George Lakoff: In Politics, Progressives Need to Frame Their Values

Source: George Lakoff

Author: Truthout interview Mark Karlin

Emphasis Mine

The following is a Truthout interview with Professor George Lakoff about his latest effort, THE ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!, to convince progressives to “frame” their political language and appeals based on deep-seated and active values. These are positions and actions that most of the public supports, but absent appropriate “framing” often vote their fears instead of progressive beliefs. It is necessary to ground a nurturing politics for the common good and core values in language and a moral foundation that appeals – rhetorically and emotionally – to the better selves of voters.

Mark Karlin: Before we get into the new edition of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, THE ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!, I wanted to ask you a bit more about something you said to me in a conversation at your home awhile back. You noted that it’s not surprising that Republicans are more persuasive than Democrats because they are more skilled at selling and marketing. Does this also relate to the prevalence of consumer advertising in the US that convinces people to buy things that they don’t need or want?

George Lakoff: The marketing profession uses knowledge about the mind, the brain, language, imagery, emotions, the framing of experiences and products, personal and social identity, and normal modes of thought that lead to action and that change brains over time. Marketing professors in business schools study results in these areas and teach courses on how to market most effectively. Again, they study normal modes of thought – the way people really reason. It would be strange to call such modes of thought “irrational” since they are the forms of reason that we have evolved to get us through life.

In short, marketers take results from my field – cognitive science – the field that does scientific research on real reason, on how people really think. Marketers know very well that most thought is unconscious – the usual estimate is about 98 percent. They use their knowledge of how unconscious thought works. And they know that consumers are not aware of how knowledge of the science of mind is being used to sell them products that often they don’t need or may actually harm them.

Can you talk a little about progressives who are surprised that rational arguments don’t win elections?

Cognitive scientists study how people really think – how brains work, how we get ideas out of neurons, how framing and metaphorical thought work, the link between language and thought, and so on.

But other academic fields have not been using these results, especially, political science, public policy, law, economics, in short, the main areas studied by progressives who go into politics. As a result, they teach an inadequate view of reason and “rationality.” They miss the fact that our brains are structured by hundreds of conceptual metaphors and frames early in life, that we can only understand what our brains allow, and that conservatives and progressives have acquired different brain circuitry with the consequence that their normal modes of reason are different.

What progressives call “rational arguments” are not normal modes of real reason. What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different. Cognitive linguists have learned a lot about how all this works, but few progressives have studied cognitive linguistics. For a thorough review of such differences, take a look at my book Whose Freedom?, which shows how reasoning about freedom can take two utterly different forms for progressives and conservatives.

You have a section in the ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! devoted to metaphors of terror. How can progressives successfully respond to a use of fear since 9/11 to manipulate the public? We are seeing the fear factor at work most recently with ISIS and Ebola.

That’s the wrong question. You don’t “respond.” Progressives constantly ask how to “respond” to illegitimate claims by conservatives, whether about fear or anything else. That is because conservatives have an effective communication system and progressives do not, and conservative marketers better understand real reason. To deal with illegitimate fears, you don’t wait till you have to respond. You need (1) to build an effective communication system, (2) to communicate the general progressive value system, (3) repeat the truths that reveal what is right about those values, (4) act with courage to promote the sense of courage, confidence and hope that allows the truth to be meaningful and powerful. Within such a context, one can honestly and openly discuss the facts that undermine such fears, so that the illegitimate fears don’t get established in the first place.

But no such system is in place. What now? Once an illegitimate fear is out there when we really are safe, you need constant repetition of the real situation and congratulations for the administration for making us safe under difficult conditions. This has to be said by many, many people in all kinds of situations, never defensively, never answering conservative charges.

Of course there are real fears – like climate change, dangerous forms of corporate power, real diseases like ebola and governance vacuums that allow barbarous regimes to form. They have to be met by real understanding as they begin to arise, the courage to name them and study them, effective communication and real action. Slogans are not “responses.” Linguistic sniping is not a “response.” There is work for progressives to do, and it can be done.

You have always emphasized that political language must be grounded in moral values. You have a chapter in your book on “freedom issues.” How can progressives reframe the idea of freedom to gain broader electoral support?

Progressives don’t have to reframe freedom. Most Americans have a deep, but unconscious sense of what it is that holds them back, making life hard, treating them unfairly, oppressing their spirits, threatening their futures and creating real pain – in short, what denies them freedom in so many of the realms of life. They may be very different from each other and there may be dozens of them, but they have to all be named as denials of freedom, because they are.

Naming and framing are different. Framing is conceptual, it is about ideas that allow you to understand what you are experiencing. Naming is giving language to those ideas – often ideas you already have, possibly as part of your unconscious brain mechanisms. Naming can make the unconscious conscious.

Democracy is a governing system in which citizens care about their fellow citizens and work through their government to provide public resources for all. In short, in a democracy, the private depends on the public. Businesses depend on public resources: roads, bridges, the interstate highway system, sewers, a water supply, airports and air traffic control, the Federal Reserve, a patent office, public education for your employees, public health, the electric grid, the satellite communications, the internet, and more. Individuals depend on public resources like clean air, clean water, safe food and products, public safety, access to education and health care, housing, employment – as well as everything listed above. Without such public resources, you are not free.

Do you think that Elizabeth Warren does a good job of conveying that, in your words, “the private depends on the public”?

She does it better than anyone else in public life. She sees the truth and has the courage and articulateness to say it out loud and effectively.

The Democratic party right now seems outwardly to stand for nothing in general, just a laundry list of positions. But most Democrats understand that “the private depends on the public,” namely, that public resources for all allow for private freedoms, whether in private enterprise or private life. Republicans talk about freedom all the time, but the Democrats are the real party of freedom and need to say it. The truth of progressive freedoms is part of what we take for granted, so much part of the fabric of our lives that we don’t pay attention to it. Naming it makes you pay so much part of the fabric of our lives that we don’t pay attention to it. Naming it makes you pay attention to it.

Why does it only reinforce the right-wing message to denounce their positions in political ads – and in do so repeating them – rather than affirming positive moral programs and perspectives?

Don’t think of an elephant! You’ll think of an elephant. Negating a frame reinforces the frame, makes it stronger. There are implicit negatives, like “I’m the honest candidate in this campaign.” When you affirm your own positions and speak positively, you undermine the opposition implicitly. When you go on the offensive, you put them on the defensive. If they have to negate your positions, they will be helping to reinforce yours.

Let’s look back on the Obama campaign of hope and change in 2008. Would it be fair to say that he used many of your framing principles in his successful rise from obscurity? However, when he began governing he largely abandoned the underlying values of the framing he had articulated when running for the presidency. How do you react to that assessment, in general?

Obama is complex. On the one hand, I think he had and still has those principles: He spoke of empathy as the most important thing his mother taught him, and I believe he meant it. Yes, I had been writing about it since I published Moral Politics in 1996, but I wrote about it because progressives have it and it is central in our politics.

On the other hand, Obama was clear from the start that, as he said out loud when he was a senator, in order to become a senator and do any worthwhile things, he felt he had to pay attention to the interests of major Illinois industries. That, he said, made him a pragmatist.

Obama is also a rationalist; that is, he has the false theory of human reason that many progressive policymakers have and that he mastered in law school and teaching law. According to classic rationalism, if you just tell people the facts, then by universal logic, people will reason to the right conclusion. For example, the president thought that if the public liked each of the major provisions of his health care bill, they would support the whole bill. They still like each provision. Conservatives never attacked the major provisions. Instead they attacked it on two moral grounds: Freedom (government takeover) and Life (death panels). These are not the same issues so far as our brains are concerned, and morality is more of a determinant of personal identity than the details of insurance. The conservative manipulation of real reason won out over the repetition of insurance provisions. Yes, the provisions work. And so does the conservative moral framing.

On the one side, Obama and other Dems are hemmed in by a false theory of human reason. On the other side, they are trapped by an overwhelming force: the consultant army, the infrastructure of PR firms, pollsters, consultants, etc.

Polls impose artificial bell curves that suggest that there is unified “middle,” that most voters are there, and that the Democratic candidates need move to the right, and if the president polls badly, then the candidates should dissociate themselves from him. These strategies and others are self-defeating. Yet the candidates, the elected officials, the party members, and the media have all become dependent on the consultant army. They accept the need for: (1) the pollsters to segment the populations and decide who to target with what list of issues, (2) PR firms to create talking points and make ads, and (3) opposition researchers to attack and negate what the other side says.

I suspect that Obama has been trapped a number of times by the consultant infrastructure that advised him to go against his principles, supposedly to gain political support. It was predictable that it could not work and it didn’t. For details, see my Truthout piece from Nov. 6, 2014. Change is possible, but harder now.

What are some frames to counter “government by corporation”?

Again, it is a matter of naming a single truth: Corporations govern your life in many, many ways for their benefit, not yours. Name what people already experience and resent for good reason. How do corporations govern your life for their benefit, not yours?

Start with your health insurance company and your internet and cell phone providers. Continue with all the times you call for customer service, get a robot voice, have to press a bunch of buttons, and then wait on the phone for half an hour to an hour – or be directed to a website, where you have to spend lots of your time. You are working for the corporation – when you spend your time, the company saves money on hiring human beings and makes more profit. You are contributing to their profit with your time, which is part of your life, and hardly a pleasant part.

Oil companies – our wealthiest corporations – are destroying the planet for their short-term profit. Corporations govern your life by putting hidden carcinogens and other poisons in your food, cosmetics, furniture, etc. for their profit, not your health. For details, go to These are facts. In isolation, one-by-one, they are just a laundry list. Isolated facts don’t help. Together they tell a truth: Corporations govern your life for their profit not yours, in all those ways. Name it. Repeat it. We need reform at the deepest level.

You write, “remember that voters vote their identity and their values, which need not coincide with their self-interest.” I remember writing a commentary on a poor congressional district, let’s say about 98 percent white, in Kentucky. Most of the residents were on food stamps, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid – or all of them. However, they have voted in recent elections by landslide majorities to re-elect a congressman who opposes food stamps and supports cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Can you elaborate on how this can occur?

