Authors@Google: Eric Alterman

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 19.04.2011

>>Female Presenter: So, good afternoon everyone. Authors@Google New York is pleased to welcome
Eric Alterman, who is here today to talk about his book, "Kabuki Democracy: The System vs.
Barack Obama". Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, a media
columnist at "The Nation", a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, an author
of seven books, including the national bestseller's "What Liberal Media" and "The Book on Bush".
Please welcome Eric Alterman.
>>Eric Alterman: Hi.
>>audience 1: Hi.
>>Eric Alterman: Thanks for having me. I got somebody else’s notes up here. Let's see.
Maybe their talk is better than mine.
>>Female Presenter: I'll take those.
>>Eric Alterman: OK, thank you. I spoke, for my last book, I spoke in Mountain View. You
guys are much better looking, more fun, than they are. So this book I wrote, "Kabuki Democracy",
it has, I meant to look this up from the last time I talked about it, it has two separate
geneses, plural of genecii. Genesis. One is, I had, Barack Obama invited me to dinner in
1980, 1980, 2005, right after he became a Senator.
And there was about seven or eight people at dinner and I had no opinion of him, except
that I heard good things about him. I actually didn't watch his convention speech. I played
poker that night. I was at the convention. But I never watch the keynote speech because
I always find it frustrating that you end up wishing that guy was a nominee.
It happened the first convention I went to was 1984 with Mario Cuomo and ever since then
-- the one exception actually was Bill Clinton. He was terrible at the keynote in 1988. But
anyway, so I had dinner with Obama and I'd heard good things about him, but like I said
I didn't know anything at all about him except that he was the only African American member
of the Senate and he had been a community organizer.
And I guess this happens to a lot of people. I just was really struck by his normalcy.
I was struck by his intelligence, by his self-confidence. I guess you could call it 'charm'. I mean,
I was definitely charmed. But I was more struck by how you could just talk to this guy who,
at that point if you remember 2005, when Bush defeated Kerry despite the war being in absolutely
terrible shape and the revelations at Abu Ghraib. And all the horrible things that the
Bush Administration was doing, both in terms of violating our values, but also straight
forward incompetence. The fact that the Democrats could lose that election was really depressing.
And just about the only thing, the only person, that people took any hope from, at that point,
was this young guy from Chicago, Barack Obama. And in fact, I remember he said that, and
again, this was very early in 1985, he said that his very first press conference as a
Senator from Illinois, he was asked, "What do you think your legacy will be?"
And he thought that was odd because he had just, it was like his first day on the job.
So he was under enormous pressure and a microscope. And yet he talked about problems the way my
friends and I talked about problems. And we're roughly the same age. I'm a little bit older
than he is, less than a year. And I came away from that meeting buoyed, B-U-O-Y-E-D, buoyed
by meeting a politician who had been able to navigate our political system, which is,
has so many problems and so much built-in corruption to it.
And to think that, I thought that maybe 20 years from now, he might be able to run for
President. And I was glad that I would be alive for that. I figured unless I was hit
by a car, or killed as an innocent bystander. I'm one of those people who always think I'll
be killed as an innocent bystander. So then, so that's Genesis Number One.
Genesis Number Two, I had dinner with a friend of mine who is also a funder and funds me
sometimes and says, "What would you like me to fund?" And I was thinking that, I don't
know, I can't watch American politics in real time. I find it too annoying and depressing
at the same time to listen to American politicians speak.
They're so full of themselves and the language that they use is so divorced from reality,
but also just from the language. It insults me the way that the speeches that are given
in political talk. It bears out very much to George Orwell's observation about political
speech being, I forget what he said, but it had a lot to do with hot air, and I quote.
Anyway, but I need to know what's going on and I need to actually see these people sometimes.
So the solution to my problem, and it's a very good one -- I recommend it -- is that
every morning I watch on DVR Colbert and Stewart. And there, you get to see what people are
talking about. You get to see these actual people and you don't have to see too much
of them.
