Trumpeters for the Elites: Obama, Elections, and "The Nation"

By Edmund Berger

                Presidential election season. It’s that magical time every four years when the airwaves become clogged with torrents of campaign ads, soundbites, and over the top rhetoric spewing forth from both sides of the aisles, the time when the sense of patriotism is most compelled to act out the tradition of civic duty. It’s the ultimate expression of the “American Experience,” and fittingly, it is the time when all conversation, all debate, and the majority of dissent gets put on the shelf as our eyes turn towards Washington. It’s that magical time every four years when those outside voices are pulled through the Beltway’s doors and begin to cheer for their home team, regardless of whatever criticism they had spoken outside of the electoral cycle.
                A good case in point is The Nation magazine, the intellectually sophisticated organ of the progressive and populist Left. The longest-running weekly publication in America, The Nation is currently presided over by Katrina vanden Heuvel, the daughter of a wealthy heiress and a prominent diplomat and corporate lawyer. She’s a self-described “progressive,” and has the stripes to prove it: for one, she’s an adviser of the World Policy Institute, a Rockefeller Brothers Fund-subsidized World Federalist-style think-tank that was, for quite a few years, housed at the forward-thinking New School for Social Research in New York City. For another, she’s also affiliated with the Institute for Policy Studies, an organization that has long been charged by the Right as being a “Marxist front organization” operating in America. This charge persists despite the fact that their work has long been financed by the aforementioned Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the AFL-CIO labor federation, all of which have utilized their leftist veneer to disrupt more radical, particularly Marxist-oriented, social movements. Moderate philanthropies also subsidize The Nation, such as the MacArthur Foundation – moneyed heavyweights that further assist the “non-mainstream media” by providing cash to Mother Jones. MacArthur, alongside most of the foundations mention above, also fund the Council on Foreign Relations – an organization described by Laurence Shoup as the “citadel of the American Establishment” and “the most influential of all private policy planning groups.” (1) Curiously, here again we can find the progressive Katrina vanden Heuvel, achieving a front-row seat to the process through which policy is made in America.
                Despite her impressive pedigree in the moderate establishment of the Professional Left, vanden Heuvel has broken from the typical party line several times over the actions of President Obama. For example, in December of 2010 she published an article in the Washington Post with the title of “Obama: On the way to a failed presidency?” (2) “Ronald Reagan famously quipped that the Democratic Party left him before he left the party,” she begins, before adding “Like many progressive supporters of Barack Obama, I'm beginning to have the same feeling about this president.” She continues to assault Obama’s continuation of the war in Afghanistan, his free trade agreement with South Korea, and his embrace of the attitudes and socio-economic philosophies of the “Beltway elites.” She returned to the Post to further critique Obama in June of 2012, condemning the administration’s “kill list” of terrorists marked for death by drone strikes. (3) Similarly, one of the chief editors of The Nation, Christopher Hayes, has spent time amongst the establishment as a fellow at the MacArthur Foundation-funded New American Foundation (a “Third Way”/centrist Democratic Party-oriented organization with a membership that boasts figures like the pro-globalization pundit Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukuyama of The End of History fame, Jonathan Soros, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt) before attacking America’s divisive economic system in the recently published Twilight of the Elites.
                Both Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites and vanden Heuvel’s Washington Post piece were published on June 12th, and seemed to confirm the growing trend of left-wing disenfranchisement at the Democrat Party (excluding of course MoveOn, who recently came out and endorsed Obama). But just a matter of days later, on June 27th, The Nation sent out a short email blast with the simple of title of “Remember?” Within it is a reminder that on June 28th the Supreme Court will vote on whether or not the so-called “Obamacare” is constitutional. “No matter how they come down, we’ve got to show that we’re behind the President on this,” the email reads. “If you agree that access to health care should always be a right—not a privilege—sign this petition to stand with President Obama.”
                There are multiple problems that rise to the surface with this email. First, Obamacare should not be confused with a universal healthcare system – the true culmination of the healthcare-as-a-right ethos – because it is a mandate-based structure that relies on the continued existence of the private healthcare industry, as opposed to outright nationalization. Essentially, it’s a form of forced consumerism masquerading as progressive reform. This is exactly why in 2009 some 4,525 lobbyists, representing 1,750 healthcare and pharmaceutical companies (as well as the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), descended on Capitol Hill to influence the legislation. (4) In its current form, it’s a massive hidden subsidy to all of these industries. Furthermore, to drag up a tired talking point, Obamacare’s initial inspiration came from the current (alleged) opposition, Mitt Romney – and Obama even met with three of Romney’s advisors in drafting the legislation.
                But the issue isn’t truly Obamacare. The email, at a glance, is a simple petition for a progressive-seeming cause. But what is does is project an image vital for Obama’s reelection campaign: for so long we’ve seen the real face of Obama, the face of a “1%er,” a warhawk, a corporate sellout. By bringing Obamacare back up from the corridors, offices and legislative channels of Washington, these truths are replaced with the image of Obama the Fighter, standing up for the everyman and defending the underclasses against the unscrupulous plutocrats in the Republican Party. This is further confirmed when one notes that the email is not directly a product of The Nation, but instead a sponsored ad from Mike Ryan, the policy director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The DCCC, in turn, is the critical body for helping Democratic politicians get elected; it plays an absolutely vital piece of the Democrat Party’s inner machinery.  
