By Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff
Has the United States become so hyper-partisan, so undermined by commercial media, and so under-served by a failing education system that the basic requirements needed to term our society a democracy are no longer apparent? Recent discourse around impeachment demonstrates how dire things have become. Politicians continue to reduce critical issues, such as potential presidential treason, and crucial systems of checks and balances that legitimize the impeachment process, in calculated self-serving ways that distract from the policies and topics most concerning the electorate. Scandal after scandal, adding the hyperbolic suffix “gate” to every crisis however large or small, is also part of a larger pattern of obfuscation and distraction from many other, crucial affairs.
Over the last month, comments from the president, revelations from his inner circle, and transcripts of official phone calls suggested that the Trump White House used federal aid as a bargaining chip to pressure a foreign power, the Ukrainian government, to help smear Democratic presidential candidate, and former vice president, Joe Biden, by exposing his son’s business activities in Ukraine. Immediately, the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, launched an impeachment inquiry. Rather than treat Trump’s ongoing impropriety as a serious threat to democracy, the hyper-partisan political culture of Washington D.C. and their respective lapdogs in the corporate news media have exploited it as an opportunity to engage in hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement.
Much like how Democrats brushed off accusations surrounding Benghazi and e mails of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, Republican politicians and conservative news media commentators have dismissed the current impeachment inquiry, like Russiagate, as a partisan “witch-hunt.” For their part, the Democratic Party have framed the impeachment inquiry as a matter of constitutional principles, while somehow ignoring the issues with Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in Ukraine during the Obama administration (or how that administration worked with neo-Nazis to assist in regime change there), in addition to how they’ve ignored Trump’s other numerous previous impeachable offenses. It appears that when Trump may have acted to derail Biden’s 2020 campaign, Democrats sprang into action, yet in many other areas, impeachment was “off the table.” Perhaps if the Democratic and Republican Parties demonstrated a committed pattern to principles over party in the past decade, the rationales for their actions or positions might resonate. Instead, they have often taken politically expedient and self-serving stances, ones that encourage hyper-partisanship, over ones that may best serve the nation.
Take whistleblowers. In recent weeks, the Democratic Party and surrogates in the news media have lauded whistleblowers in general, especially the questionable one at the CIA who exposed Trump’s improprieties with Ukraine in particular. However, over the past decade this same cohort mostly supported President Barack Obama’s use of the Espionage Act to arrest, imprison, or otherwise retaliate and silence more whistleblowers than all previous presidents combined. Furthermore, party officials and pundits repeatedly lambasted whistleblowers such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden for exposing the DNC’s mismanagement of the 2016 presidential primaries and NSA’s participation in mass data collection respectively. Now that they need whistleblowers to serve their political agenda, they are willing to change their tune after a decade of punishing them for the aforementioned leaks, in addition to others that exposed torture (John Kiriakou) and war crimes (Chelsea Manning). In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republicans mostly agreed with these attacks on the latter aforementioned whistleblowers.
That said, Republicans have also demonstrated a commitment to party over principles regarding the very system of constitutional checks and balances that they not only claim to uphold, but demand be celebrated via mandated pledge of allegiance in schools. Case in point, Republican proponents of impeaching Bill Clinton in the late 1990s cited his disregard for Congress as a justification for his removal from office. Today, those some of those same Republicans, such as Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, defend Trump’s refusal to work with Congress on the impeachment inquiry. As Gore Vidal once noted, we live in the United States of Amnesia. In another act of hyper-partisanship, Graham is even launching what amounts to a counter-investigation into the Biden’s in the Senate.
This is an example of how the thesis of our recent book remains relevant. Reality is like a malleable toy of the plutocracy, politics a game show spectacle, and democracy a spectator sport. The previous half-century of corporate media-driven, hyper-partisan discourses have wreaked havoc on our democratic republic. While Trump is a major symptom of this collapse in the present, he is not the root of the problem, one we will still face when he is long gone.
Currently, Ukrainegate, much like its ongoing predecessor Russiagate, will undoubtedly distract from any meaningful debate or discussion about other substantive issues such as tuition-free college, universal basic income, gender equity, reparations for race-based slavery, humane immigration policy, social justice for the LQBTQI community, mitigation of the climate crisis, ending the ongoing 9/11 wars, and other progressive measures. As the media turn away from these matters toward a sensationalized impeachment process and its related offshoots, the sharp differences between neoliberals such Joe Biden and progressives such as Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Warren, have been dismissed or simply ignored (not unlike third parties, unfortunately). Just before the impeachment inquiry, it looked like these differences might begin to dominate the primary season, especially given that Biden was being out-fundraised in the third quarter of 2019 by Sanders and Warren to the tune of $10 million each, and polls showed the gaffe prone Biden was falling behind. However, these more relevant stories will now likely be replaced with the latest “scandalgate” of the day.
Welcome to the United States of Distraction– where powerful actors sell talking points over factually based analysis, villainize each other instead of offering a palatable vision for a more equitable future, relegate the so-called free press to a propaganda wing of the corporate and political class, and goad the electorate to celebrate electoral victories rather than recognize the lack of policy achievements in the public interest. Worse, for progressives and those on the left, this failure of crucial democratic institutions feeds into conservatives’ vapid fairytale vision for a regulation free, laisse-faire libertarian system that would make Ayn Rand proud.
We must, however, resist the urge to be pessimistic. The best way to reverse these trends is through revitalizing our public education and free press systems a degree to which the general public will not easily be cajoled into these top-down, media managed, siloed distractions, but will demand more representative governance where the needs of the public won’t be outweighed by the latest sensational outrage or made-for-media scandal. This does not mean that there shouldn’t be accountability for those in power, but in our current hyper-partisan dumpster fire climate, and a corporate media that fans those flames, many of the current investigations and counter investigations around impeachment may not find resolutions and may very well continue to distract us from the many other pressing issues awaiting our attention. We can, and simply must, do better, and a more responsible, independent free press should help lead the way.
Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and lecturer of history and media studies at California State University, East Bay. Higdon sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. His most recent publication is United States of Distraction with Mickey Huff. He is co-host of the Along the Line podcast, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. In addition, he has been a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored, president of the Media Freedom Foundation, coeditor of the annual Censored book series from Seven Stories Press (since 2009), co-author of United States of Distraction (City Lights, 2019), and professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College where he co-chairs the history area, and lectures in communications at California State University, East Bay. He is also the executive producer and co-host of the weekly syndicated Pacifica Radio program, The Project Censored Show, founded in 2010.