You just get little snippets of them and I can live with that. But the thing about watching
Colbert and Stewart, or just following the news on a day to day, or on an hour to hour
basis, is that the way our media cover news and in this I include all of our media. Media,
one thing I always have to point out when I teach -- I'm a professor of English -- I
always have to remind people that the word 'media' is a plural noun. And that the proper
way to say 'media' is to say "the media are" not "the media is". And it's very important
because the media are an enormous amalgam of different kinds of institutions that have
very little in common with one another. And you can say, if you wanna blame the media,
you can blame the media for almost anything and it'll be true because there'll be some
aspect of the media that you'll be telling the truth about.
But it won't be true about most of the other institutions. But one thing that does strike
me as true about just about all media is the fact that they, these institutions, all hop
around from issue to issue, from day to day, as if the previous day hadn't happened, as
if the previous problem hadn't happened. So all of a sudden, everybody’s concerned about
oil drilling and the dangers of oil drilling, offshore oil drilling.
Whereas the problems that created the conditions that led to the Gulf of Mexico being inundated
with oil had been there for years. And if you look back, if you go back and look at
all of the different decisions that went into that, that went uncovered by any member of
the media, you could absolutely predict a kind of disaster like the one we experienced
last year. And in fact, not a single media institution, not one, had a reporter whose
full-time job was to cover the MMS, the minerals and whatever it’s called.
And then, of course, we get a disaster and everybody becomes an expert overnight on it.
And the disaster lasts as long as it has news value. And then we go on to the next disaster.
So, we lurch from issue to issue. And every night you can watch the news, or you can click
on your browser and get updates, or pick up the newspaper if you're old fashioned, like
I am, in the morning, and become enormously concerned about something that you had totally
forgotten about and will probably totally forget about in 48 hours or 72 hours, or if
it's a terrorist attack you might get a couple weeks out of it.
So when I was asked what I would like to write by my friend who willing to help pay for me
to do it, I said, "Well, I would like to take some time and figure out why Barack Obama
can't do most of the things. He can't do a hundred percent of any of the things that
he promised to do, even though he had super majorities in both Houses of Congress, number
one. But he can't even do most of the things he promised to do.
And the reasons are complicated. They're related and they're not going away. In other words,
the coverage of them -- when something is held up by a filibuster -- it took a long
time to get the gays in the military bill passed, because of the filibuster, because
of individual holds and so forth. And eventually it was passed in a special lame duck session
of Congress. But for years, it was held up by these methods of obfuscation and delay
that are available to any Senator and again, these things are used across the board on
every issue of interest to any particular special interest.
And they tend to be ignored because our media are not interested in the mechanics of how
our politics works. They're only interested in the personalities and in the case of FOX
and organizations like FOX and the ideology. But actually the way the things actually work
and the interest behind them and the lobbyists who are paying for the campaigns that determine
the shape of things, determine the nature of proposals, determine what gets in and out
of committee.
These things are never covered. You have to be a specialist to pay attention at least.
So instead of allowing myself to be driven crazy every morning, I decided to just take
notes on all of the different institutional problems that I could identify that prevented
Barack Obama from making good on his campaign promises, despite the fact that he had super
majorities in both Congress.
Because don't forget, if you elect a President, if you have super majorities in both Congress
and a President in the same party, you're really working with an equivalent of a parliamentary
system because it's not divided government anymore. The opposition does not have the
power to prevent you from making your will into law.
And one problem, I mean, our Constitutional system is set up to make passing laws very
difficult in many respects for good reasons. But in that sense, but because of that, there's
a disconnect between what politicians say they will do and what we are able to hold
them responsible for having done. There's always some excuse as to why they couldn't,
why you actually were stupid to believe what they were promising you in the first place.
But when you have super majorities in both Houses, you lose that excuse. There's nothing
standing in the way, theoretically, from the entire panoply of Barack Obama's promises
being made into law. And those would include a public option on healthcare, a very strong
commitment, in this case, through a cap in trade to curb global warming, much stronger
support for unions through the card check laws. And certainly, and this was the issue
that I thought was clearest, because healthcare is very complicated and certainly environmental
protection and global warming is very complicated, but financial regulation was not complicated
in this case.
