governing bodies grind to a halt.

The French political tradition requires real people to take to the streets and demonstrate political will in order to win public support or invite public rebuke. By contrast, similar appeals to popular opinion in America are undertaken mostly by play-actors on television.

In fact, play-acting for 24-hour opinion television has become a demanding profession, and a very profitable one. Clowns and provocateurs like Al Sharpton and Sarah Palin are respected only on the political fringes, yet their every ridiculous remark and ignorant utterance is given not only an audience by electronic media, but intelligent commentary and analysis.

This may be entertaining for a public now habituated to the vulgar televised conflict of Jerry Springer, but the results have been disastrous for high American political culture. Its degeneration is hardly noticeable to most viewers, but a quick look back reveals a rich tradition and an established method of governance which has lost respect.

Our republic was founded to "form a more perfect union." A system of governing was then gradually created, using the Constitution as a guide and a starting point, not as sacred scripture. It has been an ongoing national project, and as all great human endeavors, it has been a cooperative and cumulative effort.

Our system has been subsequently refined by generations of statesmen and carefully preserved through a brutal civil war, economic depressions, foreign conflicts, rapid industrialization and countless internal upheavals. For our system to function in the manner intended, it requires governing from the center by consensus.

The current media climate severely undermines that design. Instead of compromise, it rewards provocation. By giving attention only to statements on the extremes, media barons belittle serious attempts at governance. The legislative dealmaker has never been so hated and the do-nothing slogan preacher never so adored. Serious people in politics are thus marginalized, along with their opinions.

Where does this leave the system today? At a standstill. Whom do these circumstances benefit most? Those already in positions of power. Those who have been gradually consolidating these positions over the last 30 years by lobbying for deregulation, tax loopholes and federal contracts.

The floodgates of corporate money were opened wide by Reagan and then Clinton, who both presided over unprecedented financial deregulation and the ultimate dismantling of the Glass-Steagal Act. Yet what began as campaign contributions in return for lighter regulation and favorable treatment under our cartel system, has led to spoils beyond the wildest dreams of the nation's industrial elite, specifically the opening of the U.S. Treasury to be looted in the form of bailouts of corporations deemed "too big to fail" (e.g. General Motors), and unlimited lending and subsidies to a criminal class that now controls the Wall Street.

The $700 billion TARP was only the beginning of what turned out to be ongoing subsidies of a sector which has yet to justify the large part of our economy it occupies by running a casino for the elite.

Not to be outdone, the largest corporation in history, the Pentagon, has engaged in a decadelong binge on public money while prosecuting two wars at enormous public expense, both conveniently ignored by the national journalistic establishment. According the Congressional Budget Office, the military spending over the last decade stands at $2.68 trillion, with no end in sight.

The outcry over this plunder of the state from within has been predictable from a people raised on a creed of fairness and equality of opportunity, yet so far the anger has been skillfully manipulated and deflected by the corporate PR and propaganda machine.

While industrial interests are now unconstrained in their spending on propaganda through political ads, an independent entrepreneurial arm of the machine now competes with them for popular influence. The highly paid Glen Beck gives voice nightly to mass frustration, constantly alluding to dark and sinister forces ruining the country. Copycat entertainers across the country have taken to spewing vitriol over the airwaves, which is then carefully given outlet at hollow rallies and events.

So far it has worked, but these entertainers fail to remember that when outrage is whipped into passionate hatred, the emotions of the masses may quickly lead to unpredictable, uncontrollable and very unprofitable results for their corporate masters.

Rather than some terrible episode of political violence, we may be allowed hope that government deadlock will bring more clarity to our country's political debate. With the capture of the American state by big business, ideological differences are no longer relevant. Political conflict is no longer between ideas or programs of left and right, although it is masqueraded that way for the convenient consumption of spectators. Real political conflict is now exclusively between competing commercial factions.

The old definitions of conservative and liberal hold little meaning because they do not reflect the reality of power and political forces we encounter around us every day. For political debate to again rise above empty theater and numbing slogans, we will need to better frame the discussion by defining the dynamics of power not in terms of ideology, socialists, capitalists and the like, but as they truly exist in the commercial institutions that dominate our federal system through campaign contributions and the manipulation of public opinion through propaganda.

It will take time and considerable effort, to break free of the familiar terminology and the tedious analysis provided by television commentators. With the coming government standstill all'Americaine, action will likely be impossible, but at least real debate can be revived by an injection of lucidity.

Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident who writesfor The Times  periodically.



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