Last March, when President Obama announced he was fast-tracking a bunch of deepwater oil leases, mainstream media commentators told us what a politically sophisticated move it was. He was showing the "courage" to defy his base among the anti-drilling crowd and when those dolphin-huggers screamed foul, he stood his ground. A few weeks later, when the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo oil disaster demonstrated how ecologically devastating this type of drilling can be, Obama's previous pandering to Big Oil didn't look so brilliant after all. The environmentalists among the Democratic base were right, the corporate media talking heads (and Obama) were wrong.
The president is fond of telling us that for real "change" to take place he needs to be pushed. People need to be organized and mobilized and move him in the direction they want him to go. He can't "do it alone," he says. But the environmentalists who opposed expanding deepwater drilling tried to heed his call and were brushed off like so many dandruff flakes. So were the people who tried to tell him that escalating the war in Afghanistan was a mistake. Maybe it will take a progressive challenger in the 2012 Democratic primaries to give Obama the push he's longing for?
Commentators like the Wall Street Journal's Gerald F. Seib, who penned an article a year ago titled "Irked Extremes May Mean a Happy Middle," welcome any evidence that Obama is willing to forsake his base as a welcome dose of Realpolitik. The more "the professional Left" complains, the better. In Washington-speak it's just assumed that the path to political success lies in Obama's willingness to beat up the people who put him in office.
The corporate media reinforce this trope constantly. Unfortunately, MSNBC's liberal news and commentary line-up, which is the best thing going for the Democrats right now in the television ether, presents a disjointed ideological message, like hosting a vegetarian cooking show while your sponsors run commercials for steak, pork, and veal.
Over at Fox News and on the right-wing talk radio dial there is no such disconnect. Hosts prattle on about how wonderful giant corporations are and how anybody who calls for more corporate taxes or regulations is a Communist or a Fascist (or both). On Fox News, after each eight-minute segment of cheerleading for greater corporate power, there's a seamless segue into a barrage of commercials extolling the virtues, products, and "services" of giant corporations. The ads simply amplify the dominant narrative. Hence, the Fox News Channel is ideologically far more consistent than anything the liberals could ever muster on television.
It's probably this ideological disconnect that makes it so hard for liberals on MSNBC and progressives on talk radio to compete with Fox or Clear Channel. In November 2006, after Democrats took control of both houses of Congress some of the suits at MSNBC woke up and realized for the first time that not everyone in the country was a supporter of George W. Bush. They belatedly allowed a few Phil Donahues into the realm. The Rachel Maddows and Keith Olbermanns and Ed Shultzes and Lawrence O'Donnells at MSNBC are welcome alternatives to the right-wing fare of Fox, CNN, and the networks, (although it would have been nice if MSNBC didn't shit-can Phil Donahue at exactly the time we needed his anti-Iraq war voice the most.)
Progressive radio hosts like Randi Rhodes and Mike Malloy and Thom Hartmann are all talented analysts of the American political landscape, but they too must turn their airwaves over to "sponsors" that represent the interests of the oligarchy they rail against on their shows. Even the comics who thrive on biting political satire, like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, (who are among the only people in the corporate media who can think critically), are beholden to sponsors that represent ruling powers and their political servants who are often the butt of their jokes. This ideological crazy-making in trying to get a liberal message across from within the corporate media is why a news show like Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, which is under no such restraint, is infinitely better and freer to pursue tough stories that cut across the grain of American political discourse.
I've heard Anderson Cooper and others on CNN claim a thousand times that they hold down a virtuous spot between two extremes: Fox on one side, MSNBC on the other. Cooper and the other middle-of-the-roaders on CNN, when confronted with the idea that Fox is a Republican Party mouthpiece, always point to MSNBC and say: "See, the Democrats have one too!" This dichotomy fits well into the faux balance CNN tries to project so it can carve out a market niche that capitalizes on "neutral" sponsors and viewers. But it's fallacious. MSNBC not only includes right-wingers like Joe Sarborough, its sister station, CNBC, has so many Republican flame-throwers it nullifies any "liberal" bias the network might project elsewhere. And CNN has a lot more Republicans in its stable of commentators than Democrats, and its "go-to" Dems are people like James Carville and Donna Brazile, hardly fire-breathing progressives. But there's nothing going on at MSNBC that can even compare to Fox. Fox's entire 24-hours is dedicated, day-in and day-out, to cheerleading for greater corporate power. (And when I use the word "cheerleader" I really mean it: just look at Megyn Kelly.)
Thus, our political spectrum, as refracted through the lens of corporate media, runs from center-right to far-right. No wonder the conventional wisdom in Washington holds, without evidence, that the United States is a "center-right" country. Those making that argument might not be real, informed commentators -- but they play them on TV.
The only real choice for Democratic politicians today is to either emulate weak and characterless hacks like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln or move in the opposite direction toward a willingness to stand up and fight for the interests of the people out there who don't show up at $2,000-a-plate fundraisers; who don't control armies of lobbyists, and who don't dole out tax-deductible bribes called "campaign contributions."
The real political story this election year should be: If the Republicans are going to rely on an extremely well-financed constellation of right-wing think tanks, Astroturf groups, and post-Citizens United corporate slush funds, like Karl Rove's "American Crossroads," or the new group the Bush "Pioneers" are forming, then the President (and other Democrats) should explain to the American people how this development skews our politics toward serving the interests of a dishonest and unworthy ruling elite. These past two years they could have at least tried to explain to us how egregiously the Republicans were abusing the Senate filibuster instead of capitulating to the notion that it's just "normal" to be forced to win a supermajority of 60 votes every time you want to pass anything. Obama and the Democrats might have tried to educate voters on their terms, push the debate forward, and control the narrative before the maw of Fox News and right-wing radio masticated it into slurry.