I mean, it is complicated when you get into the details, but what was uncomplicated about
it was the politics that everybody understood that the banks, with their own irresponsibility,
had made a financial crisis that was much, much worse than it ever needed to be, that
this had cost tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people their jobs, same number
of people their homes. The economy, because of the hit that we were taking, was hemorrhaging
when Barack Obama came to power, 80,000 jobs a month. And of course the stock market had
lost – I don't know -- about 30 percent of its value, 20-30 percent of its value.
It was an enormous crisis, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And we
knew not only who the culprits where, but what the problem was. And the problem was
is that the system encouraged all kinds of risk on behalf of certain people who controlled
enormous amounts of money at the banks. And yet, there was no system built in for them
to take responsibility for when those risks went sour.
Because they were too big to fail, they could reap the rewards of the millions of dollars
they made when they made risky trades that went all right, or looked all right. They
didn't go all right, but they looked all right for a while. But when they went sour, the
taxpayers had to pick up the bill. And so, why wouldn't you do that? I mean if the house
is gonna give you all the money you need to play poker, why wouldn't you just bet every
time and maybe your hand will turn out to win? You've got nothing to lose.
Well, there were a number of provisions in the financial reform bill that would have
prevented that from being the case in the future, and none of them were able to be passed.
So that we got a financial reform bill. It actually – it surprised people. If you remember,
if you read the coverage carefully when the bill was passed, people were surprised at
how tough it was and it was tough because the indictment of Goldman Sachs shined the
spotlight on some of the practices that gave certain Congressmen some extra courage that
they needed to vote in a way that surprised people.
But even so, none of the primary practices that people identified as having caused the
crisis are we now protected from. They're all gonna happen again because again, it’s
just in the self-interest of the people running the system to keep behaving that way. They're
still playing with the house's money. And so, I tried to look deep into the system using
the cases of the healthcare bill, of the cap in trade bill, and of the financial reform
And I also spent a lot of time looking at the causes of the oil spill from a regulatory
perspective. And I tried to identify all of the different ways that the President is prevented
from making good on his promises because I submit that if you have a president who has
a super majority, who can't make good on his promises, even with his majority, we don't
really have a functioning democracy.
Because when you vote for someone and he says, "I'll do this," and nothing is preventing
him from doing it and he still doesn't do it, I mean, nothing apparently in the political
system, then your vote is, you're voting for a fictional character. You're voting for someone
who can't. Your vote becomes a lot less meaningful up to the point of being meaningless. And
the answers are complicated. I mean, part of the answers have to do with our Constitutional
system and are just about impossible to fix.
If you live in California, your vote is worth one-twelfth of what it is in Wyoming. Because
the same number, you get the same number of Senators for twelve times the population,
as they do in Oregon. So, it just so happens that the most conservative states in our country
are the same, are the most under populated states. So for instance, when you have a filibuster
of 40 Senators, and remember, you don't even have to have a filibuster anymore. You just
have to say you would have filibustered.
You don't have to bother to actually filibuster anymore, like they do in the Jimmy Stewart
movies. Those are now, in part, black-and-white movies. But if you say you're gonna filibuster
something and you have the votes, which is 40 votes, you only really need to represent
about barely 30 percent of the country. In fact, the 40 Senators who did filibuster everything
that the Democrats proposed in the past two years, did represent exactly 33 percent of
the country.
The Republicans, if you do the math, the 40 Senators we had in the 111th Congress represented
33 percent of the country. And that 33 percent of the country could hold up the entire, the
entire will of the majority on everything. And that really can't be fixed because if
you're part of that minority, you're gonna like that. That's very good to have all that
power. Wyoming is not gonna voluntarily give up its twelve times as much power in the Senate
as California because it’s so difficult to pass a Constitutional amendment, which
is the only way to do it.
It's not gonna happen. But in terms of the rules of the Senate, that could easily change
if the individual Senators were willing to give up some of their personal prerogatives
for either the good of democracy or just the good of their team. And interestingly, the
Republicans are much better team players than the Democrats. The Republicans realized with
Obama that they would only have any influence if they stuck together one hundred percent
of the time as a complete unit.