A single moral worldview dominates conservative policies in every domain of life – family, personal identity, sex, religion, sports, education, the market, foreign policy and politics – what I’ve called strict father morality. Your moral worldview is central to how you understand your life.

In a strict father family, the father is in charge and is assumed to know right from wrong, to have moral as well as physical authority. He is supposed to protect the family, support the family, set the rules, enforce the rules, maintain respect, govern sexuality and reproduction, and teach his kids right from wrong, that is, to grow up with the same moral system. His word defines what is right and is law; no backtalk. Disobedience is punished, painfully, so that children learn not to disobey. Via physical discipline, they learn internal discipline, which is how they become moral beings. With discipline they can become prosperous.

If you are not prosperous, you are not disciplined enough, not taking enough personal responsibility and deserve your poverty. At the center is the principle of personal responsibility and moral hierarchy: those who are more moral (in this sense of morality) should rule: God over man, man over nature, parents over children, the rich over the poor, Western culture over non-Western culture, America over other countries, men over women, straights over gays, Christians over non-Christians, etc.

On conservative religion, God is a strict father; in sports, coaches are strict with their athletes; in classrooms, teachers should be strict with students; in business, employers rule over employees; in the market, the market should decide – the market itself is the strict father, deciding that those who have financial discipline deserve their wealth, and others deserve their poverty; and in politics, this moral system itself should rule.

Conservatives can be poor, but they can still be kings in their own castles – strict fathers at home, in their personal identity: in their religion, in their sex lives, in the sports they love. Poor conservatives vote their identity as conservatives, not their lack of material wealth.

One of your last chapters is on how individuals can respond to conservatives. What are some key strategies?

Not everyone functions with just one worldview in every aspect of life. Many, if not most, people are primarily either strict or nurturant, but partly the other in some areas of life. I call them bi-conceptuals, since they have in their brains both worldviews – each inhibiting the other – and applying those worldviews to different ranges of issues. With respect to political issues, those who are mostly one, but partly the other, are called “moderates.” But there is no one shared moral or political ideology of the moderate. Moderates differ on what they are moderate about and what their primary worldview is.

The existence of bi-conceptuals is hopeful. Conservatives who hold some progressive policies that are governed by the nurturant worldview, can have that nurturant worldview appealed to and strengthened. But that requires hearing progressive language and thinking progressive thoughts that will strengthen the progressive worldview already there in his or her brain.

In personal interactions, as over the Thanksgiving table with conservative relatives or in your social or business life with colleagues and coworkers, the first thing to realize is that, for the most part, conservatives believe deeply that they are morally right, that they and other conservatives are operating from the right moral principles. They don’t believe that they are immoral, and they don’t believe that right and wrong don’t matter. As moral beings, they want to be treated with respect. And in personal relationships, respect is appropriate.

The question is whether they are bi-conceptual, whether they have partly progressive values. So turn the conversation to an issue defined by nurturance: What have you done, or are you doing, that helps other people or helps your community? What makes you feel good about it? And so on. If there is nurturance there, bring it out and magnify it, and respect it. Try to keep conversation focused on such issues. Don’t try to argue against their conservative positions, and certainly not in their language. Listen. Be patient.

If you must discuss political differences, just be positive, starting with your values and with how you understand freedom and how it arises from citizens working together to provide public resources for everyone. Use your language, not theirs. Stay respectful.

In conclusion, I would like to add something for my fellow Truthout readers. There are deep truths that are known about how brains work, how our unconscious minds work, and the effect of language on the mind and brain. Those are vital truths, because only by mastering and using them can you avoid the traps of laundry list truths, truths that don’t add up to the communication of general progressive values, truths that have given us a Democratic Party that seems not to stand for any overriding value. Lists of truths that are not made meaningful by values are destined to be ignored. Make truths matter. Wed truths to values.


Margaret Thatcher Was a Privatization Pioneer, and This Is the Story of How Her Agenda Did Nothing But Make Life Worse for Millions of People

From: Michael Hudson’s blog, via alternet

Author: Michael Hudson

As in Chile, privatization in Britain was a victory for Chicago monetarism. This time it was implemented democratically. In fact, voters endorsed Margaret Thatcher’s selloff of public industries so strongly that by 1991, when she was replaced as prime minister by her own party’s John Major, only 35 percent of Britain’s voters supported the Labour Party – half the proportion registered in 1945. The Conservatives sold off public monopolies, used the proceeds to cut taxes, and put the privatized firms on a profit-making basis. Their stock prices rose sharply, making capital gains for investors whose ranks included millions of Britons who had been employees and/or customers of these enterprises.

Yet by 1997 the Conservatives were voted out of office by one of the largest margins in their history. What concerned voters were the results of privatization that Mrs. Thatcher had not warned them about. Prices did not decline proportionally to cost cuts and productivity gains. Many services were cut back, especially on the least utilized transport routes. The largest privatized bus company was charged with cut-throat monopoly practices. The water system broke down, while consumer charges leapt. Electricity prices were shifted against residential consumers in favor of large industrial users. Economic inequality widened as the industrial labor force shrunk by two million from 1979 to 1997, while wages stagnated in the face of soaring profits for the privatized companies. The tax cuts financed by their selloff turned out to benefit mainly the rich.

Opinion polls showed that voters had opposed privatization at the outset (as did the press and many Conservative back benchers), but the Conservatives pointed out that Tony Blair rode to victory in part by abandoning “Clause Four” of the Labour Party’s 1904 constitution, advocating state control over the means of production, distribution and exchange. Most voters wanted tighter regulation in the public interest, but not a return to state ownership. On the other hand, they feared the prospect of selling off the post office, the BBC and the London tube (subway) system.

Nearly everyone agreed that companies were run differently in private hands than was the case under public ownership, even when the same managers remained in charge. Privatization was praised by Mrs. Thatcher and her allies – and blamed by many others – for managing these companies to generate capital gains for stockholders rather than to serve broader social ends.

Many people did not believe that essential public-sector industries should be run as commercial gain-seeking enterprises. Among the norms of public service, making a profit certainly was not one of the yardsticks used by the bureaucracy put in charge of these companies. Public-sector labor unions aimed more at maintaining employment than at producing revenue for the state as owner. The purpose of taxes, after all, was to subsidize basic services to the population.

This attitude had long been shared by many Conservatives, as well as by Labour. When Benjamin Disraeli created the Conservative Party in its modern form in the mid-nineteenth century (replacing the old royalist Tory Party), his major ideological adversary was not socialism but the free-trade liberalism that led Britain to repeal its protectionist agricultural tariffs (the Corn Laws) in 1846. Indeed, as a novelist Disraeli sought to expose the horrors of unbridled laissez faire. In Sybil, or The Two Nations, written in 1845 (three years before the Communist Manifesto), he described the rich and the poor as constituting “two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, and . . . who are not governed by the same laws.” His novel assigned the loftiest ideals to Sybil, the daughter of a factory worker, but placed his hopes in a morally regenerate aristocracy. And in due course, Disraeli’s social welfare legislation, especially the public health system introduced from 1874 to 1881 (he said that his motto was Sanitas sanitatum, “Health, all is health”), helped the Conservative Party evolve as a nationalist and sometimes “state socialist” party, especially after World War II under Harold Macmillan in the 1960s and even Edward Heath in the ‘70s.

But it was the Labour Party that pressed for nationalization of the major industries. Fabian socialists such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and other wealthy opinion-makers typified the degree to which many of Britain’s leading upper-class intellectuals supported nationalization as a cure for the ills of industrial capitalism. Indeed, the aristocracy underwent a schooling in personal economic values that resembled of those of ancient Greece and Rome in their disdain for the idea that one’s life should be devoted to so lowly a purpose as commercial gain-seeking.

Britain’s government was controlled about half of the postwar period by the British Labour Party, which in turn was controlled by the trade unions. This gave the unions more political power than in any other country. Conversely, the Labour Party’s strength was based on the unions. Most workers employed by the public utilities and other government enterprises belonged Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU). Although the number of individual party members was relatively small, all of the TGWU’s approximately one million members were deemed to belong simply by virtue of their union membership. The union’s general secretary cast their votes as a bloc at the Labour Party’s annual convention.

Trade unions were given broad privileges in 1906, subsequently restricted by the Trade Disputes Act of 1929 passed largely in retaliation against the 1926 general strike. This act made it mandatory for union members to opt in to the payment of the union’s political levy to the Labour Party. After World War II the rule was changed to give unions a right to opt out of paying the political levy. This had the ironic effect of placing the Labour party finances more firmly in the hands of the union leaders. At the Labour Party conferences these leaders voted on behalf of all their members who had paid the levy. The TGWU thus was placed in a position to cast one million of the party’s roughly six million votes.

Labour endorsed the nationalization of industry so as to serve the interests of workers. As noted above, Clause Four of its 1918 constitution (added in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I) called for the state to control the means of production, distribution and exchange. In 1945 the incoming Labour government nationalized the gas and electric utilities, as well as most transport lines that remained municipally or privately owned. Nearly all were run at a loss, which duly was covered by public subsidy.

World War II had been the great catalyst for faith in public ownership and national planning. Some four-fifths of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) was commandeered by the government. By the end of the 1940s most utilities and natural monopolies were in public ownership at the national or local level, or (as in the case of water) were held by public companies with restricted returns for the owners of their equity shares. The coal mines, gas and electric utilities, road transport and railways all were nationalized. The foundations and basic cost structure of Britain’s economy thus were shaped by these public utilities, public housing and socialized medicine, not to mention British Petroleum (BP) and, in time, the government’s North Sea oil holdings. And in due course the automotive, steel and aircraft sectors were rescued from collapse by being nationalized, henceforth to be run at heavy losses subsidized by taxpayers.

Clement Atlee’s Labour government of 1945-51 cited five reasons for nationalizing British industry. As Mrs. Thatcher’s Treasury Chancellor Nigel Lawson. has summarized, the first reason was to improve industrial relations. In practice, he retorted, this meant caving in to the trade union leaders, especially inasmuch as a second objective of postwar nationalization was to ensure full employment. The effect was to inflate wage rates through make-work programs and featherbedding.

