Revisionist propaganda

Revisionist propaganda

Latest slander against one of America’s greatest accomplishments is part of the right’s long-term strategy

During his recent visit to North Carolina, scholar and social commentator George Lakoff helped demystify some of the startling political and policy successes enjoyed by the American far right over the last few decades. Here’s how a recent edition of the NC Policy Watch Weekly Briefing summarized Lakoff’s observations:

“[L]eaders on the right invested big in a relative handful of “think tanks” that would continually bang the drum for a few core values while “framing” specific issue in terms of those values….The results, of course, are there for all to see.…Tell people that the “free market” is natural and infallible enough times and pretty soon even those who are harmed on a daily basis by such an extreme and absurd idea are saying it too. Tell people enough times that private actors are inherently more efficient than public actors and pretty soon you get for-profit prisons and roads and mental health systems. Tell people enough times that it is America’s destiny to rule the world and pretty soon you get the invasion and occupation of the Middle East.”

Here in North Carolina, such bald faced – let’s call it “propagandizing” – is the stock in trade of the state’s market fundamentalist “think tanks.” Whether it’s the ongoing effort to portray the global environmental crisis as a myth or absurd apologetics on behalf of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries masquerading as “market-based” health care policies, the right is often impressively skilled at “framing” issues in a particular light over and over until the very terms of the debate are altered.

Anyone who questions the right’s commitment to this strategy would do well to check out the Locke Foundation’s “North Carolina History Project” or its sibling, the “E.A. Morris Fellowship” program. Both of these efforts are sobering testaments to the hard right’s deep-pocketed commitment to promoting/imposing its worldview – both on past events and future political figures.  

Twisting history

A classic example of the right’s efforts to rewrite history in order to abet its modern day propaganda efforts was on display this week in the Charlotte Observer when a Locke spokesperson found his way into an article on the Queen City’s shortage of affordable housing.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

“A new city report shows nearly half of renters in Charlotte-Mecklenburg face housing costs the federal government considers unacceptably high.

Now a committee of more than 70 business, civic, and city leaders is studying possible solutions, including new taxes and a rental subsidy for the poor.

They warn without aggressive measures, Charlotte’s shortage of affordable housing will grow more severe.

Current housing programs ‘haven’t kept pace with the need,’ said Carol Hardison, co-chairwoman of the Housing Charlotte Committee. ‘It has kept us from losing the war, but we are losing too many battles.’

Critics say the committee’s suggestions would encourage government dependency and increase taxes on private developers, who pass those costs on to other customers. 

‘These programs never address how long they are going to go on,’ said Chad Adams of the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. ‘If those things worked, the Great Society programs of the 1960’s would have worked.’”

Reality Check

The Locke staffer’s broadside at the accomplishments of the “Great Society” programs launched by President Johnson in the 1960’s is, of course, absurd. As Joseph Califano – one of the principal architects of many of those programs – put it in a 1999 article for The Washington Monthly:

“[F]rom 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century. Since then, the poverty rate has hovered at about the 13 percent level and sits at 13.3 percent today, still a disgraceful level in the context of the greatest economic boom in our history. But if the Great Society had not achieved that dramatic reduction in poverty, and the nation had not maintained it, 24 million more Americans would today be living below the poverty level.

This reduction in poverty did not just happen. It was the result of a focused, tenacious effort to revolutionize the role of the federal government with a series of interventions that enriched the lives of millions of Americans. In those tumultuous Great Society years, the President submitted, and Congress enacted, more than 100 major proposals in each of the 89th and 90th Congresses. In that era of do-it-now optimism, government was neither a bad man to be tarred and feathered nor a bag man to collect campaign contributions, but an instrument to help the most vulnerable in our society.”

A broader agenda

At first blush, the effort to discredit such a record seems foolhardy. After all, even the far right’s wackiest fringe members probably understand that there is no realistic, near-term hope of repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Public Broadcasting Act, the Truth in Lending Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and many, many other critical federal statutes. These laws have been far too successful and are far too ingrained in the American way of life for that.

Look a little closer, however, and one can see some method to the right’s madness. As initiatives like those at the Locke Foundation’s History Project and Morris Fellowships demonstrate, the hard right does not perceive itself to be in this debate for the short run. Rather than mounting a direct assault that it knows it can’t win, groups like the Locke Foundation hope to provoke longer-term attitude changes with respect to more fundamental questions like “What is the role of intentional public solutions in addressing the challenges that confront society?”, “Is there a need for a genuine social safety net?, and even, “What does it mean to be an American?”

Seen in this light, the attack on the Great Society fits in neatly. Nothing hinders the country’s devolution into a wholly privatized society of winners and losers like the common memory of an all-American success story that involves shared sacrifice, “can do” optimism and successful public solutions. Except when it comes to war and parts of law enforcement, the hard right has no use for such concepts. (Come to think of it, if present federal policy is any indication, they may not have any use for such concepts in war or law enforcement either).

It is for this reason that the right has been so dogged in its attacks on the New Deal, the Great Society and other similar efforts in which Americans came together to address major societal problems collectively. They hope to transform the memories of these historic, quintessentially American achievements in order to undermine their perceived legitimacy and deprive progressives of powerful role models. Given our short attention spans and the American desire to focus on the future rather than to dwell in the past, such efforts may not be as outrageous as they seem at first blush.

Members of the hard right believe that they have an opportunity remake our country into the dog-eat-dog quasi-theocracy of their fantasies by changing general perceptions of history, language and common sense. Undermining the memory of the Great Society is thus a logical part of such a strategy. The specific policy changes they favor will come in due time.

It is for this reason, of course, that progressives must speak out forcefully and expose such canards for what they are: libelous attacks on America at its best. It is also for this reason that progressives ought to celebrate uniquely American achievements like the Great Society. As President Johnson put it in the original Great Society speech in 1964:

“The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation.”

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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