And they did it. And so even people who didn't agree with what the majority of their party
wanted, stuck with it so that the next time they wanted something, they would get it.
Democrats are incapable of doing that. There are a lot of reasons for that. In part, because
the Democratic Party is a much wider, ideological party than the Republicans. But also because
the Republicans are meaner and nastier.
When people don't agree, when people don't behave the way that their activists want,
they run primaries against them and sometimes they beat them. And they beat them with the
craziest people imaginable, like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle. And I use "crazy"
advisedly. I mean, this is gonna go up on Google, right? So they can sue me if they
want. But I think I can prove that they're nuts. I mean, if you listen to some of the
things they say, and they're not serious.
I mean, in fact, if the Republicans hadn't run Angle or O'Donnell and a couple of others,
they would've taken over the Senate. They ran not credible candidates and they're willing
to, they're willing to punish their own members on behalf of party unity, to that degree,
to a way that there were no Democratic challenges to any of the Democrats who didn't support
Obama on healthcare, for instance. Whereas, if the situation had been reversed, it would've
been an upset.
There's a story I tell where there was this fellow. Obama -- it wasn't clear, once the
whole healthcare thing came down, the tough vote was gonna be in the House, not in the
Senate, if you remember the really close vote. And it wasn't clear how in the world Nancy
Pelosi was gonna get those votes and she ended up having to give away the right to, the right
to choice in your healthcare plan, which was really surprising that Democrats go along
with that.
I'm glad they did; I think it was the right thing. But still, it's hard to get every little
faction to go along with you. So, at the same time, the Republicans were incredibly self-disciplined
in terms of how their members behaved. And remember, at the end of a session of Congress,
the people in Congress who are all ambitious beyond being their Congressmen, they're all
planning their next move. Some of them are gonna want to run for Senator, some of them
will run for Governor, one might want to be mayor of the large town in their districts.
So the Republicans. They would punish anyone who, who, who made plans not to be there for
any important vote for any reason. It didn't matter what the reason was. The Democrats
had this representative from Hawaii, named Neil Abercrombie, who ran for Governor. And
in order to run for Governor, he quit his seat in Congress right before the vote on
healthcare. And what did the Democrats do? They gave him a going away party. And you
know what?
He didn't even bother to show up. He was already in Hawaii. They had a party without him to
celebrate the fact that they, that they just didn't have any ability to discipline their
members. So, that's a cultural problem that is very frustrating and it's hard to know
what to do about. And it’s difficult for citizens to do anything about that except
to punish their representatives. But again, I don't even know how you would go about doing
One of the most significant road blocks to democracy in present day America that doesn't
get talked about much though, is the power and culture of finance. It's not simply that
lobbyists pay for political campaigns and then get the members to vote the way they
want, or not even to vote the way they want, but to kill bills before they're voted on,
or to be playing golf on the day that the vote is taking place or to change the language
in a way that nobody else can understand it, but gives them what they want, which is an
awful lot of what happened with the financial reform bill. But there's a culture.
The Italian Communist philosopher who was imprisoned during World War II, Antonio Gramsci,
talked about the way that ruling classes use culture to get people to do things in the
interest of the ruling class without resorting to force. And people don't even, it becomes
second nature to them. And this is the genius of these ruling class because it’s a lot
cheaper. It's simpler, to do things that way.
And if you look at the way the ideology of finance and laissez faire economics has overturned
what had been about a half century of Keynesianism over the past 40 years, you can see the power
of cultural finance operating in our political system so that any government intervention
for any reason has to be justified in the context of an ideology that is deeply antithetical
to the very idea of government intervention.
I mean, today we have people like Alan Greenspan and Paul Volcker saying they went much too
far and they had much too much faith in the system and they now regret they didn't see
that the system wasn't perfect and needed, needed some sort of adult supervision. But
it’s very, very difficult for anyone in power, they said this long after they were
no longer Chief of the Fed or Secretary of Treasury. But it's very difficult for anyone
in power to make a statement like that because it, it, it makes them appear untrustworthy
to the entire system and there's just no point in it.