A third reason for nationalization was to maximize productivity gains, by removing absentee rentier owners from the scene. The actual result, pointed out the Thatcherites, was an uneconomic management of the labor force. Nationalization also had focused on regulating natural monopolies in the public-interest – that is, by politicians – by administering prices and providing service on a basis other than profit objectives. The monetarists would argue that straight profit objectives were more efficient.

A fifth argument for nationalization had been the strongest. It was intended to replace short-term profit maximization by wider national and social priorities. But governments tend to live just as much in the short run as do corporate managers. More to the point, politicians seek to win votes by placating labor on the eve of elections. “The nationalized industries,” argued Lawson, “so far from improving industrial relations, proved the source of the biggest threat to industrial peace – doubtless because of the combination of centralized union power and recourse to the bottomless public purse.” At least, this argument was more understandable in 1979 than it had been in 1949.

If it seemed that government enterprise could succeed where private management failed, the reason was to be found largely in its claim on the public purse. The losses run up by these enterprises were financed by income taxes whose rates for business and the upper brackets were among the world’s highest, as were inheritance taxes. Indeed, many considered Britain to have been turned into Europe’s most socialist economy after 1945. Yet the objective seemed not to be the provision of efficient service at world-class levels. Public housing, originally a showpiece, deteriorated into what some called “modernist trash,” while the telephone system remained archaic. Public bureaucracies came to be seen as personal baronies whose administrators made little attempt to apply business methods or cost accounting. Yet their book cost far exceeded the stock-market valuation of private companies.

Most Conservatives acquiesced in the idea of national planning as the government increased its share of the economy from 40 per cent to over 60 per cent by the late 1970s. As Mrs. Thatcher observed, “It was, after all, none other than Harold Macmillan who in 1938 proposed in his influential book The Middle Way to extend state control and planning over a wide range of production and services.” Most social legislation since World War II was bipartisan, including the new National Health Service and the National Insurance legislation of 1946. Running a public enterprise was prestigious for many members of the upper classes. And the government was willing to bail out industries when they went bankrupt, with full compensation to investors – something that the market could not have done.

Margaret Thatcher’s Monetarist World View

Mrs. Thatcher has described how her upbringing living over her father’s grocery store in the small town of Grantham shaped her impressions of how society worked. “There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop.” It was an experience that inoculated her “against the conventional economic wisdom of post-war Britain,” that is, the faith in government planning and the disdain felt among the literati for entrepreneurial values. Hers was the world of “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues cultivated and esteemed in that environment.”

This Babbitt-like view of the world did not prepare her to think about the economic impact of debt, a serious blind spot for nearly all monetarists. She confessed that her idea of debt management was based balancing the family checkbook, as if this was a proper analogy for public finance and government control of the printing press and a central bank to create money at will. To Mrs. Thatcher a government deficit simply meant more debt, and hence more taxes to be paid. “Thrift was a virtue and profligacy a vice,” she wrote. Taxes were “a deterrent to work,” not the means by which vital public services were supplied. It was as if such services had no economic value. Income policies were epitomized by the undeserving poor living better on state subsidies in public council housing than hard-working families who struggled to pay their rent or meet their mortgage payments. This was a view reflecting middle class resentment against subsidized services extended to families lower on the economic scale.

One does not learn much about macroeconomics from a store. A shopkeeper buys what already has been produced; how it is made is not of much concern. In fact, Mrs. Thatcher’s world view was naturally akin to that of Chicago School monetarism. The focus was simply on how to undercut the prices of one’s competitors, preferably by cutting taxes and the costly social welfare schemes on which they were spent.

The ideological pedigree for the Chicago School’s narrow-minded economics was provided by Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman. Hayek’s most famous book,The Road to Serfdom(1944), opposed any and all government planning in principle as leading inevitably to either fascist or Communist authoritarianism. When Keith Joseph gave Mrs. Thatcher a copy of this book she readily responded to his hard line. “Hayek saw that Nazism – national socialism – had its roots in nineteenth-century German social planning. He showed that intervention by the state in one area of the economy or society gave rise to almost irresistible pressures to extend planning further into other sectors. He alerted us to the profound, indeed revolutionary, implications of state planning for Western civilization as it had grown up over the centuries.” This would underlie her opposition to European unification under the Maastricht Treaty.

To most people the government appeared as the benign sponsor of the welfare state that emerged from World War II’s mobilization. But by the late 1970s the sclerosis of public industries threatened to make Britain economically ungovernable. In these circumstances the Chicago School’s anti-statism found an increasingly fertile intellectual ground.

It was natural for self-made people such as Margaret Thatcher to prefer a private-sector market economy to a state bureaucracy. Private enterprise beholden to shareholders hardly can afford patronage and cronyism. Of former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s broad and inclusive politics, she acknowledged disdainfully that “The traditional economic liberalism which constituted so important a part of my political make-up . . . was often alien and uncongenial to Conservatives from a more elevated social background.”

She and her supporters stood more in the tradition of the old Liberal Party, dressing up the ideas of Adam Smith in monetarist Chicago garb, seeing in government planning a road to serfdom at worst, and incompetence at best. She warned against the dangers of inflation spurred by government borrowing, but said little about private debt.

Mrs. Thatcher thus was ideologically harder than her pragmatic Conservative predecessor Edward Heath, and represented a break from her party’s traditions. She admired what the Chicago Boys had done in Chile, and would find kindred monetarist souls among Russian “reformists”. “Let us glory in our inequality,” she preached at one banquet, explaining that more inequality meant that more wealth was being created by “savers” at the top of the economic pyramid, presumably to trickle down via new direct investment. However, she recognized that such policies could be introduced in England only by an elected government. The task she set before herself was to win British voters to support her reforms voluntarily, for imposing them by armed force was out of the question.

It was taken as a matter of faith that financial gains would be invested in upgrading the enterprises once they were privatized, installing new machinery and hiring more labor to provide better service while increasing output at falling prices. Workers were invited to think of themselves as finance-capitalists-in-miniature, earning dividends and capital gains by investing their savings in the shares in these companies. This was the essence of Mrs. Thatcher’s “popular capitalism.” In her pursuit of these objectives the Iron Lady became Britain’s first prime minister to be elected for three consecutive terms, to retain this office for over ten consecutive years, and to have an “ism” named after her.

But first, she had to convince her fellow Conservatives. This became her major initial fight, within her own party.

How British Monetarism Planned the Neo-Conservative Takeover

No economic theory can be promoted successfully today without institutional sponsorship. In America, monetarist ideas were spread by policy institutes such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. Likewise in England, if the history of privatization is dominated by Margaret Thatcher, her victory was largely a product of British monetarism’s main policy institute, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), founded in 1974 by her mentor Keith Joseph (then a Member of Parliament). With Mrs. Thatcher as its President, the CPS used the economic philosophy of Frederick Hayek (the “father of monetarism”) and Milton Friedman to launch the “Thatcher Interlude” that culminated in 1979 with her election as Prime Minister.

Britain could claim the Austrian-born Hayek as one of its own. He had become a British citizen in 1938, and held the Tooke Chair in economics at London from 1931 to 1950. (Ironically, Thomas Tooke was the great anti-monetarist, a century and a half earlier, in the 1830s.) To help spread his political philosophy, he helped create the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1957, the Adam Smith Institute in 1977 (serving as its first chairman), and the Social Affairs Unit in 1980.

Hayek wanted to abandon all public regulatory structures. Followed by Friedman, he argued that all attempts by government to shape markets were doomed to failure. Planning itself was wrongheaded in principle. As Nigel Lawson summarized this philosophy: “Economic planning was both impossible and unnecessary. . . . The price mechanism . . . was a much more efficient means of transmitting consumer wants and needs than the vast bureaucracies of Whitehall and the nationalized industries.”

This view of idealism as serving to strengthen state power enabled the Conservatives to take the moral high ground, Lawson continued, “by elevating private actions above public direction and dismissing ‘social justice’ as both vague and arbitrary.” The only valid idealism was to destroy the state. This could best be done by cutting off the government’s financial taproot, the ability to create the money needed to finance its budget deficits. The alternative to government bureaucracy, Lawson concluded, was to create a new political ideal for capitalism: to turn “profit” and “capitalism” into words of praise; “planning,” “government” and “taxes” became the new terms of invective.

Hayek joined the Chicago economics faculty in 1950, two years after Friedman, who spent 1953-54 in England as a visiting Fulbright Lecturer at Cambridge. At that time, he reminisced (in Capitalism and Freedom), “Those of us who were profoundly worried by the danger to freedom and prosperity posed by the growth of government, the triumph of the welfare state and Keynesian ideas, made up a small minority and we were considered eccentric by the vast majority of our intellectual colleagues.” Monetarism was deemed eccentric because it saw in government only the power to tax and oppress, not to protect and support. (Herman Kahn’s wife, Jane, likes to tell the anecdote of how, Milton Friedman once replied to her when she asked whether social spending on needy children was not be one type of public welfare that was well justified: “Mrs. Kahn, why do you want to subsidize the production of orphans.”) To the monetarists, all socially ameliorative spending appeared only as an economic distortion on the expenditure side, and as a burden on industry on the tax side of the tax-and-spend equation.

Mrs. Thatcher’s truculent Joan of Arc personality found a kindred soul in Alfred Sherman, CPS’s Director of Studies, whom she described as an ex-Communist who brought a “convert’s zeal” to the monetarist cause. Like so many former left-wingers, he seems never to have forgiven the working class for not following his early entreaties. And much like a spurned lover, he got his revenge as a Tory. But he retained from Marxism an awareness of economic theory’s political service as apologetics for one class or the other. He found in monetarism not so much an objective analysis of money and credit as a means of blaming inflation on government spending. Cutting off the government’s ability to run into debt would leave the power of private capital (“the market”) to take its place.

