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Probing a Political Paradox: Why the Discredited Right Still Sets the Agenda and Dominates the Debate


It's a paradox: the political center has clearly shifted; what used to be considered "left wing" positions have now become part of the mainstream, and the views of the Right are now at odds with the majority of the American public -- and with reality.

Yet, despite this seismic shift -- grossly underreported by the media -- the Right remains as powerful as ever when it comes to setting the national agenda and dominating the national debate.

Think about it: on Iraq and the exercise of American power, on economic fairness, on corporate responsibility, on the environment and climate change, on the universal right to healthcare, the progressive policies and positions long championed by the left have moved from union halls and MoveOn emails to the sidewalks, backyards, and kitchen tables of Main Street, USA.

Nevertheless, the traditional media -- and most politicians -- continue to insist on looking at every issue through a right vs left frame, then assume the answer is found by splitting the difference.

I've spent much of the last year trying to pinpoint the reasons for this startling disconnect in my new book, Right is Wrong, which is being released today (April 29).

And I concluded that there are three main areas to look at, not only to help us understand how we got in the mess we're in, but also to help us get out: the media, the role of fear in our politics, and the failure of political leadership.

These three factors have combined to allow the lunatic fringe that has taken over the Right to hijack our country, our democracy, and our Constitution. So that 28 percent of the population that continues to support George W. Bush no matter how many bodies pile up in Iraq, how many jobs disappear overseas, how many For Sale signs go up on their block, or how high gas prices get, continues to dominate our politics.

Let's take them one by one, starting with the media which remains hopelessly addicted to the false belief that in order to be fair and balanced every story needs to be given the "on the one hand... and on the other" treatment. But not every story has two sides -- and the truth is often to be found not in the middle but solidly on one side or the other.

The earth is not flat. Global warming is a fact. Evolution is a fact -- sorry Mike Huckabee. And not even Republicans still believe in the unfettered, free market. Look how they rushed to Big Government to save their beloved Bear Sterns.

Nor are there two sides to the proposition that Iraq is our generation's greatest foreign policy disaster. It is. Period. Full stop. Yet the same media that enabled the administration to sell us the multi-trillion dollar war are -- nearly six years later -- still pushing the Right's line that "the surge is working." Green Zone bombardments be damned.

Indeed, we are in the sixth year of an unnecessary and immoral war that has cost tens of thousands of lives, globally discredited the United States and has left us all less safe than the day Shock and Awe began. But the media are still debating the war's "progress," and describing the state of Iraq as "a mixed bag" -- which is a little bit like going to the doctor and having him tell you that you have a brain tumor but your acne has cleared, and you considering the diagnosis "a mixed bag."

What is behind the media's lapdog devotion to the messages and framing of the Right? It's a combination of self-loathing and abject fear. The media wear their dread like a cheap aftershave. The broadcast networks and the cable news channels live in mortal fear of a dip in the ratings, and newspapers are constantly checking their pulse -- convinced by their deteriorating profits and market share that the end is near. So they continue to offer the views of the newly marooned Right more than equal time.

Fear -- specifically the right wing's masterful manipulation of it -- has also come to dominate our politics.

In 2004 we had the whole sordid "al Qaeda really wants John Kerry to win" routine. And it's only April, but John McCain has already told us that al Qaeda will increase its violent attacks to try and defeat him, and that Hamas wants Obama to win. This is not only laughable but downright loathsome -- and there should be zero tolerance for such distortions in American politics.

Besides, why wouldn't al Qaeda want McCain to win? He's running to give a third term to George Bush, whose disastrous policies have been the terrorists' best recruitment tool.

McCain's "more of the same" platform should disqualify him from being allowed to use sharp scissors, let alone be president of the United States. But the mainstream media still treat him with kid gloves and continue to take his foreign policy positions -- however confused -- seriously.

You can be sure the Right will play the fear card again in 2008 because that's all that's left in its deck. And that's why it's incredibly important that Democrats take back national security as an issue from the Republicans, and why Hillary Clinton's latest attempts to out-bellicose McCain are so destructive.

The dynamic between the dithering Democrats and the reality-be-damned Republican Right calls to mind that great line from Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

The third factor in the continuing power of the loony Right is the abject, across the board failure of our political leadership to adjust to the fact that the game of "right versus left" has been rendered obsolete by the emergence of a new and vital center. But political movements and political shifts do not fully succeed without bold political leadership -- and if we ever needed that kind of leadership, it is now.

Democratic leaders need to re-define the center of American politics. Right is no longer the opposite of left. It is the opposite of wrong. And what used to be the left needs to redefine itself as something more than just an opposition force -- but rather as an active, positive, mainstream current that includes independents, Republicans aghast at what has happened to their party, and many new voters who are tired of empty partisanship.

Over this past year, it has seemed that America is ready to define a new center and to turn a new page and close the book on this tragic chapter of our history. The nomination of John McCain, however, could obstruct this transition. McCain is the Trojan Horse the Right desperately needed to put a faux maverick, faux independent, faux straight-talker imprint on the same ruinous policies that have taken us down this dark road.

Though the era of the Right has exhausted its historic course, collapsing in moral, political and economic bankruptcy, the transformation and co-opting of McCain from a maverick into the Second Coming of George W. Bush shows the durability of the Right and the lingering danger it poses. There is nothing automatic about its disappearance from the stage. Not unless we, together, give it -- and McCain -- a mighty push into the wings and right out the stage door.


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