There's just no point in trying to poke holes in this ideology that is so widely accepted,
taught in business schools, permeates the business sections of all the newspapers and
actually goes much deeper than that. And what the system does, is it raises a private concerns
to the equal, or even more important, to public concerns in public policy-making. So that
the lobbyists, the lobbyists, individual lobbyists for individual companies, their interest is
seen as, as important, if not more important, than the broader public.
And so, for instance, during the finance negotiations, Goldman Sachs hired away the chief of the
House Banking Committee, who was working for Barney Frank, who's a big liberal Democrat.
They hired him away during the negotiations. And nobody thought there was anything wrong
with that. That you can move from representing the public interest to the private interest
on the very same time you can basically switch sides in the fight.
I mean, think about it. The guy who was writing the bill that was regulating Goldman Sachs
one day, is working for Goldman Sachs the next day. There's no law against it. There's
not even any cultural, social disapproval of it. Everyone who works for the House Banking
Committee and who works for the Senate Finance Committee either will work for one of these
banks or has worked for one of these banks and probably both. Probably has and probably
will again.
[hits microphone]
Sorry. Probably will again. And that's just the way it is. I mean, and if you think about
it from their perspective, well, why not? It's very difficult to maintain one's idealism
when one goes to Washington in one's 20s to try and change the world. And yet, you see
the same people who you grew up with and went to school with and socialized with and they're
making three, five, ten times what you're making for doing essentially the same work.
And they have a lot more freedom and they're picking up the check at dinner and you're
feeling like a loser. And then they offer you the opportunity to live that life.
And why not? There's no sanction against it. Nobody's gonna look down on it. You can have
all the things that your, that you'd like to give your family. I mean, if you're a Mexican
policeman and the drug dealers come to you and say, "We're either gonna kill you or give
you a million dollars", you can understand why you would work with the drug dealers rather
than have yourself killed or your family killed. It's a brutal world out there.
In the United States, we have a much more pleasant choice, which is you can work 20
hours a week in a little cubicle for 110,000 dollars a year, or we can give you an office
with a staff and a car and a credit card and we'll pay you 750,000 dollars a year. And
people will like you better. People will think you're cooler than you were. It’s just very
hard to resist and as long as the culture treats it as OK, then there's no reason not
to do it.
So both the ideology and the culture of the way we treat money in our society becomes
so powerful that the public interest becomes entirely lost. So, right now, I mean, you
had, you had the entire country mad at these guys, really wanting A) punishment, and B)
preventative medicine. And you couldn't get it. You could only get about ten percent of
what was needed and that was then. The rules are still being written today.
The rules, I mean, the language is very high falutin' in these laws. So -- but the actual
rules are very detailed and those are all being written without any public scrutiny
whatsoever. There were no reporters there. So the lobbyists are still there and they're
getting what they want and that's how the system worked. Now finally, I've talked a
little bit longer than I intended. But finally you have the transformation of the media that's
taken place in the past 20 or 30 years.
I've written a few books about this and I don't wanna make my talk entirely about that.
But it has two basic components. One is, is the growth of the alternative conservative
media, FOX News, cable news, Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, the internet. And these have put enormous
pressure on what used to be the establishment news because these people are profitable and
their, their viewers are really dedicated.
So even though not that many people watch FOX, I mean, a lot of people watch FOX compared
to CNN and MSNBC. They have more viewers than both of those stations combined. But it's
only still two, three million people in a country of 300 million people. It's not that
many people. But they carry enormous influence inside the universe of the news media because
they've created a successful model when the rest of the media appear to be dying.
So, FOX and the conservatives have gotten more and more powerful in terms of defining
the playing field of how we debate things, how we discuss things. The idea that you can
talk about death panels and have it be credible, when there isn't any evidence for it at all,
but it becomes a real issue that the President has to address. Or, something like ACORN.
I spent a lot of time on the ACORN issue here because it's just crazy that George Stephanopoulos
would think that it was worth asking the President about ACORN during their interview right before
he was getting to the Afghanistan war. The government, US government budget, if you take
the whole year of the budget, it would spend 15 seconds on what goes to ACORN. It would
have. Now nothing goes. But it was 15 seconds worth of it.