If Sherman was the ideological gadfly, Mrs. Thatcher was the master of political tactics. Her genius lay in seeing that public bureaucracies were ripe for the plucking, along with the Keynesian macroeconomic theory that served as their intellectual foundation. Most Britons believed that once a path was embarked upon, it could not be changed, to say nothing of being diametrically reversed. The denationalization of industry appeared politically impossible. Indeed, Labour governments believed they could bring one sector after another into the public domain. To Mrs. Thatcher this was the road to serfdom, and she sought to reverse the trend. She alone had the confidence to go on the offensive rather than passively decrying the trend towards larger public control of the economy. It was largely a result of her initiative that Britain, the nation with Europe’s strongest social democratic tradition and the most highly developed public sector, became the first to reverse what seemed initially to be an inexorable trend toward greater state control.

The Monetarist Attack on Full-Employment “Demand Management”

Mrs. Thatcher, Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and Nigel Lawson challenged the idea that economies could be managed by income policies aimed at achieving full employment. This objective, voiced by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s in his General Theory, had become political orthodoxy throughout most of the world by the 1950s and ‘60s, and was endorsed both by Conservatives and Labour.

In America, the (“Full”) Employment Act of 1946 had replaced what Marx called the chronic “reserve army of the unemployed” by employment policies aimed at absorbing surplus labor through public spending. This policy met its Waterloo at the hands of Gardner Ackley of the Council of Economic Advisors and Robert McNamara, who tried to calculate just how much war America could afford, and indeed how much was needed to create “effective demand.”

In England, Mrs. Thatcher and her allies opposed Keynesian income policy on the ground that it supported wages (and hence, priced British goods out of world markets) simply to create “demand,” without regard for productivity. The achievement of “full-employment stability” was illusory, the monetarists accused, for it entailed monetary instability. Acting as the employer of last resort (or injecting enough “effective demand” to ensure full employment), governments created inflationary pressures by monetizing public debts. The ensuing inflation threatened bondholders and hence deterred their motivation to save, by reducing the purchasing power of their rentier income. The tacit assumption was that their “saving” would have funded new direct investment and employment rather than real estate or stock market speculation in assets already in place.

The major backers of monetarism duly became the rentier interests (banks, insurance companies and other institutional investors, as well as wealthy coupon clippers) who feared seeing the value of their bonds, loans and other claims on the economy’s wealth eroded by inflation. It was not hard for monetarists to show that their self-interest lay in backing an economic doctrine which depicted governments as being inherently inefficient, wasteful and/or corrupt, dominated by vested interests such as the labor unions. The Thatcherites argued that wherever public enterprise played a major role, it suffered from bureaucratic inefficiency and waste. Decision-making by entrenched constituencies (the labor unions in Britain, party members in the USSR and Argentina, and campaign contributors in the United States and Japan) led publicly owned companies to be managed uneconomically.

The way to stop this process was to turn off the monetary spigot which funded public spending. Contrary to Keynesian prescriptions, the monetarists argued, governments should limit their regulatory activity to control over the money supply, increasing it at a constant rate. They could do this only by not running into debt in the pursuit of full employment programs and other social spending. In sum, whereas Keynes had provided a rationale for government planning to sustain full employment, with an inflationary bias that he welcomed as leading to the “euthanasia of the rentier class,” monetarism took the side of creditors in urging fiscal austerity of the type imposed by the IMF on debtor countries.

Inverting Lenin’s view of governments as being the board of directors for the ruling class, the Thatcherites depicted government (at least Labour Governments when in power, which was about half the time under Britain’s two-party system) as the Board of Directors of the labor unions. They argued that industrialists could not manage in the face of unequal competition with the unions. Creditor-oriented monetarism thus merged with free-market economics of a particular kind. A Keynesian “market,” the Thatcherites accused, was very different from what an ideal market should be. The kind of competitive market that union leaders wanted was one of low unemployment conducive to wage-push inflation. For the Thatcherites, creating a “competitive market” and price stability became euphemisms for breaking trade union power.*

Creating a Populist Opposition to Public Spending

Monetarists recognized that in order to reduce taxes (without increasing the public debt), it was necessary to cut back public spending proportionally. This was, conveniently, part of their plan to scale down government in general. The path of least resistance was for politicians to create a backlash against government waste, and to reduce everyone’s taxes somewhat, while “simplifying” the fiscal system by shifting taxes away from wealth (especially in the finance, real estate and insurance sectors) onto consumers via sales taxes, excise taxes and the value-added tax (VAT).

The biggest problem faced by Mrs. Thatcher in pursuing this regressive fiscal policy was that most voters initially viewed the government as subsidizing essential public services, ensuring economic security and helping families in need. But voters also were taxpayers. Mrs.Thatcher played on their resentment against public subsidies to those who were less hard working (i.e., poorer) than themselves. Seeking to attract voters to her cause through their perceptions of the existing system’s unfairness and visible inefficiencies. Although most came from wage-earning families and their natural sympathies lay with labor, she was able to denounce trade unions for their featherbedding and extortionate wage demands.

In sum, Mrs. Thatcher made no apology for fighting against tax-and-spend policies, trade unions and public ownership. What she challenged was nothing less than her society’s traditional value system. She appealed to the narrowest and most immediate self-interest of voters, not to their idealistic hopes. Her success is reflected in the fact that the 1980s became a decade in which income and property taxes were rolled back and governments began to be downsized not only in England but throughout the world.

Opposition to public spending – and the taxes to pay for it – was fanned by warnings about the dangers of inflation eroding the purchasing power of wages. What was not stressed was that the main source of global inflation was the United States, whose war in Southeast Asia had created a budget deficit and forced the world off gold. America quadrupled grain prices in 1971-72, and OPEC countries followed suit with oil prices. By the end of the 1970s the U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates to 20 percent in order to end the inflation by deterring bank lending. This plunged England and other countries into economic crises of their own. Future historians no doubt will find it remarkable that they sought to cope by curtailing their own budget deficits and money supply.

The monetarists viewed inflation as a domestic phenomenon that could be countered by cuts in public spending and general austerity. But their policies only made things worse, by collapsing employment and output. Falling tax revenues pushed government budgets even further into deficit, and rising interest rates increased rather than lowered prices. (Economists call this the Gibson Paradox.) High interest rates collapsed the stock and bond markets, leading to capital outflows and lower foreign-exchange rates. This increased the price of imports, pushing up prices accordingly. But monetarist politicians single-mindedly blamed the inflation on not following their austerity policies even more stringently and not cutting government spending by even more!

What the Thatcherites feared was not so much government as such, but the degree to which the trade union bureaucracy controlled the Labour Party. Like America, Britain was ruled by what was essentially a two party system. And when one party remained in office so long that its vested interests overplayed their hand, the other party was voted in, and typically tried to reverse what its predecessor had done. Labour was bound to come to power every five to eight years or so. Under Britain’s “pendulum politics,” the prospect was for it to act as the arm of the trade unions that made up the bulk of its constituency, and to re-nationalize companies that the Conservatives had denationalized.

At the Centre for Policy Studies, Keith Joseph stressed in a 1976 pamphlet, Monetarism is not Enough, that monetary deflation by itself could not solve Britain’s problems. Workers had to be laid off. But Labour’s featherbedding practices blocked the needed downsizing. Indeed, union power was strongest in government departments and public enterprises. To be run efficiently, these had to be shifted to non-union labor. This perception helped promote the privatization of key public industries and government operations.

Mrs. Thatcher’s Anti-Union Strategy

After reducing taxes on wealth and fighting inflation by cutting back government, the monetarist objective was nothing less than to destroy British trade union power. Mrs. Thatcher nurtured a popular reaction against the unions, choosing her battles carefully. Biding her time so as not to alienate public opinion, she waited for the unions to misplay – and then acted with tactics planned in advance both from a legal and public relations vantage point.

By the time her tenure as prime minister ended, Mrs. Thatcher had carried through her program, hinted at already in the late 1970s (see Thatcher 1995:424f.). The 1988 Employment Act gave union members the right not to join in strikes their unions called without holding a ballot. The 1990 act, she wrote, “concluded the long process of whittling away at the closed shop,” by forbidding unions from excluding non-union workers from being hired.

Already in the aftermath of the 1974 coal strike, Edward Heath’s government had scaled back union immunities from law suits making it a legal tort – that is, an actionable offense, punishable by fine – for unions to picket or boycott suppliers (or customers) of companies being struck. Monetary judgments henceforth could be levied against the unions.

Mrs. Thatcher also hit upon the strategy of insisting on union democracy as a ploy to counter hard-line union leaders. The traditional British procedure was for workers to vote for shop stewards (typically the most militant union members) to represent them in casting their votes for the union heads who in turn did the voting for strikes and also wielded power at the Labour Party’s annual convention. Mrs. Thatcher knew that it was much more difficult to frighten these activist shop stewards into submission than to intimidate the rank and file. Her idea accordingly was to insist that all major decisions, above all whether to strike, should to put to a full union vote in open secret-ballot elections. Without this reform, she wrote, “the rest of our programme for national recovery would be blocked. . . . Winning the next [1979] election, even by a large majority, would not be enough if the only basis for it was dissatisfaction with Labour’s performance in office since 1974. Therefore, far from avoiding the union issue – as so many of my colleagues wanted – we should seek to open up debate. Moreover, this debate was not something to fear: the unions were an increasing liability to Labour and correspondingly a political asset to us. With intelligence and courage we could turn on its head the inhibiting and often defeatist talk about ‘confrontation.’”

As one Conservative remarked, “What other right winger would ever have had the cleverness to trust the common sense of the ordinary union member so sincerely? The union bosses were put in an impossible position. As the self-proclaimed tribunes of the workers they could not refuse democracy. They tried to use the argument of the expense of ballots to avoid them, so Maggie said, ‘That’s alright; the government will pay.’ Love her or hate her, one has to admire the accuracy of her perception.”

The unions overplayed their hand in the Winter of Discontent, 1978/79, but the time was not yet ripe for a showdown. “From 1980 we pursued a ‘step-by-step’ programme of trade union reform,” Mrs. Thatcher later reminisced. The 1982 “Tebbit Acts” removed the traditional union “immunities from common law tort action for damages, except for ‘primary’ strikes sanctioned by a majority in secret ballot,” observes one of her advisors, Patrick Minford. This legal chess game set the stage for her to checkmate Arthur Scargill’s coal miners in 1983 (her counterpart to Ronald Reagan’s 1981 destruction of the Air Controllers’ Union), by making union funds subject to awards for damages.

