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John Dean onThe Return of Nixonian Politics, on Steroids

Douglas Caddy

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September 23, 2011


Published in VERDICT


Gaming American Democracy: How New Republican Techniques Seek to Change the Political System Itself

This is the first in a series of columns by Mr. Dean, which will examine the new techniques being employed by Republicans to alter the political landscape. – Ed.

Conservative operatives with almost unlimited money (provided by wealthy supporters) have been very busy, over the past few years, changing American political processes and, thus, the way politics and government are undertaken, to favor Republican policies and candidates. So far, they have been remarkably successful and they may even be able to change the political playing field in time for the 2012 presidential election, tilting the landscape to favor a GOP candidate. There is only one problem with what they are doing, which is the way they are doing it.

Most Americans, unfortunately, are unaware of these activities.

Voters and the Media Are Largely Ignoring the Return of Nixonian Politics, on Steroids

While the so-called Tea Party’s antics always attract public and media attention, the heavy lifting in the effort to change our political processes is being accomplished mostly behind closed doors, through the efforts of experienced conservative GOP operatives. These men and women have been quietly and steadily going after what they want: control of the political processes, which they can then translate into greater political power.

To reach their goals, conservative leaders are blatantly gaming the system. They are going where they have never ventured before, and conducting politics in a way that has never been seen before in America, by exploiting constitutional gaps, working in the crannies and crevices of our system, and proceeding both openly and privately to empower themselves in a manner that would never succeed at the ballot box if it were fully understood.

The story about these activities has been largely ignored, or at most incidentally reported, by the mainstream news media. While some of this activity is merely hard-nosed, real-world politics at its ugliest, other undertakings are conspicuously abusive, and, indeed, reminiscent of what I saw when inside the Nixon White House.

Watergate ended most of this kind of political activity, at least for a while, but now it has returned with a vengeance. It’s Nixonian no-holds-barred-style politics, on steroids. For this reason, in this, and periodic subsequent columns, I plan to set forth reports of the remarkable, often unseemly, and at times illegal assault that conservatives have launched to alter our political practices and procedures to favor conservative candidates, policies and programs.

With this first column, I hope to provide an overview and introduction to this subject. Later columns will examine the details. So stay tuned.

FYI: I have previously worked out my research and thinking for three New York Times best-selling books in my columns. Whether this current effort will become a book, I do not know, because publishers are never sure about these types of stories—a fact that I believe encourages this type of behavior. So I will proceed a step at a time. Nonetheless, I enjoy writing on topics about which I have strong feelings when others are ignoring the matter, and that is the situation here.

The Reasons This Attempt to Profoundly Transform Our Political System Is Receiving Only Incidental News Coverage

This story—the story of the attempted transformation of our political system itself—has been mostly ignored for two reasons. First, because it deals with political and governmental process. It is conventional wisdom among news people (in both print and television journalism), as well as among many mainstream book publishers, that the American public does not care to be told about so-called “process issues.” This is apparently true, notwithstanding the fact that the political party that controls the processes can control the policy and government.

Authors who have written about process issues tell me that not only have they had difficulty getting published, but if they do, readers are, in fact, hard to come by. Because I know the importance of process, and its overriding influence on politics and government, I am very interested in these matters, so I do not understand the general disinterest that authors face when they seek to write about these vital topics.

There is a second reason for the disinterest, too—and an even more troubling one. Today’s mainstream news organizations are largely controlled by major corporations, which are profit-driven like never before. Most members of corporate management lean toward Republican views, and while top corporate executives typically give their news editors and producers great leeway, news organizations do not go out of their way to annoy their corporate bosses. The big money that is involved in reshaping America’s political processes has been, and will continue to be, a wonderful source of revenue for these organizations. News organizations need advertisers, and they love all the disingenuous advertisements that this political undertaking is generating.

Given these attitudes and institutional realities, the mainstream news media could care less about the impact, meaning, and means involved in changing the political processes to favor conservatives. (Ironically, Watergate, too, was initially a non-story with the national press, and it continued on that way for almost ten months after the arrests of burglars in the Democratic National Committee—because much of the story involved process, at first, and also because news organizations did not want to annoy a mean-spirited sitting president.)

I can think of no better place to start telling the story of how America’s political processes are being co-opted and transformed, than with the Tea Party, which is the tip of the conservative iceberg that is now floating through our political waters.

The Tea Party Facade

I addressed the Tea Party movement in an earlier column, reporting that there is little that is new about the Party’s players, a collection of existing conservative groups who have long resided at the radical fringe of the Republican Party. They are the authoritarian followers, plus a few of their leaders, who can, together, accurately be described by their personalities and political dispositions as authoritarian conservatives. (Not all conservatives are authoritarians, but virtually all authoritarians are conservatives.)

The Tea Party is more a rebranding, than a genuinely new movement. When you study the poll numbers, it is clear that only a small number of conservatives consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement. These fringe groups have always been fringe groups, but they form the activist base of the GOP. According to Gallup, 41 percent of Americans consider themselves conservatives; 36 percent, moderates; and 21 percent, liberals. Yet a contemporaneous New York Times poll shows that only 20 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Tea Party, while 40 percent have an unfavorable view. And, more tellingly, only 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, with only 4 percent of Americans having ever attended a Tea Party meeting or given money to the Tea Party.

In light of its small numbers, what accounts for the Tea Party’s prominence? It is the result of the handful of always-camera-ready political figures and candidates who claim allegiance with the movement. These include Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rand and Ron Paul, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharon Angle—to name a few.