The President doesn't think about things like that. But the issue became so important because
of the ginning up of this machine. That is, you see the tip of the submarine in FOX News
and it’s a very important part of it. But what I try to point out about FOX News that's
really important to notice is that it's not a news organization. It's a political organization.
It's a lot like what Berlusconi has in Italy. It's just that the head of it is not the same
head as the President.
But for instance, right now, every single, with the exception of Mitt Romney, every single
Republican presidential candidate who is not in public office, is on the payroll of FOX
News. So they're getting the equivalent, I think in the last year if you made them pay
for the airtime they get at FOX News, FOX News made a 60 million dollar contribution
to their campaigns. And they never get any tough questions. They're just there basically
And the opposite works as well. The way FOX News describes, and Rush Limbaugh and the
entire structure, describes the opposition. Is it weird that 24 percent of registered
Republicans think that Barack Obama not only is a Muslim, but has actually tried to turn
the United States into an Islamic republic? Really. Twenty-four percent of Republicans,
eighteen percent.
That number keeps rising, just like the number of people who think that global warming is
a hoax, has risen since the President, since the 2008 election. That's problem one. Problem
two is that as, I mean it's ironic that I'm saying this here at Google, as I'm sure you've
all heard, the economic model for the news media has broken down and it’s no longer
a business.
Newspapers are no longer a business. Television news is no longer a business. There are some
niche products that are good businesses on the internet. But they're very few and far
between and there's no formula. The old formula is, you aggregate eyeballs and you sell those
eyeballs to advertisers and the actual eyeballs pay a very small portion of the freight.
The last time I checked, and this is probably not the case anymore because of the destruction
of these news organizations, but a New York Times, if you took all the readers of the
New York Times and you took all the production costs of creating the New York Times, particularly
the reporting and editing, you'd have to charge people 40 dollars a newspaper to pay, to cover
those costs.
And so, the difference between two dollars a newspaper and 40 dollars a newspaper is
advertising money that pays to reach those people. Well, that, that, those advertisers
are disappearing for a lot of reasons, which you don't need me to explain to you. That's
why you guys have this nice place here.
So at the same time you have all these new irresponsible forms of journalism brewing,
you have the formally responsible forms of journalism dying.
Now I don't wanna, I'm not one of those people who says this is all a terrible thing. I think
there are a lot of really excellent and wonderful and democratic things that have arisen from
the digitization of communications in news, in particular. I make my living, by and large,
on the internet. I think it's great. I have much close communication with my readers and
I learn things. I learn a lot more about things much more easily than I ever could have and
I know a lot more as a result.
And to the degree that people participate in digital democracy, it's a much better democracy
than, than we have, particularly in terms of information. But the cost of it is that
we allow all kinds of nonsense and chicanery and jingoism and -- well, I can use a lot
of unpleasant words here -- to go unchecked because the gatekeeper function has been destroyed.
And so, a president who is trying to make a case on something as complicated as cap
in trade or healthcare, no longer has the ability to reach the public with a complicated
case. Everything has to be stated in really catchy, really quick phrases that face a mountain
of disinformation that feels no responsibility at all to correct itself, to give a fair hearing
to the truth.
I could give you an example. This is what you learn by watching the Daily Show. But
I could give you example after example after example of these cable stations -- and it’s
not only FOX News -- of just saying things that are flat out untrue, that are obviously
not true. I mean, you all must have noticed that story about how Barack Obama spent like
200 million dollars a day going to India or something.
The source -- this ran everywhere, but the source was an unnamed, local, regional official
in India, who would have no idea. And then somebody quoted somebody once, and it’s
picked up and this machine takes it over. And then it becomes, it crowds out all the
rest of the news so that anything that the President or his side wants to say, can't
be heard. So at the end of the book, I try and be constructive and make a series of proposals,
over how to counter these things.
But what I -- my primary argument is that for people to take a look at the whole system
and see that the system, because of the power of money, because of the dysfunction of our
institutions and because of the transformation of the media, it's really no longer has a
substance of democracy. It's become a kind of Kabuki democracy, where, and sometimes
people tell me I'm misusing the word 'Kabuki' and that I'm unfair to Kabuki Theater. But
it seems to be consistent with people's idea of Kabuki, at least mine.