In 1981, Mrs. Thatcher gave into the union rather than engage in a fight she felt she could not win in the public’s eye. She knew just how far she could go up against them, and her sense of timing enabled her to succeed. Her defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike (described in the next chapter) effectively cemented the new order. “In 1990, my last year as Prime Minister, the number of industrial stoppages was the lowest in any year since 1935.”

The decline in union power enabled the privatized companies and others to downsize their labor force. Between 1979 and 1986, union membership fell by three million persons. Two million industrial workers were put out of work, including over a million miners. “The new service industries, such as computer software and biotechnology,” Mrs. Thatcher wrote in 1995, “are in any case not easily unionized, and so not held back in the application of new techniques.”

A Conservative politician summed up matters: “The original purpose of privatization was to break up Trades Union Monopsony rather than manufacturer/utility Monopoly.” The politicians who joined Mrs. Thatcher’s inner circle focused on labor’s cost-push inflation, to the extent that British wage rates (and hence, product prices) were negotiated between strong-willed union leaders and (so Mrs. Thatcher claimed) weak-willed government bureaucrats.

The Conservatives depicted their warfare against the unions as being waged not against labor, but against adventurist opportunists using their constituencies for their own glory. Even communists such as Leon Trotsky had attacked craft unions such as America’s American Federation of Labor as representing particular layers of the labor force acting in their own narrow self-interest. Mrs. Thatcher subtly froze the union leaders out of the policy picture simply by ending the traditional ritual of beer and sandwiches in Downing Street. The trade union bosses found themselves cut off.

Mrs. Thatcher ended by excluding children and young adults under twenty-one from the minimum wage regulations, and finally abolished the laws outright. These transformations of the labor market, she concluded, “allowed management once more to manage and so ensured that investment was once again regarded as the first call on profits rather than the last.” But a double standard seems to have been at work. The first call on profits seemed to be for higher salaries and stock options for senior managers. She denounced high taxes for deterring their efforts and praised high salaries for motivating them, yet what seemed to motivate manual workers was poverty and the loss of job security. Her rather vindictive world view did not recognize falling real wages as deterring productivity gains; only falling profits and dividends for the well-to-do led to inefficiency in the monetarist world view.

In the process of privatizing the large public enterprises, Mrs. Thatcher seized labor’s pension funds, wiping out company liability for the pensions saved up by their employees. It took several years for the European Community to rule her act illegal. The money belonged to the workers, not to the buyers of these companies.

But just who were these buyers? Where did workers fit into the picture, via their personal shareholdings and those of their pension funds?

“Popular” or “Peoples’ Capitalism”

Mrs. Thatcher recognized that an anti-union policy by itself would not suffice; she had to give workers something in return. What was needed was to cast monetarism’s anti-labor philosophy in a more positive rhetoric. Her solution was “popular capitalism,” an elaboration of what Anthony Eden and other earlier Conservatives had called a property-owning democracy.

The idea of getting workers to think of themselves as property owners had long been voiced by Conservative politicians. It began with the idea of them owning their own homes, bought on mortgage. Mrs. Thatcher started the process with Council house sales. No less than £24 billion were sold off, larger than any single other public industry. But the privatization that really inaugurated “popular capitalism” was the sale of British Telephone in November 1984. The idea was nothing less than to win workers over to the cause of capitalism as an ideal, by turning them into stockholders in the economy’s commanding heights. This, she hoped, would shift their faith away from socialism in the future to capitalism in the present. “Privatization not only widens share ownership (desirable in itself),” claimed Lawson, “but increases employee share ownership, which previous privatizations show leads to further improved performance.” More politically to the point, giving property to citizens would create “a society with an inbuilt resistance to revolutionary change.”

Lawson hoped that workers would value their shareholdings more than they would resent their falling real wages. In any event, he added, “I give away few political secrets when I say that Governments are likely to be more concerned about the prospect of alienating a mass of individual shareholders” than they would be about offending a few dozen Conservative investment managers. Future Labour governments thus would have to hesitate before taking steps that would threaten the value of shares held by large numbers of workers.

Every attempt therefore was made to spread share ownership as widely as possible, for “the more widely the shares were spread, the more people had a personal stake in privatization, and were thus unlikely to support a Labour Party committed to renationalization. And if this forced Labour to abandon its commitment to renationalization, so much the better. For our objective was, so far as practically possible, to make the transfer of these businesses irreversible.” However, another Conservative politician has assured me that the small private investor “was never more than icing on the political cake.” In the end, it was the large campaign contributors who mattered after all, for their funding enabled the party to buy TV time and media space to attack Labour in the usual ways, which had little to do with the economic self-interest of workers as such.

Mrs. Thatcher’s ideal was for every employee and customer of British Gas, British Telephone and other major utilities to buy into them and thereby to acquire a stake in their efficient management. Workers who were not deemed redundant would find their wages supplemented by dividends (and capital gains) from the stocks they were able to buy with their savings. In good capitalist form they would become owners of the means of production, at least as minority shareholders. This prospect was supposed to gain popular support for breaking the trade unions, dismantling government protection of labor and withdrawing subsidies from public services. Politics became an exercize in the degree to which the perspective of labor’s economic self-interest could be foreshortened and sidetracked.

Lawson had proposed the term “people’s capitalism,” but Mrs. Thatcher felt that this sounded too much like the communist people’s republics, and preferred “popular capitalism.” This still sounded like General Pinochet’s “labor capitalism,” and indeed was a similar program of monetarist austerity, dressed up in populist rhetoric.

The attempt to make privatization irreversible shaped its tactics from the outset. In this respect its history in Britain is as much the story of political expediency as one of economic principles in the abstract. Mrs. Thatcher sought to protect the newly privatized status quo by endowing a coalition of beneficiaries who would form a bulwark against any future attempts by Labour to try to re-nationalize the enterprises being sold off. One constituency of “popular capitalism” was created by giving workers a stake in preserving the value of the shares they held in these enterprises. Another constituency consisted of the buyers (often the former managers) of the enterprises being sold off. Yet another was created by selling shares to foreign investors, so that any attempt to denationalize would have to confront not only British financial institutions and worker-shareholders, but American and other global diplomatic pressure. The strategy was to spread shareholding so widely that it could not be reversed.

This political strategy shaped the early privatizations. It led Lawson to offer shares at a fixed price rather than by auction, on the ground that small subscribers wanted to know just how much they would have to pay in order to be willing to buy. He later ruefully admitted that this political ploy led to an underwriting strategy that resulted in huge losses to the government (and unwarranted gains for the City financiers) as compared to what an open auction of shares would have yielded.

How Britain’s Public Enterprises were Strangled: The Needless Fight over the PSBR

The Thatcherites argued that private ownership would be inherently more efficient than government control, assuming that sound management depended on ownership alone. Lawson insisted that “you can no more make a State industry imitate private enterprise by telling it to follow textbook rules or to stimulate competitive prices, than you can make a mule into a zebra by painting stripes on its back. There is no equivalent in the State sector to the discipline of the share price or the ever-present threat of bankruptcy.” Only the prospect of economic gains would lead enterprises to cut costs, improve service and become more businesslike in general.

One economist (John Kay 1988) pointed out that, “all State-owned corporations improved their productivity remarkably in the 1980s, whether they were privatized or not.” However, Lawton replied, “it was the process of preparing State enterprises for privatization . . . that initially enabled management to be strengthened and motivated, financial disciplines to be imposed and taken seriously, and costs to be cut as trade union attitudes changed.”

The real problem was that Britain’s Treasury refused to authorize the funds needed for investment as long as the enterprises remained in public hands. To stop the inflation that was distorting nearly all economies in the mid-1970s, monetarists had argued that it was necessary to cut budget deficits. The IMF won Labour adherence to this principle already under Dennis Healey after Britain’s 1976 foreign-exchange crisis,. He succumbed to IMF austerity in order to get loans to support the value of sterling. The ensuing impoverishment of Britain contributed to Labour’s 1979 downfall. Rather than leaning against the monetarist wind, Labour itself blocked public industries from financing modernization. Raising the required funds would have increased the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement – the PSBR. Having little idea of how to make public enterprises function efficiently, Labour fatally undercut the viability of these enterprises by letting monetarists control Treasury policy.

Monetarists argued that the way to control inflation was to control the money supply. Friedman explained that this meant in practice the control of the public debt. Monetarists accordingly made a bee-line for the Finance and Treasury ministries in every country. In Britain they were able to control the government through the PSBR, placing a stranglehold on public finances. This forced governments to choose between transferring assets to the public sector, or making do without capital investment and modernization.

The problem could have been cured by letting government departments operate as independent public agencies off the balance sheet, like America’s Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) and other such entities. But the monetarist objective was not to make governments work better. Just the opposite: it was to claim that they could not work efficiently. Finance or Treasury departments in each country subject to IMF monetarist pressures made sure that this would be the case. This was the prelude in the 1970s setting the stage privatization in the ‘80s.

A double standard was at work. The private sector was assumed to be able to look after itself and not to run into debt imprudently. The financial sector accordingly was deregulated, and promptly created a crises of irresponsible lending. One pitfall was that the PSBR failed to distinguish between productive and unproductive public debt. The idea of productive borrowing outside of PSBR constraints was rejected as being merely a reformist or even left-wing rationale to increase public borrowing and thereby increase the power of government. The last thing Mrs Thatcher and her advisors really wanted to see was a reform that would enable public enterprises to be run more efficiently. In any event, public borrowing would not have generated revenue for directors, after labour’s wage levels had increased. Nor would it have generated the remarkable underwriting fees that resulted from privatization. The upshot was that British Telephone and its other monopolies needing technological revamping in the world of the 1980s could be modernized only by being privatized.

Privatization’s ultimate beneficiary was the City of London, the square mile of financial institutions that obtained the quickest benefits and turned the program into something rather unanticipated by Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Lawson. The rentiers for their part seem to have perceived the Thatchers and Friedmans as pawns, an advance infantry of promoters wrapping austerity economics in populist garb – policies that otherwise would have been difficult (if not impossible) to sell to voters.

