It’s almost like they had a plan. The right-wing has been trying to dismantle the New Deal since its inception, but after decades of failure it’s found a new path to success. They’re already persuaded quite a few Democrats to support the first steps toward dismantling Medicare and Social Security. They’ve also convinced a lot of journalists to ignore detailed economic analyses, and accept the ideological platforms of the far right as “moderate” and “reasonable.”
How do you do it? How do you sell a nation on dismantling its most popular programs at a time when they’re more needed than ever? How do you convince an entire class of people – the middle class – to voluntarily surrender their health and financial security to benefit those who are far wealthier than they are?
Well, we found it! We found the twenty-year-old PowerPoint presentation that outlines the whole thing – the radical agenda, and the 12-point marketing plan that made it possible. Here it is, available to the public for the first time anywhere:
Well, okay, maybe we didn’t find it. Maybe we sat down and wrote it ourselves. But so far things have played out exactly according to this (presumably) fictional plan. The political process is really unfolding as if they’d first laid out a radical seven-step agenda for remaking (or unmaking) the American social compact, and then developed a twelve-point marketing plan for selling it.
Let’s remind ourselves of the truly extraordinary policies they’re pushing, and which now stand a good chance of being enacted in some form:
- Cut taxes for the wealthy to lower levels than we’ve seen in recent history. (Done.)
- Preserve those tax cuts and make them even deeper.
- Offset the lost revenue by pushing radical spending cuts that hurt the middle class.
- Increase taxes on the middle class. (This also allows Republicans to say they’re not always against raising taxes – they don’t mind making beleaguered middle class voters pay more by removing the mortgage interest deduction, for example.)
- Allow the government to default on its $2.6 trillion debt to the Social Security Trust Fund – money that was collected to fund retirement and disability benefits – in order to fund this tax giveaway.
- Ensure that the payroll tax cap isn’t raised – or is only raised slightly – as another way to keep taxes low for the wealthy.
- Raise the retirement age. That not only preserves income tax breaks for the wealthy, but enlarges the labor force. That keeps wages artificially low and ensures an endless supply of low-cost, blue-vested Wal-Mart greeters.
How do you sell a toxic agenda like that? Those ideas are opposed by a majority of Tea Partiers, a majority of regular Republicans, a majority of independents, and pretty much everyone else. So how do you convince the middle class to endorse proposals that are so harmful to its interests? The same way you convince a bear to chew off its own leg: by making it think it’s caught in a trap.
The Marketing Plan
So, whether it was by design or they just stumbled into it, they found themselves with a pretty smart plan:
- Convince people that the government deficit is our most urgent problem – not just an important problem, which it certainly is, but the only one that matters. Make people believe that this problem is so grave and fundamental that it outweighs unemployment, illness, poverty, the needs of the elderly, and all of our other national concerns – except defense, which can only be cut at the margins.
- Persuade the middle class that that spending, not tax breaks or two unfunded wars, are the source of that problem.
- Pretend those low tax rates for the wealthy are an unchangeable political reality. Artificially define the limits of the politically possible so that it excludes any meaningful changes, even if those changes are more popular than your program.
- Promote false myths about Social Security’s fiscal outlook.
- Design flawed economic theories to make your agenda look ‘technical’ rather than ideological. Pretend that your opponents are politically motivated and you are not, when you’re really promoting an extreme and discredited ideology.
- Avoid discussing the kinds of genuine health reform that would fix Medicare (see #3, above, regarding the definition of false limits to the politically possible).
- Move the center of debate so far to the right that our shared idea of a social contract, treasured by Democrats and Republicans for fifty years and supported by strong majorities in both parties, is marginalized as “extreme” and “impractical.”
- Turn civility and cooperation from a preferred approach into an ideology, building a “theology of compromise” that values consensus (in this case, around this radical agenda) over results.
- Generously finance think tanks like Third Way to generate talking points for this corporatist agenda based on flawed logic and cherry-picked data.
- Create an artificial economic panic over deficits (how many times have you heard the phrase “financial Armageddon” lately?)
- Employ corrupt and discredited agencies like S&P to contribute to this false hysteria. Think of these announcements as “orange alerts” – the kind that were issued during the 2004 Democratic convention.
- Lastly, co-opt “rational moderates” like Dick Durbin, along with otherwise astute observers like Ezra Klein and David Leonhardt.
How’s that working out for them? Pretty darn well, actually. In fact, they’ve pretty much accomplished all twelve of these goals. For billionaire Peterson, it took twenty years of relentless effort, millions of dollars, the creation of his own press outlet, the subsidization of pliant economists like Alice Rivlin, and decades of cultivating Democrats like Bill Clinton. For other donors, it’s taken generous funding of “think tanks” who dutifully distribute plausible-looking documents explaining why the social contract must die.
I’m not saying there was a plan, of course – although we know that billionaire Pete Peterson, a former Nixon cabinet member, has been pushing this agenda for twenty years. And we could quibble about the points – were there five or six policies, ten or twelve sales objectives? Remember, this is a hypothetical framing. But if there wasn’t a plan, they sure are lucky folks.
And here we are: Unless the momentum changes, we’re about to see our first major rollback of the New Deal. (And don’t kid yourself; it won’t be the last. They’ll call it a “grand compromise” designed to last 100 years, but they’ll start to work on their next assault before the ink is dry. No politician today can bind the politicians of tomorrow to a deal.
And the momentum won’t change – not as long as Potemkin “think tanks” keep producing propaganda, politicians like Durbin push this radical agenda, and seemingly reasonable journalists like Klein and Leonhardt continue peddling it as if it were a set of moderate and reasonable solutions to a pressing problem.
That will be the topic of the next post in this series. As we said, our little PowerPoint presentation is fictional. But it couldn’t have been more successful if it had been real.
(To be continued)
For more on public opinion and the public’s priorities, see:
The New Silent Majority
… the Wisdom of the American Public …
The Six Percenters