Which is, that people are sort of acting, going through the motions, without any of
the substance, without any of the actual dialogue and pretending to have a democracy without
the most fundamental aspect of it, being the case, which is that people's vote actually
has the ability to change the system. It's not people's vote. It's people's money. It's
people's influence. And it's people's willingness to behave responsibly in support of their
And with the transformation of our politics in the extreme direction that it's gone in,
and the rewards for that extremism, this problem's only gonna get worse unless we start to take
it seriously. So even though it's complicated and it takes a long time to explain, I personally
don't think we can continue to act as if it isn't there. So thanks for listening.
>>Female Presenter: All right. Questions? Did anyone have any questions? Step up to
the microphone.
>>Eric Alterman: Sure, thank you.
>>Female Audience Member #1: You mentioned the difference between the Republican Party
and the Democratic Party and the discipline that the Republican Party has. What do you
think is best for our country? Because on one hand, you've got the Republican Party
that seems to be more efficient. But on the other hand, you've got the Democratic Party
that seems to believe in the exchange of ideas, ideals and not forcing one person to go with
the bigger party.
>>Eric Alterman: Well, good question. The Republicans have basically purged their moderates
from their party. And they're becoming an ideological party, a conservative party. That's
why there's almost no Republicans in the Northeast, in New England, anymore. And then, no Democrats
anymore in the South. There's about three or four remaining dinosaurs in the Republican
Party, like Olympia Snow, and a couple others in New England. And they will lose their seats
So the Republican Party is a party that is answerable to its activist wing. And if they
don't toe the line, they're shot down and the Democrats are not. The Democrats are an
establishment party, and by and large, a centrist party. By and large, they're always trying
to find what the swing voter wants and give it to them and ask their activists just to
keep quiet and wait their turn.
And if you notice, Barack Obama and his advisors are always making fun of Liberals and saying,
"Oh, they're whining about not getting everything they wanted." Whereas Republicans never do
that. Republicans are very respectful on their base, no matter now crazy they are. Now, in
a parliamentary, parliamentary system, you would want parties like Republican parties
so that everybody's interest could be fairly represented.
So if I happen to have this particular group of -- like, in Israel you've got all these
little parties that represent very particular points of view. You've got like, a dozen parties.
And the only, the only -- they each get to get five percent. They have a threshold of
five percent to be seated in the Parliament. But in our system, you've got a winner take
all system where, where, where if you get one vote more than the other side gets, you
get all of the seats. You get, you get the entire Presidency.
You don't even need a majority. You just need one vote more than anybody else. So it doesn't
make any sense to have anything to try and make your party as small and ideological as
you can in terms of winning. You wanna have a broad coalition to win and then fight it
out once you've won. The problem with that, and I think it's a clear problem for the Democrats,
is that if you have all of these disparate people with disagreements in your party, it's
very hard to say what you stand for, right?
So we know what Republicans believe in. We know what Conservatives believe in. Small
government, less taxes, fewer immigrants, kick ass in the rest of the world, no making
nice with other countries that give us a hard time. But what do the Democrats believe? I
don't think anybody can really explain it. So because our politics are so personalized,
people like to vote for the stronger sounding person.
You have to be really crazy to be too crazy to get elected in this country if you're,
if you sound like you know what you're talking about. So the Republicans have actually stepped
over, because of the Tea Party, they've managed to step over that line a little bit in the
last election. But I think that, it's my impression, and this is just a feeling, this is just a
feeling, but I think it's true, I've been watching this stuff for 30, 40 years.
I think Americans admire people who know what they stand for, who can articulate it, and
who can speak for it in a strong way without hemming and hawing. And that's more important
to them than whether or not they actually agree with what the person's saying. Just
that they vote much more on the strength of personality than they do on the issues. They
don't pay that much attention to the issues.
So I think the Democrats will be much better off with a stronger, more focused, more logical
party than they are with the party they have today, more like the Republicans. I think
the Republicans make more sense. But you could make an argument for the other side, and they
might be right, too. It's a very tough question. Thank you.