The irony was that most of Mrs. Thatcher’s friends and heroes were businessmen, manufacturers who made or dealt in products, not financial manipulators. But inevitably, her privatization policy led her to rely on the City financiers. Her autobiography and that of Nigel Lawson reflect their growing annoyance and even fury with the way in which the bank underwriters chosen to advise the government turned privatization into a vehicle to grow rich very fast. Mr. Lawson is scathing as to the the City institutions’ lack of competence, exceeded only by their greed (always pointing out how much more venal their global partners were, to be sure). But once the government had chosen these institutions as its partner, the die was cast. It was unable to find a way to control the underwriters, and feared to disengage.

To the investment bankers placed in charge of underwriting over £65 billion (over $105 billion) of enterprises, at fees of over three billion pounds during 1979-97, and probably at least as much in short-term trading gains, the monetarist politicians appeared out of Britain’s ideological woodwork as well-meaning fools, political front-persons presenting privatization – and hence, City underwriting fortunes – as “popular capitalism.” As far as the City financiers were concerned, their disdain for the City enabled them all the better to act as political spear-carriers for a policy that turned control of the British economy over to themselves. What Margaret Thatcher provided was a populist and even idealistic legitimization for their gains.

The Winter of Discontent, 1978/79

Mrs. Thatcher was lucky. Accident – and indeed, the weather – intervened to play a fateful role. Under normal conditions Britain is warmed by the Gulf Stream bringing tropical water across the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean. This creates a warm westerly breeze that keeps British winters free of the ice that normally exists at such northerly latitudes (Britain is as far north as Canada). But occasionally – in the winter of 1947, sixteen years later in 1963, and again sixteen years later in 1979 – the wind blows from the east, bringing cold air from Russia and central Europe. Starting in November 1978, Britain was subjected to sharply below-normal temperatures that persisted right up to election day, May 9, 1979.

This 1978/79 winter descended precisely at the time when British labor unions chose to go on strike to demand pay raises in an attempt keep up with the inflation. Like the rest of the world, Britain was suffering from the inflation and high interest rates emanating from the U.S. economy under the hapless Carter presidency. As high prices spread throughout the world, the inflation ate into the purchasing power of wages. The Labour Party had cut its political wrists by subjecting Britain to IMF austerity in the face of this inflation, and stifling new investment and hiring by public enterprises by letting the PSBR put a stranglehold on their financing. The strikes were directed against these public enterprises, for as noted earlier it was here that unionization was strongest.

The British are not equipped to deal with long periods of severe weather even in normal times, given its rarity. As a result of the public-sector strikes, the roads remained unsalted and were not gritted. Few drivers had snow tires for their cars (expecting winters normally to be mild). Traffic along the M6 motorway around Birmingham and other Midlands districts slowed to a crawl, grinding Britain’s industrial heartland to a standstill.

This became known as England’s Winter of Discontent. It turned a majority of voters, who normally had voted for the Labour Party, to resent its alliance with the unions. As Mrs. Thatcher described the political situation, on December 12, 1978, “trade unions representing National Health Service and local authority workers rejected the 5 per cent pay limit and announced that they would strike in the New Year.”

The next three weeks brought heavy snow, gales and floods. Matters came to a head on Wednesday, January 3, when “the TGWU called the lorry drivers out on strike in pursuit of a 25 per cent pay rise. Some two million workers faced being laid off. Hospital patients, including terminally ill cancer patients, were denied treatment. Gravediggers went on strike in Liverpool. Refuse piled up in Leicester Square. . . . In short, Britain ground to a halt. What was more damaging even than this to the Labour Government, however, was that it had handed over the running of the country to local committees of trade unions.”

Mrs. Thatcher emphasized that Labour Prime Minister Callaghan “had based his whole political career on alliance with the trade union leaders. For him, if not for the country, it had been a winning formula. Now that the unions could no longer be appeased, he had no other policy in his locker. . . . The Government could not even decide whether to declare a State of Emergency.” Mrs. Thatcher for her part was not particularly eager to promote a government settlement with the unions; she preferred to mobilize public reaction against them. In fact, she worried that “The Labour Party might just be persuaded to agree to the negotiation of no-strike agreements in essential services, the payment by the taxpayer of the cost of secret ballots in trade unions and even a code of practice to end secondary picketing – though the last was doubtful. Equally, I was clear that if the Government did accept, we were honour-bound to keep our side of the bargain.” However, she made it a condition of support for the government that it should end the closed shop, thereby stripping unions of much of their power – something no Labour government would agreed to do.

On January 16 she opened the debate in the House of Commons by describing how the “transport of goods by road was widely disrupted, in many cases due to secondary picketing of firms and operators not involved in the actual disputes. British Rail had issued a brief statement: ‘There are no trains today.’ . . . many firms were being strangled, due to shortage of materials and inability to move finished goods. There was trouble at the ports, adding to the problems of exporters. At least 125,000 people had been laid off already and the figure was expected to reach a million by the end of the week. The food industry, in particular, was in a shambolic state, with growing shortages of basic supplies like edible oils, yeast, salt and sugar. And all this on top of a winter of strikes – strikes by tanker drivers, bakers, staff at old people’s homes and hospitals; strikes in the press and broadcasting, airports and car plants; a strike of grave diggers.”

She reported that Labour’s George Brown had complained to her that “the unions had been falling more and more under the control of left-wing militancy.” But Prime Minister Callaghan then urged that the government make further concessions to the unions, including “exemptions from the 5 per cent pay limit, tighter price controls and extension of the principle of ‘comparability,’ under which public sector workers could expect more money. All these were intended as inducements to the unions to sign up to a new pay policy. But he signally failed to address what everyone except the far Left considered the main problem, excessive trade union power.”

Using language recalling that used to denounce weak-willed opposition to Hitler on the eve of World War II, she heaped scorn on Mr. Callaghan for “appeasing” the unions. Rather than fearing to alienate them, she urged her own party leaders to seize the opportunity to gain public favor by riding on wave of reaction against union over-reaching. British wages no longer were set by fair bargaining between workers and their employers, she claimed, but were negotiated by trade union leaders dictating terms to weak-willed government managers. The alternative, of course, was the kind of austerity dictated by IMF monetarists maintaining an employers’ market by imposing chronic under-employment and shifting enterprise out of the unionized public sector to newly privatized, non-unionized enterprises – precisely the kind of austerity that Keynesian income policies had sought to prevent.

Upon winning the general election, Mrs. Thatcher appointed loyal monetarists, who developed a more subtle alternative to the tight-money programs imposed by the IMF on hapless third world counties. A general monetary stringency would have lowered profits and stifled capital gains as well as wages. Britain’s monetarist strategy was to depress wage levels through “structural reform” or “structural adjustment.” The restructuring was achieved not by macroeconomic policies affecting the overall money supply and incomes, but by changing the legal framework and institutional structures within which markets operated. Union power was broken by changing the legal rules, while government economic power was dismantled by cutting taxes and selling off enterprises. The industries being privatized were subjected to much the same downsizing and asset stripping as private companies taken over by corporate raiders and/or leveraged buyouts in the 1980s.

How Monetarism Laid the Groundwork for Privatization

Ostensibly a theory of money and prices, monetarism became an ideology to attack government spending and organized labor. The theory’s guiding idea was that price levels could be determined by controlling the money supply – by the central bank managing the rate at which government deficits were monetized. Meanwhile, wage-push inflation could be countered by taking legal steps to break the power of unions to strike and to declare boycotts. The effect was to remove economic planning from the hands of government. The vacuum would be filled by global investment bankers. Efficient management was to take the form of maximizing stock-market gains, not the promotion of full employment and other non-market social welfare objectives.

Keynes had been a monetary theorist of a different stripe. He saw that money, in the sense of spending power, comprised effectively the entire credit superstructure. Any income-yielding asset could be collateralized as the basis for credit. Indeed, credit – and in effect, purchasing power – can be created simply by companies not paying their bills. These unpaid bills became assets on the books of their suppliers (“receivables” that could be financed through the banking system). In this respect the volume of credit and near-money is virtually synonymous with the economy’s overall volume of debt. This perception forms the basis for post-Keynesian “creditary” or “balance sheet” economics, a more comprehensive alternative to monetarist doctrine. (Gardiner 1993 provides a technical discussion.)

Monetarism reveals its political bias by singling out only public debt as the source of inflation, ignoring the mushrooming private debt. This one-sidedness has proved to be its Achilles Heel. Yet it was precisely this narrow anti-government focus that attracted Mrs. Thatcher and other libertarian politicians to monetarism in the first place.

Monetarism’s appeal is political and rhetorical, not based on sound economic evidence. (Its correlations of money and prices fail to acknowledge the arrow of causality, especially at the foreign-exchange margin. See Hudson 1992 for a detailed critique.) Controlling the public debt by reining in government can represent only part of a comprehensive system of monetary management, for in practice the money supply – the means of settling obligations – turns out to be nothing less than the overall credit supply. This in turn includes the economy’s “near-money” in the form of all marketable assets and debt instruments. Attempts to manage money, narrowly defined as government debt, are thus in vain.

The real reason why monetarists seek to control the Treasury or Finance Department and the central bank in every country is to achieve their political ends. From their position in these financial control centers, they put the brakes on government operations across the board, or promote other pet policies. Monetarist doctrine provides the ideological wrapping to present this control as a form of idealism and individualism.

Although privatization was not a centerpiece of Mrs. Thatcher’s original program, she placed members of her inner circle in charge of the financial ministries and the public enterprises first in line to be privatized, to set about preparing them for sale. In addition to helping the government budget, privatization would remove enterprises from control by the trade unions. And turning power over to privatized management would enable them to begin economizing by downsizing their labor force.

Emphasis Mine


It is No Mystery: The Real Reason Conservatives Keep Winning

By Joe Brewer, Cognitive Policy Works

“Have you ever wondered why it is that Progressives repeatedly lose ground in American politics? We almost always have the facts on our side. The experts agree with us. Hell, a lot of us are the experts. And yet history clearly shows that Conservatives have the best political game in town. They dominate political discourse, establishing which frames shape the most important issues of the day. Their values associated with rugged individualism, mass consumption, and a contempt for civil society are blasted at the American public through massive media outlets that they have acquired and built up over the last several decades. And when the global economy melts down as a direct result of their economic and fiscal policies, who gets blamed? In a word, liberals.