CNN (oddly and inexplicably) recently chose to partner with the Tea Party Express to present a CNN/Tea Party Presidential Debate, a decision that gave the Tea Party added publicity and credibility. (I was surprised to find CNN so hard-up for a debate partner.) Former Republican leader of the House of Representatives Dick Armey has been active with the movement through Freedom Works, which appears well funded. But there is no Tea Party per se, only a disjointed movement that has served, and continues to serve, as a nice façade—deflecting and diverting public attention while true leaders, and the major players in the conservative movement, have plotted and executed their efforts to change the political landscape.

The real story here is not the Tea Party; rather, it is the actions of conservative Republican mayors, governors, state legislators, members of the U.S. Congress, former federal officials (from mid-level and high-level posts) now working on behalf of conservative causes, and of conservative lobbyists and lawyers, both in Washington and scattered around the country. These people surely find the Tea Party useful as a distraction from what they are trying to do.

The New Conservative Power Game

Contemporary GOP heavies, the men, and a few women, who understand how the game can be played, appreciate that our democracy is fragile, and that it operates largely on the good will of everyone, which makes it easily susceptible to abuse. As conservative operatives have undertaken nationwide efforts to adjust and change the political processes to their advantage, they have taken advantage of the good will of others, disregarding the regular order and the assumptions of regularity that have long prevailed in America’s politics and governance. This approach caught opponents flatfooted, totally off-guard.

Interestingly, as best I can tell, these disruptive moves and changes are, in only a few instances, centralized and highly coordinated. More often, these efforts are simply sua sponte—a case of like minds thinking alike, or noticing what other others are doing. To the best of my knowledge, this is not a conspiratorial undertaking, nor the work of a closed and well-connected network. Yet these people do appear to keep others who are interested well informed.

For me, understanding what had been going on has been like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without a picture. So far, I have found no mastermind or master plan, but there is no question that those who are part of this loose coalition are working like beavers, and pursuing any opportunity that arises. Some of the techniques are old, while others are very new. What has become conspicuous from this inquiry, so far, is that conservatives are now operating with new political norms, and at levels that were once considered extreme, but are now standard operating procedure. This does not bode well for our system.

Some Examples of How Extreme Tactics Are Being Adopted by Republicans as Merely Standard Operating Procedure

A few examples from my growing catalogue should make the point:

Conservatives are now demanding and enforcing absolute GOP party discipline, and trying to impose it at all levels of government, tolerating no exceptions. They are willing to shut down any and all government operations if that is needed to serve their interest and get their way. They recognize no comity or courtesy in any cross-party situations that are not to their advantage. They have made civility the exception, rather than the rule. They will lie and mislead to accomplish what is necessary and conservative “thinkers” have abandoned intellectual honesty for the cause. They are hell-bent on changing as many processes of government as possible to always favor Republican rule, whether they are in the minority or majority. They are changing the rules by which we elect officials to favor the election and selection of conservative Republicans. They are making it more difficult for anyone who is not a Republican to vote. They are blatantly engaging in extreme obstructionism to damage any non-Republican incumbent office-holder’s ability to perform in office. They operate behind closed doors whenever possible and always when in power. To accomplish their goals, they are raising and injecting literally countless billions—I repeat, billions—of dollars into manipulating local, state, and national legislative actions and elections to their advantage. Finally, they have—almost inconspicuously—altered every branch and level of government as they have proceeded.

No one has seriously challenged these efforts, but surely others can see the activities I have noticed, and the pattern they reveal. Democrats, it appears, have decided to look the other way, and only when public outrage has erupted—as happened in Wisconsin, when Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to change the process became conspicuous—has there been any effort to prevent them from operating outside traditional conventional constitutional boundaries. So they continue, and in some areas, they are becoming increasingly aggressive.

As I report on such developments in this series of columns, I will share my thoughts about possible countermeasures. But for many of these actions, there is no easy fix, because those who perpetrate them are exploiting the flaws, and working in the underbelly, of our system.

A Closing Thought: Federalist No. 10’s Solution Is Not Applicable Here

When you delve into any radical conservative activity, you quickly become drenched in all their constitutional rhetoric, for it is endless. The GOP’s radical fringe worships our Constitution—or what they believe our Constitution says, which has little to do with reality. Thus, in tracking their new power plays, I found myself thinking about James Madison’s warning in Federalist No. 10, a warning that contemporary conservatives ignore. Madison, it will be recalled, addressed what conservatives are now doing when he discussed the threat that factions pose to our constitutional system.

Madison described a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion or of interests, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.” Madison found factions to be incapable of self-restraint, and pointed out that, for them, “neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.” He believed that the danger from factions was very real, since they foster “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

Madison concluded that it was inevitable that factions could not be eliminated, because America could only do so at the expense of freedom itself. Rather, he believed that the effects of factions would be controlled by the very nature of a representative system, where interests are delegated to representatives, and those representatives then deliberate away from local concerns. When there are a sufficient number of representatives, who cover a large and growing country, Madison felt, these representatives would be thinking of the greater good. And, that emphasis on the greater good—the good of the whole nation—would check factional thinking. Madison’s thinking, however, did not contemplate the arrival of political parties, nor did he conceive of a party’s becoming so tightly controlled that it could operate to serve only a narrow self-interest, rather than the public interest. In short, we do not have an institutional check, deriving from the Constitution or any other source, on today’s activities.

Nor do I have answers yet, but I am looking. Actually, I am still gathering facts, and will be doing so for months to come. If you have thoughts or information about the matters that I have broadly described here, I hope you will share them. Please tweet me. Based upon the thoughts and information of a few who are very concerned, we might clarify this matter for all.

John W. Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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