>>Male Audience Member #1: First of all, thank you for speaking today. And second, you said
at the end of your talk that we need to take things more seriously. And given the systemic
difficulties that we have, and the fact that, like you said, the President, well, the President
just named his Chief of Staff as someone who came from the financial industry. So any lessons
around the economic problems that we've had are seemingly lost. And how do we, you said
we had to take it more seriously and take our democracy more seriously. So what ways
do you suggest that we do that and what is available to us?
>>Eric Alterman: Oh, boy. Well, I do try and address that in the conclusion of my book.
And it's long and I don't really have any simple answers for that. But I think that
with, what the right has done over the past 40 years is to move the center in their direction.
So that, I mean, Barack Obama. Not only did he choose a guy from the financial industry,
William Daley, but he chose a guy who didn't support his healthcare program; the most important,
the thing he should be proudest of, the thing he put most of his time in, the thing that
his presidency will rise and fall on in terms of what are his signal accomplishments.
He picked a guy who was against all that. And he did it because the narrative demanded
that he move to the center, that he be more friendly to business. Now remember, business
got 90 percent of what it wanted out of the financial bill. They defined the shape of
the healthcare bill. They defeated cap in trade. And yet Obama is perceived as being
In fact, I would say, I know numbers about 30 percent of people consider Obama to be
a socialist, as if we somehow elected a Socialist to be our President. This is, this is the
power of the right-wing media and conservative institutions who began this process in the
early 1970s to redefine the playing field in American politics, and they have succeeded.
And before anything could really be accomplished on the kinds of issues that you raise, the
other side needs to organize itself for a long-term battle of ideas in the same way.
And those investments need to be made. Most of the funders in the Democratic Party now
are the kinds of people who have founded Google and Silicon Valley institutions, entrepreneurs.
And I have nothing at all against entrepreneurs.
They're very important. Where would we be without them? But they want results. They
want quarterly results or maybe annual results at best. And these investments take decades
and the Republicans have spent, they've wasted a lot of money, they're conservatives. They've
wasted a lot of money building their structures because it’s hard to know what will work.
It's impossible to know what will work and you gotta give things time.
And when you think about it from an entrepreneurial standpoint, an awful lot of angel money goes
out the window over time. But the one thing that sticks pays for everything else. And
yet, in politics, this money is expected to show results overnight and so that groups
like the Democracy Alliance, which is all these Democratic billionaires and millionaires,
who've committed a certain number, 800,000 dollars I think, each over a period of, I
don't know exactly what the period is, but a lot of money.
They have a structure that demands all kinds of benchmarks be met that are just not that
appropriate to business, but not appropriate to the world of ideas. And so, the first thing
I would ask for would be patient investing in ideas. That would be number one. And then
number two, I would ask for less caution, less fear, to give voice to one's ideas. That
not, just to, you can take back what you said if it turns out you were wrong. But there's
so much nervousness about being the target.
I mean, when the Gulf War happened, Bill O'Reilly put my picture up on the television screen
as a mug shot 'cause I opposed the Gulf War. Like, I was supposed to, I was guilty of something,
of having a difference of opinion with FOX News. And I was fine with that because I don't
make my living on whether or not FOX News likes me. And none of my friends were gonna
stop being friends with me and I was gonna keep getting invited to parties.
Like, it didn't hurt me in any way and actually, I enjoyed it. But if you're in, if you're
not, if you're in the real world, it can be really scary. It can be a real problem for
you, particularly as they get meaner and meaner and occasionally, people get shot or get threatened.
One of my colleagues at CUNY is now the target of a Glenn Beck attack. That is quite scary.
The New York Times wrote an article about it this week, about how she's getting death
threats and Beck is using really incendiary language about her.
And she's just writing articles about politics. So we need a little bit more courage and we
need a longer term investment. And we need to, we need to ape their ability to discipline
themselves. That would be, I guess, the three broad categories. Thank you.
>>Female Presenter: Yes.
>>Eric Alterman: Well, thanks for listening. I enjoyed it. Thank you very much for having