What’s going on here? Why is it that Conservatives are so good at winning and Progressives produce a lackluster resistance at best? The answer comes from a fundamental insight from evolutionary biology. Stated simply, it goes like this:

When two groups compete, the one with the most social cohesion wins in the long run.

This insight arises from research on group selection that reveals how social animals capable of working as a team readily out compete those individuals who must struggle on their own. The astute observer will already note the profound irony here — a political group whose ideology elevates the individual over the group (Conservatives) has managed to cultivate more group cohesion than the political group whose ideology blends community well-being with that of the individual. I’ll come back to this irony in a moment.

Progressives are easily kept on the defensive through the age-old strategy of Divide and Conquer

A fantastic overview of group selection can be found in E.O. Wilson’s groundbreaking new book,The Social Conquest of Earth, which builds a powerful argument for how humanity’s social nature enabled us to dominate every ecosystem we have entered in our 2 million year history.*

The argument goes something like this:

  1. Throughout history, a tiny number of species have developed a capability known as eusociality — advanced social organization comprised of large numbers of individuals with differentiated roles including members that span more than one generation.
  2. Most eusocial species discovered in the fossil record are the social insects — ants, bees, termites, and wasps. Every one of these species has been so successful at thriving that their bodies contained more than half of the biomass in the ecosystems where they lived, meaning that they completely dominated the niches populated by them. This pattern continues up to the present.
  3. Humans are the only eusocial species to have the additional properties of strong emotional bonds between group members and advanced cognitive abilities that enable us to form coherent gestalts of meaning — especially the capacity for shared cultural narratives and tribal identities — which have enabled us to out-compete and dominate less socially adept animals in every ecosystem we have entered.
  4. The key strategy underlying this pattern is that well-organized groups, which elevate the needs of the whole over those of individuals, are more successful at acquiring resources and consolidating power than those individuals or groups that are less organized.

Sound familiar? In American politics, we see the top-down authoritarian worldview of Conservatives enabling them to fall in line and take marching orders. They form strong loyalty bonds through religious affiliation, old money networks, and various social clubs that give them an immense capacity for social cohesion.

And what about Progressives? We are divided into issue silos, unable to form lasting coalitions that bond us together under the same ideological flag, and easily kept on the defensive through the age-old strategy of Divide and Conquer. We have difficulty trusting each other and our funders are unable or unwilling to invest in talent for talent’s sake — they always need to monitor the outcomes of their giving and almost never fund the operational needs of our advocacy organizations.

This is the real reason why we lose. It isn’t that their ideas are better. The difference is entirely in the execution. They set the agendas and we react to them, plain and simple. So what can we do about this dire situation? Again, the answer is easy to state:

Progressives need to engage in a values-based strategy that builds trust across the issue silos. We need to focus on building communities of shared identity that bind us together.

Building trust across organizations requires a three-pronged approach. First, we have to know our own values so that we can articulated them with authenticity and authority. Secondly, we must make these values explicit and engage in the practice of radical transparency to leave no questions about where we stand and what we care about. And third, we’ve got to seek out those who resonate with these values at the core level of their personal identity. It is upon this foundation that we can engage in the vital work of building trust.

There was once a time when I engaged in values-based strategies as a frame analyst, working with George Lakoff at his think tank, the Rockridge Institute. It was a telling experience that we were unable to break through the professional divisions of pollsters, bloggers, public intellectuals, elected officials, and all of the other categories that routinely divide us. We also repeatedly found that each issue group clung to its own ground, unwilling to share power with those progressives who were motivated by something other than their pet cause. And worst of all, we observed how a small cohort of elite players would sabotage up-and-coming progressive talent in order to preserve the fiefdoms they had built. All told, it was an ugly situation.

I learned a great deal about progressive politics during that turbulent period of time in 2007 and 2008, and even more while running my consulting company in the years since. It’s a sad state of affairs that even after the major hit we took from the combined effects of disaster capitalism in the financial meltdown and the enactment of Citizens United that has crippled what remains of the integrity in our electoral system, that we are still so feebly organized today. Even more so, considering the great strides that have been made after a global progressive movement appeared from outside of politics in the garbs of the Arab Spring and Occupy,

The challenges to be overcome in the world hinge absolutely on our ability to come together as a species on the world stage. As I write these words, leaders from across the globe are meeting to discuss what they are willing to do about the ecological crisis at Rio+20. Two decades after agreements were made about the need to tackle human-caused climate disruption, we still don’t have a governance structure in place that enables to work together to protect the planetary commons upon which all life depends.

Again, the fundamental issue is trust. We have yet to endow our international institutions with the power of citizen sovereignty that transplants and augments the sovereignty of nations. We are unable to trust our neighbors on the other side of the fence to act in our collective interest for the preservation of our future as a sacred responsibility for our children and grandchildren.

It’s time for Progressives to claim our power and transform the political and economic systems

On a positive note, there are clear trends toward increasing empathy and the sharing of trust throughout history. Jeremy Rifkin documents the tale with an inspiring breadth of scope in his work,The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. We are more capable of seeing ourselves in the other — be they women, diverse ethnicities, LGBT communities, or non-human life — than ever before. Our capacity for cultivating shared identity, and the social cohesion it enables, is stronger than ever before in the history of civilization. We have more tools and knowledge about collaboration and conflict resolution right now than ever before, and new insights are revealed daily in the global quest for knowledge about the human condition through the various sciences and scholarly efforts of our educational institutions.

So we can take the shared values — which are deeply progressive — that resonated with hundreds of millions through Occupy and activate them for our collective good. Now is the time to turn the tide and win the cultural war for our collective future. Outdated notions of authoritarian rule by oligarchs and chieftains no longer apply to our digitally connected, globally conscious world that we live in today.

Now is the time for Progressives to claim our power and transform the political and economic systems that stand in our way. And the ultimate source of our power will be found in the levels of trust we create.

*Some may draw the line closer to 200,000 years, since that’s how far back we have evidence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. I am allowing for a deeper historic range that includes the evolutionary period that produced the incredible explosion in cognitive ability, which depended heavily on our ability to form social groups in order to survive and thrive across the northern African continent in previous millennia.”

Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational and research center devoted to the application of cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement.

Emphasis Mine

Conservative Radicals and the Politics of Vengeance

Bill Moyers: In the following interview, Bill Moyers and powerhouse NYT editor and author of “The Death of Conservatism Sam Tanenhaus discuss the last gasps of the conservative movement. Tanenhaus says that far from signifying a resurgence of conservative ideals, the Tea Party protesters and shock jocks like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh spell the doom of the conservative movement.

BILL MOYERS: Conservatives were out in force in Washington last weekend. They had come to express their opposition to big government, to taxes and wasteful spending, and health care reform they fear would lead to a nightmare of bureaucracy. Max Blumenthal, author of REPUBLICAN GOMORRAH waded into their midst to sample opinions.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: So you’re saying if the government eliminates Social Security and Medicare then you’ll get out of the program?

WOMAN: No, I said if they get out of my life.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Out of your Social Security and-

WOMAN: No, out of everything.

BILL MOYERS: But they had also come to deplore and denounce President Obama- in their minds a tyrant akin to Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.

MAN: I’m afraid he’s going to do what Hitler could never do and that’s destroy the United States of America.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: And what’s the Obama revolution, what’s going to happen?

MAN: Similar to Germany, like what Hitler did. He took over the auto industry, did he not? He took over the banking, did he not? And Hitler had his own personal secret service police, Acorn is an extension of that.

BILL MOYERS: They had found a new hero in Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican whose shout heard ’round the world was now the rallying cry of the weekend.

CROWD: You lie! You lie!

BILL MOYERS: Glenn Beck, their favorite pundit, had promoted this march and was reveling in its success….

So what do we make of this new book titled THE DEATH OF CONSERVATISM? Has the author Sam Tanenhaus spent his time and considerable talent on a premature obituary?

Sam Tanenhaus edits two of the most influential sections of the Sunday NEW YORK TIMES – the Book Review and the Week in Review. He’s has had a long fascination with conservatives and conservative ideas. He wrote this acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers, the journalist who spied for the Russians before he became fiercely anti-communist and a hero to conservatives. Now Tanenhaus is working on a biography of the conservative icon William F. Buckley JR.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL, Sam Tanenhaus.

SAM TANENHAUS: Oh my pleasure to be here, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: So, if you’re right about the decline and death of conservatism, who are all those people we see on television?

SAM TANENHAUS: I’m afraid they’re radicals. Conservatism has been divided for a long time — this is what my book describes narratively — between two strains. What I call realism and revanchism. We’re seeing the revanchist side.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean revanchism?

SAM TANENHAUS: I mean a politics that’s based on the idea that America has been taken away from its true owners, and they have to restore and reclaim it. They have to conquer the territory that’s been taken from them. Revanchism really comes from the French word for ‘revenge.’ It’s a politics of vengeance….

And this is a strong strain in modern conservatism. Like the 19th Century nationalists who wanted to recover parts of their country that foreign nations had invaded and occupied, these radical people on the right, and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we’re seeing on television and radio, and also to some extent people marching in the streets, think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration. Give it back to us. What we sometimes forget is that the last five presidential elections Democrats won pluralities in four of them. The only time the Republicans have won, in recent memory, was when George Bush was re-elected by the narrowest margin in modern history, for a sitting president. So, what this means is that, yes, conservatism, what I think of, as a radical form of conservatism, is highly organized. We’re seeing it now– they are ideologically in lockstep. They agree about almost everything, and they have an orthodoxy that governs their worldview and their view of politics. So, they are able to make incursions. And at times when liberals, Democrats, and moderate Republicans are uncertain where to go, yes, this group will be out in front, very organized, and dominate our conversation.