                Ryan was most likely brought into his important position by the DCCC’s current chair, Steve Israel (D-NY) for whom Ryan served as a legislative director. Prior to this Ryan gained experience as a senior legislative assistant to Robert “Bud” Cramer (D-AL), a conservative-leaning Democrat that voted for the invasion of Iraq, as well as the later re-authorization of the Patriot Act. His rightist leanings are further amplified by his position in the Blue Dog Coalition, the formal grouping of “moderate” Democrats in Congress – a position he holds right alongside Steve Israel. Typical “Third Way” advocates much akin to their “RINO” equivalents on the other side of the aisle, Blue Dog Democrats have attacked typical liberal ideals such as welfare, and have continually acted in favor of free trade, business interests, and more often than not, pro-war efforts. Thus, it’s probably unsurprising to note that Obama once told the Congressional conservative democrats “I’m a Blue Dog at heart.”
                It’s a worrying state of affairs for what we conceive as independent media. Publications such as The Nation hold themselves up as both muckrackers and vocal outlets for the progressive Left, the “ultra-opposition” inside the liberal sphere. How are people supposed to trust the information and the insights within the magazine or on its website if it is so willing to allow itself to become an unofficial apparatus of one of two (largely indivisible) political parties? One may write it off as simply another ad in the midst of campaign season, but that’s the thing about ads. They make seem rather innocent, but they take information and imagery that may or may not have a neutral character, and turn it into a tool, a means for an end that will surely benefit the person pushing the ad than the person buying into what they’re selling. As such, and particularly in the case of electoral campaigning, the ad is a form of propaganda, and its appearance in relation to The Nation - and coupled with its funders and the institutional affiliations of many of its figureheads (5) – casts doubt on the publication’s validity as a whole.
                Of course, as noted above, people like vanden Heuvel frequently operate within the policy-making establishment, with her presence on the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) coming directly to mind. While this particular organization had been the breeding ground for membership in Bush Jr.’s administration, its expertise has been featured prominently in the age of Obama. Laurence Shoup, writing for Z Magazine, identifies a slew of CFR players that have surrounded the president: Secretary of the Treasury and former Federal Reserve chief Timothy Geithner; National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers (who had been the Treasury Secretary of CFR member Bill Clinton, husband of Obama’s Secretary of State); the late Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s “Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan”; General Stanley McChrystal, former military commander; General David Petraeus, current CIA director; Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense; and a vast array of advisers and other non-elected appointments. (6) Of course, vanden Heuvel has shown her willingness to oppose aspects of the wars that many of these CFR members unabashedly support. But the fact remains that the CFR, a diverse and often fragmented group as opposed to a unified opinion bloc, is one of the most powerful playgrounds of an elite whose age that Chris Hayes claims we’re in the dusk of. It is an organization that has opposed the ideals of democracy that The Nation professes to support: “Representative democracy… cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions… Public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound…” wrote Walter Lippman, one of the CFR’s early board members. (7) With the organization’s commitment to secrecy and its connections to the press, it’s hard to see how these views reflect any differently today.
                To further bolster her credentials in the arena of electoral politics, vanden Heuvel is also a member of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation, which aims to network progressive activists with Congressional representatives. Co-founded by Lorelei Kelly (who comes from the earlier discussed New American Foundation), the foundation draws much of its membership from the Institute for Policy Studies, with the presence of not only vanden Heuvel, but also the institute’s current director, John Cavanagh, and its early leader Robert Borosage. Its membership also includes Bill Fletcher, a former high ranking official at the AFL-CIO and the co-chair of United for Peace & Justice. Most importantly, these individuals are joined by Joan Blades and Wes Boyd – the two founders of MoveOn, Obama’s astroturing mechanism of choice when it comes to rallying grassroots activism in his bids for the White House.
                We tend to think of the elites who dominate us as those who dwell in corporate boardrooms or sit in the Oval Office or on Capitol Hill. But its election season, and the Beltway begins to extend itself far beyond the Washington D.C. city limits, across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains and far beyond. When power is to be gained and networks are the key, activism becomes advertising and people become extensions of the political machine. It’s important in this time, perhaps more than any other, to uncover these networks and ask ourselves what it is exactly that we’re fighting for.

1. Laurence H. Shoup “Bush, Kerry, and the Council on Foreign Relations” Z Magazine October, 2004.
2. Katrina vanden Heuvel “Obama: On the way to a failed presidency?” The Washington Post, December 7th, 2010
3. Katrina vanden Heuvel “Obama’s ‘kill list’ is unchecked presidential power” The Washington Post, June 12th, 2012  
4. Joe Eaton “Lobbyists swarm capitol to influence health reform” iWatch News, Center for Public Integrity, February 24th, 2010  
5. I’ve written about other connections with The Nation in “Harnessing People Power: Co-Option at Work in America Today” Swans Commentary April 23rd, 2012; and “Harnessing People Power Continued: The 99% Spring and the ‘Professional Left’” Swans Commentary May 21st, 2012
6. Laurence H. Shoup “Finance Capitalists, the CFR, and the Obama Administration” ZMagazine, January, 2010
7. Quoted in Michael Barker “Elite ‘Democratic’ Planning at the Council on Foreign Relations” ZNet, February 25th, 2008


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