BILL MOYERS: What gives them their certainty? You know, your hero of the 18th Century, Burke, Edmund Burke, warned against extremism and dogmatic orthodoxy.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, it’s a very deep strain in our politics, Bill. Some of our great historians like Richard Hofstadter and Garry Wills have written about this. If you go back to the foundations of our Republic, first of all, we have two documents, “creedal documents” they’re sometimes called, more or less at war with one another. The Declaration of Independence says one thing and the Constitution says another.

BILL MOYERS: The Declaration says–

SAM TANENHAUS: …says that we will be an egalitarian society in which all rights will be available to one and all, and the Constitution creates a complex political system that stops that change from happening. So, there’s a clash right at the beginning. Now, what we’ve seen is that certain groups among us– and sometimes it’s been the left– have been able to dominate the conversation and transform politics into a kind of theater. And that’s what we’re seeing now.

BILL MOYERS: When you see these people in the theater of television, you call them the insurrectionists, in your book, what do you think motivates them?

SAM TANENHAUS: One of the interesting developments in our politics, in just the past few months, although you could see signs of it earlier, is the emergence of the demographic we always overlook in our youth obsessed culture: the elderly. That was the group that did not support Barack Obama. They voted for John McCain. It was also the group that rose up and defied George W. Bush, when he wanted to add private Social Scurity accounts. It was a similar kind of protest.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a paradox there, right? I mean, they say they’re against government and yet the majority of Americans, according to all the polls, don’t want their government touched. You know, there were people at these town hall meetings this summer, saying “Don’t touch my Medicare.” You know, keep the government out of my Social Security.

SAM TANENHAUS: Yes. This is an interesting argument. Because it’s very easy to mock, and we see this a lot. “Oh, these fools. These old codgers say the government won’t take my Medicare away. Don’t know Medicare is a government program?” That’s not really what’s going on, I think. I think there’s something different. A sense about how both the left and the right grew skeptical of Great Society programs under Lyndon Johnson, and the argument was everyone was becoming a kind of client or ward of the state. That we’ve become a nation of patron/client relationships. And a colleague of yours, Richard Goodwin, very brilliant political thinker, in 1967 warned, “We all expect too much from government.” We expect it to create all the jobs. We expect it to rescue the economy. To fight the wars. To give us a good life”. So, when people say, “Don’t take my Medicare away,” what they really mean is, “We’re entirely dependent on this government and we’re afraid they’ll take one thing away that we’ve gotten used to and replace it with something that won’t be so good. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re powerless before the very guardian that protects us.”

BILL MOYERS: So, how do you see this contradiction playing out in the health care debate? Where what’s the dominant force that’s going to prevail here at the end? Is it going to be, “We want reform and we want the government involved?” Or are we going to privatize it the way people on the conservative side want to do? The insurance companies, the drug companies, all of that?

SAM TANENHAUS: I think what we’ll see is a kind of incremental reform. Look, we know that health care has become the third rail of American politics, going back to Theodore Roosevelt. The greatest retail politician in modern history, Bill Clinton, could not sell it. But here’s another thing to think about. In the book I discuss one of the most interesting political theories of the modern era, Samuel Lubell’s theory of the solar system of politics. And what he says is what we think of as an equally balanced, two-party system, is really a rotating one-party system. Either the Republicans or Democrats have ruled since the Civil War for periods of some 30-36 years. And in those periods, all the great debates have occurred within a single party. So, if you go back to the 1980s, which some would say was the peak of the modern conservative period, the fight’s about how to end the Cold War, how to unleash market forces– were really Republican issues.

Today, when we look at the great questions — how to stimulate the economy, how to provide and expand and improve a sustainable health care system, the fight is taking place among Democrats. So, in a sense what Republicans have done is to put themselves on the sidelines. They’ve vacated the field and left it to the other party, the Democratic Party, to resolve these issues among themselves. That’s one reason I think conservatism is in trouble.

BILL MOYERS: You write in here that they’re not simply in retreat, they’re outmoded. They don’t act like it, you know?

SAM TANENHAUS: They do and they don’t. What I also say in the book is that the voices are louder than ever. And I wrote that back in March. Already we were hearing the furies on the right. Remember, there was a movement within the Republican Party, finally scotched, to actually rename the Democrats, “The Democrat Socialist Party.” This started from the beginning. So, the noise is there. William Buckley has a wonderful expression. He says, “The pyrotechnicians and noise-makers have always been there on the right.” I think we’re hearing more of that than we are serious ideological, philosophical discussion about conservatism.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that the news agenda today is driven by Fox News, talk radio, and the blogosphere. Why are those organs of information and/or propaganda so powerful?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, there’s been a transformation of the conservative establishment. And this has been going on for some time. The foundations of modern conservatism, the great thinkers, were actually ex-communists, many of them. Whittaker Chambers, the subject of my biography. The great, brilliant thinker, James Burnham. A less known but equally brilliant figure, Willmoore Kendall, who was a mentor, oddly enough, to both William Buckley and Garry Wills. These were the original thinkers. And they were essentially philosophical in their outlook. Now, there are conservative intellectuals, but we don’t think of them as conservative anymore– Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukayama, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Lind, the great Columbia professor, Mark Lilla– they’ve all left the movement. And so, it’s become dominated instead by very monotonic, theatrically impressive voices and faces.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what does it say that a tradition that begins with Edmund Burke, the great political thinker of his time, moves on over the years, the decades, to William Buckley, and now the icon is Rush Limbaugh?

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, in my interpretation it means that it’s ideologically depleted. That what we’re seeing now and hearing are the noise-makers in Buckley’s phrase. There’s a very important incident described in this book that occurred in 1965, when the John Birch Society, an organization these new Americanist groups resemble — the ones who are marching in Washington and holding tea parties. Essentially, very extremist revanchist groups that view politics in a conspiratorial way.

And the John Birch Society during the peak of the Cold War struggle was convinced, and you’re well aware of this, that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent, who reported to his brother Milton, and 80 percent of the government was dominated by Communists. Communists were in charge of American education, American health care. They were fluoridating the water to weaken our brains. All of this happened. And at first, Buckley and his fellow intellectuals at NATIONAL REVIEW indulged this. They said, “You know what? Their arguments are absurd, but they believe in the right things. They’re anti-communists. And they’re helping our movement.”

Cause many of them helped Barry Goldwater get nominated in 1964. And then in 1965, Buckley said, “Enough.” Buckley himself had matured politically. He’d run for Mayor of New York. He’d seen how politics really worked. And he said, “We can’t allow ourselves to be discredited by our own fringe.” So, he turned over his own magazine to a denunciation of the John Birch Society. More important, the columns he wrote denouncing what he called its “drivel” were circulated in advance to three of the great conservative Republicans of the day, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Senator John Tower, from your home state of Texas, and Tower read them on the floor of Congress into the Congressional record. In other words, the intellectual and political leaders of the right drew a line. And that’s what we may not see if we don’t have that kind of leadership on the right now.

BILL MOYERS: To what extent is race an irritant here? Because, you know, I was in that era of the ’60s, I was deeply troubled as we moved on to try to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by William Buckley’s seeming embrace of white supremacy. It seemed to me to taint– to leave something in the DNA of the modern conservative movement that is still there.

SAM TANENHAUS: It is. And one of the few regrets Bill Buckley ever expressed was that his magazine had not supported the Civil Rights Act–…Look who some of the great protestors are against Barack Obama. Three of them come from South Carolina, the state that led the secession. Joe Wilson and Senator DeMint, Mark Sanford who got in trouble. These are South Carolinians. And there’s no question that that side of the insurrectionist South remains in our politics.


New ideas are dangerous?

Some say that progressives ‘hate’ Mr. Limbaugh – aka limp bough.  I don’t hate any life forms, but I can and do at times hate what some may say or do.  I find the limp one offensive, dangerous, and a non-contributor to the progress of our species.

Joe Conason writes in TruthDig: “Once upon a time, conservatives liked to say that “ideas matter.” They attributed this pithy slogan to Ayn Rand, venerated author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and tried to live by it, generating books, papers and legislative proposals by the dozen. Although many of their theories later proved flimsy, they at least attempted to address real problems with fresh thinking.

But ideas no longer matter—and in fact they’re dangerous, according to the maximum leader of the right.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last week, Rush Limbaugh declared that new ideas ought to be shunned by every right-thinking American. The radio kingpin savaged those in his movement who have dared to suggest that the right needs policy alternatives to compete with Democratic plans for economic revival, universal health care, environmental stewardship and educational improvement. Ranting on for more than an hour, he warned against any reconsideration of the sacred platitudes of Reaganism.”

He continues: “The image of a radio demagogue, dressed entirely in black, roaring against dissenters from the official line, provoked comparison with Fidel Castro or Mao Zedong. Here was the harbinger of an ideology in decline, exhibiting pathological aversion to intellectual activity and unfettered debate, an aversion that is always the surest evidence of political decay.

The irony, of course, is that Reaganism was, at its zenith, a vehicle for policy ideas as well as a personality cult. What began with the founding of National Review and the Barry Goldwater campaign as a rump protest against stale Republican moderation became the dominant current—with a vision of its own and a series of policy schemes, from supply-side economics to workfare, faith-based social spending, school vouchers and Social Security privatization. But although the world has changed radically since those ideas entered the political mainstream a quarter-century ago, Limbaugh and his millions of followers evidently feel that any attempt to cope with change is heretical.

Some Republicans clearly understand that their party and their ideology are exhausted, even if they still can’t come up with anything more creative than capital gains tax cuts. (That means you, Newt Gingrich.) They also know that as a public spokesman and symbol, Limbaugh, whose utterances over the years have been larded with obnoxious racism and sexism, leaves much to be desired… For Democrats, these clown shows are amusing and encouraging. As long as the Republicans kowtow to Limbaugh, they won’t be able to muster substantive opposition to President Obama and the congressional majority. That may be just as well for now. But every nation needs a competitive marketplace of ideas—and conservatism today offers only retreads. ”

Mr. Conason does well here, and, if one asks if I tire of the limp bough controversy, I recall that at the time of the Abu Grahib prison revelations, a conservative colleague said: “I wish they would stop talking about it.” I’m sure she did, and I am happy to see the Mindless One as the Icon of the GOP.



N.B.: Speaking of Ayn Rand, it might be noted that genes have been discovered which favor intra species cooperation…